Rescuing Science

Historians look back to the Babylonians and the Greeks as originators of scientific thinking – what was then described as natural philosophy. As much as they made a contribution to modern science, their way of thinking was also a hinderance to science. It was Christian thinking which rescued natural philosophy and allowed it to develop into modern day science.

While neither Babylonian nor Greek astronomers attained a complete understanding of planetary movement, their efforts provided significant contributions that led to our current understanding. Additionally, they both laid some foundations for modern scientific enterprise which demonstrated a reasonable interplay between science and religion. The Babylonians for their part were keen on the ideas of patterns and correlations. To shed light on these patterns, they diligently maintained records of astronomical observations for hundreds of years. By looking back over their data, they could then look forward and mathematically determine when these patterns would repeat. Moreover, they recognized that these astronomical patterns had some connection to earth-based events (e.g. when do the rains come). With this astrological mindset, the Babylonians recorded notable human events alongside their astronomical data. Their worldview did not differentiate between science, religion and matters of state. These noticeable patterns and correlations were seen to be helpful for the good of the people – advising kings and leaders when to plant crops and when to expect success in military conquests. Ultimately, their view was that these signs and omens were a means of the gods to indicate to humans about future events. As a result, there was no reason to expect there to be planetary mechanics that would explain these patterns.

Like the Babylonians, the Greeks conceived that the movement of planets and constellations were tied to the gods. The Greeks were keenly aware of the human mind, and placed a high value on developing explanations about the world around them which were pleasing to the human mind. So, things like logic and beauty were acceptable conditions for identifying truth.  Since geometry was at the heart of all things beautiful, they strived to construct geometric models which would help them understand the divine. It was more important to devise a beautiful system of geometry to explain the movement of the planets (gods) than it was to have mathematical predictability. Greek mythology is peppered with conflicts which existed among the gods, so it was conceivable that the vagaries of planetary movement could be reflective of the conflicting and inconsistent behavior of the gods.

The failure of Greek astronomy was its inability to predict future events and explain oddities in the revolution of planets such as the inconsistent speed of planets and their retrograde motion.  Ptolemy sought to make adjustments to the geometric models while staying true to the heart of a Greek worldview (e.g. earth is at the center of the universe, and all objects revolve around earth). While Ptolemy strove to address some of the observational inconsistencies of the Aristotelian geometric model, there were several weaknesses to his approach. It did not make predictions with complete accuracy, so the model had to continually be adjusted which involved ever increasing complexities with the creation of epicycles, eccentrics and equants which varied for each planet. This lack of simplicity threw his model into question. Furthermore, there were no underlying principles to the movements of the planets. For example, while all the planets orbits were described with epicycles, there was no basis to determine the size or nature of each epicycle. Consequently, his model defied mathematical description – it never elevated beyond being a geometric model.

Both the Babylonian and Greek astronomers were influenced in their interpretation of the natural order by a priori commitments which resided in their worldviews (as we all are). The movement of stars and planets were affected by the activity of the gods. Their theological understanding was limited to inferences made by patterns and phenomenon in nature. Since these were governed by essentially unknowable gods, they were systemically unable to look for any physical or mechanical processes that would explain the various phenomenon in nature.

The most significant advance in our understanding of the universe came as a result of a shift from Babylonian and Greek worldviews to a Christian worldview. For example, this worldview holds there is only one God who is all powerful and sovereign. This God is dependable and unchanging in his nature. This God is also transcendent – he stands apart from creation and orders its movement in a way which is consistent with his nature. While transcendent, this God has revealed himself to mankind with both general and special revelation – He is a God of laws both for men and for all of creation. We were created in the image of God imbued with intelligence and reason. Consequently, we can study the handiwork of God which can be characterized as being orderly and predictable. We can expect there to be an underlying cause and explanation for the way things work that exists apart from God himself. Nothing in the movement of the planets is subject to serendipity.

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