Monday, April 9, 2012

On Church & science & Giovanni Maria Lancisi

I listened to a recent podcast (March 2, 2012) of the radio show Coast to Coast in which host George Noory interviewed "skeptic" Guy Harrison about Guy's book on skepticism. During the interview was the following exchange between a caller and Harrison (emphasis mine):
Caller: [I] have a belief that religion is one of the main problems with the human condition, is the belief in the supernatural. We had 500 years of the dark ages that stopped science, basically. And so man is really behind 500 years of scientific knowledge. I'd just like to get his take on that.

Guy Harrison: Yeah, you know, I agree. I don't want to just pick on religion, but yeah, religion's been a source–– has been a big drag on progress. There's no denying that. And, not picking on any one specific religion––just sort of all them, if you lump 'em all together, they have been a drag on progress. ...

But it's also not just religion, I mean there's all sorts of sloppy thinking, you know, superstitious thinking, whatever you want to call it that is part and separate from religion, that has really harmed our progress. We could be, man, we could be two to three thousand years beyond where we are now. We could be beyond the solar system colonizing half the galaxy by now.
First, let me just comment on the above exchange. Neither man offered a single example of how religion "stopped science" for "500 years" or been a "big drag on progress." Science has never stopped. The caller's comment is delusional nonsense, perhaps fueled by a blind anti-religious bigotry.

Harrison went on to insist he wasn't picking on religion per se, that science, too, was sometimes wrong, but didn't accuse science of ever being a "drag on progress." He only cited "religion" and "superstition" as the evidence for the caller's self-labeled "problem." Even though science was sometimes "wrong," the exchange was clear: religion is bad for "progress," and science is good.

So, to point out the 800 lb. hairy gorilla of irony in the room, Harrison, the-skeptic's, principle to determine what is good for "progress" is itself a scientifically unverifiable principle. How does one scientifically measure if intergalatic travel is something to get excited about? How do you measure societal "progress" using the scientific method? How do you quantify in a laboratory a "problem"? What is the unit of measure for "sloppy thinking"?

In the opening of the final hour of the Coast to Coast interview, Noory asked Harrison if he thought the wonderful design of the universe was evidence for "somebody" who "put this together." Harrison denied that the universe was evidence for a creator of some kind. He said:

It's not proven. And simply because we can't explain every last detail and aspect of the universe or our own bodies is not in itself evidence of anything. It's just ignorance. ... [T]o simply say the concept of irreducible complexity––to look at a cell and say, you know, we just can't figure out how all this came together and how it happened, we just don't have the answers, therefore, it must have been a god or gods or some advanced alien species that created us. I mean that is jumping to an extraordinary conclusion that's just not warranted. You know, doesn't mean it's not true, doesn't disprove it, I totally admit that, but it's just not a valid conclusion based on ignorance. And it's anti-science. A lot of people say intelligent design is science. It's not. It's anti-science. It's giving up. It's saying it's too complex, we don't know the answer, therefore: magic. That's wrong. It's not a good way to think.
Notice two things in the above quote. He defends his own position, which clearly upholds "science" as the method by which truth must be derived. And yet in his opening, he defends the very science which he admits is insufficient to explain the reality in question. By his own account, he takes a position of faith. I could even agree with him that intelligent design is not by definition a scientific method. But so what. Science is not the only method capable of deriving a truth. Science can't measure "hope," "happiness," "love," "holiness," "progress," "sloppiness," etc... Science can't even measure that science is the only method to determine truth. Yet even skeptics, such as Harrison, cite these terms, these ideas, as realities.

A while back, I came across this quote from a scientist in response to the 2011 Stephen Hawking incident about a universe coming from "nothing."
Cosmologists sometimes claim that the universe can arise ‘from nothing’. But they should watch their language, especially when addressing philosophers. We’ve realised ever since Einstein that empty space can have a structure such that it can be warped and distorted. Even if shrunk down to a ‘point’, it is latent with particles and forces – still a far richer construct than the philosopher’s ‘nothing’. Theorists may, some day, be able to write down fundamental equations governing physical reality. But physics can never explain what ‘breathes fire’ into the equations, and actualised them into a real cosmos. The fundamental question of ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ remains the province of philosophers. (Martin Rees (astrophysicist & cosmologist), Just Six Numbers)
All that being said, the Church has historically been an ally of science since ancient times, despite what the current stereotype says. The two arenas, Church and science, are not opposed. Certain modern philosophy assumes as much, but such is not the case––at least if we try to scientifically demonstrate that Church is a "drag."

Why did neither the caller, nor Harrison, argue that science, which has been "sloppy" and "wrong" time and time again throughout history, has been a "drag on progress"? The world is flat, then it's round. Smoking is good for you, now it's bad. Chocolate went from good to bad to good, depending on the study. The divide among scientists on antiseptics in the early days. Salt, coffee, the height of this or that dinosaur, what the "face on Mars" really looks like, etc...––all these and more could be viewed as scientific "errors" or contradictions I've read over the years. Should science itself then be considered an impediment to "progress"?

In the same way, prominent members of the Church have been instrumental in the development of scientific fields throughout the centuries. Today's culture tends to turn a blind eye to this reality, perhaps due to poor historical teaching, or perhaps due to the false notion that Church and science must be opposed.

Dr. Stephen Barr's book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith describes numerous priests, religious, and other members of the Church and their scientific contributions over the centuries. He writes:

Long before Galileo, and continuing to the present day, one can find examples in every century, not merely of church patronage of science, but of important scientific figures who were themselves monks, priests, and even bishops. (p. 8-9)
Barr goes on to cite a few notable examples (see p. 9-10).

I want to take a moment to profile one such Catholic scientist I recently researched. Giovanni Maria Lancisi was born in Rome in 1654. says he was a "clinician and anatomist who is considered the first modern hygienist." One of his most famous works was called On Sudden Death, a project done "at the request of [Pope] Clement XI to explain an increase in the number of sudden deaths in Rome." The encyclopedia entry ends by saying the above treatise along with one called On the Motion of the Heart and on Aneurysms "markedly contributed to knowledge of cardiac pathology."

Citing the Dictionary of Medical Eponyms, the Wikipedia entry on Lancisi reads: "He was given the lost anatomical plates of Bartolomeo Eustachius by Pope Clement XI. ... Lancisi edited and published them in 1714 as the Tabulae anatomicae."

A biography of Lancisi says: "Arguably, Lancisi's most notable medical contribution was the anatomical description of the medial longitudinal striae of the corpus callosum, in addition to other documents he wrote in the field of neurology."

In 1714 Giovanni Maria Lancisi, doctor to Popes Clement XI and Innocent XI, Head of the Santo Spirito and Teacher of Anatomy, donated his library to the hospital and ordered that the library materials be catagorised as follows: grammar, rhetoric and poetry, history and politics; philosophy and mathematics, experimental physics, natural history, veterinary medicine, pharmacopoeia and chemistry, anatomy and surgery, Greek and Arabic medicine, medicine of the Ancient Latin, Latin modern medicine, miscellaneous, councils and church history, Bibles, as well as economic and civil law.
A 1911 article reprinted at reads in part:
At his death Lancisi left his fortune and his library to Santo Spirito Hospital, on condition that a new portion of the hospital should be erected for women. There is no doubt that he belongs among the most distinguished of contributors to medical science, and Hirsch declares that anatomy, practical medicine, and hygiene are indebted to him for notable achievements. His books are still classics. The one on Sudden Death worked a revolution in the medical diseases of the brain and heart. His work De Motu Cordis et Aneurysmatibus has been pronounced epoch-making, and his suggestion of percussion over the sternum in order to determine the presence of an aneurysm, made him almost an anticipator of Auenbrugger and prompted Morgagni's famous book De Sedibus et Causis Morborum, which appeared after his death.
The Mitral Valve website contains several screenshots of his printed writings and details some of his medical contributions.

So these are just a few historical notes on a great Catholic scientist in history, supported by Popes, who contributed immensely to the field of medical science. As this was prior to the so-called "Enlightenment" closer to the 1800s, perhaps it falls within the original caller's 500 year window of when science "stopped" because of religion. Either way, perhaps I will do more Catholic scientist profiles in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Before the spread of the Christian Faith, men were very animistic, you need to ask no further then Saint Mary who can attest to what happen to her son. It was the redemptive work of Christ that gave us the Gift of the Holy Spirit which opens men's mind to a wealth of knowledge and the understanding of science. Look at what men no longer do since that time--human sacrifices and cannibalism, are a few prime examples. These and many other horrors has been eradicated because of the Church, so that men can progress.
    It is hard to think that such men exist that would want to get rid of religion and go back to killing babies and the likes. No thanks. I say we get rid of them so that they can not influence our children with stuff like psychology, evolution, and abortion.
    Knowledge and understanding of science is also a gift of the Holy Spirit and it is right to give thanks and praises to God for such things.