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The Myth of Matter, p. 4

John Wycliffe – Heretic

We know him as the first person to translate the Holy Bible into common English.[1] We may also know that he stood in disagreement with the Catholic Church. Today he is known as “The Morning star of the Reformation” because his religious ideas preceded Martin Luther’s by two centuries.

John Wycliffe, Heretic

In addition, Wycliffe “was an innovative thinker, a prolific writer, and extremely influential in his time.”[2] One of his innovative ideas was very similar to what later became known as the “Law of Conservation of Matter,” an idea he got from reading the Bible. When Wycliffe read in Genesis that God created the heavens and the earth, that He saw that it was good and that He rested, Wycliffe inferred, “God cannot annihilate anything, nor increase or diminish the world.”[3]

Let’s pause now in considering the matter of ‘matter’ to think about how revolutionary Wycliffe’s ideas were and still are…

  • The truth expressed in Holy Scripture superseded the truth declared by men, e.g., the papacy.
  • Transubstantiation[4] didn’t happen.
  • Personal salvation came from faith in God, not from church.
  • God predestined true believers, according to Rom 8:28-30.
  • War was un-Christian.

These ideas, which went largely unpunished during his lifetime (probably because of the Great Schism) earned Wycliffe the distinction of having his grave dug up, his remains burned and scattered, and all his writings suppressed.[5]


[1] Wycliffe is the namesake of Wycliffe Bible Translators, http://www.wycliffe.org/. “God’s Word, accessible to all people in the language of their heart.”

[2] Atomism in Late Medieval Philosophy and Theology, p. 185.

[3] Atomism in Late Medieval Philosophy and Theology, p. 187.

[4] The conversion of the substance of the Eucharistic elements into the body and blood of Christ at consecration.

[5] Refer to the Council of Constance.

The Myth of Matter, p. 3

Hylomorphism [1]

William of Ockham, from stained glass window a...

Atoms violated "Occam's Razor." (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The winners of the argument thought matter was continuously variable. They argued convincingly that pure matter came in simple shapes, such as lines, planes, circles, spheres, pyramids and so on, and that matter became objects in a way similar to how we use primitive shapes to create a computer drawing. Let’s call them ‘morphists’ for short.

Morphists had iron-clad mathematical reasons to support their point of view. The reasoning went like something like this:

  1. Let us pick two numbers, say 1 and 11/3.
  2. Isn’t it true that there is number between those two numbers, like 11/6?
  3. Isn’t it true that there is a number between 11/6 and 11/3?
  4. Can’t we go on finding in-between numbers forever? (And isn’t it also true that they don’t have to be made with fractions?)
  5. Then why shouldn’t we consider the rest of reality to operate the same way?
Table I: Fourteenth Century Atomists and their Critics[2]

Atomists

‘Morphists’

Henry of Harclay William of Alnwick
Walter Chatton Adam Wodeham
William Crathorn Thomas Bradwardine
John Wycliffe William of Ockham
Gerard of Odo Roger Rosetus
Nicholas Bonetus Walter Burley
John Gedo John the Canon
Marcus Trevisano
Nicholas Autrecourt

The Middle Ages’ strongest mathematical reasoning was augmented with really powerful theological ideas that everyone –even the atomists– believed by faith. The combination of (inadequate) mathematical reasoning and (inflexible) religious orthodoxy is illustrated in the story of John Wycliffe.


[1] ‘Hylo’: matter, ‘morph’: form; Greek

[2] Christophe Grellard and Aurélien Robert, eds., Atomism in Late Medieval Philosophy and Theology, Brill,Leiden, 2009.

The Blind Men and the Elephant, p. 1

You may have heard a version of this parable, maybe not. John Godfrey Saxe concluded his version this way:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has been or seen

I’ll add what Robert Heinlein said:

I never learned from a man who agreed with me.

I have certain beliefs. Other people have theirs. When we differ, I am sometimes prompted to say to myself, “Well, I probably don’t know everything about it, then.” Not always−

When confronted with, for example, “Where’s the Birth Certificate?” I am only and always prompted to say to myself, “Knucklehead!

But there are things you can learn, even from knuckleheads, if you listen carefully. If the blind men had applied this idea to their elephant they still might not have discerned the nature of the elephant, but they would have at least made progress toward understanding its true nature.

So when those people whose religious worldviews are not even wrong show up at my door …

Naw, I still don’t talk to them! But I reflect that there might be a kernel of ‘Truth’ in what they desire to be the truth.

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