Book Plunge: God’s Philosophers

What happened in the “Dark Ages?” Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Many of us know from our schooling the history of the world in the medieval period. It was the time known as the Dark Ages. There was no advancement. It wasn’t until years later when people like Copernicus and Galileo showed up that we found a renewed interest in the sciences. Then we came out of an ignorant time when people believed the Earth was flat and had no interest in science.

Unfortunately, this is entirely false. (Or perhaps it should be described as fortunate.)

James Hannam in the book “God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science” gives us a tour through the medieval time and shows what was going on. Would it be better to go to a priest or a doctor if you were sick? Actually, it might be best to go to the doctor. Was it ignorance that led people to think the Earth was orbited by the sun? Not at all. Was there a constant warfare between science and religion? Not a bit.

Hannam starts us off in the 11th century with the Domesday Book and with advancements that were made then. This includes the plow and the mill. The time period saw improvement in the way horses could be rode and utilized elsewhere. This was through the invention of the horseshoe and stirrup.

WIth the plow, more fields could be harvested easier which meant more food and with the mill, there was an easier way to get that food. How does this affect science? It would mean that there was more leisure time in order for scientific work to be done. It was not that science brought about better technology as it does today. Instead, better technology brought about science.

Hannam gives us then throughout the rest of the book several illustrations of the good science that came about. Now for us today, this is seen as primitive science, but in the time that it was done, this was groundbreaking work and indeed, it set the tone for much of what we do today. Indeed, had it not been for the so-called Dark Ages, we would not have what we have today, and we would not have had that without the Christian church.

Chapter 2 has a title most would consider incredible and that is “The Mathematical Pope.” Yes. The Pope was interested in mathematics and studying it and this could often mean going to the Muslims who had the mathematics and seeing what they had to say. The Muslim world had an advantage controlling the Eastern part of the area which is where the Greek writings were kept. Christians for the longest time did not have access to the Greek writings and thus did not have the scientific writings of past peoples. When they got these, they did devour them. The church was not opposed to books as some would claim.

To get back to the Mathematical pope, he was named Gerbert and he was quite interested in math and astronomy and was a scholar of his day. He was particularly fascinated with an astrolabe, a device that helped someone tell the time from the position of the stars.

Speaking of the stars, let’s talk about how the Earth was said to be the center of the universe. Today, we speak of being the center of someone’s universe as a good thing. Not so back then. Instead, at the very center of the universe was Hell and immediately next in line was Earth. To go further was to get to the Celestial Heavens. Outside that was the realm of God. If Earth was moved out of this, it would not be lowering the medieval view of Earth. It would be exalting it.

After this, Hannam writes about the rise of reason, which largely takes place with Anselm. On page 44, we read that he taught his pupils Latin grammar and logic so that they would be prepared to tackle the Bible. It seems a strange thought to us to think one needs logic to interpret the Bible. It was not so for the medievals. They knew better than we that the Bible was a difficult book and one needed in-depth training to understand it well. Contrast this to today when we think the Bible must be written in “plain” language (Plain to 21st century Americans of course) and not require real work to understand its message.

The next chapter introduces us to William of Conches and we find such great quotes on page 63 like “He states explicitly that a literal understanding of parts of Genesis would be absurd” and “The authors of Truth are silent on matters of natural philosophy, not because these matters are against the faith, but because they have little to do with the upholding of such faith, which is what those authors were concerned with.”

Today, a number of people apostasize thinking they have to take the Bible literally and Genesis is often extremely problematic. William’s work in his time, which the church would have been aware of, shows that this is not what must happen. The writers were not writing to tell us about science and part of the mistake of our era is to read books like Genesis as if they were scientific treatises when they are not.

An example Hannam gives is how Genesis says there are two great lights, but then says that “No less a churchman than Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) was perfectly aware that the moon’s light is reflected from the sun, and seemed to assume that this was widely known.” Keep in mind, all of this was figured out without telescopes.

Also, we are introduced to Adelard who wrote a book called “Natural Questions” in which he addresses questions in the style of a conversation with his nephew. Hannam points out that in this book “He never tells his nephew that a subject is impious or forbidden. Nor does he invoke concepts that he would class as supernatural. (even if the idea of stars having souls seems that way to us) Adelard’s science was wrong, often spectacularly so, but not because he was irrational or superstitious.

This brings us to another important point. We can often attempt to mock the medievals if they got science wrong but let us remember where they were starting from. They did not have the great advancements we have today. I am not marveled by what they got wrong. I expect mistakes would be made without good technology. I am more amazed by all that they got right.

Important also in this chapter is that this is when universities began. In fact, Hannam says that the universities were not dependent on any one person and often played the secular authorities off of the church to maximize their freedom. These beacons of learning are still the foundation for our own universities today, and we owe that to the medieval period.

Of course, there were problems and in the next chapter, Hannams says that heretics were abundant and the Inquisition had to deal with them. Interestingly, the Inquisition often turned over heretics to the secular authorities. When that happened, it was a bad thing for a heretic because the civil law of secular society was much more severe.

Some might wonder why heresy was treated this way. It is because the church was seen as the adhesive unit of society. To go against the church would in fact mean to be bringing about the breakdown of society. Hannam also agrees that when people were put to death, that this was wrong. There was no justification for that.

Important in this chapter is also that at the start, Aristotle was banned because he was seen as heretical. This was not a ban as we will see that lasted forever since a number of Catholics sought to understand Aristotle and find how his principles could work with the faith. Most notable of these was Thomas Aquinas.

Chapter 6 in fact tells us how this happened. Aquinas was the great thinker who was following in the footsteps of Albert the Great, who did some scientific work himself. Aquinas also dealt with the question of faith and reason in contrast to the positions of Siger of Brabant, a follower of Averroes.

What about medicine in the ancient world? A doctor would normally follow the path of the 2nd century Roman physician Galen. Galen believed that good health was maintained by a balance of humours in the body and in order to achieve that, one might have to lessen the amount of one substance in the body. This was done by bleeding, where a patient would be cut in a way to lose blood.

If you went to a priest or a village healer, you might undergo many rituals such as the testing of urine, often done by drinking it, but you would normally receive prayer and with that, at least you could count on God healing your and if that was not what He chose, the placebo effect could kick in. It was also easier since most people could not afford doctors.

Also, we can be surprised to find astrology was a common practice and even done by Christians. This was one reason astronomy was so important. If the stars showed our fate, then we needed to know exactly how the stars went if we were to know how it was we were going to live.  Interestingly also in this chapter, we find there was one astrologer who tried to give a horoscope of Jesus Christ, and even he was not sentenced to death by the Inquisition, which should show us something about them not being prone to zap everyone who disagreed with them.

In chapter 9, Hannam reveals a number of scientific discoveries in the chapter on Roger Bacon. The trebuchet was a weapon developed to hurl stones at the enemy. Weapons like this led to the advancement of the study of projectiles. Peter the Pilgrim in this time did some early research on magnetism. Roger Bacon made excellent advancements in studying light and optics that were the foundation for the telescope.

From here on, many other thinkers of the time are mentioned. Richard of Wallingford worked on clocks helping man to properly divide time into 24 hours. The Merton Calculators came up with the Mean Speed Theorem used even by physicists today. Nicole Oresme in the fourteenth century refuted most of the objections to a moving Earth. (This was two centuries before Copernicus)

There are still more names to be mentioned, but let us leave that for the interested reader. For now, how about astronomy? We are often told that they believed the sun went around the Earth, and that is true. The only problem is that it seems ludicrous to us today, but it did to them then.

Picture the average layman today walking down the street and he is stopped by someone who asks “Can you tell me, does the Earth go around the sun or does the sun go around the Earth?” Most would tell you that the Earth goes around the sun. Imagine if the next question asked was “Can you demonstrate this?” Most of us would be hard-pressed to think of how we’d do that. We’d still believe it, but we would have to point to authorities who have somehow done the tests. Now if we are not physicists or astronomers or something akin ourselves, I do not think there is much fault in this. Still, we are not much better than our predecessors.

The main reasons they had for thinking the sun went around the Earth were not religious reasons at all. They were scientific ones. Most of them did not bother with religious reasons because scientifically, the whole idea seemed absurd! They had good reason to think so. Their reasons were wrong, but that does not mean they had not done thinking on the issue. We must keep in mind that it could be that 100 years from now people will look back at our science and think “They believed that?!”

Much of this changed in 1572 when a supernova appeared in the sky. This was a direct challenge to the idea of Aristotle that the heavens were unchanging. People like Kepler, Brahe, and Copernicus were doing research on this. Their books were released that allowed for a contrary idea. The church did not really bother for a long time with them because the idea again was just absurd.

Galileo changed this. Who was Galileo? Let’s review.

Galileo was the one who determined that objects of different weights fall at the same speed. He was the one who dared to question Aristotle when everyone else followed him without thinking. Galileo first said vacuums exist and projectiles move in curves. He demonstrated conclusively Copernicus was right and since he did, he was imprisoned by the Inquisition.

At this point, the skeptical heart beads proud thinking of a true man of science.

Just one problem. None of that said about Galileo is true.

Now this is not to say that Galileo did not make advancements. He certainly did! It is not to say he did not argue for the Copernican theory. He certainly did! In fact, Galileo had a great advancement on his side that the predecessors that he worked with before did not have access to.

That was the telescope.

With it, Galileo showed much of what Aristotle said about physics was false, such as that there were sunspots and that the moon was not a perfect sphere. Much of this was not denied and could not be. If Galileo was like this, then what exactly was the problem with his teaching of Copernican thought?

The problem was that Galileo had the right answer, but he did not have the right reasons. His arguments made were often made from a strongly egocentric position, and unfortunately the pope he was arguing with was quite similar. In other words, much of what happened to Galileo was not because of science but was because of politics.

In fact, Galileo’s books had been approved for writing and the church had not said anything. What they got Galileo on mainly was that he was lying to the Inquisition about what he was doing. The church was fine with the idea of heliocentrism as a theory. It should not be taught as a fact yet because it had not been shown to be a fact.

This is a constant mistake that we must make sure we don’t make when studying ancient people. We should not judge them by the knowledge of what we have today and the knowledge we have access to. We must judge them by the knowledge that they had then and what they had access to. When we do so, I think we will find the Dark Ages were not really that dark after all. In fact, there was a lot of light there and that we today are standing on the shoulders of giants.

And why was all of this done? It was done to understand God and His creation. No scientist at the time saw his work as “filling in gaps.” In fact, the more they discovered, the more they were wanting to give glory to God.

In our day and age, let us not make the opposite mistake. We can often think that religion excluded everything that was scientific back then. Today, it is often that science seeks to exclude religion. Books like Hannam’s should remind us that science and Christianity have both worked side by side in history and like any good friendship, they might have disagreements sometimes that are minor, but ultimately, they can both work together well.

Let us hope that two groups won’t prevent that. The first is fundamentalist Christians who want to treat the Bible as a science textbook. The second would be new atheists who want to make us be in a warfare of science vs. religion. Both of them do great damage to religion, but they also do great damage to science. Both of them are precious fields we should not lose sight of.

In Christ,

Nick Peters

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