Why Science Arose out of Medieval Europe

Saint Anselm, 1033- 1109 A.D. He wrote that "faith seeks understanding."

Saint Anselm, 1033- 1109 A.D. He wrote that “faith seeks understanding.”

This is the second part in a series on Faith and Science and medieval Christendom. (The first part is here, though most blogs in this particular series, including the current one, are standalone.)

Because faith and reason are not fundamentally at odds, Christian orthodoxy has a tradition of affirming that faith seeks understanding. While faith is not just knowledge, but is also an act of trust based upon that knowledge, a gift given freely in the Person of Jesus Christ, faith seeks after greater understanding of the One who gives it. This is not just an abstract theological statement—at least not as it relates to the existence of modern science (or a lot of other, more important things!) —because it is the very essence of the medieval University, and, I will argue, of science as well.

The medieval University viewed theology as “the Queen of the Sciences” because theology is aimed at understanding the Faith most directly, and because it ties together all the other academic disciplines into a coherent whole—a structure where everything relates to everything else (making interdisciplinary study not only possible, but theologically necessary) and ultimately, to the Source of knowledge Himself. A very good case exists that Christian theology provided the atmosphere that led to the creation of modern science—a lot of previous assumptions had to be built up that we take for granted as obvious today. As I continue to blog my way through historian of science James Hannam’s The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, discussing some of these intellectual building blocks seems the best route to go. There are four such categories into which Hannam fits these medieval stepping stones: institutional, technological, metaphysical, and theoretical. Each of these categories of scientific precursors could easily take a blog post (…or a book; many have been written!), so I’ll try to cover the latter categories of metaphysics and theories in this blog post, sharing the stories of the forgotten dreamers who contributed to the foundations of modern science.

The first of Hannam’s categories is the metaphysical foundation for science that allowed science to develop when there was no practical benefit to pondering the natural sciences in themselves, and no guarantee that they would work. This seems silly to us as moderns, looking back at hundreds of years of scientific success after scientific success, but medieval people had to have a very good reason to waste significant resources on the precursor to science, known as natural philosophy. There was no obvious “right side of history” about science for our ancestors, as the intuitions we have about science simply did not exist. So what made scientific thinking worthwhile? Since nature was created by God, and reveals something of Him, Hannam notes it must be deserving of study, and that natural philosophy has something to teach those who would listen. (348) Furthermore, since God has revealed Himself to be reasonable, orderly and consistent in His character, nature as His creation is also reasonable, consistent, and law-like. However, nature isn’t like Aristotle’s universe that is bound by necessity, where arm-chair theorizing can get you the answer. In medieval thought (and orthodox Christianity generally), God is not constrained by nature, but only by Himself, ultimately, and His promises. God is free to create natural laws however he wants— and knowing Him— they’re consistent and worth the experimenting and observing. To find out what nature is like, then, it makes sense to go look! That belief in consistent laws of nature that could be one out of many different possibilities but are discoverable through observation and experimentation is the core of the modern Scientific Method we all learned in high school. (349)

Merton College, Oxford. Founded in 1264 A.D. Image credit: Tom Murphy VII. GNU Copyrighted

Merton College, Oxford. Founded in 1264 A.D.
Image credit: Tom Murphy VII. GNU Copyrighted

The second of Hannam’s categories is the collection of theories that made a foundation for science. These are ideas that medieval or very early Renaissance thinkers developed out of the influence of the medieval worldview. Remember how interdisciplinary thinking has a solid justification in medieval theology? Many of these collected theories were arrived at in such a manner. For pre-medieval thinkers, areas of learning such as mathematics and natural philosophy were considered as distinct as most pre-postmodern thinkers would consider language and universal truth to be distinct fields of study. (The analogy isn’t perfect, but it gets the sentiment across.) (350) A perfect example of this fusion of mathematics and natural philosophy is the story of some fellows known as the Merton Calculators. Merton, a college of Oxford University, was a premier British medieval institution of learning and is the setting of very important advances in medieval thought leading to modern science.

At the time the Merton Calculators came on the scene, Aristotle was a big deal. To get an idea of how big a deal, check out the first post in this series, but for now, suffice it to say that even though people had known his natural philosophy had problems for over 500 years, it still hadn’t really been thoroughly discredited by the time the first Calculator arrived on the scene around 1330 A.D. or so. The basic problem was that Aristotle had a commonsense but highly incorrect view of motion. He said something along the lines that an object cannot continue to move without being pushed in some way. That sounds reasonable. If I throw a ball, it will eventually stop moving, right? However, it’s totally wrong, because if I threw that ball without air resisting it, it would really keep going forever. Several scholars objected to this idea of Aristotle’s, the most famous being William of Ockham, but much of Aristotle’s understanding of motion was still in effect and employed even in the calculations of the Calculators themselves.

Now onto the seemingly trivial but in effect enormous intellectual insight of the Calculators: Aristotle believed that mathematics was a thing and nature—well that was another thing. There is a lot of commonsense in being cautious about using conclusions from one discipline to justify conclusions in another discipline, so Aristotle certainly wasn’t stupid, but according to the Merton philosophers, he was wrong. The first of the Calculators at Merton was Thomas Bradwardine who worked there in the 1320s. He had this to say about Aristotle’s view of math and nature:

[Mathematics] is the revealer of every genuine truth, for it knows every hidden secret and bears the key to every subtlety of letters. Whoever, then, has the effrontery to pursue physics while neglecting mathematics should know from the start that he will never make his entry through the portals of wisdom. (Bradwardine, qtd. in Hannam, 171)

Aristotle, the Philosopher.  384 - 322 B.C. His natural philosophy was highly revered in the Middle Ages, but had to be overcome for modern science to develop.

Aristotle, the Philosopher. 384 – 322 B.C. His natural philosophy was highly revered in the Middle Ages, but had to be overcome for modern science to develop.

While that might be going a little far, Bradwardine succeeded in expressing Aristotle’s (wrong) laws of motion in mathematical form, a huge step forward for the future development of physics, leading to Galileo and ultimately Newton. While Bradwardine’s general formula of motion did not work in the real world because it allowed Aristotle’s mistakes a foot in the door, another Calculator developed a formula that was much smaller in scope, but was one of the most important to the history of physics, as this Middle-Age theory was actually correct: the mean-speed theorem. Along with the other Merton Calculators, William Heytesbury (who lived from 1313-1373 A.D.) showed the nature of the theorem using math in hypothetical situations rather than in the experimentation of modern science, so his work was still medieval, though a huge advance. The mean-speed theorem, or Heytesbury’s theorem, states that if an object moves while constantly accelerating, the distance it covers will be the same as the distance the object would have traveled at its average speed during the same amount of time. (174-175)

In all, the work of the Merton scholars led to further advances in natural philosophy both at Oxford and later on the Continent, and what I’ve covered is but the tip of the iceberg of medieval pre-scientific scholarship that Hannam discusses. I hope it is enough, though, to demonstrate that in the areas of metaphysics and theories of natural philosophy, the Middle Ages made possible what was to come. As Newton himself said of his discoveries, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Bradwardine and Heytesbury are but two of those now oft-forgotten giants, along with many others in medieval Christendom who helped to birth modern science.

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3 thoughts on “Why Science Arose out of Medieval Europe

  1. Pingback: Why Science Arose out of Medieval Europe | ChristianBookBarn.com

  2. Pingback: Why Science Arose out of Medieval Europe | Considus

  3. Pingback: Westernized Christ? Or Christianized West? | The Soapbox Guild

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