science and the middle ages -- 3/15/23

Today's selection -- from The Light Ages by Seb Falk. The underappreciated achievement of the Middle Ages:
"A line runs from the Middle Ages to modern science. It is not an unbroken line, of course, and certainly not straight. But if you struggled with any of the trigonometry in earlier chapters, you will admit that medieval people -- who carried out such painstaking calculations without the help of any electronics -- were not stupid. Throughout this book we have learned what we owe to medieval monks and scholars. It was the Middle Ages that saw systematic translation of classical and Arabic works and gave us the universities that became centres of their study. It was the Middle Ages where intense interest in astronomy -- and, yes, astrology -- made people look outwards to the heavens, testing predictions, compiling tables refining theories that ultimately led to the reorganization of the universe. It was the Middle Ages when, to regulate their religious routines, monks designed mechanical clocks and challenged calendrical orthodoxy. It was the Middle Ages when Christians adopted Hindu-Arabic numerals; when Europeans experimented with marvelous medicaments from across the world; when theories of sight and light competed to explain human understanding; when alchemists developed practical techniques still used in modern chemistry; when mathematics was inspired by the miracle of transubstantiation. It was in the Middle Ages that Europeans began exploring over the oceans, aided by new technologies of mapping and the magnetic compass. And it was in the Middle Ages that they built complex instruments to model their divinely ordered cosmos. When Isaac Newton, the hero of the Scientific Revolution, wrote with false modesty that he was 'standing on the shoulders of giants', he was not only more right than he realised, he was making use of a medieval metaphor. 

"We have seen, too, that religion was no impediment to scientific progress. Time and again we have witnessed medieval Christians respecting and absorbing learning from other faiths without preju­dice. Pious faith motivated investigation of the natural world; institutions from individual monasteries to the papal monarchy itself instigated and supported science. To be sure, when novel visions of creation were promoted, disagreements could arise. But where those erupted into conflict, they were primarily fuelled by political or per­sonal factors. We saw this among the masters of thirteenth-century Paris. After the Middle Ages, the celebrated cases of Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei, often held to be emblematic of the mortal incom­patibility of faith and reason, owe much to the particular beliefs and circumstances of two provocative individuals, as well as to the vio­lent fragmentation of the Holy Roman Empire amid Reformation and Counter-Reformation. 

Heliocentric model from Nicolaus Copernicus

"Why, then, do we persist in belittling the Middle Ages? In part it is certainly to exalt ourselves. When prominent present-day scientists assert that Copernicus 'dethroned' the Earth from a proud pedestal at the centre of the universe, they are implicitly boasting of the modesty of the moderns. As it happens, medieval thinkers often pictured the Earth at the bottom, rather than the centre, of the vast universe; as far as possible from the perfection of the heavens was hardly a desir­able place to be. That is why, in Galileo's Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican, the Florentine astron­omer had his spokesman, Salviati, assert that 'we are trying to make [the Earth] more noble and more perfect ... and in a sense to place it in heaven, from which your philosophers have banished it'. Never­theless, the tale of the Earth's demotion is often framed as a blow to medieval arrogance; and modernity, by contrast, is supposed to have succeeded through the enlightened modesty of scientists. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and self-proclaimed successor to Carl Sagan, has written that, when he sees the tiny Earth in a planetarium show, 'I ... feel large, knowing that the goings-on within the three­pound human brain are what enabled us to figure out our place in the universe.'

"Yes, the Middle Ages stumbled into some scientific dead ends. But so will we. The Roman farmer Palladius was aware that lead is poisonous -- yet we continued to pump it through our cars and into the air we breathed until the very end of the twentieth century. And if, as Bernard of Gordon recognised, much medieval disease was caused by medicine itself, this problem has not gone away either. Of course, modern science has made our lives longer and more comfortable in ways medieval people could only imagine. But the biggest barrier blocking further progress may be our own complacency. The doc­trine of 'scientism', the belief that an infallible scientific method is the only route to reliable knowledge, is, in its own way, as danger­ous as blind religious faith. As long as science is a human activity, it will have human flaws. In this respect, perhaps the many mis­takes of the Middle Ages can teach us some helpful humility, and motivate us to identify opportunities for improvement in our own day. Studying medieval scholars' errors, as well as their magnificent achievements, helps us to appreciate human endeavour in all its fas­cinating complexity."



The Light Ages


Seb Falk


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2020 by Seb Falk


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