In this week’s philosophy post we’ll be moving on from the Medieval period to look at the beginnings of modern science and the life and work of Nicolaus Copernicus. I will offer a snapshot of this scientific thinker whose work would challenge the very role of the Church, and the Bible, in society.
Who Was He?
Copernicus lived between 1473-1543 AD, and was born to a Polish father and a German mother. His father was a merchant who dealt in copper, and his mother was the daughter of a wealthy city counsellor. The surname ‘Copernicus’ is derived from a village named Koperniki in Poland (to where his father’s family history has been traced) although Nicolaus used different titles and surnames throughout his life.
In 1491 Copernicus enrolled into the University of Kraków in the Polish capital, and began to study within the astronomical-mathematical school there, which ignited the interest in astronomy that would subsequently be the focus of much of his life’s work. Key philosophers who Copernicus studied during his time at university include the famous Greek master Aristotle and the Muslim polymath Averroes.
What’s the Big Idea?
Up until the time of Copernicus, astronomers had embraced what is known as the Ptolemaic system, that harks back to 2nd century Alexandria. The system held that the earth was the centre of the universe, and that the planets and stars circulated around it. This would be the prominent idea in astronomy until the 16th century.
Copernicus studied observations that indicated that the sun, rather than the earth, is at the centre of our solar system. This caused a great deal of unrest within the Catholic Church, as theologians had always found biblical support for the ‘geocentric’ model of the universe. Well known Christian scholars, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, vehemently opposed the ‘heliocentric’ model, with reference to Scripture. For instance, in Psalm 93 the psalmist addresses God, saying “Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm”.
The scientific breakthrough Copernicus made is of tremendous philosophical importance, so much so that it really makes us think about who we are and our place in the grand scheme of things. The Bible suggests that human beings have a very special, and central, place in existence, as we are made in the imago dei; the image of God. But if we are not at the centre of the universe, this special place may be seen in a different light.
Being convinced, as I am, that God exists, it would be appropriate to question why God would place in a sacred text words that seem to contradict scientific observation and understanding. For me, it would be absurd to think that an omniscient God would have made a mistake in this respect. The solution to this predicament, in my understanding, is that the progress of science, and the evolution of knowledge and wisdom, are all a part of God’s long-term plan for creation.
I don’t believe, as many religious people do, that God is distinct from creation and that we are free creatures. My perspective is that God is in control of all things, and is unfolding a plan for all of creation, and that there is a role within that unfolding for diverse religious perspectives and also for science. Of course, this means that I would have to call into question many fundamental teachings of Christianity, with its exclusive truth claims and apparent insistence on free will. But I am happy to do that, as the impartial pursuit of Truth is my guiding principle.
While the Copernican revolution in astronomy posed a significant threat to the power and influence of the Catholic Church, it certainly doesn’t pose any threat to the existence of God, which I believe is still the most realistic and rational explanation for the unfolding of creation, including the patterns we observe in our solar system.
My Friday Philosophy series aims to provide a weekly snapshot of a key thinker from the history of philosophy. Next week, we’ll continue our look at modern science with some reflections on the life and work of Sir Isaac Newton. If you would like to follow the series, please consider subscribing to this blog. Thank you for reading!