Saturday, December 1, 2007

Minor Point of Historical Clarification

This may not be all that important a thing to point out, but it's still interesting to me. It has been common to suppose that the expert opinion of the Middle Ages held that the earth was flat. Well, here's St. Thomas, reporting a conclusion of science in the 13th century:
For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself (ST I Q1 A1 ad 2).
Yes, I know that they didn't have things straight about the earth's position relative to the sun, the galaxy, and so forth. Their science was flawed, but not quite as badly as many folks erroneously assume. On the one hand, they can certainly be excused: science is a cumulative enterprise, and it's unfair to criticize prior generations for failing to have grasped everything that we know today. On the other hand, it's worth noting that modern scientific knowledge is beholden to the experts of the past. "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants," said Isaac Newton. And does it need to be said that even our modern understanding of creation is both flawed and partial, however much we have corrected the errors of the past?

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