'How the Heavens Go'

By Woodward, Kenneth L. | Newsweek, July 20, 1998 | Go to article overview

'How the Heavens Go'


Woodward, Kenneth L., Newsweek


Science and religion are supposed to be antagonists. History tells a more complicated story.

THAT MANY CONTEMPORARY SCIENTISTS MAKE ROOM FOR God in their understanding of the cosmos should hardly be surprising. For most of history, religion and science have been siblings - feeding off and sparring with each other - rather than outright adversaries in the common human quest for understanding. Only in the West, and only after the French Enlightenment in the 18th century, did the votaries of science and religion drift into separate ideological camps. And only in the 19th century, after Darwin, was the supposed irreconcilability between "God" and "science" elevated to the status of cultural myth. History tells a different, more complicated story.

In the ancient world, religious myth invested nature and the cosmos with divine emanations and powers. But this celestial pantheism did not prevent sober observation of the heavens and sophisticated mathematical calculations. By 1400 B.C. the Chinese had established a solar year of 365 days. Ancient India formulated the decimal system. Ancient Greece bequeathed Euclidean geometry, Ptolemy's map of the solar system and Aristotle's classification of living organisms, which served biologists until Darwin.

But none of these advances seriously disrupted religion's more comprehensive worldviews. Buddhists. for example, showed no interest in investigating nature since it was both impermanent and, at bottom, an illusion. Islam made great advances in algebra, geometry and optics, as well as philosophy. But Muslim scholars left the mysteries of physics--motion, causality, etc.--to the power of Allah and to the aphorisms of Aristotle, whose works they recovered and transmitted to the Christian West.

The Bible, of course, has its own creation myth, and it is that very story that eventually led scientists to realize that nature had to be discovered empirically and so fostered the development of science in the Christian West. The universe created by a rational God had to be rational and consistent--that much the Greeks already knew. But a universe created out of nothing, as Genesis described, also had to be contingent. In other words, it could have turned out other than it did. It was only one of an infinite number of possibilities open to a wholly transcendent deity. Gradually, scientists realized that the laws governing such a universe could not be deduced from pure thought-as Aristotle supposed--but instead needed to be discovered through experiment. Thus was experimental science nurtured by religious doctrine.

When the scientific revolution did occur, in Europe early in the 17th century, and researchers for the first time began to regard the world as a mechanism whose workings they could probe through the scientific method, it wasn't God's existence that was thrown in doubt. Rather, it was Aristotle's "sacred geography," in which Earth and the heavenly bodies were fixed and eternal. Relying on Aristotle, medieval Christianity had imagined a tidy geocentric universe in which nature served man and mankind served God. …

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