July 27th 2019

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COVER STORY Fixing Australia: Can we trust the Morrison Government?

ENERGY Yallourn early closure more than a mere challenge, Mr Premier

CANBERRA OBSERVED Can Labor learn a lesson or is it unredeemable?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS High power prices lead to more deaths of elderly

GENDER POLITICS Catholic Ed's document strong on doctrine, weak on protocols

ENERGY Renewables do push up power price: Chicago economists

OBITUARY The eminence of Dr Joe Santamaria

HISTORY OF SCIENCE Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 6: Medieval Christendom sparks a revolution

ENVIRONMENT As many Pacific islands are rising as are sinking

ASIAN AFFAIRS Uyghurs lose in ethnic power play

POETRY AND HISTORY The epic of the White Horse

HUMOUR On patrol with Father Bruce

MUSIC Joao Gilberto: Carrier of melodies

CINEMA Crawl: Toothful entertainment

BOOK REVIEW America's postwar boom and its end

BOOK REVIEW The story of the drafting of a great document

BOOK REVIEW The facts behind an undying distortion



FOREIGN AFFAIRS Boris Johnson and the EU: Crash through or just crash

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Faith and reason and Father Stanley Jaki, Part 6: Medieval Christendom sparks a revolution

by John Long

News Weekly, July 27, 2019

Let’s now look at how my branch of science, physics, developed in Europe before the time of Newton.

Generally we are taught that the rise of physics came about, rather suddenly, in the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, starting with Copernicus, further developed by Francis Bacon and Galileo, then Kepler and Descartes, and culminating with Isaac Newton. I will limit myself to the laws of mechanics, upon which most discoveries in physics in the 17th and 18th centuries rest.

The foundations of mechanics are Newton’s laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation. These laws describe the motion of cricket balls, rockets, and planets. Newton’s Third Law follows from his Second Law, and the Second from the First.

The first law is the law of inertia: an object at rest remains at rest, and once an object is in motion, it will remain in motion in a straight line unless pushed by an unbalanced external force. Did Newton in all his genius think this law up by himself? Some people give Descartes credit for developing similar ideas a little before Newton’s time. Others say that Galileo developed the law of inertia, and Newton built on his earlier work.

Jaki traces the law of inertia to the 14th-century Sorbonne, in Paris, where John Buridan proposed the theory of impetus (inertia) as a reaction against Aristotle’s mechanics.

Aristotle had a theory of motion that followed from his cosmology. The universe owes its existence to the Prime Mover and, like the Prime Mover, it is uncreated and eternal. Earth is at the centre, and the outer sphere of fixed stars is propelled by the Prime Mover. From this cosmology it follows that, on the small scale, objects in motion must be continuously pushed. The classic absurd example is that a stone thrown through the air is pushed by the very air it separates during its motion.

Buridan challenged this view, citing common examples where Aristotle’s physics made no sense, such as why someone wishing to jump a long distance takes a running start to build up his momentum (inertia). Such a jumper feels the air resisting his motion, rather than pushing him.

Over the centuries, men no doubt made the same sorts of observations, yet they did not challenge Aristotle. Perhaps they decided that their observations were wrong or their reason could not be trusted. Here is where Christian theology came to science’s rescue. Buridan was able to break the stranglehold that Aristotle had on science by appealing to the doctrine that God created the universe, in space and in time, and from nothing.

In commentaries on Aristotle, Buridan wrote that, since the universe was created in time, its past history was not eternal. Contrary to Aristotle’s theory, the Creator gave the universe a certain amount of inertia, which its bodies keep as they move through frictionless space.

Buridan wrote: “Since the Bible does not state that appropriate intelligences move the celestial bodies, it could be said that it does not appear necessary to posit intelligences of this kind, because it would be answered that God, when He created the world, moved each of the celestial orbs as He pleased, and in moving them He impressed in them impetuses which moved them without his having to move them any more except by the method of general influence whereby he concurs as a co-agent in all things which take place; ‘for thus on the seventh day He rested from all the work which He had executed by committing to others the actions and passions in turn’.

“And these impetuses which He impressed in the celestial bodies were not decreased nor corrupted afterwards, because there was no inclination of the celestial bodies for other movements. Nor was there resistance which would be corruptive or repressive of that impetus. But this I do not say assertively, but rather tentatively so that I might seek from the theological masters what they might teach me as to how these things take place.”

This essentially is an early statement of Newton’s First Law. Because God is fully transcendent from His creation (the universe), there is no need for Him to continually push objects and remain in contact that their motion might conti­nue, as did Aristotle’s Prime Mover.

In Aristotle’s case, a philosophy determined a theory of physics. In Buridan’s case, too, a different philosophy determined another physics, one infinitely more successful. Jaki notes that Buridan’s famous statement was reproduced many times in manuscripts, lecture notes and books throughout the 15th and 16th centuries (The Absolute Beneath the Relative, pp142-143).

Buridan had two famous students: Nicole Oresme and Albert of Saxony. Oresme was an early promoter of the idea that the earth spun and travelled around the sun. He also answered the objection that if the earth moved, there would be a constant wind blowing, and objects thrown straight up would not return to their starting point. These things do not happen because, like the earth, air and other objects have an impetus which carries them along with the earth (an application of Buridan’s theory). Albert of Saxony developed the impetus theory further, and his writings strongly influenced Galileo.

The rest of the story is well known. The great synthesis of all that had been developed in mathematics, geometry, natural philosophy, and experimentation came together in Newton’s Principia, which was first published in 1687. From then on, history saw the triumph of science and the scientific method: natural phenomena are described with numbers and explained by mathematical theories; then the theories are tested by further experimentation, and one scientific discovery leads to the next.

Within 150 years, Western science had become the wonder of the world, and on its heels came the Industrial Revolution, which could not have happened without that science.

Christians, keep your chins up

At the present time, when being a Christian is not necessarily greeted with respect and courtesy, and when in some parts of the world it can land one in jail, is there any comfort to be found in the fact that the antecedents of science were an integral part of a very Christian story?

I have spent much of my adult life in universities, where Christianity is at best ignored, more often challenged, and not infrequently sneered at. In the late 1980s, when I commenced doctoral studies, university bookshops were lined with Stephen Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time. He is often quoted as saying, “What place, then, for a creator?” The universe simply is. We don’t need a Creator to explain it.

These days an act of Christian charity, such as offering to pray for someone, can land the hapless Christian student in the campus dock, where threats of expulsion are very real.

To make matters worse, much worse, the shameful actions of some churchmen have led to enormous harm, and the result is that the credibility of many Christian churches has been shot to pieces. Faithful Christians are left reeling in bewilderment, and in their own personal and deep pain. What Christian in recent times has not had his faith shaken down to its boots, as mine has?

What is Christianity to do now, when seemingly the whole world laughs at it, as the Psalmist says: “My tears have become my bread, by night, by day, as I hear it said all day long, ‘where is your God?’” However, the Psalmist continues: “Why are you cast down, my soul. Why groan within me? Hope in God, I will praise him still, my saviour and my God.” (Psalm 41) Indeed, why should we hope in God, in these increasingly dark and troubling times?

Perhaps we should recall those very passages in Scripture that were used to comfort and strengthen the Israelites when they were getting kicked around by their enemies, dragged off into exile, and forced to pay homage to foreign gods. Perhaps we need to be reminded of God’s faithfulness as witnessed in the reliability of the nature He created, or at least in the rock-solid laws of physics that mankind has discovered with the psychological assistance of confidence in the Creator.

Perhaps we should look again at the words of Jeremiah: “Have you noticed how people are saying that I have rejected Israel and Judah, the two families that I chose? And so they look with contempt on my people and no longer consider them a nation. But I, the Lord, have a covenant with the day and night, and I have made the laws that control earth and sky. And just as surely as I have done this, so I will maintain my covenant with Jacob’s descendants and with my servant David.” (33: 23-26)

Or perhaps we should remember Christ’s words in John’s Gospel, spoken in a real cosmic sense: “But take courage! I have overcome the world.” (16:33) People may fail, but nature will never deviate from the path ordained by God himself.

Stanley Jaki spent 50 years studying in great depth the interrelationships among science in general (physics in particular), history, philosophy, and theology. Towards the end of his book, The Origin of Science and the Science of its Origin, he sums up one of the chief points from his numerous writings: that after several “stillbirths” in numerous ancient cultures, science was born only within a firmly Christian context.

The only worldview that had the ability to generate science was “a view of which the principle disseminator was the Gospel itself. It was the Gospel that turned into a widely shared conviction the belief in the Father, maker of all things visible and invisible, who created all in the beginning and disposed everything in measure, number, and weight: that is, with a rigorous consistency and rationality” (p99). These are the consistency and rationality that are demanded if science is to make any sense at all.

This is the same science that put men on the moon, allows the Hubble telescope to look billions of light years to distant galaxies in the distant past, and allows scientists to probe deeply into the subatomic realm. This is the same science that led to the marvellous feats of engineering that society enjoys today and that we can no longer live without; all because, as Jaki would put it, the universe was created from nothing, in space and in time, and is given by its Creator order by measure, number and weight.

The early Christian fathers, including the apostles, looked at the cosmic view their world inherited from ancient Greece, and said, we can do better than this. In hindsight, they were right.



S.L. Jaki, The Relevance of Physics, University of Chicago Press, 1966.

S.L. Jaki, The Origin of Science and the Science of its Origin, Scottish Academic Press, 1978.

S.L. Jaki, The Savior of Science, Regnery Gateway, 1988.

S.L. Jaki, The Absolute Beneath the Relative and Other Essays, University Press of America, 1988.

S.L. Jaki, Science and Creation: From Eternal Cycles to an Oscillating Universe, University Press of America, 1990.

S.L. Jaki, The Only Chaos and Other Essays, University Press of America, 1990.

S.A. Trasancos, Science was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr Stanley L. Jaki, Habitation of Chimham Publishing, 2014.

John Long has undergraduate qualifications in physics and philosophy from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in physics from Monash University. He has taught physics and engineering at an Australian university for over 20 years.

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