Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Fourth Book of Christmas: "Genesis of Science."

Twelve Books that show how Christmas changed the world.

On the fourth day of Christmas, our True Love gave the world: modern science.
"The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution," by James Hannam.

You might read the subtitle of this book and fear or hope for a sharp polemical argument. The Genesis of Science is, in fact, an informed, pretty mellow, and easily read explanation of "how the Christian Middle Ages launched the Scientific Revolution." There is some stress on the word "Christian." But while Hannam does argue that Christianity played an important role in the birth of modern science, he recognizes that the story is complex, with many actors, and most actors playing ambivalent roles. Hannam brings this complexity to life well, while his rehabilitation of Medieval civilization lends the story continuity.

In some ways, Hannam's thesis might be defined by half a sentence in the second-to-last paragraph of the book:

"You could call any century from the twelfth to the twentieth a revolution in science . . . "

Actually, Hannam begins in earnest with the 11th Century, which he shows set the intellectual stage for what was to come. This was as soon as one could hope for: Europe had spend half a millennia fitfully recovering from a long series of invasions, and had never been the economic heart of Western civilization, anyway.  Hannam mostly ends with Galileo and the first half of the 17th Century. But each century between these bookends gets a fair amount of attention, with many unknown characters, and stars, traipsing across the book's pages.

Among other things, I found Hannam's discussion of Humanism interesting. He argues that "humanism almost managed to destroy 300 years of progress in natural philosophy," by encouraging intellectuals to scoff at Medieval attainments. C. S. Lewis makes the same point about literature in his magisterial English Literature in the 16th Century: he shows that the humanists also scorned, and largely lost, the literary attainments of the Middle Ages. Many modern skeptics delude themselves into thinking the Enlightenment gave Western culture everything of value, even (I have heard them!) modern science. I appreciate those like Hannam and Lewis (Confucius is another) who help us remember and better appreciate our roots.

Another topic Hannam does not much touch on, but that came to mind when I interviewed Allan Chapman, historian of science at Oxford's Wadham College, where the Royal Society partly began, was the fact that Europe, while one civilization, was divided into many competing states. As it happens, so was ancient Greece, and the almost equally creative "Spring and Autumn / Warring States" period in Chinese history. (All of which, in addition, were theistic.) This E Pluribus Unum thing seems to work well, along with this "one civilization under God" idea

Other good sources: Please do listen to my interview of Allan Chapman at  He's quite a character, with a sweeping and enthusiastic knowledge of the subject.  And as the interview takes place at his home, his clock collection chimes in, as well.  Also interesting: Charles Thaxton and Nancy Pearson, The Soul of Science; Stephen Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith; and for different perspectives, David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations; and, for an opposing explanation that is depressing but formidably argued, Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Back to Book 1. 

Forward to Book 5


Dr H said...

Yes, I suppose you could call every one of the last eight centuries a "revolution in science", but that sort of overuse robs the word "revolution" (and perhaps "science") of any sort of useful descriptive meaning.

The real revolution (note singular) in science was the codification and general acceptance of the scientific method, and the recognition of same as a powerful and effective epistemology. That occured during the Enlightnement, and yes, it did eventually result in modern science.

As to "Humanists" 'encouraging intellectuals to scoff at Medieval attainments'... perhaps, but that had minimal impact as far as "destroying" 300 years of progress in natural philosophy.

Sure the alchemists and natural philosophers of the Middle Ages made some interesting discoveries -- mostly by accident, and most of which they weren't able to follow through to further useful discoveries because they lacked a codefied, systematic means of placing their researches in a real-world context.

There are any number of these. Electrical phenomena, for example, were known for centuries, but remained mere curiosities until Enlightenment thinkers like Ampere, Volta, Ohm and Franklin came along and applied scientific method to the study of these phenomena.

Again, it is not the individual concrete discoveries of science that made for the scientific revolution, but the development of a viable universal scientific epistemology. Even if some "humanists" scoffed at the random discoveries of the Medeivalists, those diligently applying the scientific method would have rediscovered them all eventually, and more importantly, rediscovered them in context.

Well. Probably I'm going to have to read this one, if only to find out whether Hannam acknowledges that it was Islamic scholars who kept Aristotle's legacy alive through the first thousand years or so of Christianity (until Aquinas came along in 1225).

And it looks like it will be a good companion-read to Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, which I finished not long ago, and Conner's A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks which I'm about to begin.

Thanks for the pointer, David.

David B Marshall said...

Baloney on the Scientific Revolution occurring during the Enlightenment. You can only say that by using non-standard definitions of both. Science had been roaring on all pistons for hundreds of years before the alleged, so-called Enlightenment came around. (I was reading uber-skeptic Hector Avalos last night, and noticed that even he seemed doubtful that there was any period that can properly be called the Enlightenment.)

No one denies that science continued to make headway in the years usually allotted to the Enlightenment. But is the Volta you name the same "Enlightenment thinker" who wrote this?

"I do not understand how anyone can doubt the sincerity and constancy of my attachment to the religion which I profess, the Roman, Catholic and Apostolic religion in which I was born and brought up, and of which 1 have always made confession, externally and internally. I have, indeed, and only too often, failed in the performance of those good works which are the mark of a Catholic Christian, and I have been guilty of many sins: but through the special mercy of God I have never, as far as I know, wavered in my faith. If my offences and transgressions have given occasion to anyone to suspect me of disbelief, I here, by way of reparation and for any other good purpose that may be served, assure such or any other persons, and am prepared to maintain this declaration in any circumstances, cost what it may, that I have always believed and still believe the Holy Catholic faith to be the one true and infallible religion: and I constantly give thanks to God, Who has infused into me this belief in which I desire to live and die, with the firm hope of eternal life.

"In this faith I recognise a pure gift of God, a supernatural grace; but I have not neglected those human means infallible which confirm belief, and overthrow the doubts which at times arise. I studied attentively the grounds and basis of religion, the works of apologists and assailants, the reasons for and against, and I can say that the result of such study is to clothe religion with such a degree of probability, even for the merely natural reason, that every spirit unperverted by sin and passion, every naturally noble spirit must love and accept it.
May this confession which has been asked from me and which I willingly give, written and subscribed by my own hand, with authority to show it to whomsoever you will for I am not ashamed of the Gospel, may it produce some good fruit!"

Maybe I can claim him as a Protestant, too, then. :- )

Dr H said...

"Science had been roaring on all pistons for hundreds of years before the alleged, so-called Enlightenment came around."

That's rather like saying that aviation had been roaring on all pistons for hundreds of years before the airplane was invented. Yes, there were a few more or less random successes scattered over the 300 years before 1903: some people successfully demonstrated parachutes, and balloons and dirigibles eventually became something more than oddities. But many more would-be pilots never got off the ground, or dashed their brains out trying.

"Science" did not become Science until the scientific method was codified and widely accepted and practiced. That occured during the period commonly known as "The Enlightenment," which is usually dated approximately from 1650 to 1800. These are hardly "non-standard" definitions; they are supported by two centuries of scholarship and a library of material by most of the most highly regarded historians and scientists to write on the subject.

As to Volta, what's your point? That he professed to be a Christian? So did most scientists of his time and general geographical location. No doubt some of these scientists really did believe; others probably just went through the motions. To do otherwise was to risk supression by the Church, loss of position and resources, and even imprisonment and death. Human beings have an amazing capacity for dealing with cognitive dissonance, especially when it helps to insure survival.

So go ahead and claim Volta as a Protestant if you like: it changes nothing. The fact is that he would not have accomplished a fraction of what he did by way of science, had he not applied the scientific method. Without it he would have been another alchemist, fitfully poking at the world trying to ferret out its secrets, but without any effective means of doing so. His Christianity alone would not have led him to that method.