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Cosmology, Religious and Philosophical Aspects

Cosmology, Religious and Philosophical Aspects


Presumption of inevitable battle often dominates discussions of interactions between cosmology and religion, and dictates the history produced. The image of war, though modified since Andrew Dickson White's 1897 History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, persists.

As he watched workers chip away at the ice barrier across the River Neva binding together the piers and the old fortress of the czars, White, the American ambassador to Russia, likened the ice to outworn creeds and noxious dogmas attaching the modern world to medieval conceptions of Christianity. He hoped that both barriers might be swept away by floods, the former by water and the latter by increased knowledge and new thought. White had experienced dogmatic opposition in the course of steering through the New York state legislature the enabling legislation in 1868 for Cornell University in Ithaca, which he subsequently guided and served as its first president. Clergymen had warned against the atheism of the proposed university with its emphasis on science, but White refused to stretch or cut science to fit "revealed religion." The controversy bore in upon White a sense of antagonism, subsequently reflected in his book. "In all of modern history," White wrote, "interference with science in the supposed interest of religion has resulted in the direst evils both to religion and to science" (p. viii).


Early interaction between cosmology and religion

The ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras (500428 b.c.e.) was seemingly an early victim of the conflict between cosmology and religion. Greek cosmology moved away from astrological superstition, magical powers, and myth toward a more rational spirit and a picture of a universe with unchanging ways ascertainable by human reason but beyond the control of human action. Anaxagoras' new theory of universal order collided with popular faiththe belief that gods ruled the celestial phenomenaand he was expelled from Athens. Impiety, however, may have been an incidental charge; the indictment also included an accusation of corresponding with agents of Persia. The rise of a new scientific attitude and mode of thought may have accelerated the downfall of traditional religious and political beliefs, and helped shape their replacements.

An earlier religious belief of the Babyloniansthat the movements of celestial bodies functioned as a sort of message board with which the gods foretold human affairshad promoted observations and mathematical analysis. Many ancient religions associated planets with gods and found religious significance in configurations of celestial arrangements. Egyptian temples were aligned with specific stars and Stonehenge in southwestern England faced sunrise at summer solstice.

Religion motivated Greek as well as Babylonian cosmological studies. Plato's fourth-century b.c.e. conception of cosmic order was permeated with ethical overtones and moral significance, and during the second century c.e. Ptolemy cultivated cosmology particularly with respect to divine and heavenly things. He wrote "I know that I am mortal and the creature of a day; but when I search out the massed wheeling circles of the stars, my feet no longer touch the Earth, but, side by side with Zeus himself, I take my fill of ambrosia, the food of the gods" (p. 55).

Similarly for Christians, "The Heavens declare the glory of God" (Ps. 19:1). During the early Middle Ages, cosmology was regarded as a handmaiden, subservient to theology, pursued not for its own sake but for its usefulness in the interpretation of Holy Scripture. Both Augustine of Hippo (354430) and Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274) insisted that the truth of scripture is inviolable. Given possible alternative interpretations of scripture, however, they warned against rigid adherence to any one of them. A hasty choice could prove detrimental to faith, were science later to prove that choice untenable. Study and contemplation of the cosmos, the perfect expression of divine creativity and providence, were for some a way to know God.

Scientific knowledge was not precious enough to prevent the Roman emperor Justinian (483565), a Christian, from closing the Academy at Athens in 529 c.e. and forbidding pagans to teach. Leading philosophers left Athens for Persia, though some returned after a few years and the Academy may have continued in some form. Further impeding cosmological inquiry was a growing inability to recruit competitively against the church as a profession for bright young minds. Cosmological study had received little patronage in ancient societies, with the exception of the Museum at Alexandria, and its precarious position was not altered significantly under early Christianity.

Greek science almost disappeared from Western Europe between 500 and 1100 c.e., before it was recovered through translations of the works of Aristotle and Plato, and in Arabic treatises and commentaries on Aristotle. Cosmological studies flourished within Muslim culture and civilization, sometimes under rulers interested in astrology. A few Islamic traditionalists criticized these practices for leading to the establishment of schools for heretics and the teaching of magic. The Istanbul observatory, built in 1577, was torn down shortly after its completion. In the wake of the famous comet of 1577 there had followed in quick order plague, defeats of Turkish armies, and deaths of several important persons. These misfortunes were attributed to the attempt, manifested in construction of the observatory, to pry into the secrets of nature.

After transmission from Islam to the West, Aristotelian cosmology fused with Christian theology into Scholasticism. In this form, Aristotle's cosmology permeated thought in Western Europe between roughly 1200 and 1500, especially in universities. The Aristotelian position that necessary cosmological principles can be known conjured the specter of truths necessary to cosmology but contradictory to dogmas of the Christian faith. For example, the Aristotelian assertion that the world had no beginning and no end, and thus was indestructible, seemingly conflicted with the possibility of a Day of Judgment. In 1270 the bishop of Paris condemned several propositions derived from the teachings of Aristotle, including the eternity of the world and the necessary control of terrestrial events by celestial bodies. In 1277 Pope John XXI directed the bishop of Paris to investigate intellectual controversies at the university. Within three weeks the bishop condemned 219 propositions. Excommunication was the penalty for holding even one of the damned errors.

Though intended to contain and control scientific inquiry, the condemnation may have helped free cosmology from Aristotelian prejudices and modes of argument. The Scientific Revolution may owe something to the condemnation of 1277, even if cosmologists waited until the seventeenth century to repudiate Aristotelian cosmology.

The condemnation of 1277 with its emphasis on God's absolute power undisputedly led to the nominalist thesis. The Aristotelian position that the necessary principles of cosmology and physics can be established was rejected. Cosmology now was understood to be a working hypothesis in agreement with observed phenomena. The truth of any particular hypothesis could not be insisted upon, because God could have made the world in a different manner but with the same observational consequences. Cosmologists might come to conclusions, but they could not insist that their conclusions limited God's power to have created the world in another way. Tentative, but not necessary, cosmological theories posed no challenge to religious authority.

While conceding the divine omnipotence of Christian doctrine and acceding to religious authority, the nominalist, instrumentalist, positivist thesis also freed science from religious authority. It was a convenient stance in a time when religious matters were taken seriously and heretical cosmological thoughts could place their adherents in serious trouble with powerful ecclesiastical authorities. In the new intellectual climate, imaginative and ingenious discussions flourished.

Hypothetical cosmologies, however, were not the stuff of revolution. It was not until the goal of "saving the appearances," as the nominalist endeavor has been called, was replaced with a quest to discover physical reality, that Aristotelian cosmology was destroyed and replaced with a new worldview. Confidence that the essential structure and operation of the cosmos is knowable seems to have been a prerequisite to the work of Nicolaus Copernicus (14731543), Galileo Galilei (15641642), Johannes Kepler (15711630), and Isaac Newton (16421727). Some of their necessary cosmological principles would conflict with dogmas of the Christian faith.

To account for the apparent daily motion of the heavens, Copernicus placed the sun in the center of the universe and the Earth in revolution around the sun and rotating on its axis. An unauthorized foreword to Copernicus's 1543 De revolutionibus orbium caelestium (On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres ) presented the heliocentric theory as a convenient mathematical fiction. Copernicus, however, believed that he was describing the real motions of the world.

Copernicus anticipated criticism, acknowledging in the preface to De revolutionibus "that to ascribe movement to the Earth must indeed seem an absurd performance on my part to those who know that many centuries have consented to the establishment of the contrary judgment, namely that the Earth is placed immovably as the central point in the middle of the Universe" (p. 137). Copernicus, however, did not anticipate criticism from the Catholic Church, in whose service he had long labored as a canon and advised the papacy on calendar reform. Indeed, Copernicus dedicated his book to Pope Paul III, in hope that "my labors contribute somewhat even to the Commonwealth of the Church, of which your Holiness is now Prince. For not long since the question of correcting the ecclesiastical calendar was debated" (p. 143).

Citation of scripture against the new cosmology was not long in coming. Even before Copernicus' book was published, the reformer Martin Luther (14831546) warned that "this fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still, and not the Earth" ( Josh. 10:13). Literal adherence to the Bible was the foundation of Protestant revolt against Catholic religious hegemony. Prior to the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church was more liberal in its interpretation, and more accepting of Copernican cosmology. It was taught in some Catholic universities and used for the new calendar promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.


Galileo and the Church

Revolutions in science, as in politics, often go beyond the limited changes that the people who start a revolution have in mind. In Copernican cosmology, the rotation of the Earth caused the stars' observed motion. Hence, the notion of the starry sphere that carried the stars around was obsolete, and soon human imagination distributed the stars throughout a perhaps infinite space. Also, the Earth was no longer unique; now it was merely one of several similar objects in the solar system. And humankind was but one of possibly many intelligent inhabitants of the universe. Soon questions arose: If the Earth were a celestial planet, how did it differ from the divine heavens? Had each planet been visited by an Adam and an Eve? Faith in an anthropocentric universe lay shattered, leaving humankind's relationship with God uncertain. John Donne's 1611 poem The Anatomy of the World, with its opening line the "new Philosophy calls all in doubt," and later "all Relation: Prince, Subject, Father Son, are things forgot," refers to Christian morality as well as the physical locations of the sun and the Earth.

That the Earth was no longer unique was most dramatically emphasized by Galileo. His telescopic observations of the moon's surface emphatically demanded the revolutionary conclusion that the moon was not a smooth sphere, as Aristotelians had maintained, but was uneven and rough, like the Earth. Another similarity, between Jupiter and the Earth, was furnished by Galileo's discovery of four satellites of Jupiter, similar to the Earth's single satellite.

Galileo's arguments in support of the new Copernican cosmology culminated in a clash with Catholic authorities so dramatic that it forms the foundation of the most widely held stereotype regarding the general relationship between science and religion. The conflict, however, was far from inevitable. Initially, the primary opposition to Galileo came from Aristotelian philosophers in Italian universities. At around the same time, a church official remarked that the Bible tells how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. Wisely, the Church was not eager to enter a scientific dispute. As Augustine had suggested earlier, no cosmological doctrine should ever be made an article of faith, lest some better informed heretic exploit misguided adherence to a scientific doctrine to impugn the credibility of proper articles of faith.

Galileo's Aristotelian philosophical opponents were eager, however, to enlist the Church on their side in their battle against Galileo, and a few individual priests were induced to charge that the motion of the Earth was contrary to the Bible. Galileo, in turn, sought to win the Church to his side, and to silence potential objections to Copernican cosmology based on scripture. In an open letter of 1615, Galileo appealed to the authority of Augustine in support of the thesis that no contradiction can exist between the Bible and science when the Bible is interpreted correctly. But Galileo was out of step with the times. The Counter-Reformation, following the Council of Trent, which had met from 1545 to 1563, now demanded tight control over Church doctrine, the better to counter Protestants. Galileo also cited Augustine's warning not to make cosmological doctrine an article of faith. This was especially good advice when new scientific facts from telescopic observations were still coming in.

In 1616 Pope Paul V submitted the questions of the motion of the Earth and the stability of the sun to the official qualifiers of disputed propositions. It is not clear why he chose to act. Galileo expected the qualifiers to read the Bible metaphorically, but they read it literally and found both the motion of the Earth and the stability of the sun false and absurd in philosophy. They did not rule on the truth of Copernican cosmology in terms of its agreement with nature. The qualifiers found the motion of the Earth at least erroneous in the Catholic faith and the stability of the sun formally heretical. Here they exceeded their authority, because only the pope or a Church Council could decree a formal heresy, and Pope Paul ignored this finding. Galileo was instructed no longer to hold or defend the forbidden propositions: the motion of the Earth and the stability of the sun. The Congregation of the Index issued an edict forbidding reconciliation of Copernicanism with the Bible and assertion of literal truth for the forbidden propositions. One passage about scriptural interpretation and passages calling the Earth a star, implying that it moved like a planet, were ordered removed from Copernicus' De revolutionibus. Catholics could still discuss Copernican cosmology hypothetically, and little damage was done to the science.

Had Galileo at his meeting with Church officials resisted the instruction not to hold or defend the forbidden Copernican propositions, the Commissary General of the Inquisition was prepared to order him, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, not to hold, defend, or teach the propositions in any way, on pain of imprisonment. Galileo did not resist, but the Commissary General may have read his order anyway. It appears in the minutes of the meeting, unsigned and unwitnessed. Galileo may have been advised to ignore the unauthorized intervention. Subsequent rumors that Galileo had been compelled to abjure caused him to ask for and receive an affidavit stating that he was under no restriction other than the edict applying to all Catholics.

In 1623, a new pope was chosen. Urban VIII was an intellectual, admired his friend Galileo, granted him six audiences in 1624, and encouraged him to write a book on Copernican cosmology. The book, Urban hoped, would demonstrate that the Church did not interfere with the pursuit of cosmology, only with unauthorized interpretations of the Bible. The Dialogue on world systems was published in 1632, with Church approval. Urban, however, became angry when he found his own thoughts attributed to the Aristotelian representative in the Dialogue, who lost every argument. Also, the timing was unfortunate for Galileo, his book appearing in a climate of heightened suspicion, even paranoia. A Spanish cardinal had recently criticized Urban for his interference in a political struggle, and Urban had responded with a purge of pro-Spanish members of his administration, including the secretary who, coincidentally, had secured permission for printing the Dialogue.

Galileo was called to Rome and charged with contravening the (unsigned and unauthorized) 1616 order of the Commissary General of the Inquisition not to hold, defend, or teach the Copernican propositions in any way. Galileo produced his affidavit, signed and dated, but nonetheless was found guilty. He was compelled to abjure, curse, and detest his errors and heresies. Henceforth even hypothetical discussion of Copernican cosmology was heresy for Catholics.

The Galileo fiasco has long been a major embarrassment for the Catholic Church, and in 1978 Pope John Paul II acknowledged that Galileo's theology was sounder than that of the judges who condemned him. Galileo's battle with religious authority is the major historical source for the stereo-type of an ineluctable conflict between science and religion, but the stereotype is a vast oversimplification, as most stereotypes are. This clash between cosmology and religion was avoidable.


The Mechanical universe

Copernican cosmology, though revolutionary in important respects, clung to Aristotelian circular motion, whose cause generally was attributed to God. Kepler, using Tycho Brahe's (15461601) observations, showed that planetary orbits are elliptical. Kepler also found several mathematical relationships, such as the proportionality of the cubes of the mean planetary distances to the squares of the periodic times. Initially he attributed planetary motion to moving souls, but within a few years was searching for a physical principle. Kepler's cosmology was strongly Christian. He was convinced that the creator had used mathematical archetypes to design the universe, and this religious belief drove his cosmological research and shaped his results, which were "a sacred sermon, a veritable hymn to God the Creator," showing "how great are His wisdom, power, and goodness."

An explanation of how the planets continue to retrace the same paths forever around the sun became a central problem of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century cosmology. Newton showed mathematically that Kepler's elliptical orbits as well as several mathematical relationships, including the proportionality of distances and times, were consequences of a universal inverse-square law of gravity. For Newton, the medium conveying action must be immaterial. The omnipresence of God, an immaterial ether, pervaded the Newtonian cosmos, offering no resistance to bodies, but moving them.

Theological implications of Newton's cosmology were criticized in 1715 in a letter to Caroline, Princess of Wales, from the philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (16461716). Leibniz was a rival of Newton in the invention of the calculus, each accusing the other of plagiarism. Newton's friend Samuel Clarke answered in a letter to Caroline, which she forwarded to Leibniz. In the course of the debate Leibniz wrote five letters and Clarke five replies, which were published in 1717. Newton thought that his discoveries provided new evidence of the existence and providence of God. Irregularities in planetary motions caused by the disturbing influence of other planets would increase until the system wanted reformation. Leibniz charged that Newtonian views were contributing to a decline of natural religion in England. The implication that God occasionally intervened in the universe, much as a watchmaker has to wind up and mend his work, derogated from God's perfection. Clarke admitted that God had to intervene in the universe, but only because intervention was part of God's plan.

Eighteenth-century belief in the orderliness of the universe made determination of that order an important theological, philosophical, and scientific endeavor. William Whiston (16671752), Newton's successor at Cambridge University in 1703, argued that the system of the stars, the work of the creator, had a beautiful proportion, even if frail humans were ignorant of the order. In 1750 the English astronomer Thomas Wright (17111786) proposed a model for the Milky Way (a luminous band of light circling the heavens). Inspired by an incorrect summary of Wright's book, Immanuel Kant (17241804) explained the Milky Way as a disk-shaped system viewed from the Earth, which was located in the plane of the disk. Thoroughly imbued with a belief in the order and beauty of God's work, Kant went on to suggest that nebulous patches of light in the Heavens are composed of stars and are other Milky Ways, or island universes. In the absence of large telescopes and revealing observations of distant stars, philosophical and theological speculations dominated cosmology. This situation began to change after the English astronomer William Herschel (17381822) proposed a cosmological model rooted in observations. From the 1780s onward, the heavens, penetrated by Herschel's large telescopes, increasingly were understood as an expanded firmament of three dimensions.

The universe was also thought of as a clock, which Newtonians had argued required God's occasional reformation. But in 1786 the last major problem in celestial mechanics was solved when Pierre-Simon Laplace (17491827) demonstrated that the gravitational interactions of Jupiter and Saturn were self-correcting, not in need of divine intervention. Laplace also proposed a plausible mechanism for the formation of the solar system, which Newton had cited as reason for belief in divine providence, given the small likelihood that random chance could have been responsible. Reflecting the atheistic approach to nature of the French Enlightenment, Laplace attempted to replace the hypothesis of God's rule with a purely physical theory that could also explain the observed order of the universe. He was successful, at least in his own mind. According to legend, when Napoleon asked Laplace whether he had left any place for the creator, Laplace replied that he had no need of such a hypothesis.


Changing status of cosmology and religion

Cosmology and Christianity, formerly joined in Western thought, were now estranged. Furthermore, science, flush with triumphant reductions of all known phenomena of the system of the world to the universal law of gravity, was replacing religion as the source to which people turned to for inspiration, direction, and criteria of truth. The divorce of God from the physical universe may well have been inevitable with the rise of modern cosmology, however convinced were its founding fathers that they were exploring and demonstrating God's wonders.

Christian conceptions increasingly were relegated to aspects of cosmology not yet susceptible to scientific observation and analysis. They continue to play a powerful role in debates over the question of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, in which extraterrestrials are potential evidence of God's omnipotence and benevolence. The idea of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe also challenges the conception of God as redeemer. Actual contact with extraterrestrials could well prove devastating; anthropological studies of primitive societies confident of their place in the universe find them disintegrating upon contact with an advanced society pursuing different values and ways of life.

Once theology was king of the disciplines, autonomous, the supreme principle by which all else was understood, its fundamental postulates and principles derived from divine revelation, interpreted and formulated within the tradition, and producing knowledge of ultimate value. Cosmology was a handmaiden, neither controlling fundamental knowledge nor ways of getting at it, its truths holding a lower logical status and value. The relationship between cosmology and religion is now largely reversed; both religion and politics now direct appeals for legitimacy to science.

An example is found in Georges Lemaître (18941966), an early proponent of an expanding universe. Lemaître was a Belgian astrophysicist and a Catholic priest, and from 1960 until his death he was president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He offered a second chance for the Catholic Church to embrace and be embraced by a second Galileo. Also, in 1952, Pope Pius XII argued that modern Big Bang cosmology affirmed the notion of a transcendental creator. At the same time, Fred Hoyle (19152001), a leading creator and proponent of the rival steady state cosmology, was using it to further his anti-religious polemic, arguing that there was no room in his theory for a creator.

In politics, also, cosmology is appealed to for validation. Another early proponent of an expanding universe, the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann (18881925), was hailed as an example of great Soviet science, no matter that difficult conditions in revolutionary Russia in the early 1920s and Friedmann's early death from typhoid fever severely limited his scientific output. During Stalin's rule, Soviet cosmologists were expected to serve the party by providing a cosmology congruent with official party ideology.

After serving for many centuries as handmaiden to religion, science, including cosmology, now commands supreme status among intellectual disciplines. When appeals for validation and legitimacy are made, now it is more often to cosmology than to religion. Once intertwined, cosmology and religion have become estranged. Relative to cosmic time and space, human concerns approach insignificance. Much of modern cosmology has become "naturalized," shorn of its former human connections, particularly religion.

See also Aristotle; Augustine; Cosmology, Physical Aspects; Extraterrestrial Life; Galileo Galilei, Kant, Immanuel; Newton, Isaac; Plato; Thomas Aquinas


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norriss hetherington

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