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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Summa origines scientiarum: Articulus 1

Question I. Whether Christianity promoted the rise of science

 Article 1. Whether there was a Scientific Revolution

Objection 1.  It would seem otherwise, because the term science is not well-defined. Lindberg (1992), for example, provides no less than seven different definitions.  Therefore, there was no Scientific Revolution because there is no one thing called science.  

Objection 2.  It would seem otherwise, because the term science means "knowledge" and mankind has always accumulated knowledge.  Therefore, there was never a scientific revolution.   

Objection 3.  It would seem otherwise, because, as Charles Homer Haskins wrote, "The continuity of history rejects such sharp and violent contrasts between successive periods" of history.  Therefore, Science emerged gradually and not through a “revolution.”

Objection 4.  It would seem otherwise, because a revolution consists of definitive points of change, and is carried out during a short time according to a plan.  But the development of science took place over an extended time and was unplanned.

On the contrary, British historian Herbert Butterfield wrote that the Scientific Revolution “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes… within the system of medieval Christendom.”

I answer that a distinction must first be made. Science in the modern sense is the effort to devise physical theories that account for the metrical properties of physical bodies.  Thus, when we speak of the "rise of science," we do not mean mathematics (which works with ideal bodies), tinkering/invention, nor the mere accumulation of facts and rules of thumb, even if retrospectively those things look sorta scientificalistic to us. Nor do we include the social "sciences," whose objects are human beings rather than natural physical bodies.
Astronomy was a specialized kind of mathematics and was not regarded as physical science because its objects (stars and planets) were regarded as "alive, divine, and influential in human affairs."  Not being physical bodies, there was little effort to provide physical explanations. Astronomical models were simply mathematical calculations by which the motions of the heavens could be predicted. Because of the privileging of mathematics in scientific discourse, the Late Modern Era often regards mathematics as a science, rather than the language of science.
For most of history, clever innovations were the result of trial and error by tinkerers and ingeniatores [engineers], and science came along after the fact to explain them. This point is often overlooked because most "science" fiction is actually "technological" fiction and in the Late Modern Era, engineering and science have been wedded.
Likewise, medical doctors, alchemists, and others might accumulate a potpourri of facts, but these do not constitute a science because the physical causes remain occult [hidden] rather than manifest [made evident]. One may discover per accidens that combining sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter produces an explosive black powder, but it is not science unless one attempts to discover the reason why the mixture does so. 
The great pyramid of science
The accumulation of facts proceeds continuously, but the methodology for developing physical theories had, by the 17th century, undergone a radical transformation. Indeed, the account of what a physical theory is underwent a radical shift. This transformation began in the 14th century with the work of the Paris physicists (Buridan, Oresme, Albert of Saxony, et al.) and the Merton Calculators (Bradwardine, Heytesbury, et al.) who built on conceptual foundations laid earlier.
Haskins, writing that "modern research shows the Middle Ages less dark and less static, the Renaissance less bright and less sudden, than was once supposed," identified a "twelfth century renaissance" that included a renaissance in science.

This culminated in the 17th century (Kepler, Harriot, Scheiner, Gilbert, Clavius, Vieta, Beeckman, Stevin, et al.) in a transformation that involved six “innovative and essential features” identified by Peter Dear:
  1. The view of the world as a kind of machine.  
  2. The distinction between “primary” and “secondary” qualities.  
  3. The use of deliberate and recordable experimentation.  
  4. The use of mathematics as a privileged tool for disclosing nature.  
  5. The pursuit of natural philosophy as a research enterprise.  
  6. The reconstruction of the social basis of knowledge around a positive evaluation of cooperative research.  
Pourbus Francis Bacon.jpg
Frank Bacon: science for Men!
While all of these features had begun in the 14th century, they reached their fruition in the 17th.

In addition, there was a philosophical transformation spearheaded by Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, David Hume and others that pushed nominalism or conceptualism over realism and kicked off 400 years of "philosophical squid ink." In this new vision, science was conceived to be not a form of art criticism (as the medievals had done with their emphasis on final causes) but rather a servant to engineering and business (as the moderns did with their emphasis on metrical efficient causes). The details of these issues need not detain us here.

Arguably, this revolution was confined to physics, but spread to chemistry a century later, and to biology by the 1920’s, losing bits and pieces along the way. (See Dear's #4: Where are the Darwin equations?) As for the social "sciences," sociology cannot suit up in the same game as physics and chemistry. 

The upshot is that man's study of the natural world underwent a transformation between the 14th and 17th centuries that resulted in the formal activity that today we call "science."
A "pleat" surface shows how continuous
processes running "left and right" can
result in sudden changes vertically.
 This activity has been so successful that the term "science" became a mere "approval word," and to call something "scientific" became just another way of saying that it was "good." Thus: "scientific socialism," "scientology," "creation science," and so on. By the 1950s, advertisers were featuring hucksters in white lab coats in their commercials, and those who lacked the Good as such in their lives turned to Science!™ as a substitute.
However, it might be a better metaphor to call this transition a "Scientific Tipping Point" rather than a "Scientific Revolution," to emphasize both its fundamental continuity and its historically abrupt shift. This is a familiar phenomenon in topological catastrophe manifolds, where the equilibrium state may "suddenly" change while the system parameters have smoothly and gradually changed.

Reply to Objection 1.  The term scientia once meant "knowledge," simpliciter. Thus "military science," "political science," the "sweet science" of boxing, the "science of theology," and so on. In each case, the meaning is a systematic and analytical study of a subject using evidence, logic and reason. There are some who try to define science in this manner, but then police detectives and building contractors become "scientists" and the term loses its more precise meaning. Modern usage restricts "science" primarily to the natural sciences: the systematic and analytical study of Nature using evidence, logic and reason. The objection arises from equivocation between the earlier and more recent usage of the term.

Henri Poincaré-2.jpg
Hank Poincare

Reply to Objection 2.  The great physicist Henri Poincare wrote that a pile of facts is no more a science than a pile of bricks is a house. Methodological naturalism requires that the natural world be regarded of lacking in values or meaning, and this in turn implies that facts [which are phenomena/events in the natural world] are lacking in value and meaning. Whatever meaning they may acquire comes from human intellect arranging the facts into a theoretical structure. (The Latin word for the "act of shaping" is fictio.)  Facts are meaningless in the absence of physical theory, and what we see is often mediated by the theoretical glasses through which we see it. The accumulation of facts is thus necessary for the emergence of science, but it is not sufficient.

Alexandre Koyré

Reply to Objection 3.  Haskins, Duhem, and others quite rightly pointed out that the rise of science began prior to the vaunted Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. It is obvious that you cannot have a scientific revolution unless you already have a science to revolve. The term dates only from 1803, and is thus a conceptual invention of the Revolutionary Age projecting (as always) their political and cultural biases onto the past.

Alexandre Koyré placed science "as an essentially intellectual enterprise, squarely in the historical mainstream of modern thought" and disabused readers of the notion that science was "a series of right-thinking lads and crucial experiments," whose "trajectory... was predictably rational, linear, and progressive" and somehow unaffected by religious, philosophical, or cultural bias.

Reply to Objection 4.  Those involved in the 17th century Scientific Revolution were purposefully engaged in overturning previous Aristotelian paradigms.  Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy is perhaps the Storming of the Bastille.  Yet, even if the Revolutionaries were correct in their self-assessment, revolutions always have deeper origins.

Continue to Article 2


  1. Dear, Peter. Disciplining Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution.  (University of Chicago Press, 1995)
  2. Grant, Edward.  The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages.  (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  3. Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. (Harvard University Press, 1927)
  4. Hatch, Robert A. "The Scientific Revolution: Paradigm Lost?" (Feb 1998-2002) [accessed 4 Nov 2013]
  5. Huff, Toby E. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West. (Cambridge University Press, 2003) 
  6. Lindberg, David C.  The Beginnings of Western Science.  (University of Chicago Press, 1992).  


  1. "For treating of the description of the celestial objects, about the form of the universe, and the revolution of the heavens, and the motion of the stars, leading the soul nearer to the creative power, it teaches to quickness in perceiving the seasons of the year, the changes of the air, and the appearance of the stars; since also navigation and husbandry derive from this much benefit, as architecture and building from geometry. This branch of learning, too, makes the soul in the highest degree observant, capable of perceiving the true and detecting the false, of discovering correspondences and proportions, so as to hunt out for similarity in things dissimilar; and conducts us to the discovery of length without breadth, and superficial extent without thickness, and an indivisible point, and transports to intellectual objects from those of sense."

    Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata

    Thanks for the post, TOF!

    1. St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, in his farewell speech to his teacher, Origen, talked about how Origen taught him and his brother math and natural philosophy (science) as part of their preparation for learning theology and Scripture studies. And Origen was a pupil of St. Clement of Alexandria.

      This sort of thing turns into the trivium and quadrivium of Liberal Arts, later on.

  2. I'd say the Scientific Revolution hit biology along with physics, particularly with Harvey's De Motu Cordis, and the introduction of the microscope. The real problem was an embarrassment of riches: with the discovery of microscopic organisms, and the Age of Sail putting European scientists in touch with a whole world of life to describe and classify, they simply had so damned much data to cope with that it took a couple of centuries to digest it all and start constructing theoretical frameworks.

  3. Arguably, this revolution was confined to physics, but spread to chemistry a century later, and to biology by the 1920’s, losing bits and pieces along the way. (See Dear's #4: Where are the Darwin equations?)

    I think those bits and pieces that were lost are why there is so much contention in biology in particular, and why the loudest (and most insecure) atheists like Jerry Coyne are so focused on it.

    In physics and chemistry, those studying it during the Scientific Revolution were mainly looking for repeatable patterns of behavior to mathematically predict and control, and they were successful in that regard because there were so many such patterns to be found. They just put final and formal causes aside, and assumed they were unimportant and could be dispensed with as irrelevant.

    In biology, it's mainly the formal and final causes *themselves* that the discipline seeks to explain. Almost all of biology revolves around identifying, understanding, and explaining the biological function of biological organisms and their parts.

    Unfortunately for the reductionists, it's impossible to describe or understand biological function in non-teleological terms, and hence biology can't simply be incorporated into "The view of the world as a kind of machine."

    The best they have is a philosophical contrivance (part of Darwin's theory) which purports to provide them a rationale for believing that biological function does ultimately reduce to the mechanical, but without actually providing them a way to describe biological functions in mechanical, mathematically predictable terms. So they're stuck saying that they could do it, even though none of them ever actually does it. Furthermore, that philosophical contrivance's account of function is incoherent, because the supposed reduction is actually an elimination, as a few atheists like Nagel and Fodor have figured out.

    This accounts for a good deal of the sheer nastiness among New Atheists, imo, and their obsession with Darwin. It's hard to ever really be comfortable when you're devoted to an incoherent view. You have to keep reiterating it, to yourself and others, and shout down people who get too close to pointing out the contradiction at the source of your discomfort, and you need to cling ever tighter to your rationalizations for that contradiction.

    1. It has always seemed to me that the 17th century scientific revolution did marvelously well in dealing with the inanimate, tolerably well in dealing with the animate, and not well at all in dealing with the sentient. Biology quite sensibly deals with organs and organisms as "machines" but overlooks that they are not only machines. Psychology, sociology, et al. may do okay dealing with sentient beings as animals, but forgets that they are not only animals. As Jaki wrote: physics does not exhaust chemistry and chemistry does not exhaust biology. Nor does biology exhaust psychology. That's why efforts to reduce psychology to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics are doomed, even though there are many aspects of the larger sphere that are explicable in the smaller.

    2. While I find this self-evidently true of psychology, and nearly so for biology, I'm curious about your statement about chemistry and physics. Having been educated in both, I'm hard-pressed to find any aspect of chemistry that can't be reduced to physics. What did you have in mind?

    3. Water is wet. H2O is not. There are formal causes ("emergent properties" in modern lingo) that are not explicable from the more basic level. But I agree that, both dealing with inanimate objects, there is a closer correspondence between the science of atoms and the science of molecules.

    4. Can chemistry be *well* reduced to physics? For instance, can we generate the elements and their properties as consequences of quantum mechanics *ab origine*? I'm told we cannot. (I can't claim to have tried myself.) Philosophy of chemistry is still a bit nascent, but try some papers by Scerri for a start. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a tidy summary of the puzzle under 'philosophy of chemistry', in section 6. - Chris Kirk

    5. That's an interesting question in general, and it is not so apparent that the answer, in general, is yes. In the case you mention, nucleosynthesis can answer most of what you are asking if you ignore the pesky questions surrounding the "p-process", which is not well understood. The p-process, however, is invoked for only a few of the naturally occurring nuclides, almost all of which can be explained by the much better understood s- and r-processes.

  4. It might be useful to state Jaki's definition of science here... "The quantitative study of the quantitative aspects of things in motion". I am not learned enough to offer an opinion as to its legitimacy other than to point out that he states that science is not only an accumulation of the quantitative 'aspects' but also the 'quantitative study' of those aspects. I would have expected him to have written something like, "a reasoned discourse about the quantitative aspects" etc but he wrote instead the 'quantitative study' of those aspects. That's where I'm at a bit of a loss. Nor is his word necessarily the final one though he was brilliant.

    Also, these articles are a bright light in what appears to be a rapidly darkening place. Thank you.

    1. The quantitative business was the main objective of the scientific revolutionaries. I would have said "metric" properties of physical bodies, but it's the same thing as Descartes and the rest asserted as the New Science. The Old Science looked at non-quantitative aspects, esp. formal and final (be)causes, but the Revolution discarded these precisely because they are not quantitative/measurable.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. In your reply to objection 1, you say that the pre-modern notion of science was "a systematic and analytical study of a subject using evidence, logic and reason". I think this is right in its basic thrust, but leaves out that criterion or "certitude" which is at the core of the Aristotelian notion of science, thus distinguishing scientific demonstration from dialectical demonstration. I wonder if we cannot still say with Aristotle's medieval commentators that science is "cognitio certa per causas" in the precise Aristotelian sense. If so, then much of modern "science" is still in the state of dialectical probability, awaiting the discovery of the proper causes of the observed and mathematically expressed regularities of nature.

    Love your blog, Mike Flynn, and I look forward to your future installments on this topic.

    1. But modern science does look for causes. It is not content with "mathematically expressed regularities of nature."
      Consider the difference between Astronomy and Astrophysics.
      Astronomy is content with establishing the regularities of nature. But Astrophysics wants to know why these regularities exist. The astrophysics was started off by Kepler who first postulated forces between sun and the planets to account for the planetary orbits.

    2. Modern science looks for metrical efficient causes; and of course it raises Theories on top of Facts and Laws. (Or the propter quid for the quia, as the medievals put it.)

    3. Astronomy is content with establishing the regularities of nature. But Astrophysics wants to know why these regularities exist.

      The problem is that the definition was not "divinatio possibilitatis per causas," but "cognitio certa per causas". And astrophysics is a far cry from cognitio certa.

  7. the Scientific Revolution “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes… within the system of medieval Christendom.”

    Indeed, what if the Scientific Revolution in question was the beginning of the Great Apostasy?

    Just a side issue, you cannot say "summa origines" when you mean "summa de origine" or "summa de originibus", and you could hardly say "scientiarum" if you mean specifically the results of the Scientific Revolution.

  8. Of the six features I would single out as most Antichristian:

    1.The view of the world as a kind of machine.
    2.The distinction between “primary” and “secondary” qualities.

    If by primary is not meant substance and secondary accidents, but by primary is meant all quantity related things and by secondary all sensorial things. And if by "a kind of machine" you mean "a kind of clockwork which runs itself".

    1. And if by "a kind of machine" you mean "a kind of clockwork which runs itself".

      It should be noted that it was the medieval natural philosophers who first compared the universe to a clock -- the clock was, after all, a medieval invention.

      Jean Buridan and Nicholas Oresme (14th century) compared the universe to a clock. Even Thomas Aquinas did so. And before that the 13th century monk and astronomer Sacrobosco conceived of the "world machine."

      The image of the clockwork universe, or a world machine, was simply an image meant to express a metaphysical view of the universe as a rationally ordered thing, which humans can understand through the use of natural reason.

      Like so much else, the Scientific Revolutionaries simply inherited the "machine/clockwork universe" metaphor from their medieval predecessors.

    2. The Universe is indeed in a way a clock, insofar as it measures time.

      But the point is whether it is the kind of clock Immanuel Kant constituted in Königsberg (a living voluntary clock taking his daily walk at regular times) or what is more commonly known as a clockwork.

      If I should have been misconstruing St Thomas (so far I am not much read in Buridan or Oresme), do give me the reference, to Summa or to Latin works not translated, quia et hac lingua bene lego textus.

      Sacrobosco ... I am not sure he was as orthodox as St Thomas or Nicole Oresme. But it was ages since I just possibly read about him, and I have not read his own texts, so I am not sure.

      Buridan (like Bradwardine) was, unless I recall wrong, less orthodox. Pre-calvinist.

      Not meaning to depreciate Bradwardines logarithmic idea or its application for mechanics (which is where he used it, he never went to Napier's lengths in actually defining logarithmic values).

    3. This is the only reference to a clock in the Summa Theologica:

      Accordingly, in all things moved by reason, the order of reason which moves them is evident, although the things themselves are without reason: for an arrow through the motion of the archer goes straight towards the target, as though it were endowed with reason to direct its course. The same may be seen in the movements of clocks and all engines put together by the art of man. Now as artificial things are in comparison to human art, so are all natural things in comparison to the Divine art. -- I-II, q. 13, art. 2

      Granted, Aquinas is not saying the world is literally like a clock in this passage. What he is saying, though, is that things that lack intelligence themselves, like natural bodies, still seem to act for an end by behaving the same way always or for the most part. These things are, therefore, directed to their ends by the Intelligent Being. This is precisely what Aquinas states in his Fifth Way.

      In the above passage, he uses the image of an arrow directed to an end by the archer (like he does in the Fifth Way), but he also uses the second image of a clock, which is directed by the "human art." Natural things, however, are directed by the "Divine art."

      The difference between Aquinas' use of the clock metaphor and the way it was used by early modern philosophers is that the latter rejected Aristotelian teleology. For Aquinas, natural things are directed to ends because it's their nature to be so directed, but this nature is ultimately endowed by the Intelligent Being, and therefore directed by that Being. He uses the clock metaphor, like the archer metaphor, to illustrate this.

      But for early modern philosophers, there is no conception of the end-directedness-by-nature, or the Aristotelian teleology of Aquinas, and so the clock metaphor is more literal -- the universe became just like a clock, devoid of any inherent purposes or ends.

    4. Clocks in his day ... not sure they had clockworks.

      Clepsydras, sandclocks, sun dials, wax taper clocks were all known, but I think clockworks were a bit later.

      Anyway, the tertium comparationis was being arranged by intelligence, not working it out mechanically without intelligence acting all along. As when a clockwork is wound up and the clock left to lie running as the drawer up (and maker) both are absent.

  9. Actually Ioannes de Sacrobosco did not conceive of the world as "machina mundi". He is quoting the words of a not yet Christian Denis of the Areopagus:

    ECLIPSE DURING THE PASSION MIRACULOUS. -- From the aforesaid it is also evident that, when the sun was eclipsed during the Passion and the same Passion occurred at full moon, that eclipse was not natural -- nay, it was miraculous and contrary to nature, since a solar eclipse ought to occur at new moon or thereabouts. On which account Dionysius the Areopagite is reported to have said during the same Passion, "Either the God of nature suffers, or the mechanism of the universe is dissolved."


    While Denis of the Areopagus was yet a Pagan and saw the miraculous non-shining of the sun (it could not be an eclipse since it was close to or on full moon) on Good Friday, he may very well have been thinking sometimes in terms of "machina mundi", but the comparison is not by the converted saint, nor by the man who quoted his words from before the conversion.

    1. And Denis in giving the two alternatives "God of nature suffering" and "machina mundi being dissolved" neatly showed his intimate knowledge of both Stoic Pantheism and Epicurean Mechanicism - and refuted both. To Stoics the God of nature cannot suffer. To Epicureans the mechanism of the world cannot be dissolved.

      Not something any faker of his biography would likely have been able to do before Lorenzo Valla. At least in the Middle Ages.

      This is therefore an argument for both the biography of "Pseudo"-Dionysus being genuine and therefore also for Good Friday Dark Sun witnessed outside Jerusalem.

      But very much not for Sacrobosco predating Newton in seing nature as a kind of clockwork.

    2. But very much not for Sacrobosco predating Newton in seing nature as a kind of clockwork.

      I didn't say Sacrobosco said the universe was a "clockwork." I said he spoke of the "world machine," which he does:

      "The machine of the universe is divided into two, the ethereal and the elementary region."

    3. I suppose he would have called a bike, had he seen one, a machine.

  10. Those involved in the 17th century Scientific Revolution were purposefully engaged in overturning previous Aristotelian paradigms. Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy is perhaps the Storming of the Bastille. Yet, even if the Revolutionaries were correct in their self-assessment, revolutions always have deeper origins.

    I believe those guys were largely in error.

    1. And since they were in error, how can Christian truth be the cause of their error?

      Occasion, yes. Just as Catholic truth was occasion of Protestant errors.

  11. BenYachov here!

    Slightly off topic. I'll just mention it then you can get back too it.

    I have been reading a lot of Catholic Scifi & some other than Catholic but still generic Christian Scifi.

    It's pretty cool you should do a survey of this awesome sub-gentry. With honorable mentions to authors who treat religion & religious faith seriously instead of as stereo typical superstition that dis out as mankind progresses technologically.

    Cheers then