Getting medieval on the history of science

God's Philosophers, by James HannamFollowing my previous post referring to  God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, I’ve now finished reading this book and can recommend it without reservation.

Hannam sets out to restore, for a popular audience, the reputations of medieval scientists – or “natural philosophers”, as they are more properly called (and as Hannam refers to them throughout). In doing so he systematically dismantles the standard narrative of the development of modern science that still tends to dominate our assumptions.

The standard narrative goes something like this:

  • The Greeks and Romans had developed remarkably advanced science and mathematics.
  • Then Christianity and the Dark Ages happened, and scientific development ceased as the Catholic Church clamped down on any rival systems of thought.
  • In the fourteenth century, the Renaissance happened, Greek and Roman culture was rediscovered.
  • As a result – and despite the best efforts of the Church, burning Giordano Bruno and prosecuting Galileo as a heretic – science resumed, pretty much where the Greeks and Romans had left off.

Hannam sets out a radically different story, which can be summarised very roughly as follows (with any mistakes or over-simplifications being mine rather than Hannam’s):

  • Medieval Europe made some remarkable technological advances, but the fall of the western Roman empire caused great political instability and  cut off western Europe from the Greek-speaking East, and thus from the heritage of Greek philosophical works.
  • From the twelfth century, western Europe began to rediscover Greek philosophy (particularly that of Aristotle) in Latin translation, leading to a revolution in philosophy (not least natural philosophy) and theology.
  • Between 1200 and 1500, medieval natural philosophers made many advances on Aristotle, including discoveries which were later attributed solely to post-Renaissance scientists such as Galileo.
  • From the late 1400s, the “humanist” movement rejected medieval philosophy in favour of a return to what they considered the superior, “pure” learning of classical Greece and Rome. In doing so they discarded many of the advances made by medieval thinkers (the University of Oxford, for example, lost its entire collection of medieval manuscripts between 1535 and 1558). Providentially, however, the invention of printing meant that many medieval scientific works survived even after they became unfashionable.
  • Early “modern scientists” such as Copernicus and Galileo were thus not reacting against medieval ignorance, but against reactionary humanism which had sought to discard the discoveries of medieval natural philosophy, and which often resisted attempts to correct Aristotle. Early modern science stood in continuity with medieval natural philosophy, rather than picking up where classical civilisation had left off.

Here are some sample quotations from Hannam’s book. First, on how printing saved medieval natural philosophy from destruction:

In traditional histories, the rise of humanism is usually portrayed as ‘a good thing’, but the truth is that the humanists almost managed to destroy 300 years of progress in natural philosophy. By discarding the advances made by medieval scholars together with so many of the manuscripts that contained them, they could have set back the advance of science by centuries. Einstein might have had to do the work of Newton. The reason that progress in science was not so held back (although it arguably didn’t move forward as quickly as it might have done) was that the invention of printing had guaranteed that, if nothing else, the old books were preserved. Most people forgot about them but a few, like Galileo, used the knowledge found within.

On Copernicus:

Thus, Copernicus was not a lone genius who rediscovered ancient wisdom. He was part of the long-running European school of natural philosophy that went back to William of Conches and Adelard of Bath, cross-fertilised by the parallel occult and Arabic traditions. That is not to say that heliocentricism was not radical and new, but Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres is written in the language of medieval thinkers and uses their arguments.

On Kepler:

Kepler died in 1630. He had solved two of the greatest scientific problems of the Middle Ages – how the planets moved and how we can see. He did so driven by a relentless Christian faith and working in the medieval traditions of the universities. In putting Witelo’s name in the title of his book on optics, Kepler was not afraid to admit to his sources. The same cannot be said for his contemporary Galileo Galilei. His achievements were just as great as Kepler’s, but Galileo was a great deal more circumspect about where he was getting his ideas from.

On Galileo:

Galileo’s scientific achievement was solidly based on the natural philosophy that came before him. Appreciating that fact should not diminish our admiration of his genius. While almost all his theories can be traced back to earlier sources, he was the first to mould them into a coherent whole and the first to show how they could be experimentally demonstrated. In that sense, the long road to modern science really does start with him. […]

Galileo’s early doubts about Aristotle’s account of motion were not the thoughts of a lone radical, but part of a scientific milieu where experimentation and criticism of Greek natural philosophy were becoming increasingly common.

And from Hannam’s conclusion:

The most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable. They made science safe in a Christian context, showed how it could be useful and constructed a worldview where it made sense. Their central belief that nature was created by God and so worthy of their attention was one that Galileo wholeheartedly endorsed. Without that awareness, modern science would simply not have happened.

I hope that Hannam’s book will have a significant impact. It’s about time that our culture finally rid itself of the remarkably durable (at least on a popular level) myth of ignorant medievals, an anti-intellectual Catholic Church, and the triumphant resumption of scientific advance after a thousand years of unrelieved darkness.


Have atheists hijacked the word “humanist”?

God's Philosophers, by James HannamI’ve just started reading God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, inspired by this superb review by Tim O’Neill.

In the review, O’Neill (himself an atheist) applauds Hannam for dismantling “the myth that the Catholic Church caused the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period was a scientific wasteland” – a myth popular among (but by no means confined to) atheists, and whose roots lie in a “festering melange of Enlightenment bigotry, Protestant papism-bashing, French anti-clericalism, and Classicist snobbery”.

Even if you don’t read Hannam’s book, you should read O’Neill’s review – I learnt a lot from it, and am looking forward to learning more from the book itself. But I just wanted to respond to one of Hannam’s “quibbles” about the book, where he writes:

On a rather more personal note, as a humanist and atheist myself, there is a rather snippy little aside on page 212 where Hannam sneers that “non-believers have further muddied the waters by hijacking the word ‘humanist’ to mean a softer version of ‘atheist’.” Sorry, but just as not all humanists are atheists (as Hannam himself well knows) so not all atheists are humanists (as anyone hanging around on some of the more vitriolically anti-theist sites and forums will quickly realize). So there is no “non-believer” plot to “hijack” the word “humanist”. Those of us who are humanists are humanists – end of story. And “atheism” does not need any “softening” anyway.

It is heartening to find a secular humanist asserting so clearly that “humanism” does not imply, or require, atheism. I’ve written before on Clive James’s vision of humanism as a preference for the eclecticism of human intellect and creativity over the rigours of ideology, and Terry Eagleton’s preference for a “tragic humanism” (within which he includes Christianity, especially Catholicism) over the “liberal humanism” of capitalist modernity. In short, I would happily describe myself as a humanist in these senses – and I’m glad that O’Neill would agree that “Christian humanist” is no oxymoron.

However, someone really ought to tell O’Neill’s fellow humanists, many of whom do seem to see humanism as a strict subset of atheism. The British Humanist Association’s “Are you a humanist?” quiz has this as its opening question:

BHA "Are you a humanist?" quiz question 1

I’d previously attempted this quiz but found myself unable to complete it, as almost every “theistic” answer was a wild caricature of what Christians, and those of other religious faiths, actually believe. However, I decided to give it another crack just now, and got this result (itself “rather snippy”, I’d say):

Humanist quiz result

Charmed, I’m sure!

The BHA’s “What is humanism?” page starts as follows:

Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making.

Today, people who share these beliefs and values are called humanists and this combination of attitudes is called Humanism.

In the light of that, I don’t think Hannam’s claim that the word “humanist” has been “hijacked” by atheists is altogether unfair. I repeat, though, that I am glad to find an atheist humanist who would presumably agree with me that the BHA has failed to capture the true meaning of humanism. I’d go further, and suggest that the BHA’s approach risks turning humanism into precisely the sort of ideology that Clive James sees as the antithesis of true humanism.

Is science “philosophically crude”?

I’m currently reading Timothy McDermott’s introduction to his concise translation of St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, and was interested by what McDermott has to say on the difference between our way of looking at the world and Thomas’s.

McDermott argues that “our unconscious mechanist assumptions” colour “all our thought about the material world”. We want to know how things work, and regard the most fundamental, basically “true” account of reality as lying in understanding the temporal processes of cause-and-effect at the lowest level of observable reality.

This means that when we read Thomas talking (in his “five ways”) about the “first cause” or “unmoved mover”, we assume he is talking about the earliest in a temporal “relay-race” of causes and effects. However, for Thomas it is more a question of “whomever (or whatever) has the idea of the relay-race in the first place“, on a different level of reality from the relay-race itself.

As McDermott writes:

The irony of the clash [between these worldviews] is that each party thinks of the other party’s assumptions as something that it has outgrown. The theoreticians of modern science think of themselves as having rescued human thought from an Aristotelian and medieval anthropomorphism, and having won through to a proper objectivity; Aristotle, followed by Aquinas, thought he had overcome the abstract reductive view of existence found in earlier mathematicizing thinkers, and had won through to appreciation of the concrete variety of what actually exists. For modern science is in essentials a return to a way of thinking found among the earliest Greek philosophers, and a way of thinking which Aristotle and Thomas thought they had outgrown.

McDermott implies that modern science mirrors the “early philosophers” who, in Thomas’s words:

…began somewhat crudely by thinking that only bodies we can sense exist, that the essential substance of such bodies [what they really are] is uncaused, and that they change only [how they are] in inessentials, being now rarefied, now condensed, separating and combining under the influence of attraction and repulsion, mind and so on.

McDermott suggests that our modern view of reality:

…grants objective status to only the lowest level of description of the world (that of physics and chemistry), regarding natural things as more and more complex organizations of coincidences of such simple objects.

This “would strike Aristotle and Thomas simply as developed versions of a view they think philosophically crude”:

For Thomas there is not just one level at which things really exist but many: there are organizations of matter which are not mere products of general laws of attraction and repulsion arranging matter…

What I find exciting about all this is that it puts into more rigorous terms a basic conviction I have had for a long time: that, as Christians, it’s not our job to pick holes in the story told by science, but to insist that it is not the only story that can, or needs, to be told about reality: that there is more than one level on which reality needs to be understood.