Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Michael Flynn Tears "Science Vs. Christianity" Arguments To Shreds

Michael Flynn, author of the amazing sci-fi novel Eifelheim, recently came upon an essay by a guy named Jim Walker, spouting the usual arguments as to why Christianity is anti-Science (you know the type: the usual mindless shouting of "Galileo!", "burning at stake!", "Dark Ages!", etc.). Flynn proceeded to systematically refute the arguments in such a way as to leave the poor Mr. Walker looking like a poorly-educated village atheist (or like a typical Bright; couldn't really tell the difference).

Here are my favorite parts of Flynn's rebuttal:

7. Walker writes: "When Christianity took over Europe, scientific and engineering advancement virtually stopped."

In no particular order: watermills, windmills, camshafts, toothed wheels, transmission shafts, mechanical clocks, pendant clocks, eye glasses, four-wheeled wagons, wheeled moldboard plows with shares and coulters, three-field crop rotation, blast furnaces, laws of magnetism, steam blowers, treadles, stirrups, armored cavalry, the elliptical arch, the fraction and arithmetic of fractions, the plus sign, preservation of antiquity, “Gresham’s” law, the mean speed theorem, “Newton’s” first law, distilled liquor, use of letters to indicate quantities in al jabr, discovery of the Canary Islands, the Vivaldi expedition, cranks, overhead springs, latitudo et longitudo, coiled springs, laws of war and non-combatants, modal logic, capital letters and punctuation marks, hydraulic hammers, definition of uniform motion, of uniformly accelerated motion, of instantaneous motion, explanation of the rainbow, counterpoint and harmony, screw-jacks, screw-presses, horse collars, gunpowder and pots de fer, that there may be a vacuum, that there may be other Worlds, that the earth may turn in a diurnal motion, that to overthrow a tyrant is the right of the multitude, the two-masted cog, infinitesimals, open and closed sets, verge-and-foliot escapements, magnetic compasses, portolan charts, the true keel, natural law, human rights, international law, universities, corporations, freedom of inquiry, separation of church and state, “Smith’s” law of marketplaces, fossilization, geological erosion and uplift, anaerobic salting of fatty fish (“pickled herring”), double entry bookkeeping, and... the printing press.  (Yeah, some of the innovations are political and economic.)  .

+ + +

10 Walker writes,
"Not until the 1530s (during the Renaissance when people began to question religious authority) did the physician Andreas Vesalius translate Galen's texts to Latin."  

This is either an argument from ignorance or a flat-out lie.  Gerard of Cremona not only translated Galen's Medical Art at Toledo in the 12th century, but he also translated ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine, al-Razi’s Book of Divisions, and twenty-four other texts on medicine.
What Vesalius gave us (which was a genuine advance) was the Renaissance invention of perspective in art applied to anatomical drawings.  De Luzzi, de Chauliac, and others had "done anatomies" before -- which is why they had begun to doubt Galen -- but Vesalius's drawings are masterful, especially when put up against the anatomical drawings in Chinese and muslin texts.

+ + +
12. Walker writes, "As for the scientists, Christians burned the priest Giordano Bruno to death for the charge of holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith." 

Execution for treason are not unknown.  But what has the execution of Bruno for heresy got to do with scientists?  Bruno was no scientist, but a mystic of the Pythagorean sort.  The translator of his Ash Wednesday Supper commented wryly that, if they had ever bothered to read it, the Copernicans would have burned Bruno.  Time and again he shows that he did not understand astronomy, but rather tried to fit it into his wacky worldview.  Even so, keep in mind that for seven years the inquisitors and his brother Dominicans argued and debated with him to get him to change his mind.  He was the L.Ron Hubbard of his day.  Of course, nowadays, we don't like to execute people even if they were spying for Stalin; but treason, both secular and religious were once capital crimes.

+ + +
14. Walker wrote: "Recently, scholars found an ancient text written by Archimedes that revealed that the Greeks knew about the concept of infinity and calculus long before the advent of Christianity. Ironically a monk had ... washed out the Archimedes text and wrote supernatural nonsense in its place. ... Without religion hiding and destroying ancient scientific texts, imagine how different the world would look today if the Church had not suppressed, just calculus alone, hundreds of centuries before Isaac Newton published the idea in 1693."  

Archimedes did not invent calculus.  The method revealed in the lost text was a refinement of the method of exhaustion that he had already written about.  You cannot invent calculus using nothing but geometry.  You need algebra, and that had not been invented yet.  (The two combined produce "analytical" geometry, the threshold of the calculus.)  You also need the theory of limits and that was not introduced until the Calculators of Merton in the 14th century began to reason on "first and last moments" and the nature of "beginning to be."  cf. William of Heytesbury.
Secondly, the use of palimpsests was routine.  The scratch paper was routinely scraped off (not "washed") using a razor.  (A quo, Ockham's razor; a quo "eraser.")  Paper was cheap (once its production was automated with waterwheels and camshafts) but perishable.  So was papyrus in the East.  Parchment was longer-lasting, but not so cheap that it wasn't re-used on every occasion.  Those same monks (a monastery in the Sinai) who overwrote the Archimedes palimpsest were the ones who had copied the Archimedes in the first place.  It was not an original from the Hellenistic era.  At the time that parchment was reused, as we know from references, the complete works of Archimedes were in circulation and so there was no big deal in re-using a scratch copy.  Most of the monastic palimpsests we have are overwritings of Christian works.  The oldest copy of the Bible we have was erased and overwritten with the sermons of Ephraem the Syrian.  Hand-made manuscripts are necessarily rare; and time and chance happened to knock off this one particular work of Achimedes.  Walker cannot claim that the Orthodox monks living under muslim rule were trying to "suppress calculus" when at the same time they and others were busily copying all the other works of Archimedes (and everyone else!)

+ + +
16. Walker wrote: "Interestingly, every one of the the scientists that Christians love to cite, lived during the Renaissance or the Age of Enlightenment when the Church began to lose its power and the populace began to wake up from its religious stupor. None of them lived during the Dark Ages [sic]." 

Jean Buridan de Bethune.  Nicole d'Oresme.  Albrecht of Saxony, WIlliam of Heytesbury, Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Thomas Bradwardine, Theodoric of Fribourg, Roger Bacon, Thierry of Chartres, Gerbert of Aurillac, William of Conches, Nicholas Cusa, John Philoponus, etc. etc.  (William of Ockham showed little interest in natural philosophy.).

+ + +
22. Walker wrote: "Christian political leaders today, continue to place barriers against science. .... Many deny global warming, birth control, stem cell research and other scientific advances that could save millions of people, if not the entire human race.

Yes, and a hundred years ago they "denied" eugenics, which was also urgently needed to "save the human race."  Notice that Walker has segued from science to policy and politics.  Birth control is not a "scientific truth," but a public policy by which poor people should not have children.  But you cannot deduce a public law from a scientific theory.