Thursday, February 6, 2014

Apropos Nye v. Ham: Signs and Wonders

So yes, I watched most of the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye debate. Don't really have much to say about it that hasn't already been reechoing across the Internet for the past two days.

I'd like to share another excerpt from History of the Warfare of Science with Theology (1896). Yes, I am quite aware I've been posting a lot of these lately, but in light of Ham's logical godmoding (as it were) and backwards applications of the scientific method to suit his foregone conclusion, this particular section within the chapter on comets ("From 'Signs and Wonders' to Law in the Heavens") seems apt to the moment. If you're not terribly curious, you can just scroll through and glance at the text I've boldfaced.

Out of this belief was developed a great series of efforts to maintain the theological view of comets, and to put down forever the scientific view. These efforts may be divided into two classes: those directed toward learned men and scholars, through the universities, and those directed toward the people at large, through the pulpits. As to the first of these, that learned men and scholars might be kept in the paths of "sacred science" and "sound learning," especial pains was taken to keep all knowledge of the scientific view of comets as far as possible from students in the universities. Even to the end of the seventeenth century the oath generally required of professors of astronomy over a large part of Europe prevented their teaching that comets are heavenly bodies obedient to law. Efforts just as earnest were made to fasten into students' minds the theological theory. Two or three examples out of many may serve as types. First of these may be named the teaching of Jacob Heerbrand, professor at the University of Tubingen, who in 1577 illustrated the moral value of comets by comparing the Almighty sending a comet, to the judge laying the executioner's sword on the table between himself and the criminal in a court of justice; and, again, to the father or schoolmaster displaying the rod before naughty children. A little later we have another churchman of great importance in that region, Schickhart, head pastor and superintendent at Goppingen, preaching and publishing a comet sermon, in which he denounces those who stare at such warnings of God without heeding them, and compares them to "calves gaping at a new barn door." Still later, at the end of the seventeenth century, we find Conrad Dieterich, director of studies at the University of Marburg, denouncing all scientific investigation of comets as impious, and insisting that they are only to be regarded as "signs and wonders."

The results of this ecclesiastical pressure upon science in the universities were painfully shown during generation after generation, as regards both professors and students; and examples may be given typical of its effects upon each of these two classes.

The first of these is the case of Michael Maestlin. He was by birth a Swabian Protestant, was educated at Tubingen as a pupil of Apian, and, after a period of travel, was settled as deacon in the little parish of Backnang, when the comet of 1577 gave him an occasion to apply his astronomical studies. His minute and accurate observation of it is to this day one of the wonders of science. It seems almost impossible that so much could be accomplished by the naked eye. His observations agreed with those of Tycho Brahe, and won for Maestlin the professorship of astronomy in the University of Heidelberg. No man had so clearly proved the supralunar position of a comet, or shown so conclusively that its motion was not erratic, but regular. The young astronomer, though Apian's pupil, was an avowed Copernican and the destined master and friend of Kepler. Yet, in the treatise embodying his observations, he felt it necessary to save his reputation for orthodoxy by calling the comet a "new and horrible prodigy," and by giving a chapter of "conjectures on the signification of the present comet," in which he proves from history that this variety of comet betokens peace, but peace purchased by a bloody victory. That he really believed in this theological theory seems impossible; the very fact that his observations had settled the supralunar character and regular motion of comets proves this. It was a humiliation only to be compared to that of Osiander when he wrote his grovelling preface to the great book of Copernicus. Maestlin had his reward: when, a few years, later his old teacher, Apian, was driven from his chair at Tubingen for refusing to sign the Lutheran Concord-Book, Maestlin was elected to his place.

Not less striking was the effect of this theological pressure upon the minds of students. Noteworthy as an example of this is the book of the Leipsic lawyer, Buttner. From no less than eighty-six biblical texts he proves the Almighty's purpose of using the heavenly bodies for the instruction of men as to future events, and then proceeds to frame exhaustive tables, from which, the time and place of the comet's first appearance being known, its signification can be deduced. This manual he gave forth as a triumph of religious science, under the name of the Comet Hour-Book.

The same devotion to the portent theory is found in the universities of Protestant Holland. Striking is it to see in the sixteenth century, after Tycho Brahe's discovery, the Dutch theologian, Gerard Vossius, Professor of Theology and Eloquence at Leyden, lending his great weight to the superstition. "The history of all times," he says, "shows comets to be the messengers of misfortune. It does not follow that they are endowed with intelligence, but that there is a deity who makes use of them to call the human race to repentance." Though familiar with the works of Tycho Brahe, he finds it "hard to believe" that all comets are ethereal, and adduces several historical examples of sublunary ones.

Nor was this attempt to hold back university teaching to the old view of comets confined to Protestants. The Roman Church was, if possible, more strenuous in the same effort. A few examples will serve as types, representing the orthodox teaching at the great centres of Catholic theology.

One of these is seen in Spain. The eminent jurist Torreblanca was recognised as a controlling authority in all the universities of Spain, and from these he swayed in the seventeenth century the thought of Catholic Europe, especially as to witchcraft and the occult powers in Nature. He lays down the old cometary superstition as one of the foundations of orthodox teaching: Begging the question, after the fashion of his time, he argues that comets can not be stars, because new stars always betoken good, while comets betoken evil.

The same teaching was given in the Catholic universities of the Netherlands. Fromundus, at Louvain, the enemy of Galileo, steadily continued his crusade against all cometary heresy.

But a still more striking case is seen in Italy. The reverend Father Augustin de Angelis, rector of the Clementine College at Rome, as late as 1673, after the new cometary theory had been placed beyond reasonable doubt, and even while Newton was working out its final demonstration, published a third edition of his Lectures on Meteorology. It was dedicated to the Cardinal of Hesse, and bore the express sanction of the Master of the Sacred Palace at Rome and of the head of the religious order to which De Angelis belonged. This work deserves careful analysis, not only as representing the highest and most approved university teaching of the time at the centre of Roman Catholic Christendom, but still more because it represents that attempt to make a compromise between theology and science, or rather the attempt to confiscate science to the uses of theology, which we so constantly find whenever the triumph of science in any field has become inevitable.

As to the scientific element in this compromise, De Angelis holds, in his general introduction regarding meteorology, that the main material cause of comets is "exhalation," and says, "If this exhalation is thick and sticky, it blazes into a comet." And again he returns to the same view, saying that "one form of exhalation is dense, hence easily inflammable and long retentive of fire, from which sort are especially generated comets." But it is in his third lecture that he takes up comets specially, and his discussion of them is extended through the fourth, fifth, and sixth lectures. Having given in detail the opinions of various theologians and philosophers, he declares his own in the form of two conclusions. The first of these is that "comets are not heavenly bodies, but originate in the earth's atmosphere below the moon; for everything heavenly is eternal and incorruptible, but comets have a beginning and ending——ergo, comets can not be heavenly bodies." This, we may observe, is levelled at the observations and reasonings of Tycho Brahe and Kepler, and is a very good illustration of the scholastic and mediaeval method——the method which blots out an ascertained fact by means of a metaphysical formula. His second conclusion is that "comets are of elemental and sublunary nature; for they are an exhalation hot and dry, fatty and well condensed, inflammable and kindled in the uppermost regions of the air." He then goes on to answer sundry objections to this mixture of metaphysics and science, and among other things declares that "the fatty, sticky material of a comet may be kindled from sparks falling from fiery heavenly bodies or from a thunderbolt"; and, again, that the thick, fatty, sticky quality of the comet holds its tail in shape, and that, so far are comets from having their paths beyond the, moon's orbit, as Tycho Brahe and Kepler thought, he himself in 1618 saw "a bearded comet so near the summit of Vesuvius that it almost seemed to touch it." As to sorts and qualities of comets, he accepts Aristotle's view, and divides them into bearded and tailed. He goes on into long disquisitions upon their colours, forms, and motions. Under this latter head he again plunges deep into a sea of metaphysical considerations, and does not reappear until he brings up his compromise in the opinion that their movement is as yet uncertain and not understood, but that, if we must account definitely for it, we must say that it is effected by angels especially assigned to this service by Divine Providence. But, while proposing this compromise between science and theology as to the origin and movement of comets, he will hear to none as regards their mission as "signs and wonders" and presages of evil. He draws up a careful table of these evils, arranging them in the following order. Drought, wind, earthquake, tempest, famine, pestilence, war, and, to clinch the matter, declares that the comet observed by him in 1618 brought not only war, famine, pestilence, and earthquake, but also a general volcanic eruption, "which would have destroyed Naples, had not the blood of the invincible martyr Januarius withstood it."

It will be observed, even from this sketch, that, while the learned Father Augustin thus comes infallibly to the mediaeval conclusion, he does so very largely by scientific and essentially modern processes, giving unwonted prominence to observation, and at times twisting scientific observation into the strand with his metaphysics. The observations and methods of his science are sometimes shrewd, sometimes comical. Good examples of the latter sort are such as his observing that the comet stood very near the summit of Vesuvius, and his reasoning that its tail was kept in place by its stickiness. But observations and reasonings of this sort are always the first homage paid by theology to science as the end of their struggle approaches.

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