Brief Reflections on the Condemnations of 1277

Among the 219 condemnations issued in 1277[1] at the Université de Paris, we find the following one:

“91. That there has already been an infinite number of revolutions of the heaven, which it is impossible for the created intellect but not for the first cause to comprehend”[2]

This is extremely interesting, for it appears to endorse a key controversial premise of the Kalam cosmological argument with which such thinkers as St. Thomas Aquinas disagreed; namely, that the universe cannot have an infinitely long history. While Aquinas believed in creatio ex nihilo a finite amount of time ago, he thought this to be an article of faith which reason, left to its own devices, could never strictly establish.

However, Aquinas cannot be accused of committing himself to this condemned article, for (i) the article only condemns the proposition that there have been (and not that there ‘could have been’) infinitely many revolutions of the heavens, and(/or) (ii), more precisely, that there has been an infinite number of revolutions which (a) is impossible for the created intellect to comprehend, and (b) is not impossible for the first cause to comprehend. Thus, if one maintained that there were an infinite number of revolutions which the created intellect could possibly comprehend one could have avoided the charge of being committed to the view condemned in the 91st article of condemnations issued in 1277 (in letter if not in spirit).

Article 191 comes closer to posing a problem for Aquinas (or, since he passed away in 1274, for his reputation and doctrines):

“191. That the natural philosopher has to deny absolutely the newness of the world because he bases himself on natural causes and natural reasons, whereas the faithful can deny the eternity of the world because he bases himself on supernatural causes.”[3]

Yet even this fails to proscribe Aquinas’ doctrine, for Aquinas allowed the philosopher to believe in the newness of the world by arguing that no argument could demonstrate the impossibility of such a position, even if no argument could establish its truth. Interestingly, at least some of Thomas Aquinas’ own doctrines were thought to conflict with at least some of the condemnations issued on the list (I do not know which ones), and the Church apparently annulled these after this was discovered.[4]

Also interesting, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

“…hence it was that the theologians of Paris declared erroneous the opinion maintaining that God Himself could not give the entire universe a rectilinear motion, as the universe would then leave a vacuum behind it, and also declared false the notion that God could not create several worlds.”[5]

So, it was declared that God could have created multiple worlds, and it was also implied that God could have created an aether (or any physical analogue which would account for absolute motion). This has interesting implications for the intersection of Catholic theology and the philosophy of physics, implying that even if the Einsteinian or Minkowskian interpretations of relativity are correct (insofar as they dispense with the aether), something like the neo-Lorentzian interpretation could have been correct (i.e., is correct in some logically possible world). I’m not sure about this because if we accept that the neo-Lorentzian interpretation of relativity logically entails an A-theory of time then Catholicism (or, at least, this list of condemnations) commits me (and others) to the view that there is at least one logically possible world in which the A-theory is true, so it better not turn out that the A-theory conflicts logically with doctrines like God’s simplicity or immutability (for those properties are not contingent). Maybe there’s some way to wiggle out of this, but I’m not very confident of any of the attempts to do so with which I have become familiar (e.g., can there really be an aether without a preferred reference frame?).

It is worth noting that I’m not entirely sure how much authority these condemnations carry. After all, some of them were annulled, which indicates to me that they clearly didn’t require the assent of faith, nor is it reasonable to assume that they required religious assent (which is an extension of the assent of faith). Indeed, these condemnations were not issued with full papal authority, but issued instead by the (at the time) Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, and issued on his own authority (and not Pope John XXI’s). It is true that Tempier was instructed by the Pope to investigate the matter of controversies rocking the world of academic theology at the time, and that those whose teaching was found to be condemned by any of the articles were excommunicated – but these amount to mere practices. They are possible (and harsh) configurations of canon law with no direct and perspicuous implications for Catholic dogma.

That concludes my register of thoughts and initial reactions to this list of condemnations, only recently made known to me. I will conclude, somewhat self-deprecatingly, with the first two condemned articles, just as a reminder to myself (and others like me):

 “1. That there is no more excellent state than to study philosophy.
2. That the only wise men in the world are the philosophers.”[6]

[1] According to the preface translated here: these condemnations were issued in 1276. Is it possible I’m confusing one list of condemnations with a different list?




[5] Pierre Duhem, “History of Physics,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 12., (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911), accessed June 20, 2016.



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