Friday, November 05, 2004

Imagine you are a well educated chap in 1490. What do you know about the universe? You certainly know the earth is a sphere but also that it is stationary and the centre of the universe. You probably don't realise that you don't know about America and all your authorities on geography give no indication that it exists. If you were really up to date and had ready Ptolemy, whose Geographia had only recently been translated from Greek to Latin, you might have seen maps of the world than do not even allow room for another continent between Europe and far East. America also caused theological worries as the status of the natives vis a vis original sin and salvation were rather ambiguous. And of course, the bible also has no idea at all that this other continent is going to exist.

Trouble was that once America had been discovered, there was no denying it. Although there was initially some doubt as to whether Columbus had reached the East Indies as he was hoping, we find no trace of theological efforts to explain away this enormous problem and no efforts to censor the discoveries for fear of upsetting people. It seems that once something was established with good evidence, neither the Church or anyone else was going to gainsay it.

Fast forward to the 1630s and Galileo is told to deny that the earth moves. Now, the theological problems with a moving earth are like nothing compared to the problems caused by America, but this time there is a huge row. Why is the Church kicking up a fuss when it let the more serious difficulty of America pass it by? The reason, it seems to me, is simply that for Galileo the evidence was not good enough and he was making claims that appeared unjustified. The Church was not going to allow that to happen. As the reaction to the discovery of the New World shows, the Church was quite able to adapt to new scientific knowledge. What it could not do was allow Galileo to state terms when the facts had yet to be established.

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