Monday, August 19, 2013

The Scores of Scientists Who Suffered Severely at the Hands of the Church for Their Theories Include?

Over in the comments at Bob Murphy's blog, George Selgin writes:

"That many of the most illustrious members of this tiny group [of scientific thinkers] suffered severely at the hands of religious persecutors is (or ought to be) notorious."

I do not mean to pick on George, whom I regard as a very bright man, but here he is expressing a bit of "folk history" that I just don't see has much basis in fact. My interest is really about why this idea continues to circulate.

One of the first things our history of science lecturer at King’s College, John Milton, told us was that on the vast majority of scientific topics, the church simply did not care. So when Buridan and Oresme challenged Aristotelian mechanics: the church just did not care at all, one way or the other.

Secondly, on the very few topics it did care about, it was always prepared to regard scripture as figurative, if the literal interpretation could be proven false. (So, since everyone knew the earth was round, the church had done this with the biblical passage mentioning its "four corners": this was just figurative speech.) Thus, with Galileo, church astronomers examined his evidence and found it wanting. (Which it was, frankly: for instance, he thought the tides were caused by the earth’s rotation throwing the seas around, and that they had a 24-hour cycle. And Brahe's heliocentric theory accounted for the phases of Venus. Of course, Galileo was right, but he hadn't proved his case.) Thus they asked him to present heliocentrism as an hypothesis. He agreed, but then reneged, in a book in which he called the current Pope a simpleton. At that point he was subject to a fairly mild house arrest. (I think that was a mistake, but it is good to be clear on just what transpired.)

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, but for heretical religious views, not for his scientific ideas. (Again, I am not in favor of death for religious heresy, but it has nothing to do with persecuting scientists.)

Aside from those two, what important figures in the Scientific Revolution "suffered severely" at the hands of a Catholic or Protestant church for their views? Copernicus? No, the church never bothered him at all. Kepler? No, he suffered some by being in the midst of the religious warfare of the Reformation, but no one hindered his scientific work. Descartes? Nothing. Newton? Zilch. Boyle? Niente di niente. Hooke? Nada. Malebranche? Well, he was actually a priest, but he did have one work placed on the index of forbidden books. Huyghens? Died peacefully in his bed, never molested by any church. Halley? No. Leibniz? No persecution I know of.

 And yet, the idea still floats around that many of the leaders of the Scientific Revolution "suffered severely" at the hands of the church. This ought to be notorious.


  1. Although he did keep it decently concealed, it says something about the Church that they didn't burn Newton at the stake for HIS heretical beliefs.

  2. I suppose it would be unseemly for me to bring up vaccination, what with your stance against persecuting people for holding unpopular views, Daniel...

    1. LOL. His brother Evan had a very good response IMO.

    2. I don't get it.

      Well, I think I know the collection of thoughts you've done a sloppy job cobbling together, but I feel guilty attributing that to you. So perhaps it would be better to just be more explicit on what you're trying to say here.

    3. OK Daniel, from your arguments on Facebook it was clear that if a parent today doesn't want to vaccinate her kid for religious reasons, or thinks that it would put her kid in grave physical danger, you are OK if guys with guns come and take a bunch of money away from her. This is OK in your mind because her views are so outside the bounds of respectable opinion on the subject, and her error harmed other children.

      Yet, if in the 16th century men with clubs confined someone to house arrest for promulgating views that were far outside the bounds of respectable opinion, and this error threatened civilized society but also the eternal souls of the children, you are horrified at the persecution of a minority viewpoint.

      The only real difference I see between the two cases is that you think the authorities were wrong in the 16th century but right today.

    4. And just, pray, what is *%&^*& wrong with death for religious heresy?


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Pearce: British Journal for the History of Philosophy Deneen: The American Conservative Chao-Reiss: Computing Reviews