Day one Cambridge: history

Phew! Quite a day. Oxford historian Peter Harrison kicked off with two excellent talks, ‘Religion and the Rise of Science’, followed by ‘The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science’. I can’t do justice to either in a brief post, but Peter’s basic thesis is that, historically speaking, religion actually facilitated the rise of science, essentially by providing the stability it needed to flourish.

The first talk broke this idea down into areas such as

– social legitimacy for scientific enquiry

– presuppositions about nature (natural laws etc)

– motivation of discovery

– criteria for choosing between different theories etc.

He contrasted the rise of science in the west with that in China and the Islamic world, pointing out that the established Church gave legs to early scientific discovery.

The third talk dealt with a rather different encounter between science and religion – a superb overview of the Galileo affair by Prof Ernan McMullin of Notre Dame. Ernan had many insights I had not heard before – in particular, the role of the reformists. He started with a simple summary of Galileo’s telescopic findings, and then explained the context of the warning in 1616. Galileo’s timing was pretty terrible, as the rise of Luther and Calvin had by then forced a revised literal interpretation of the Bible throughout the Church – not the time for supporting the Copernican universe! Another point frequently overlooked is that the Church was not rejecting mainstream science – at the time, Galileo’s support for the Copernican was pretty way out there!

Just as I had always understood, the1633 trial itself consisted of a simple question – whether or not Galileo had supported a doctrine that contradicted a literal interpretation of Scripture – which was always going to give a positive result. Given the hegemony of he bible at the time, it could be said that he got off likely.

At question time, I made the comment that this is exactly what worries most people about the trial – the Church were simply not interested in the veracity of the claim, but simply whether it contradicted their precious doctrine…not the way to find out about the world…

Ernan also gave a great answer to the perennial question of why Galileo did not quote Kepler in his defence – because Kepler was a Lutherian! Of course! This would hardly be a source the Church wanted to hear from..

Ernan’s book on the Galileo affair received rave reviews

After the talk, we got a ‘science tour’ of Cambridge, concentrating on the colleges where famous science had been done. Hugely impressive tradition, from Trinity (Newton, Sedgewick, Darwin etc), St John’s (Dirac), Gonville and Caius (Stephen Hawking) to the Cavendish (Thompson, Rutherford, Cockroft, Walton etc). What a legacy…

The Cavendish

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