It's All Greek to Me?

Pax Christi, everybody!

Would it be fair to say that Christianity should not be credited with science and its advances, rather, Greek philosophy deserves the title? I’m not entirely sold on this; surely the respect for certain Classical thinkers came from the compatibility of their ideas with The Faith, right?


I am reminded when everyone and his dog tried to take credit for the fall of communism.

No, Christianity should not be credited with science and its advances, nor should it be credited with the beginning of science or modern science. But nor does Greek philosophy deserve the credit either. But yes BOTH Greek philosophy and Christianity played a role as did the golden age of Islam also from which we have crucial developments like algebra. Yet the role of Christianity and Islam are both insignificant in comparison to a few individual scientists, and the top of that list I think is Galileo. But would Galileo have done what he did if there were no Archimedes, and would Archimedes have done what he did without Aristotle, and would Aristotle have done what he did if not for those who inspired him? Like most of culture and the very essence of mathematics, science is a construct built step by step on the shoulders of what was done before.


And would Galileo have done what he did without Islamic Golden Age and medieval developments in optics? Or without Copernicus and Ptolemy?


Who are these people giving Christianity exclusive credit for science and its advances. Christians contributed, and the worldview that saw God as a God of order that could be discovered and described formally in laws of math, chemistry, and physics helped motivate Christian scientists. As for the development of science over history, many cultures and worldviews contributed.

I read these books with my kids and they provide a really good overview of the development of scientific ideas over the scope of history.


Science originated with the Greeks, but Christians were no slouches when it came to advancing science. Some remarkable, groundbreaking scientists were Christians, including Galileo, Mendel, and Lemaître.


I think I detect here a belief in what historians call, “The Galileo Myth”. Manufactured at the end of the 19th Century, it proposed that the steady march of science was impeded by the superstition of religion, exemplified by the persecution of Galileo in his belief that the Sun stood at the centre of the Solar System. Galileo is supposed to have exemplified the scientific approach of the ancient Greeks.

It is hard to detect the origins of science, but it certainly goes back well before the Greeks. There were major civilisations emerging out of Mesopotamia and its empires: the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians. Part of the difficulty is because origins are not all that clear. For example, how does one separate astronomy from astrology at this ancient time. The Greeks, for their part, did as much to obstruct science as to promote it.

Let’s begin with the greatest Greek philosopher of them all, Aristotle. This guy promoted the view that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe. In the Western Church an attempt was made, first by the Emperor Charlemagne, and then by Pope Gregory VII, to improve the education of priests and ensure their knowledge of the “arts of letters”. This involved them embracing the Greek philosophers, like Aristotle.

The commitment of the Catholic Church to an Earth-centred universe came mainly from this commitment to Aristotle. Any priest who challenged this commitment to Aristotle was actually sanctioned. When Martin Luther protested about the corruption of the Western Church, one of his key points was that Aristotle needed to be taken out of Christian theology, a project that he had begun. A generation later, another Lutheran theologian and astronomer, Johannes Kepler, said he had completed the work of Luther by removing Aristotle from the philosophy of Nature, which is what they called science in those days.

Aristotle was not the only Greek philosopher who led science astray. Galen was a leading figure in anatomy. It was assumed by many in the Western Church that the ancient Greeks had operated in a Golden Age of the past where all the empirical work had been done. Thus, one only needed to read their books, rather than to do the empirical work oneself. The problem was that while Galen had written about human anatomy, he had never dissected a human corpse. He promoted the curative properties of a unicorn horns, which obviously did not exist.

Meanwhile, the Christian Faith was orienting itself to promote scientific research. The most obvious reason for this was that Christians believed in the incarnation in Christ. As it was later written, “If God is the Creator, Nature is a book written by the finger of God.” Galileo expressed his agreement with this in his “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina”. The same view was held in the Protestant camp when it emerged. At the Lutheran university at Tubingen, the topic of Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism was regarded as open for debate. One famous student, Johannes Kepler, took on the task with gusto. Barely graduated from there, he wrote his first book in which he argued that the same physical forces on Earth also were in play in the heavens. He later consolidated this view in his “New Astronomy”. In doing so, he moved Copernicus’ theory from belief in mythological motions in the heavens, to astrophysics. The roll call of Christian theologians who moved science on is rather long. But let’s see: Rev John Michell proposed that Black Holes existed (under the name of dark stars). Fr George Lemaitre proposed the Bing Bang Theory for the origins of the universe. A Christian monk, who was a graduate of the university of Vienna, began the explorations that would lead to genetic science, Gregor Mendel. James Clerk Maxwell, a licensed lay preacher of the Church of Scotland, established the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation. Edward W. Morely, of the Michelson-Morley experiment fame, was simultaneously a Protestant clergyman. The list goes on and on.

I’ll leave it here for the time being and save a critique of Galileo for later.

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More like concocting an excuse to hammer on a tired old soapbox. I think I detect an “anti-Galileo myth.”

I am a fan of Aristotle. It is no accident that I put him in the list of important milestones in the development of science. He made tons of accurate observations in logic, mathematics, physics, biology, botany, agriculture, and medicine. Unlike other Greek philosophers he had a much more of an observational science approach to his work. But yes Aristotle did make claims which he didn’t test, still following the basic formula of the Greek philosophers. Galileo on the other hand did test his claims. THAT is what made him a giant in the development of modern science, NOT his conflict with the church – which I made no mention of whatsoever. THAT is the foundation of modern science – testing your hypotheses. Did the church sometimes get in the way of the developments of science? YES! YES it did. So did Islam. Those literal scripture bashing fundies fearful of scientific opposition to their own imagined authority had a part in both religions. Thus the major portion of the credit goes to individual scientists and mathematicians who may have been Christian or Muslim and NOT to Christianity or Islam! But we can also say that enough of those in Christianity and Islam were supportive or inspirational at crucial times that we also cannot say that these religions played no part in the development of science.

At most you can perhaps say that I give Galileo an exaggerated role because of my background in physics. Those more interested in other sciences might give a bigger role to other scientists because of this. But looking to physics playing the leading role in the development of modern science is not without justification. It is the easiest science in which to use mathematics and measurement which is so crucial to the work in modern science.


Actually the RC church was following the Bible. Galileo didn’t have the technology to demonstrate his theory.

Historian of science Thony Christie did a series of 3 video interviews for History for Atheists. Long, but well worth the time. History for Atheists tries to clear up misconceptions about the church perpetuated by angry/militant atheists. You get a very good understanding of exactly what was going on at the time. And the church was anything but anti-science–far from it!

Thony Christie Interview - The Galileo Affair Part 1

Thony Christie Interview - The Galileo Affair Part 2

Thony Christie Interview - The Galileo Affair Part 3

They also list some good resources and book recommendations.

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What technology? To test what exactly?

I guess every scientist makes speculations and available technology does limit their ability to test things. However, its not that hard to test Aristotle’s theory of gravity and see very quick that it doesn’t work. So I don’t think it is true that Aristotle didn’t “have the technology” to test that particular claim.

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What I actually said was that Galileo didn’t have the technology to test his theory.

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I knew that. But I still have no idea what theory, testing, or technology you are talking about with regards to Galileo. The theory of the sun at the center of the solar system was the theory of Copernicus and it was tested by showing that it predicted the motion of the planets better than the Ptolemaic system.

I nevertheless felt the need to address the same question with regards to Aristotle and other scientists, because many if not all speculate about things they cannot always test. I am defending my claim that Galileo is more of a central figure in the beginning of modern science than Aristotle, even though Aristotle was an important figure in the development of science.

P.S. Started watching that discussion with Thony Christie you posted in three links. I was hoping to see if the answer to my questions were there. So far not. But it is an interesting discussion. It certainly shows how important the church (well the Jesuits) were in advancing education in mathematics.


Though there wasn’t any real detectable difference between Copernicus’ and Tycho’s models (thanks to relativity, there is no difference)

Another reason why the Roman Catholic Church might have been a bit more concerned about Galileo than otherwise would be the obnoxious heretical mystic Giordano Bruno.

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Mostly correct – especially in regards to the benefits to calculating the position of the planets. That is one reason why I was puzzled by the claim of @beaglelady about Galileo not having the technology to prove “his theory” (connected with the Earth centered universe of Aristotle).

There is a difference in regards to how close to inertial the frame of reference is. The Copernican system is not totally inertial but is far more so than the Tycho system, which is certainly a mathematical improvement over the Ptolemaic system.

Some of this has already been covered…


Don’t worry–it’s there.

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Then, as now, the Jesuit order has pursued astronomy. The Vatican even runs an observatory!
Here’s an article I posted here back in 2016:

Guy Consolmangno, the Vatican’s Chief Astronomer, on Balancing Church with the Cosmos

The MIT graduate speaks to how he ended up studying the stars for the Catholic Church


James Hannam (The Genesis of Science) argues that Christianity provided the key support for the principle of investigating the evidence that led to modern science. Aristotle did some observing, but there’s a lot based on philosophy rather than evidence in Aristotle.

Of course, people have always done some “try and see if this works” testing of ideas. Christianity emphasizes that we are limited and have to check the evidence rather than relying on what we think is the way things should be. Christianity also values labor. These contrasts sharply with the classical Greek emphasis on philosophical and the attitude that labor was for unimportant people, like slaves.


He has an enviable job, in several ways. :slightly_smiling_face:

A friend of mine was at Cornell getting her doctorate when Carl Sagan was a student and she quotes Sagan as saying at one point, “An atheist is someone who knows more than I do.”


The main contribution of Christianity to science was just in keeping literacy alive and founding what became the university system. Astrology and alchemy yielded much of the apparatus of nascent science, and technical progress on glass blowing and optics, and progress in metallurgy, introduced new tools and empirical knowledge. The demands of navigation, global commerce, and war became vital, and these involved systematic approaches and dissemination of knowledge. These pragmatic innovations caused at least some people to reflect and investigate new vistas, and as always there were key influential figures who synthesized these trends into intellectual and historical streams of thought. But on the whole, it would seem that technology gave birth to science, applied science furthered technology; and this earthy process was far more influential than conceits of Greek philosophy or some theologically derived idea that an orderly universe should properly be investigated by the scientific method.


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