domingo, 30 de junho de 2013
There was nothing dark about the Dark Ages
There was nothing dark about the Dark Ages: The Medieval
Origins of Science
Benjamin M Vallejo Jr PhD
Science and Society Program, College of Science, University of the Philippines
“There was time between the waning age of enchantment and the dawning age of logic when
dragons flew the skies, free and unencumbered. Look down there Gorbash, my friend. On the top
of the earth below us, confusion and chaos reign. All mankind is facing an epic choice: a world
of magic or a world of science. Which will it be?” – The green wizard Carolinus in Peter
Dickinson’s “The Flight of Dragons (1982)
Was the Medieval Europe really “Dark”?
The above epigraph comes from the 1982 film adaptation of fantasy writer Peter Dickinson
books “The Flight of Dragons” and the “Dragon and the George”. Both novels have a
European medieval context but as a fantasy, included wizards, magicians, dragons and evil
spells, things that our postmodern world consigns to fantasy. Much later in the first decade of the
21st century, JRR Tolkien’s magnum opus “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was adapted for film.
Tolkien’s novels written in the inter world war period of the 20th century are in the realm of
fantasy and as such has attracted a huge fan base. However whether one reads Tolkien or Dickinson or even CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia these books have a common allegorical
theme and that is a change of worldview from a secure medieval and fantastical world to a world dominated by science and reason. But was the change of worldview abrupt as what the fantasists would like to to believe or was it more of a continuum of changes?
It is a popularly accepted that the classical Western civilizations, Greece and Rome contributed
to much of what is now the modern world. Our writing system, legal system, system of governance, democracy, science, medicine civil works and engineering, architectural forms
among others has their roots in the classical civilizations. However when the Vandals finally conquered the Western Roman Empire and Rome fell in 476 when Romulus Augustus, the last
Roman Emperor was deposed by Odoacer, a Germanic chieftain. This signalled the end of the classical period in Western history. And with it all learning and scholarship, did it really?
The consensus of many historians was the Middle or Medieval Age began after 395, when the Roman Empire was last a unified entity. After 395, the Roman Empire was split into two halves,
with the Western Empire centered at Rome and the Eastern Empire of Byzantium centered in Constantinople. The decline of the Empire happened soon after but this was not a sudden “fall”
as popularly imagined but a 300 year long decline. Roman institutions of state declined followed
by political authority and massive de-urbanization. This meant that the social, political
organization of the city, which characterized Roman living unravelled and Europeans began to
live once more in villages. Rome started as a village and eventually reverted to being as one.
Thus it will not surprise anyone that the famous Roman engineering works were ruined, the magnificent structures, temples, fora and aqueducts were just used as a source of stone. However we have to remember that this was only true for the Western Roman Empire. The Eastern Empire or Byzantium continued to prosper and this survived until 1454 when Constantinople
the capital of Byzantium was defeated by the Muslim Turks.
In the West, the period between 395 and 1000 is known as the Early Middle Ages or the “Dark Ages” since it is popularly believed that very few literary, artistic and scientific output
have survived from this period. It is also in this period that the Roman Catholic Church became the sole political and social authority, filling that which was once occupied by Rome. In doing so the Church practically guaranteed social cohesion, provided health services since the monks
preserved classical medical knowledge, and kept classical learning alive in its monasteries and abbeys. The Church preserved literacy among its clergy. This is important since Christianity most specifically Catholicism is considered following St Augustine’s dictum as a “religion of the
Book”. Christians according to St Augustine “must be literate”. While other bishops thought otherwise and that Catholics must just be content to listen to their priests and not read, St
Augustine won the argument. Catholics if they want to go to heaven must read.
The popular notion is that there was no science during this period and the period that followed or
the High Middle Ages, while there was a resurgence of learning, this was theology and philosophy and not science as we know it today. This is a notion propagated by misinformed
historians working from secondary sources. The truth is far different. The medieval period for all
purposes laid down the foundations of modern science. Much of these foundation lay on the idea of preserving knowledge through the written record via books. And the spirit of
invention never died even in the so called “Dark Ages”. Metallurgy reached a high point in the
early middle ages. Eyeglasses were invented soon after. The first mechanical clocks were invented in England. The Medievals also understood the principles of engineering statics
magnificently demonstrated in the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe which still stand 800 years after they were constructed.
In the papacies of John Paul II (1979-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013), there has been a renewed interest in studying the role of Islam in translating and transmitting mathematical and scientific knowledge from the Greek and Roman eras to the Medieval period. This was brought
upon by the Catholic Church’s renewe program of dialogue with non Christian religions. The contribution of Islam to science is bigger than what was previously believed.
2. ISLAMIC CULTURE, ARABIC SCIENCE, TRANSLATION IN THE
“HOUSE OF WISDOM”, THE GOLDEN AGE OF ISLAM
“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of a martyr” – The Prophet Muhammad
Islamic tradition and history says that the Angel Gabriel appeared to an illiterate merchant from
Mecca, Arabia named Muhammad at around 614 . At first Muhammad was distressed at seeing
the Angel. He told his wife of what he saw and his wife told her Christian cousin. Muhammad’s cousin-in-law told him that he was a Prophet of God. Muhammad’s mission then began, his wife
became his first convert and then his immediate family. He then converted the merchants and traders in Mecca. Many of the first Muslims were traders and knew that the frequent wars
between Arab tribes were not good for business. Within 30 years of the Prophet’s receiving messages from the Angel and right after his death in 632 , Islam had spread throughout Arabia.
Within one century it spread to Spain in the West and India to the East. By 732 , Islam was about to conquer France when Charles Martel defeated the Arab armies in Tours thus stopping
Islam’s spread to Catholic Europe.
Islamic Baghdad was the centre of Islamic scholarship under the Abbasid rulers from 800 to 1100 . This centre of scholarsip and learning is known in Islamic history as the “House of
Wisdom”. Here the Abbasid Caliphate sponsored the Translation movement wherein Islamic schoalrs translated Greek, Roman and Sankrit scholarly writings into Arabic. Many of these
writings were not of a religious nature but were secular. The impetus for such scholarly pursuit [largely ignored by Jewish and early Christian scholarls, who almost confined themselves to
translating religious writings and histories] was the early tradition in Islam, attributed to the Prophet himself, an encouragement to inquire and find out about nature and to be curious. To understand this, we have to me reminded that Islam freed its believers from the old polytheistic
religion of the Arabs. This religion with their secretive rituals and priests was antithetical to what
Islam teaches which is submission to God.
Many of the translators were not Muslims but were Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus. The first works translated were books on Mathematics and Astrology, two topics that interested the
Caliphs. Among the first books to be translated was the Persian Astrological work “Book of Nativities” by Zoroaster, the Hindu mathematics treatise the Siddhanta which first introduced the
concept of zero (0) and the decimal counting system to the Arabs. The translators first translated
the Ptolemy’s The Almagest and Euclid’s Elements from the Greek into Arabic. From the Hindu concept of 0, Arab mathematicians further advanced mathematics by developing the concept of
the decimal places and algebra as a distinct discipline of mathematics separate from arithmetic.
Arab astronomers, using geometric methods and applying astronomical observations, laid the foundations for Copernicus to hypothesize about the heliocentric solar system.
In medicine, Arab doctors such as Al Razi led in the use of translated texts from the Greek. The
Arab doctor Thabit Ibn Qura translated the Greek physician Galen’s works. Muslim physicians
established the first dedicated hospitals and treated patients according to Aristotle’s ethical principles. The Arab doctors began to write about diseases; scientifically classify them according to their clinical pathologies and suggest diagnostics and methods of treatment. The first clinical
trials in history were made by Arab physicians. They wrote all about these trials and recent scholarship in the wake of 21st century Catholicism’s renewed dialogue with Islam have brought
these forgotten Arab works into public attention.
These translated writings will find their way into Christian Europe through the monasteries at
first and later through the Universities, where Catholic priests and monks would use them to study natural philosophy. By 800 , much of Arabic learning entered Christian Europe through
Moorish Spain where Catholic priests were exposed to Arabic science and Mathematics. Among the most notable of which is the monk priest Gerbert de Aurillac who later would become Pope
Sylvester II, the only mathematician to become Pope in the history of the Catholic Church.
While Islam’s contribution to modern science and mathematics was immense, Islamic science and mathematics went into a long decline beginning in the 12th century from which it is only
recovering in the 21st century. The reasons why this happened is due to a theological shift among Islamic religious scholars. While in the Golden Age of Islam, scholars were willing to translate and assimilate Greek philosophy within Islam’s worldview, later schools of Islamic thought
believed that this was against what the Prophet taught. Also in 1258, the Mongols sacked Baghdad and the Abbasid rule in Iraq ended. In contrast, Catholic theologians most notable of
which is Thomas Aquinas, “Christianized” Greek philosophy and that became the philosophical
basis by which Roman Catholic theology was developed. One must realize that even Aquinas himself drew on the translations of Arab Muslim philosophers.
The Medieval period also saw the rise of the University. A principle held dear in any university is academic freedom, which the University of the Philippines still values very much and her
professors and students are willing to fight to the end if this is compromised by political
authority. At first academic freedom meant the freedom to seek the truth in learning without
royal interference. But in a society without complex political organization, only the Roman Catholic Church had the necessary organization to host universities and to guarantee their
liberties. The first universities Bologna, Padua, Paris and Oxford were Roman Catholic foundations. In these Church run universities, the pursuit of philosophy, theology, arts, literature, mathematics, medicine and science went largely unmolested. There is a tradition that a university
like a church is a refuge for the politically persecuted since universities (more specifically the students) traditionally defended their liberties very well. It was seen as a Christian duty. This is survives to this day in campus activism. While the activist may no longer see activism as a
Christian duty, he/she sees it as a social and political duty.
Thus it is a gross simplification to believe that in the Renaissance, the “lost” classical learning
was recovered. The more appropriate term is “rediscovered”. But how can you make sense of rediscovering things if you never had the intellectual preparation for rediscovery? That
preparation was possible in the Middle Ages, without it what was rediscovered would have made
Was the first scientist a Pope?
In 999, a French monk, Gerbert de Aurillac (943-1003) was
crowned Pope in St John Lateran basilica in Rome and took the
name of Sylvester II. While a monk becoming pope is not unusual,
in this case this monk was already a well-known scholar prior to his election. History credits him as the Pope who introduced the
system of Arabic numerals to the West and in doing so the
concept of the place value. He had a wide knowledge of Greek and
Arab mathematics since he spent three years as priest in Moorish
Spain with his religious superior. He and his abbot studied Arabic
science. Some historical accounts say that Gerbert attended an Islamic university. He was an accomplished astronomer and most significantly wrote the first a user’s manual for a scientific
instrument, an astrolabe. Using Sylvester’s manual, monks then were able to calculate the date of Easter more accurately even more important come up with repeatable results. While Sylvester
has a scientific worldview believing that we can use reason to find things about nature, his wide scholarship earned him the reputation of being a magician which definitely cast an undeserved reputation to his Papacy. If people cannot understand a natural phenomenon, they attributed this
to magic. It did not help Sylvester II that his pontificate was not a success in terms of administering the Church. He was too much a scholar. Sylvester commanded the Catholic
Church to distribute books. For he knew that without books, no advancement in education and science was possible.
Reason exalted is the foundation stone of science
The Roman Catholic Church to this day believes that Divine Revelation can be known and understood by faith and reason. The things of nature were believed to be revelations of the
Divine nature itself. While not as explicit as that in the Bible, nature reflected the Divine plan.
Nature can be known by reason alone but the Church taught that with faith, this process of knowing was made more perfect as “faith seeks understanding.”
For example St Anselm (1033-1109), Archbishop of Canterbury in England proved logically that God exists which we now call as the Ontological argument. While this was not a proof that can
convince a non-believer, it was meant for the Catholic whose faith may be wavering. But
Anselm’s proof is entirely reasonable and was not made on Biblical claims.
ANSELM’S ONTOLOGICAL ARGUMENT
universities to use logic first to understand
FOR GOD’s EXISTENCE
the world. Their logical system was based
The understanding of God is a being and no on Aristotle’s works which were being greater can be conceived
originally in Greek. Since the Catholic
The idea of God exists in the mind
Church had Latin as a language, the
3. A being that which both exists in the mind
Greek terms had to be translated into and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind. Latin and some had to be translated from
If God only exists in the mind, then we can Arabic and then to Latin. These became to ;conceive of a greater being which exists in standard terms in logic we still use. The
medieval philosophers were either
5. However in (1) we cannot imagine any being
nominalists (the name of an object refers
or anything greater than God
THEREFORE GOD EXISTS! the object and no more) or realists (where
the name of the object refers to the
properties of the object rather than just the
Aristotelian categories partly solved the problem. He defined the nature of an object let us say an
apple. The fact that it is indeed an apple since it has all the properties of apples is the substance
of the apple. Let us say the apple is red, the fact that it is red is just an accident. It is possible that
there are apples that are green or yellow and indeed there are. But their colours do not change the
fact that they are apples still.
This kind of distinction was often used by medieval philosophers and eventually was used by the Catholic Church to define its teaching on the Eucharist. To this day Catholics are obliged to
believe that what they receive in Communion during the Mass is the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (substance) under the appearances of bread and wine (accident).
Now how can a line of theological argument be a foundation stone of modern science?
Pagan science becomes Christianized: St Albert the Great sets the stage for modern science Catholic theologians very early on were able to realize that Aristotle’s philosophy can be used
also to defend Church doctrine against heresy. First among these is the Dominican bishop St Albert the Great (1193-1280), a German who spent his career in the Universities of Paris and of
Cologne in Germany. He studied virtually every discipline and his surviving works count to 38 volumes. His books on natural science are relevant to us today since he was the first person to declare hat experience is necessary to understand natural phenomena. Albert wrote “It is the
task of natural science not to simply accept what we are told but to enquire about the causes of things” With this statement, St Albert the Great established modern Science. The
Roman Catholic Church recognized this by making him the patron saint of scientists in 1931. He
is called as the “Doctor Universalis”
In the philosophical system of the medieval period, there was a first cause (which is due to the Divine) and secondary causes (which are due to nature). The task of a natural philosopher is to elucidate on the latter. And one cardinal principle the medievals held is that there cannot be any
contradiction between the two for the source of these truths are one
St Thomas Aquinas: Why is this theologian important in the development of modern science?
St Albert the Great other significant contribution to Western thought is to recognize true genius
by becoming the mentor of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 ). Aquinas was the prime exponent
of the rigorous system of philosophical inquiry that scholars used to construct arguments. This is
what we now call as the scholastic method. A scholastic argument begins with a question, followed by a contrary argument and then to state the contrary to the contrary argument. Using
this way of argumentation, We best remember Aquinas for providing five proofs for God’s existence. God according to Aquinas is the “First Cause” who exists beyond the Cosmos. There
must be a cause for everything in nature. Aquinas’ most important work is the Summa Theologica which is the basis for Catholic theology to this day. The Church lauds Aquinas as the
Aside from laying
down the ects,becauseallofourknowledgeorginatesfromthesense”–
foundations for Summa TheologiaeCatholic systematic theology,Thomas Aquinas laid down another philosophical principle that is essential for modern Science to
flourish. Aquinas defended the principle of objective reality and that things that can be observed are indeed real. Thus it is not heretical for a natural philosopher (scientist) to find the
reasons by which nature operates. The principle of objective reality is important in science.
Aquinas also put a boundary to scientific inquiry. He believed that Science cannot explain everything in the universe and some truths can only be revealed by the Divine.
4. SCIENCE BECOMES AN AUTONOMOUS DISCIPLINE
The condemnations of 1277: First step to autonomy for science aquinas had an intellectual opponent in Paris, the Belgian philosopher Siger of Brabant (15401580s)
who supported the philosophy of the Arab philosopher Averröes. Siger argued that there indeed is one truth but reason and faith may be contrary to each other and reason may be more
supreme than faith. To sum this up it was said that “Reason is boundless but faith is finite” This went against the ideas of Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and orthodox Catholic doctrine.
Aquinas publicly debated Siger’s propositions in a lecture in Paris.
In 1277, two years after Aquinas’ death the Bishop of Paris condemned 219 of Siger’s philosophical propositions. The main point of contention here is whether God can be constrained
by natural law or not. Aquinas won the argument but with a significant consequence. Aquinas held that God cannot be constrained by natural law. Based on Aquinas’ ideas, the bishop
concluded that it is erroneous to believe that “God cannot do anything that is naturally impossible”. With this, natural philosophers were now free to study all kinds of natural
phenomena to find out about God’s creation. However, after 1277 natural philosophers had to take an oath when receiving their degrees that they will not deal with Theology [unless licensed
and qualified] and the same holds for theologians that they will not deal with Science [unless they are qualified]. Starting from this time, Science became autonomous from theology and later
from philosophy. The principle of autonomy here is not that by placing limits on a discipline
the discipline is curtailed but rather freed the natural philosophers and theologians to pursue their learning according to their competencies. Never more will they be shackled by
Aristotelian philosophy but are now free to empirically test scientific principles.
Medieval technology and the Gothic cathedral
The medieval Gothic cathedrals of Europe have stood for 800 years and yet they continue to awe
us. After the Church had done away with its problem with reconciling pagan philosophy and Catholic belief, the bishops wee free to commission architects to build these wondrous piles of stone.
The Gothic cathedral incorporates three innovations, the pointed arch, rib vaulting and the flying buttress. The first was imported from India via the Arabs. The pointed arch allowed for interior spaces to be tall, large and uncluttered. To support this, a flying buttress is needed. The high
arches were then closed with rib vaulting. Thus the need for thick stone walls was removed and they can be decorated by stained glass windows.
The Gothic cathedral embodied the technological advances of the medievals once they were freed from obsolete ideas. This was followed by other advances such as the clock and blast
Medicine, Astrology and Alchemy: The limits of magic
As introduced in this essay, the medieval worldview was premised on magic and this was so much evident in medicine. Medieval physicians based their practice on the medical ideas of the
ancient Greeks, namely Galen. Galen adhered to the Theory of Four Humours “blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile” which were essential in making a diagnosis. These humours must be
in balance an excess of either one is a symptom of a greater disorder. Medieval doctors tried to
restore this balance by various methods, most notorious of which was bloodletting by leeches.
While these sound like torture to us, the medieval doctors established the way by which 21st century doctors still examine patients. Doctors still take detailed histories of their patients, do a physical examinatio and send for tests to be done if necessary. Then they make the diagnosis
and prescribe the drugs which then as now were dispensed by apothecaries or pharmacists. In the medieval ages, aside from taking patient’s pulses, doctors often diagnosed diseases by looking at the optical properties of urine. This did have scientific basis since the cloudiness of urine
suggests that the patient is infected.
But central to a medieval doctor’s practices and based on the magical medieval worldview were the astrological tables that set the schedule when to order a bloodletting for example. The doctors relied “on the stars”. In some cases the only prescription is to visit and pray at a saint’s shrine.
Galen’s anatomy was based on animal dissections and this retarded medical science. Pagan Greece and Rome has a ban on dissection of human cadavers. The medieval universities did not
have a ban and anatomists like Mondino de Luizzi (1270-1326 ) and Andreas Vesalius (15141564 ) pioneered in the empirical study of human anatomy. De Luizzi is the first professor of
medicine (Bologna) to require all medical students to dissect cadavers. Vesalius wrote the first scientific treatise in human anatomy“De Humanis Corporis Fabrica” The further development
of scientific medicine only will gain impetus after the Black Death, when doctors began to find the pathological agents of disease.
As for the drugs then in use, the pharmacists knew the active properties of the herbs they use but they had to rely on alchemy. Alchemists were preoccupied in transmutating substances to other more valuable ones. The alchemists were trying to change a base metal like iron into gold. They
were also looking for the Philosopher’s stone and the Elixir that would guarantee immortality.
Alchemy provided the basis for modern chemistry by developing the methods for analysis and describing the properties of the substances they were interested in. It is to Alchemy that modern
Chemistry owes its understanding of the properties of acids and bases.
Medicine, Astrology and Alchemy were considered magical knowledge in the medieval period.
But this view could not stand for long. The belief in magic had to give way.
5. MODERN SCIENCE IS BORN
Medieval science at its height: The fading of Magic
Another pope, John XXII (1249-1334) is credited for speeding up the transition from medieval Science still grappling with magic and superstition to the empirically based discipline we have it now. In 1316 Pope John XXII was concerned about fake gold being sold by unscrupulous alchemists that
he ordered an investigation. And for that he sought Thomas Aquinas’ opinion in his writings since by then Aquinas was dead and on the road to becoming a saint.
Aquinas earlier concluded that “if genuine gold can be chemically produced, it would not be illicit to sell it as true gold for there is no reason why science should not exploit natural causes to produce natural and true effects”. While the Pope was convinced that transmutation
was impossible, Aquinas was not. What was needed is that the alchemist must be able to prove
with evidence that base metals can really be changed into gold. The Pope then issued a bull requiring proof if anyone claims a base metal can be changed into gold. With that went magical
claims and all scientific conclusions will have to be empirically and objectively assessed.
In England’s Oxford University, clerics were already describing the physics of projectile motion since this had military application of interest to the King. Roger Bacon (1214-1294 ) the “Doctor Mirabilis” and a Franciscan priest is known as the “father of the scientific method”.
He emphasized experimental work rather than the scholastic method developed by Aquinas. He also did work on optics and in his treatise described the principle and theory of the telescope
although there is no evidence he built one himself. It would take Galileo to do so. He also described how gunpowder can be used as weapons. Bacon himself was influenced by the Arab
physicist Ibn al Haytham when he did experiments on optics. Al Haytham’s works in Arabic had
been recently translated into Latin when Bacon was doing his experimental method.
Richard of Wallingford, a monk and mathematician (1292-1336) of St Alban’s England made the first mechanical clock in 1273 and in doing so invented time. Now it became possible to
physically represent an abstract concept such as time, mathematically. This enabled people to quantify time for the first time. No advancement in physics would have been possible without the concept of the relationship of space and time made possible by the quantification of time.
The Merton Calculators, the proof of a theorem, and the beginning of modern physics
The Merton Calculators were monks and priests and were
called as such because they belongedto Merton College in
Oxford. Thomas Bradwardine (1290-1349) was the first of
a series of Merton collegians who studied rectilinear
motion. The Merton calculators were interested in proving
the Mean Speed Theorem which says that a uniformly
accelerated body travels the same distance as a body
with uniform speed whose speed is half the final velocity
of the accelerated body.
The Merton Calculators argued that by mathematics one can prove a principle in physics, a position held by Father Richard Swineshead (1340-1355 ) While they did not empirically test
the principle (Galileo was the first to experimentally verify it), they invented new ways of mathematically representing physical reality, one of these was the precursor of logarithms and the use of geometry in proving a physical reality. This idea isn’t new, Archimedes considered it.
But the idea that mathematics can model physical reality is the essence of modern science.
In many respects the proof of the mean speed theorem represents the apogee of medieval science.
We can recognize modern science in how these priests and monks thought and in how they did their work. There was no room for magic or superstition in their work.
6. THE BIRTH OF THE MODERN WORLD: RENAISSANCE AND
The Medieval age ended as a result of several factors one of which is the coming of the plague from central Asia in 1348 which killed 25% of Europe’s population. This caused massive
population displacement and contributed to the collapse of the feudal system. To add to this,
climate changes as a result of the beginning of “Little Ice Age” caused drops in food production leading to radical changes in how society was organized. This in turn led to the rise of the nationstate and the decline of the Catholic Church’s influence in politics. Historians consider this
period from 1300 to 1500 as the late Middle Ages.
By then a new social class consisting of burghers emerged and with their increasing wealth began to dominate the economy leading to the beginnings of industrialized technology. A new
movement of learning called Humanism. Humanism is a perspective that affirms human nature.
This new school of thought challenged the medieval scholastic approach. Humanists at first wanted to read the Classics in the original Greek or Latin and they searched monastic libraries
for early manuscripts. In their search for the original, the humanists discarded the medieval manuscripts. The Renaissance was now in full swing. Rapid dissemination of the recovered texts was made possible by Gutenberg’s invention of printing using the movable type. Once more the
book becomes a central figure in a massive revolution of ideas and education.
Protestantism and Science
The Reformation began in 1517 when an Augustinian Friar by the name of Martin Luther posted
his Ninety-Five Theses [academic points of debate] on the doors of Wittenberg Church in Germany. The Protestant movement emphasized the principle of “sola scriptura” wherein the
Bible only had authority on matters of faith and reason. The Roman Church emphasized that the Bible indeed had authority but this is to be authoritatively interpreted by the Church within its tradition.
Protestants tend to interpret the Bible more literally than Catholics do. Catholics had a rich
tradition of understanding metaphors and allusions in the Bible. Protestants tended to downplay
these through a more literal interpretation. How this affected the rise of modern Science in Europe is still a matter for research. There is some evidence that even if Protestants had rejected papal authority, they were critical of new insights in science that went against their interpretation
of the Bible. Luther was not convinced of Nicolaus Copernicus’ (1473-1543) heliocentrism and when he died, publication of his “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” included a
preface from a Lutheran admirer Andreas Osiander that essentially said the contents were mere
hypotheses and not scientific fact. However in Protestant Germany, Johannes Kepler’s (15711630)
work was accepted only if he removed his theological opinions in “Mysterium Cosmographicum” once more reaffirming the principle that scientists should not do theology.
Recent historical research suggests that Catholicism or Protestantism had little effect on the
progress of science since both Protestants and Catholics considered mathematics as a way of
understanding God’s mind. The Catholic Church’s Jesuit order spearheaded the Counter Reformation by adopting humanistic principles in education and science without compromising
Catholic doctrine. The Jesuits embarked on studying the sciences and mathematics as part of a religious vocation. However the Wars of Religion had their effects beyond defending Catholic
and Protestant theological positions. This exhausted Europe, Protestant and Catholic and all parties had to come up with a settlement called “Cuius regio, eius religio” The religion of the monarch is the religion of his subjects.
Galileo Galilei: The first modern experimental scientist
It is in this context that we find Galileo Galilei’s
(1564-1642) work. From being an obscure and rather
ribald mathematics professor in Padua, Galileo
became science’s first international celebrity when
he published the “Sidereus Nuncius” in 1610. Here
observing through the telescope, he described the
surface of the moon, the rings of Saturn and the
transits of the four largest moons of Jupiter which are
now known in his honour as the Galilean moons.
With this Galileo quickly attracted the patronage of
the Medici Dukes in Italy which made him official
mathematician and astrologer. In 1616, the Jesuit
Cardinal Robert Bellarmine advised Galileo that the
Copernican theory cannot be considered fact until a
physical demonstration proving it was done. Galileo was then to teach it as a hypothesis.
In 1619 Galileo figured in a controversy with a Jesuit priest Orazio Grassi who argued that comets moved above the moon. In his reply “The Assayer” Galileo incorrectly concluded that
comets are optical illusions. But the sarcastic tone of the book infuriated the Jesuits. “The Assayer” is still studied by students of Italian literature as a masterpiece of Italian sarcasm and wit.
In 1624 a year after the election of his friend Urban VIII as Pope, Galileo began work on his most famous book “The Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems (Dialogo)” in which he
proves the Copernican theory. Dialogue is a literary method commonly used in the middle ages in proving a proposition. In the book, Galileo has three protagonists, Salviati who defends
Copernicanism, Sagredo who is neutral and Simplicio who defends the geocentric hypothesis. In Italian “simplicio” means stupid and this did not escape the readers. The chapters of the Dialogo
are arranged as “days”. The Third Day dealt with the Copernican hypothesis and On the Fourth Day, the causes of the tides were examined as a proof of the hypothesis in which he asserts that
the tides themselves are proof of the earth’s motion, which it is not. Galileo ridiculed Kepler’s hypothesis that these were due to the “pull” of the moon. Kepler knew that this pull is a force but he had no theory to explain this. Galileo ridiculed Kepler’s notion as astrological. Thus he
incorrectly attributed tidal motion to the slowing and speeding of the earth’s rotation. But the phenomenon of the tides and its relation to the lunar cycle had been well known even to the
Greeks and Galileo had demonstrated that the atmosphere (a fluid like the sea) did not behave in the way that he considered for the tides after he had observed Jupiter. Galileo missed out on the provable assertion that there could be tides in a geocentric solar system.
However Galileo closed the argument in the last page of the book by putting Urban VIII’s argument in Simplicio’s mouth! The Pope really did say that “God in His infinite power could
have chosen to move the tides whatever means He chose and it would be excessive daring by anyone to limit the Divine power and wisdom be some particular fancy of his own”
This was a scientific and intellectual “cop out” and even the Catholic theologians knew it. That Galileo put the Pope’s words in the mouth of silly Simplicio did not escape the readers including His Holiness and guaranteed the book would be a bestselling hit. It also guaranteed that Galileo will be tried by the Inquisition. But the stage had been set for the Scientific Revolution and the stereotype that the Roman Catholic Church is anti-science.
The final contribution of medieval science: Galileo’s “Dialogue on Two New Sciences”
In 1638, Galileo published his last book “Dialogue on Two New Sciences” in which he uses his three protagonists in the Dialogo to dispute on motion and mechanics. Here Galileo proves
experimentally that objects of different weights fall at equal rates. He uses the Merton Calculator’s mean speed theorem to prove this principle. But he goes further and mathematically
defines velocity by stating that the distance fallen was proportional to the square of the time
elapsed v = ½ at2 . In doing so Galileo made the link between gravity and the mean speed theorem by doing actual experiments with an inclined plane. The Merton Calculators did not
have this insight. Galileo demonstrated that by “slowing down acceleration” using an inclined plane; he could quantify the effect on velocity. In the last “day” of the “Two New Sciences”,
Galileo focuses on projectile motion in which he links the effects of gravity, acceleration and
forward motion to finally prove that the path of the projectile is really a parabola. Medieval mathematicians had no way of proving it and represented the path of motion as an arc of a circle.
CONCLUSION: SCIENCE, CHURCH AND SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION
In this essay, it is argued that the medieval period set the stage for the development of modern science. It was able to do this since the Roman Catholic Church (the only Western European
institution that survived Rome’s collapse) 1) preserved Roman institutions and the Latin language, 2) held a belief that the world can be known by reason and faith and exalted both, 3)
established universities that prepared men for the priesthood but guaranteed they can study without political interference, 4) used and Christianized Greek philosophy to defend its
doctrines and 5) set the limits for theological and scientific inquiry that allowed these disciplines to develop autonomously. On all of these was the belief that nature was created by God and that we can get to know more about Him and that even the natural sciences can be used to do so, was
an idea that was held even by Isaac Newton and Carolus Linnaeaus and to some extent by Albert Einstein, who could nor completely accept the consequences of quantum mechanics. It would be
inconceivable for science to arise if the Church did not value rationality in tandem with Faith.
The science as we know it today was nurtured by the Roman Catholic Church.
Eppur si Muove! Yet it does move!
Science is now completely independent of religion
and it took Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in his
“Origin of Species” and the “Descent of Man” to
finally disprove the idea that one will inevitably
know something about God by doing science. As
early as 1893, Pope Leo XIII wrote that “no real
disagreement can exist between the theologian
and the scientist provided each keeps within his
own limits” this echoes the idea behind the
condemnations of 1277. The Roman Catholic
Church finally recognized science’s autonomy when
in 1992 Pope John Paul II admitted that the Church
erred in condemning Galileo and accepted Galileo’s
thesis he used in his defence that “scripture cannot be used to infer what it was not meant to infer”.
The Church followed through in 1996 with John Paul II’s speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences when he said that the theory of evolution “is more than a hypothesis”. But the Pope
clearly said that the Church has no competence to pronounce on scientific matters, a position consistently supported by the theologian pope emeritus Benedict XVI and his successor Francis.
Thus the Church has returned to its medieval modus vivendi with science and celebrates its achievements and constantly dialogues with scientists. The oldest existing and one of the most
prestigious academy of science is the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences which has its origins in the Academia Lincei which Galileo is a founding member. The Pontifical Academy of
Science has many Nobel prizewinners and members are chosed without regard for their religious or lack of views. The only thing that differs now is that much science is done secularly in
universities and research institutions. What the Church is concerned with today are the moral implications of scientific discoveries and theories. Scientists today do not deal with moral implications as a scientific question. However the can propose hypotheses about the evolutionary origins of morality.
Was there a scientific revolution? Standing On the shoulder of giants It is popularly thought that the scientific revolution began with Copernicus, sealed by Galileo, reached its apex with Newton and brought to its logical conclusion by Darwin. In the scientific revolution we assume human society’s worldview shifted from a more religious one to one based
on empirical science But this transition started in the medieval period. In the Philippines the first priest-scientists the Jesuit Botanist and Pharmacist Georg Joseph Kamel in 1688 held on to the Galilean idea of proving natural phenomena by experiment. The current popular idea of a
scientific revolution assumes othing of scientific significance happened in the middle ages. This is untrue. There was revolutionary science in the middle ages and this led Newton to
famously re state the old Latin metaphor “nanos gigantium humeris insidentes”
“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”
Which to end this essay was first attributed to Bernard of Chartres (died in 1124), a medieval monk and philosopher who was really inspired by Gerbert de Aurillac, the mathematical and scientific Pope Sylvester II.
FOR FURTHER READING
Al-Khalili, J (2010) The House of Wisdom, How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and
Gave us the Renaissance. Penguin Press, New York
Brown, NM (2010) The Abacus and the Cross, The Story of the Pope who Brought the Light of
Science to the Dark Ages. Basic Books, New York
Cahill T (2006) Mysteries of the Middle Ages and the Beginning of the Modern World, Random House, New York
Dear P (2006) The Intelligibility of Nature. How Science makes sense of the world. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
Galilei G (1953) Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, UC Press
Hannam J (2009) God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science, Icon Books, London
Machamer, P (ed) (1998) The Cambridge Companion to Galileo. Cambridge University Press
Netz R and Noel W (2007) The Archimedes Codex. Revealing the Blueprint of Modern Science,
Phoenix Books, London
Rowland W (2001) Galileo’s Mistake. A New Look at the Epic Confrontation between Galileo and the Church, Arcade Publishing, New York
Vollmann VT (2006) Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Phoenix Books, London
White M (2007) Galileo, Antichrist, A Biography. Phoenix Books, London