Rehabilitating the Medieval Scientific Mind and why it matters
Sir Isaac Newton is a titan in world science, so it’s no surprise that he features on the very first, and the penultimate page of James Hannam’s excellent, 2009 book God’s Philosophers (which made it onto the shortlist for the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books.
This is how the book opens:
The most famous remark made by Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was: ‘If I have seen a little further then it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Most people assume that he meant his scientific achievements were built on the discoveries of his predecessors… Few people realise, however, that Newton’s aphorism was first coined in the twelfth century by the theologian Bernard of Chartres (who died around 1130). Even fewer are aware that Newton’s science also has its roots embedded firmly in the Middle Ages. This book will show just how much of the science and technology that we now take for granted has medieval origins. (p1)
And then towards the end, Hannam explains how a theistic or deistic worldview was not incompatible with scientific rigour. Quite the reverse, in fact:
The starting point for all natural philosophy in the Middle Ages was that nature had been created by God. This made it a legitimate area of study because through nature, man could learn about its creator. Medieval scholars thought that nature followed the rules that God had ordained for it. Because God was consistent, and not capricious, these natural laws were constant and wroth scrutinising. However, these scholars rejected Aristotle’s contention that the laws of nature were bound by necessity. God was not constrained by what Aristotle thought. The only way to find out which laws God had decided on was by the use of experience and observation. The motivations and justification of medieval natural philosophers were carried over almost unchanged by the pioneers of medieval science. Sir Isaac Newton explicitly stated that he was investigating god’s creation, which was a religious duty because nature reflects the creativity of its maker. In 1713, he inserted into the second edition his greatest work, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, the words:
Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and everywhere, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of organisms which we find suited to different times and places could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing… and that is enough concerning God, to discourse of whom from the appearances of things does certainly belong to natural philosophy.
It would take Charles Darwin (1809-1882) to prove Newton wrong. (p340-341)
Now, what’s the big deal? Well, it is tiresome, to say the least, when we have to contend with the constant propaganda about the incompatibility of scientific and religious thinking. As a non-scientist, I for one can feel bludgeoned into silence simply because of my lack of experience of the laboratory (beyond ‘O’ Level Chemistry). I’m fascinated by science of course, and one of my favourite books of the last year was Age of Wonder. But I struggle to know how to answer some of the big questions of science and religion.
There is an agenda behind may of them of course – there are plenty of people who don’t want them to be compatible. But that is a different matter entirely. The reason this book is so refreshing, informative and exciting to read is that it cuts a swath through the nonsense. Hannam clearly knows his onions, having his drunk deeply from his Aristotle and Archimedes through to his William of Ockham (he of razor fame), Aquinas, Roger Bacon (he of Oxford lane fame), the wonderfully named Merton Calculators and right up to Copernicus and Galileo. I found myself overwhelmed at times by the names half-remembered or never learned – and was immensely grateful for the medieval timeline and 10 page Who’s Who appendices). But Hannam is a trusty and sure-footed guide. While I did quibble a bit with his rather cursory take on the Reformation, that was fairly immaterial, not least because he shows near the end how little the debates specific to the reformation affected people’s scientific worldview or endeavour (p228).
But mention the middle ages to many and it is assumed to be synonymous with all things dark, illogical, oppressive, reactionary and anti-enquiry. It was eye-opening, for instance, to realise that the term Renaissance is itself a loaded, despite the fact that it is one of my favourite periods of history. For when you stop to think about it, implies that intellectual and creative life had been effectively dead for a long time. The early humanists (not to be confused with modern atheists) are largely to blame for this with their advocacy of returning to the ancient classics – I, for one, did a classics degree which went by the pompous and grandiose title Literae Humaniories, which i suppose makes me one of their heirs. I little realised that one motivation for their return to the worlds of Cicero and Homer was to escape the shoddiness of medieval latin – and thus they discarded much medieval intellectual life at one fell swoop. Another factor was the Reformation agenda to find nothing good coming out of medieval Catholicism.
There are many medieval myths that must be debunked
So Hannam is on a rehabilitation drive. He is wanting to show how significant the middle ages were for later history, and especially modern science. He is also seeking to debunk the more idiotic myths and plain falsehoods about what actually happened. It is at times swashbuckling, and occasionally quite funny, stuff. Here are some of them:
- The medieval church was anti-science. FALSE
During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church actively supported a great deal of science, but it also decided that philosophical speculation should not impinge on theology. Ironically, by keeping philosophers focused on nature instead of metaphysics, the limitations set by the Church may even have benefited science in the long term. Furthermore and contrary to popular believe, the Church never supported the idea that the earth is flat, never banned human dissection, never banned zero, and certainly never burnt anyone at the stake for scientific ideas. (p2)
The fact that Galileo (right) ended up having his famous heresy trial in the seventeenth century only confirms everyone’s worst fears – and turned him into a poster child for the rights of enquiry. Hannam therefore devotes the last 3 chapters of the book to what happened. And while the church was acting in a pretty venal and grim way (as in fact it frequently did throughout the middle ages – I’m certainly not advocating a wholehearted defence of medieval christianity here!), it is folly and simplistic to use this as an indictment for a theistic worldview.
- The ‘flat-earth’ theory was official church doctrine. FALSE
The myth that a flat earth was part of Christian doctrine in the Middle Ages appears to have originated with Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who wrongly claimed tha geographers had been put on trial for impiety after asserting the contrary. There were a few authentic flat-earthers in antiquity, but none among the scholars of the Middle-Ages proper. One of the main reasons that some historians fell for the flat idea is because of the existence of mappae mundi (Latin for ‘maps of the world’)… It is understandable that, faced with such a map, modern scholars mistakenly believed that the people who drew it thought the earth was flat. What they did not realise was that it was only intended to map the quarter of the earth’s surface that medieval people believed to be inhabited. (p35)
- Friar Roger Bacon was imprisoned in Oxford making him a martyr to scientific integrity. FALSE.
According to several of the standard biographies, the Franciscan authorities imprisoned [Roger] Bacon for ten years late in his life. For those looking for evidence of the conflict between science and religion, this was a prime example of clerical intolerance. Some historians had no doubt that the Church incarcerated Bacon for his dangerous scientific opinions. For others, it was his sympathetic view of both astrology and alchemy that doomed him to a dungeon. Today, a fresh look at the surviving sources show that it is difficult to prove Bacon’s imprisonment happened at all, let alone that it was caused by his dangerous scientific views. (p147)
- The Church tried to ban zero. FALSE.
In recent years there have been persistent claims that the Church resisted the introduction of Arabic numbers and especially of zero. In fact, professional abacus users were the ones who really felt threatened by the new system, as it seemed to make their skills redundant. (p158)
- Copernicus’ great thesis advocating heliocentrism was heretical. HALF-TRUE. It was banned 60 years later and placed on the Vatican’s infamous Index, but this was as much to do with politics and big picture stuff.
There was no question of ecclesiastical pressure being brought to bear and no chance that the church would seek to suppress the book. After all it was dedicated to Pope Paul III (1468-1549) himself. This was the done thing at the time when all scholars needed patronage and a great number of books were presented to princes and kings complete with gushing pronouncements on the royal virtues. Paul III had been a dedicatee of another book presenting a reformed model of astronomy five years before Copernicus’. All the signs are that the Pope appreciated the flattery and read neither of them. (p271)
- Great scientific breakthroughs were made despite, not because of the middle ages. FALSE.If anything this assumption can be seen as yet another classic example of what CS Lewis called chronological snobbery which assumes the idiocy and ignorance of past generations.
Some historians of science have had a habit of lauding individuals who seem to echo our own prejudices or appear more ‘modern’ than their contemporaries. When we hear about someone from the past who anticipated our own beliefs, we tend to label them ‘ahead of their time’. In fact no one is ahead of his or her time. On closer examination, we always find that people are rooted firmly into their own cultural milieu. (p7)
Theism was hardly a hindrance to honest scientific enquiry
In many ways, it is refuting this error that seems the primary gift of this book. From Aristotelians all the way through the Newton, one thing is clear. They were all motivated to pursue scientific questions (in what was called natural philosophy) precisely because of their cosmological beliefs. And this led them to question even the most tenaciously held views of the ancients and their peers.
According to almost all Greek cosmologists, the earth did not rotate each day. The entire heavens turned full circle every 24 hours while the earth remained stationary at the centre. The problem that John Buridan had with this was that it seemed rather ugly. The heavens were very large and causing them to turn had to be less efficient than rotating the earth, which was relatively speaking, minute. Like many medieval Christians, Buridan expected God to have arranged things in an elegant way, always allowing that he could do what he pleased. (p185)
As far as Copernicus was concerned, Ptolemy’s system was too messy to have been designed by God. So, he claimed, he read all the books philosophy he could lay his hands on in search of an alternative. (p274)
For Kepler, the most important fact about the world was that God had created it. Like Copernicus, he was convinced that the structure of the heavens had to reflect the perfection of its creator. This perfection, he thought, would reveal itself best through the precision of geometry. (p288)
Nevertheless, it remains true that Kepler cracked the mystery of the planets’ movements because of his faith in God’s creative power. (p292)
Why is this important?
Well if there are falsehoods being propagated, they ought to be put right anyway. But if those falsehoods are used, unfairly, as part of an anti-theist armoury, then it is only fair to have them declared invalid. There may be other valid arguments against belief in God – but this book clearly demonstrates that the history of modern scientific enquiry is hardly one of them. The middle ages are complex enough as it is, and the potential for misrepresentation and misappropriation is huge. It takes a scholar of Hannam’s learning to be able to put us right.
I gained a huge amount from the book and certainly feel both motivated and more confident in learning more of the Middle Ages as a result. I can’t say I completely followed all the mathematical stuff necessarily – but found the book’s central thesis thoroughly well argued and convincing.