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Higher Authority

Never have so few words had so much consequence for the progress of human knowledge. Soon after the Royal Society was founded in London in 1660, its organizers chose as their motto the Latin phrase Nullius in Verba, translated as “on the word of no one.” By this they meant, “accept nothing on authority.” The Society’s founders, who included some of the best scientific minds of the age, had reason to be skeptical of authority. There were as yet no clear boundaries between science and philosophy, and philosophers had a bad habit of weighing in on scientific matters with little regard for empirical fact. A case in point: For more than 1,500 years, astronomers struggled to reconcile their observations with Aristotle’s pronouncement that the planets moved in perfect circles around the earth. Never mind that the planets moved around the sun, not the earth, and that their orbits were elliptical. Astronomers risked their reputations and even worse in daring to report any findings that cast doubt on the “perfection of the heavens.”

It didn’t help that the medieval church had lined up behind Aristotle on such matters, which meant that if you challenged his authority, you were going against God. This is something the 16th-century monk and scholar Giordano Bruno learned the hard way. Bruno had worn out his welcome all over Europe, thanks to his unorthodox theological and scientific views and his outspoken nature. It did not help that he had issued a broadside against Aristotelian natural science. A proponent of Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the cosmos, he further antagonized religious authorities by declaring that the sun was just another star in the heavens and the earth merely one planet among many in an infinite universe. The Inquisition caught up with him in Venice, and his case was transferred to Rome, where it dragged on for years. Bruno renounced his positions on matters of church dogma but refused to abandon his views on the “plurality of worlds.” He was burned at the stake.

Bruno’s better-known contemporary, the astronomer Galileo Galilei, also ran afoul of church authorities by embracing the Copernican model. However, Galileo had friends in high places, among them the pope, and he also had the good sense to recant his views. His books were banned, but he escaped with house arrest. More than 350 years passed before Pope John Paul II formally acknowledged the church’s error in condemning Galileo’s work. The less fortunate Bruno has never been formally exonerated.

Yet the set-piece battles between science and religion turn out to be clear-cut only in retrospect. We forget that Galileo and Bruno were regarded skeptically by many of their scientific colleagues, not just church authorities. Galileo’s contention that tidal forces were caused by the movement of the earth turned out to be false. Bruno was correct about the plurality of worlds but had no hard evidence to back him up. A century later, Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity was dismissed as occult “action at a distance” by his peers, and Newton himself could not explain how it worked. Even Albert Einstein, who ushered in the biggest scientific revolution since Newton, later took a wrong turn by dismissing quantum theory on the grounds that God did not “play dice” with the universe. It turns out he did.

The church, which has been rightly faulted for its dogmatic tendencies, was founded by individuals who claimed first-hand knowledge of a singular event in human history. They told anyone who would listen that their leader had returned from the dead. When ordered by the religious authorities to stop preaching in his name, they replied, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” They referred to themselves not as believers but as witnesses. Thomas, one of the original apostles, had not been present when Jesus first appeared to his followers and refused to believe he had risen from the dead until he saw him with his own eyes and touched his wounds. St. Paul, who is normally associated with the primacy of belief, emphasized that more than 500 people had seen the risen Christ on a single occasion. He also urged believers to “test everything” – not the sort of exhortation one normally associates with religious faith. The founders of the Royal Society had briefly considered adopting Paul’s exhortation as their motto before settling on Nullius in Verba. They may have steered clear because Paul was a religious figure. But no matter. The two were coming at the same idea from different angles. Whether in matters of science or of faith, it is best to see for yourself.

Acts 4:20
1 Corinthians 15:6
1 Thessalonians 5:21

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