Page 13, 8th April 1938

8th April 1938
Page 13

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Locations: Bath, London


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Christian Philosophy Set Science On Its Way By Dr. W. R.

Thompson, F.R.S.

0 TJR technical superiority over the people of the Middle Ages is so obvious and overwhelming that most of us are inclined to look on them as barbarians, forgetting that though we have learned how to use a number of scientific gadgets—made more or less foollprool—and appreciate their advantages, we du not really know much about them: find it, in fact, difficult to stop the bath-room tap from leaking and would admit, if pressed, that the inside of the wireless set is a mysterious and Isuckless wilderness.

Who Thought the Earth Flat One of the things of which we are most proud is, I believe, that we know the earth is round and goes around the sun. The other day, as an experiment, I asked a number of scientific friends what the mediaevals thought about this matter. Their invariable reply was, that the mediaevals believed the earth was flat. I was, of course, talking to biologists and should no doubt have done better with

physicists. But I think that this is a fairly general belief.

The fact is, that although there is a sect in the Middle West which even now holes that the earth is flat--using, curiously enough, the radio to broadcast the arguments for this view--this was certainly not the mediaeval view, except, perhaps, among the ignorant. Anyone who has dipped into Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas realises that for them the notion that the earth is round was a commonplace, and that this view is, indeed, extremely ancient.

But what few people do realise, and what Dr. Francis Johnson in Astronomica, Thought in Renaissance England (London, Humphrey Milford, Oxford Universily Press, 15s.) brings out most admirably, is the great interest of our distant ancestors in astronomical problems, and the extent of their knowledge.

Dr. Johnson's work is mainly concerned with the views of the Engesh scientists 01 the Renaissance whom their contemporaries recognised as England's most eminent experts in mathematics ano astronomy. But to get these views in proper perspective, he is obliged to survey the development of astronomical thought from very early times.

His account of this is most fascinating and of the greatest value to everyone interested in the history of scientific thought and the background of mediaeval philosophy. It should be of particular interest to students of Thomism, for the arguments of St. Thomas on a good many important questions are eonneeted with his astronomical views, and his ideas on the nature ot the celestial bodies: as is Ate case, for exarisple, in regard to the problem of s po a taileous generation.

Two Points Strike With Special ' -Force

The first is the persistent and patient interest of humanity in ,the figure of the Universe.

The account given by the author of the first origins and primitive development of astronomy is admittedly conjectural; but it seems clear that at a very early date an effort was made to understand it, and in spite of many lapses and interruptions, the final impression we get is that of the human mind, through a long series of generations, continually pondering over the problem, complicating it by adding observation to observation, making one attempt after another, in every conceivable direction, to find a theory that would fit the facts; and, through the ages, moving closer and closer to the truth.

The second is the enormous difficulty involved in passing from the observed movements of the heavenly bodies to a statement of their real movements.

Everyone in these days has a perfectly clear mental picture of the solar system as ,it is according to modern astronomical theory. We all believe this picture corres ponds to the truth. But as Dr. Johnson repeatedly insists—and as the present writer very rapidly discovered—most of us have no clear idea as to how the heavenly bodies appear to move in the sky, much less as to how the astronomical doctrine we hold can be deduced from these movements.

workers in industrial .citizenship and weaken the tendency to class distinction."

Profit sharing and co-partnership between employer and workers would accomplish much, and so the Liberals advise strongly such policies. and call for work committees in individual films and Joint Industrial Councils in all industries; tin other words, the adoption of a natural and spontaneous corporativism.

But all these things have yet to be finally and officially approved at the Liberal Party Assembly at Bath in May.

The only danger is that the classical restraint of Bath may have an unfortunate sobering effect on the Assembly and lead it to repudiate all the good propositions expounded.

it would be disastrous and also—according to an official of the Liberal Party with whom I talked—extraordinary, for the approval is almost certain.

This generous and intelligent report on the distribution of property ends with the words: " The State exists for the indi vidual, not the individual for the State." It is not, by far, the only point of simi larity which this document has with the present Pope's encyclical Divini Redemptons. But our Elizabethan ancestors really knew how the heavenly bodies move in the sky and understood how their real positions are deduced from their apparent movements.

Astronomical works, as Dr. Johnson ShO.Ws. were best-sellers and the Elizabethans had a far 'no:re intelligent interest and genuine understanding of astronomical problems than we have nowadays.

Few of us realise, I suspect, that the system of Tycho Brahe was mathematically identical with the system of Copernicus, and all computations of the planets the same for the two systems, though in the Tychonic system the sun goes around the earth; that it " required Newton's mathematical demonstration of the movements and orbits of the planets in terms of his law of universal gravitation to eliminate Tycho's system as one of two possible choices, each of them justifiable "; and that an objection made by sixteenth century scientists to the theory of Copernicus and considered by Dr. Johnson as entirely valid, was not overcome until 1838, when the first successful determinations of the parallaxes

of the stars were announced.

Another important point made by Dr. Johnson, is that " we must look to the sixteenth century, not the seventeenth, for the genesis and clear formulation of these ideas that have ever since been intimately associated with the development of modern science.

" Once our glance passes beyond the dominating figure of Francis Bacon," he says, " we discover that the picture he drew of the science of his day was too frequently a distorted image created for purposes Of propaganda."

The English scientific tradition was, he considers, more against Aristotle than for him. " Roger Bacon had been the chief dissenter from the rigidity of the Thomist synthesis of Aristotelian science and Christian theology . • ." The philosophical background of the chief scientists was " predominantly Platonic and . . they emphasised the Pythagorean element in Platonism which sought to interpret nature in mathematical or quantitative terms and thus provided the philosophical sanction for the new experimental method."

Without attempting to contest the fact that Renaissance science was, indeed, connected with principles arising out of systems other than Thomism, or that an obstinate adherence to Aristotelian cosmology was a serious obstacle to scientific progress. one may at least recall the fact that the philosophy of the great scholastics and St. Thomas in particular, constitutes a perfectly satisfactory starting point for science as we now understand it.

" In .scientia naturali," says St.

Thomas (Boat. de Trinitate, Q.VL Art. II) " ternzinari debet cognitio ad sensum . ; et qui sensurn negligit in naturalibus, incidit in errorem" (in natural science knowledge should terminate at the senses . ; and who ever neglects the senses in natural things, falls into error). The necessity of observation and experiment in the sciences of nature is there clearly laid down. St. Thomas recognised also mathematical physics, as a science intesmediate between mathematics and the science of observation, arising out of the fact that, as he says (loc. cit., Q.V., A.II1) "principia mathernalica sun! applicabilia naturalibzis" (mathematical principles are applicable to natural things). Certain sciences, he says, "sunt mediae, quae principia tnathematica ad res marmites applicant, at musica et astrologia" (are the means which apply mathematical principles to natural things, such as music and astrology). These demonstrate conclusions about natural things, "sed per media mathematica" (but by mathematical means).

Had Thomist principles been adhered to, the philosophical errors that later arose among the scientific philosophers, would perhaps have been avoided, with no loss to science and great advantage to philosophy.

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