Author Topic: Theology and Cosmology (And Natural Sciences)  (Read 600 times)

Offline Insanis

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Theology and Cosmology (And Natural Sciences)
« on: June 16, 2021, 02:47:46 PM »
I see on discussions of theologians, particularly ancient and Medieval ones, the issue "scientific" knowledge. Note: we typically use "science" to refer to the natural sciences, but as a word, it can refer to philosophy, theology, metaphysics, etc, as they all concern knowledge (scientia).

In particular, the issue of Cosmology is often apparent in old writings (and even modern ones). The big questions are about the shape of the earth, the accuracy of descriptions of the solar system, and the accuracy of the descriptions of the universe itself. The outdated views often expressed as used to ridicule the writers or disparage their writings, even though they weren't aiming to advance the science of astronomy/cosmology or any natural science at all.

The ancient description of the earth being under a solid dome (firmament) with the heavenly bodies in it is scientifically limited, but it is indeed an accurate description of what we see: the scale of the universe is not apparent to our eyes. The heavens (particularly at night) look like a static dome with a few wandering bodies (πλανῆται, planetai) that seemed to do their own thing. It still looks like this to us: any astronomical display does indeed portray the night sky as a two dimensional dome most of the time, because that is an accurate description for our eyes. Other most modern people don't seem to be that attentive and would be easily bested by ancient observers in actually describing the night sky and the patterns it has through the seasons.

Different models grew in history, including the ancient realization that the earth was a sphere (and this was well known and undisputed by learned people of even ancient times and was a given fact in Medieval time). The start of the Summa Theologica uses it as an example to answer the first question about the nature and extent of sacred doctrine, on the question of whether any further doctrine besides philosophy is required:

Quote from: Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 1, Article 1
Reply to Objection 2. Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself. Hence there is no reason why those things which may be learned from philosophical science, so far as they can be known by natural reason, may not also be taught us by another science so far as they fall within revelation. Hence theology included in sacred doctrine differs in kind from that theology which is part of philosophy.

The context is the establishment of revelation and philosophy built up by human reason being distinct in the study of sacred doctrine, and that some things are unknowable purely by our own reason and means.

It is common for everybody in history to accept the state of science as being more or less accurate enough to cite without questioning it.

I see that the acceptance of commonly taught sciences in those days as being indicative of error that merits more criticism of the entire body of work, when that body of work clearly differentiates different sciences and sources of knowledge: accepting the best available resources on cosmology of the day does not mean that there is any limitation in the application of the theology being expounded.

Would we think any work which stated there were 8 planets, 9 planets, or 5 planets as being theologically or philosophically unsound if it weren't an actual treatment of astronomy itself? The modern redefinition of the word "planet" means that even if all the bodies in the solar system are known, the exact number of "planets" depends on the definition: in my life we have gone from 9 planets to 8 planets. In human history, there were only five planets because a planet has to be a visible heavenly body that wanders (hence the name) and beyond five, we cannot naturally observe the rest.

Furthermore, most people have inaccurate views of cosmology anyway: because the science has advanced very far, and most people are stuck with very simplistic models they were taught in grade school. The idea that the atom is like a mini-solar system, that the planets revolve around the sun in elliptical orbits, and the sun is in a galaxy which is shaped like a big swirl of stars and there are other galaxies very far away much like ours is accurate in the same sense that ancient humans treated the heavens as a fixed dome above us: it isn't accurate according to the available knowledge we have.

The Bohr Model of atoms is neat, but wrong. Classical mechanics seems to work well enough for us, but it is wrong: it doesn't describe very small or very large things and things we use everyday require more understanding than classical mechanics allow. The idea of the sun being the "center" of anything is wrong (it is merely at one of the foci of the elliptical orbits), but furthermore, making the sun the privileged inertial frame of reference is wrong: there are no privileged inertial frames of reference. The earth is standing still to us because it is. We are indeed stationary at the center of the observable universe.

However, this isn't to say the ancients had it right after all: it means that the very question about the nature of the cosmos is ill-defined and the "answers" we get are just approaching an accurate view. This is called verisimilitude. It isn't a matter of finding "truth", it is about approaching it. Classical Mechanics works great if you are watching a basketball game. It fails at creating satellite global positioning systems, which requires understanding General relativity. GPS works with accurate clocks on the satellites, and without accounting for the effect their relative speed has on time itself, the system wouldn't work. This is not usually noticed in our lives: we cannot move fast enough for our relative motion to cause noticeable differences in our apparently synchronized clocks, but satellites can. In theory, a fast enough train could not only cause the riders' time being different from the train stations', it could change their mass as well! And Classical Mechanics fails at very small scales, which are now significant for the future development of microchips: Quantum Mechanics is completely different. Classical Mechanics describes only things at our scale: not things much larger or much smaller.

In fact, most modern scientific inquiries are so advanced, that to truly have a grasp of it, one needs extensive study of it particularly to the point where it is largely impractical for someone to be truly advanced in many disciplines. So, if the greatest minds of the past are criticized for their limited cosmological and natural sciences references, then one must also condemn oneself, for it is woefully inadequate. They (St Thomas Aquinas, and others) held far more of the available information than we do now. In fact, the actual state of moderns science in these matters resembles philosophy more than ever (shape of the universe, bending of space-time, other words, the edges of the universe, etc, all get very philosophical at times).

« Last Edit: June 16, 2021, 03:23:59 PM by Insanis »
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Offline Jayne

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Re: Theology and Cosmology (And Natural Sciences)
« Reply #1 on: June 16, 2021, 03:22:55 PM »
A few years ago, I encountered people who identified themselves traditional Catholic flat earthers.  They see themselves as being faithful to the Church and Scripture by taking the position that the earth is flat.  A few even go so far as to claim that belief in a spherical earth is heretical.

There are so many things wrong with this that it hard to know where to start.  I think a grasp of the concepts you just stated in the OP would have helped them immensely.
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Offline Insanis

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Re: Theology and Cosmology (And Natural Sciences)
« Reply #2 on: June 16, 2021, 05:04:54 PM »
A few years ago, I encountered people who identified themselves traditional Catholic flat earthers.  They see themselves as being faithful to the Church and Scripture by taking the position that the earth is flat.  A few even go so far as to claim that belief in a spherical earth is heretical.
That is new. The knowledge of the shape of the earth is ancient, although, for most people, it wasn't practical knowledge at all. The main issue that most people struggled with was not the earth being round, but of the antipodes being populated. St Augustine brings this up: the earth being around doesn't mean that the antipodes has water or is populated.

This reveals a lack of understanding of gravity, which is sensible, because gravity was quite mysterious until 1687 when Sir Isaac Newton came up with a theory that actually made a real prediction.

Gravity itself is still mysterious: it is explained apparently quite well by General Relativity, making it distinct from other fundamental forces.

The earth is flat, if one is using non-Euclidean geometry. The earth is also incredibly smooth (it is smoother than anything we've ever touched). Of course, to us, it appears to have quite an irregular surface marked by massive mountains and impossibly deep trenches, but compared to the size of the earth, those are small variations than the natural fluctuations on a ball bearing that we cannot even feel with our hands. But, advanced math is probably not going to be helpful to such people.

There are so many things wrong with this that it hard to know where to start.  I think a grasp of the concepts you just stated in the OP would have helped them immensely.

I'd start with the Summa Theologica: it is literally in the first part and the first question. St. Augustine and older Christian writers are also good.

Also, one can see that the failure of ancients to understand gravity is the root cause of the objections to the round earth. For example, Aristotle's idea that heavier objects will accelerate faster, which is easily disproved in controlled environments, is somewhat tricky if one doesn't appreciate the impact of air resistance.

However, I don't think such beliefs can be appropriately argued with. It comes down to making unreasonable people use reason. It doesn't work. It is like someone using the Internet to tell you that computer networking is impossible.

Also, people who honestly hold that view now tend to have vast conspiracy theories to explain most things away, to the extent that it is more difficult to find a source which isn't part of that conspiracy to cite. The conspiracy theories actually take up most of their time, rather than coming up with a model which stands up to any observation (they all fail to explain things that are easily observed).