Previous . Next

Medieval Synthesis

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 branches.

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.

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 today.

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 scholars.


Twelfth Century: Aquinas/Aristotle

Quote from God & Nature, p. 69

Via Media

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.

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.

Copernicus

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.

Copernicus 1473-1543

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.

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 earth.

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?

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