The Genesis of Science

by James Hannam

Subtitle: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution

The role of the Christian church in the development of Western thought has been the subject of some controversy, much of it characterized more by tribal identification than intellectual rigor. On one side we have the zealots among the atheists who insist that the church did everything it could to stamp out original thought and attacked rationalism at every turn. Of course, these are only the most extreme of the atheists, but they do seem to spread their views around successfully. Many people seem to think that the trial of Galileo offers the ideal example of religion attacking science. More educated people will raise the burning of Giordano Bruno as another example. 

At the other extreme are those zealots who declare that Christianity was the source of everything good and great about Western civilization. They claim that democracy, a devotion to individual freedom, and so forth are all the bequests of Christianity. They’re wrong: there is not a single verse anywhere in the Bible advocating democracy or freedom. Those are Greek notions, not Christian notions. A particularly ghastly example of this genre is “The Victory of Reason” by Rodney Stark, subtitled “How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success”. I found so many stupid mistakes in it that I gave up about a third of the way through the book.

But this book falls well between the two extremes. It leans more towards the “pro-Church” side of the polarity, but my impression is that the author is trying to combat what he thinks is a popular misconception. I’m willing to forgive his somewhat overbearing presentation for this reason, but nevertheless I found it occasionally irritating.

On the good side, this book presents a very well-researched and well-organized analysis of the development of Western scientific thought. All too often we think of that development process as nothing more than Greeks, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton: a nice, clean sequence. But the real story is much more complicated.

For example, the very notion of applying mathematics to scientific inquiry was itself a revolutionary concept, and Copernicus did not concoct it; that idea started with earlier Christian thinkers and developed as it bounced from mind to mind. By the time Copernicus came around, it was already well-established that mathematics was the best way to probe science.

Another point that emerges clearly from Hannam’s book is the notion that the Church never had any problem with science. Nowadays the conflict between religion and science pops up almost everywhere. There was no such conflict in during medieval times. As Hannam demonstrates, Christian thinkers saw science as simply another way for man to understand the glory of God. The universe was God’s creation, and God organized it all in a rational way; a good Christian should seek to understand the beauty of God’s creations. Thus, science was, in effect, an extension of theology. This concept shows up over and over, and Isaac Newton explicity declared that his studies were merely ways to glorify God. Amazing, isn’t it, that modern fundamentalists don’t even understand Christian theology?

My greatest objection to the content of this book is its shabby treatment of humanism. Back then, humanism meant something entirely different from the modern meaning of the word. It was a school of thought that glorified the writings of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Mr. Hannam maintains that humanism was anti-rational and anti-scientific. I think he misunderstands the thrust of humanism. It’s true that humanists hated scholasticism, the school of thought that developed from Thomas Aquinas’ attempt to merge logic with theology. Aquinas’ efforts were laudable but ultimate futile; religion is an act of faith, not logic. There is no conflict necessary between faith and logic, but there is also no common ground. They are two completely independent elements of human mentation. Scholasticism failed to recognize this distinction, and over the centuries its attempts to merge them led to ever-sillier logical conniptions. By the time of the Renaissance, the intellectual steriligy of scholasticism was obvious to all but the die-hards, and the humanists led the charge in restoring spiritualism to religion. Yes, the battle was confused and there was collateral damage on both sides — but its central theme was not about the overall merits of logic, it was about the failure of logic to solve the problems of faith. I think that Mr. Hannam missed this distinction.

Indeed, Erasmus published in 1533 a colloquoy entitled “A Problem”, which presented a completely conventional explanation of an element of Aristotelian physics. While we now reject Aristotelian physics, the ideas presented in this colloquoy were perfectly in keeping with standard teachings at the time. Erasmus had no problems with science per se; it was the shotgun marriage of logic and theology that he found ridiculous.

I place little colored flags on pages with interesting statements. Herewith a few of the statements I found interesting:

The Bible also strongly implied that the earth was flat, for instance with reference to it having ‘edges’ in Job 38:13. Yet medieval people sided with astronomers on this matter. Where the Bible seemed to conflict with good sense or reason, medieval thinkers were happy to interpret it figuratively rather than literally.

"It is the task of natural science", Albert [the Great] said, “not simply to accept what we are told but to inquire into the causes of things.”

Mathematics, Thomas Bradwardine wrote, “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.”

Between 1600 and the order’s suppression in 1773, Jesuits produced 6,000 scientific papers, including 30 percent of all publications on electricity.