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Traditionally, the Medieval period is characterized as the "Dark Ages" when
men were superstitious and the advances of Greek and Rome had disappeared.
Thus it was not until science had broken free of superstitious religion that
the renaissance of knowlege could begin. It is certainly true that city
building, hygiene, engineering, luxury goods, trade, finance had all
suffered a blow with the fall of the Roman Empire. It would be from 500AD
until about 1400 AD before the standard of living regained the high point of
the Empire. Only this year, 2002, is Europe again under a single currency
since the fall of Rome!
However this did not mean that science died, or that technology vanished. On
the contrary, many of these above feats were merely dormant, awaiting a
period when trade and wealth could revive them anew. In fact, as Stanley
Jaki is at pains to show, many great advances of science were accomplished
during the Medieval period that set the seeds and plowed the intellectual
earth for the Renaissance. Newton's laws, for example, were not first
formulated by Newton, but by medieval scholars. One might even make the
argument that Newton's contribution was Calculus, not really founding
Physics, which had been accomplished in the 1300's, many centuries earlier.
As Brooke is at pains to show, science did not so much separate from
religion, as it differentiated, the way the limb of a tree splits into
Therefore it is worth re-examining this period to see what sort of
super-structure, what sort of environment made the Medieval scholars capable
of such innovation and progress. Perhaps we can learn from them in our
present age of intellectual ferment.
Fourth Century: Augustine
See my presentation on Augustine
as the greatest physicist ever born.
- Neo-Platonism (reality a reflection of divine existence)
- Ex-nihilo instead of eternal matter
- Time NOT a universal, but created with matter
- Deductive, rational approach to truth
- Knowlege enhances our faith, faith enables our knowlege
From even before Augustine, there had been debates about how to interpret
Scripture. McGrath talks about 4 approaches: the literal, the allegorical,
the ethical, and the eschatological. (Okay, he didn't use that word, but
that's the sort of jargon you get in seminary.) The point McGrath is making
is that there was a great deal of flexibility in understanding language and
"the Book of God", flexibility that paradoxically is missing in many
"science vs religion" debates today. In exactly the same way, the Medieval
scholars understood "the Book of Nature" as subject to the same hypothetical
treatment, which both Brooke and Jaki argue, was the beginning of modern
science. Thus, modern expositions of "conflict" between the two neglect this
long heritage of hermeneutics, of understanding the essential ambiguity of
language and of nature, an understanding that made modern science what it is
If this essential ambiguity is NOT appreciated, one gets into dogmatism,
which is as fatal to theology as it is to science. It is entirely
inappropriate to say that theology is by nature dogmatic and science is not.
They both can be, or they both can avoid dogmatism, depending on the
practitioner. In fact, those that use that argument are often the most
dogmatic themselves! (We invariably accuse people of the sins that we are
most familiar with, our own.) So it pays to look at the Medieval period as a
fertile time for science that could escape from dogmatism, and it this
effort pays off when we look at the impact of Aristotle on Medieval
Twelfth Century: Aquinas/Aristotle
Quote from God & Nature, p. 69
- Reintroduction of Aristotle
- Matter eternal
- Absence of vacuum
- Inductive, scientific approach to truth
- Church bans Aristotelian "absolutes" as pagan, in 1277, but
incorporates science. e.g. "Sentences" by
Peter Abelard as hypothetical.
Ironically, rather than inhibiting scientific discussion, theologians may
have inadvertently produced the opposite effect... Theological restrictions
embodied in the Condemnation of 1277 may have actually prompted
consideration of plausible and implausible alternatives and prohibitions far
beyond what Aristotelian natural philosophers might otherwise have
considered... That medieval theologians combined extensive and intensive
training in both natural philosophy and theology and possessed exclusive
rights to interrelate the two, may provide a key to explain the
absence of a science-theology conflict in the extensive commentary
literature on the Sentences and Scripture. For the host of issues
they regularly confronted, the medieval theologian - natural philosophers
knew how to subordinate the one dscipline to the other and to avoid conflict
and confrontation. Indeed, they were in an excellent positioin to harmonize
the two disciplines while simultaneously pursuing all manner of hypothetical
and contrary-to-fact conditions and possibilities.
The major point I want to make from this Medieval synthesis, is that
natural truth (as expressed so eloquently by Aristotle) was hypothetical, it
could change, or even turn out to be wrong. However God was unchanging, and
properly discovered, truth would reflect that characteristic. Why was this
important? This leads to Jaki's thesis in "The Savior of Science",
that this desire for "unchanging truth" in the face of "changing hypotheses"
made science possible. That is, modern science is the product of a delicate
balancing act, holding Plato's conviction in the real existence of a world
"out there", while simultaneously taking Aristotle's theorizing and
generalizations as hypothetical and subject to change. The importance of
this balancing act, this via media is perhaps best appreciated by
looking at "failed" scientific endeavors.
Jaki argues that counter-examples of failed science abound.
What was important was that science could not claim to be absolute
truth, nor absolute falsehood. This was the via media. I believe that
this view is nearly the same as the theological view of accomodation
(which McGrath discusses in context with Calvin and Galileo), wherein a
Biblical truth was put into language that was understandable by the public,
without necessarily meaning that the truth was being distorted or
misrepresented. E.g., saying the "sun rose" did not require a moving sun,
only that it appeared to us that way in a very simple manner. Thus if
theology could read its "Book of God" as an approximation to truth, so
science could read its "Book of Nature" as an approximation to reality. This
was the liberating concept that enabled modern science.
- Chinese medicine: bad metaphysics, emphasis on appearances
- Islamic alchemy: misdirected into "magic", alchemy, philosopher's stone etc.
- Greek science: not enough money? not enough experiments?
- Egyptian magic:
The Curse of Harry Potter
With the release of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies, and the
antipathy of some conservative Christians to the former and not the latter,
a lot of people are confused why "magic" should have such varying
connotations. I mean, if Christians hate Harry because of magic, why do they
love Gandalf? (And what has this conundrum got to do with science?). The
answer can be found in both Brooke and Jaki's presentations. (I have, perhaps
unsuccessfully, addressed the problem in a letter to my
colleagues as well.) The problem is not that magic is pseudo-science
("false" science), it is also anti-science. That is, magic supplies an
explanation for observations that posits a very different universe and
metaphysical explanation for events which cannot tolerate a scientific
explanation, and therefore attempts to supplant it. (Look, for example, at
the conflict of muggles and magicians in Harry Potter.) If you were to take
all the anger, all the arguments of the anti-religion proponents, and
substitute the word "magic" for "religion", you would capture my sentiments
exactly. It is precisely because Christianity defeated magic that science
was liberated from its straightjacket of bad metaphysics. It is precisely
because Christianity was opposed to magic that Moses defeated Egypt, that
Paul defeated Elymas the magician. It was because Charlemagne defeated the
Moors that science developed in Europe. To rebaptise magic as acceptable
belief rings the death knell for science.
Strangely enough, Lord of the Rings does not portray magic the same way as
Harry Potter. Rather one gets a sense that "magic" in Tolkien is merely
"ancient wisdom" or forgotten science. For example, even when Gandalf is
taken captive on a tower, he cannot invoke magic to transport himself the
way "flu powder" or "flying convertibles" show up in Harry Potter. The
metaphysical underpinnings of the two novels are completely different, and
it is this difference that makes one "magic" and other merely "mystery".
Science is compatible with Tolkien, but not with Rowland. Ultimately what I
hope to convey in this course are the environmental variables most conducive
to science, and that is why I find Harry Potter so objectionable. And that
is what made the Medieval Synthesis so necessary in the history of science.
Astronomy and Biology
Why is it that most of the historical conflicts occurred in astronomy and biology? Because
these were two "observational" sciences that were accessible to everyone. Aristotle wrote
extensively on these, and therefore they also had lengthy commentaries in the medieval
period. Since Astronomy might be considered the most advanced of ancient sciences (you
should see the math these guys could do!), it isn't too surprising that this was one of the
cutting edge debates between religion and science.
Mathematics, up to this point in history, had always been a tool for understanding the
world. One didn't make a big deal out of "mathematical truth" because arithmetic was just so
obvious as to not need any justification. The real issue, was not the math symbols, but the
objects one was counting. "Two" was an adjective, never a proper noun. (Have you ever thought
how much simpler life would be if adjectives never became nouns?) Perhaps this is clarified
by analogy with language. Did Plato or Aristotle ever worry about the meaning of language,
whether it was possible for words to have a meanings independent of the sentence they lived
in? Probably not, but that has become almost the entire obsession of the 20th century
philosophy. This sophistication, if you want to call it that, began a few centuries earlier
in mathematics. It was this revolution about reality that was the truly controversial point
with Copernicus, a revolution that we perhaps can't even see because we (like Copernicus'
contemporaries) take it for granted.
- Problem of callendar--religious festivals
- role of mathematics vs. physics, or "saving the appearances"
- Physics --> realist
- Astronomy --> instrumentalist
- Osiander's intro to Copernicus' book, published posthumously
- Protestants & heretics love Copernicus
- Counterarguments to Physics abound
- Drop a rock from a tower. Did it move?
- Feel anything?
- Mathematics just isn't reality
To understand this revolution, let's review some history of science. Plato had this thing
for "regular solids" and geometry, as did most of the Greeks. So if one were going to
describe the motion of, say, planets, geometry would be naturally employed, probably with
compass and regular polyhedrons. Now Aristotle, in trying to understand friction, had
proposed that everything on Earth eventually comes to rest (friction), whereas the stars and
planets have been moving for millenia. He then argues that friction must not exist for
objects away from the earth, and this must be an inherent property we'll call "perfection".
But Plato had already described geometric perfection, so it was a natural fit to say, planets
and stars move on perfect circles, in a perfect realm, that eternally rotated above the
This theory of the heavens had a lot to commend it, and for almost 2000 years was developed
and tweaked and worked just great. There were a few minor inconsistencies, as you can find in
every theory, particularly with Mars and the outer planets. After all, the main reason they
are called planets (wanderers) is that they wander among the stars. Mars for example, rises
and sets with the stars, but night to night it appears to move against the stars,
occasionally even going backwards or making loops. The Greeks had a solution that kept
circular motion alive, Mars was on its own "circle" or epicycle, that meant two circles
rotating together. Ptolemy, around 200AD, made some major tweaks when he tried to reconcile
the epicycles with data, ending up with something like 4 or 5 epicycles per planet to account
for its motion. It worked, but now you needed a PhD in geometry to get predictions out. (Does
this sound like modern astrophysics to you?)
So Copernicus has this bright idea (which actually wasn't even his, since Nicholas of Oresme
had discussed it in the century before) that orbits could be calculated much faster if we
assumed that the Sun was the center, and all the planets moved on circles around the Sun. It
didn't give as good a prediction as Ptolemy, (and was criticized for that), but then it
didn't require a PhD to make calculations either. What do we make of this innovation? Is it
just a "stupid math trick" that could be used as a less-accurate shortcut? Did it mean that
Ptolemy's epicycles were wrong? Did it suggest that the Earth was *really* moving? Did have
anything to say about Catholic theology at all?
Just what exactly did a stupid math trick have to do with reality, Copernicus? I mean, as
far as anyone could remember, the ancient philosophers of science had said that the earth was
stationary. Isn't this obvious? You've ridden a horse or a cart before, and even with your
eyes shut, you knew you were moving. Does the earth feel like its moving? What about a simple
test. Drop a rock. If the earth was moving, then wouldn't the rock NOT land directly under
your hand? And you know what happens when you ride a carousel in a circle, you get thrown
off. How come everything doesn't get thrown off the earth if its going in a circle? And if
you want a *really* new theory, you have to predict something new, but all you've done
Copernicus, and I don't mean to be rude, is reinvent the astronomy tables with a clever
technique that isn't as accurate. I mean
face it, Copernicus, your theory introduces so many more problems than it solves, why try to
argue that this is reality and not some SMT?
Copernicus evidently thought that it reorganized the heavens, as did a number of Protestants
who had an axe to grind with the Catholic church and used this "fact" to argue that nearly
all of Catholic theology was obsolete. Osiander, in his introduction to Copernicus' book
recognized that his words might be used by this debate, carefully said it was just a stupid
math trick that "saved the appearances" but said nothing about reality. The church, which
had spent the last 1500 years finding good agreement between Scripture and Greek science,
wasn't very encouraging (as indeed, they should be, at least, until the bugs were worked out
of Copernicus' theory), especially with inflammatory Protestants claiming some sort of
victory. The scholars, who used to get paid for these calculations, no doubt felt threatened
with the thought that every village priest could be doing astonomical predictions with ease.
As Brooke discusses, scientific theories don't just get expressed in a vacuum, but they always
come mixed with turf battles and politics and people.
My own view, is that until a theory is actually superior (with respect to the data) to its
competitors, one has every reason to be suspicious. And the Copernican theory was NOT
superior (only simpler) than Ptolemy's until Johannes Kepler made his famous contribution
almost 100 years later. Modern science writers make a big deal that Copernicus had removed
the Earth from its privileged position at the center of the universe, and this was what the
Catholic church objected to. This is far too simplistic for many reasons. First, Hell was
actually the center of the Earth, so why should occupying the center of the universe be such
a favorable position? Second, many of the powerful positions in the Catholic church were
occupied by educated scholars, who were not theological dogmatists in the slightest, but well
informed scientists. Third, it was not the location of the Earth that made Catholic theology
regard humans as occupying a special place, it was the fact that the Bible says "God made man
in his own image". Science was accommodated to theology, not the other way around. Fourth,
the Catholic church was well aware of the deficiencies of Copernican astronomy, and with
their conservative, even reactionary tendencies in everything, were unwilling to adopt
new-fangled theories until all the evidence was in. And finally, of course, was the whole
theological / sociological movement we call today the Protestant Reformation, that was just
getting into high gear. So keep this in mind as we look at the Galilean affair.
Last modified, January 11, 2003, RbS