Sunday, December 27, 2009

Return of the Age of Unreason - Part I

Returning from a trip one day and noodling in re medieval science led me to an astonishing web-essay by someone calling himself Jim Walker on a religious belief site called for Freethinkers.

Being trip-weary and in a curmudgeonly mood, I commented on the irony of someone denouncing religious belief while believing in so many myths and legends of his own at The Age of Unreason: or Pfui

Now, thanks to the Galileo Effect -- there is always someone willing to point out an affront to another -- we have a response from Mr. Walker.

He writes that he is "not a Middle Age scholar" and then sets about proving it. 

Being a free-thinker, all his thoughts are free and apparently worth the price paid.  The response generally repeats well-worn fundamentalist tropes long adopted by atheists, misses the point of several things I said.  Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it also leaves one open to being misconstrued.  In places, he mistook my intention, and in some places noted incompleteness or omission. 

Naturally, being a freethinker, Mr. Walker makes no provision for comment [let alone disagreement] on his site, and so we must once more make do here, where comment [as well as thinking] really is free -- and freely debated. 

A Message to the Anonymoi:

As usual, I ask only that non-members identify themselves in some way in their comments, lest we confuse one Anonymous with another.  Use whatever screen name you please.  Those responding over on   m-francis.livejournal, the same rule applies.

1. A Few Preliminary Comments
Mr. Walker has a marvelous technique for assigning things to the Medieval Period [bad] or to the Renaissance [good].  Namely, whenever he encounters something he considers good in the Medieval Period, he declares that to have really been the Renaissance.  He also uses the term "Dark Ages" to refer not only to the actual Dark Age, but to the entire Medieval period up to the point where he wishes the Renaissance had begun.  It never seems to occur to him that people whose beliefs he does not share could ever have accomplished anything of which he approves.  The cognitive dissonance must at times be painful.   

Another marvelous tool is to construe any glimmering, hint, or lucky guess in antiquity, China, Islam -- anywhere but in Europe! -- as the really-truly beginning of something, while dismissing any development during the Middle Ages as mere glimmerings, hints, or lucky guesses.  Now, it is true that the Victorian Triumphalism of the Age of Science and Industry needed to be tempered.  The Old Europeans tended to dismiss everything done by non-Europeans.  However, the post-modern impulse to dismiss everything done by Europeans is equally wrong-headed. 

A third technique he uses is a sort of guilt-by-association.  The debate Question is the origin of modern science.    However, Mr. Walker also brings up the crusades, the inquisition, the execution of Bruno, the trial of Galileo, the murder of Hypatia by a mob of Greco-Egyptians, even the sale of indulgences (I kid you not).  Now, he shows no actual knowledge of most of that stuff; but even if we grant him the premise, good science can be done by bad people.  The best science of the early 20th century came out of militaristic, jingoistic Wilhelmine Germany and its national socialist successor.  But we don't say that rocket ships or jet airplanes are bad because they were invented by Nazis or that the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis is wrong because the Kaiser invaded Belgium.  So these arguments are mere red herrings.  If I have time, I may come back to them later. 

Related to number three is number four.  And that is the association of one innovation with another on not better basis than a chance correlation.  For example, in his anxiety to show that medievals never did nothing nohow he equates pickled herring with the fish relish used for οπσον by the ancient Greeks.  Apparently, since both involve fish....  Of course, the technological innovation of pickling enabled Baltic fishermen to preserve and ship their catches over longer distances, and opened a source of protein and omega-3 oils to vast numbers of people.  Greek fish relish was an appetizer for meals. 

Mr. Walker is entirely correct to say that historical period-names are arbitrary.  This goes double for self-congratulatory names like "Renaissance" or "Age of Reason" as well as for deliberately-chosen derogatory names like "Dark Age."  Mr. Walker takes this as permission to name the historical periods as he damn well wishes.  Modern historians prefer objective descriptions like "early 14th century Burgundy" to tendentious labels from propaganda mills.  I find that some of the names are useful, because there really are sea-changes in people's mental picture of the world.  The ancient world really did end, so did the medieval world, and so is the modern world even as we speak.  That the changes were gradual and seamless does not change matters.  The existence of dawn and dusk does not invalidate the distinction between night and day. 

2. A Note on the Dark Age
The dates are conventionally taken to run from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West to the Carolingian Ascendancy, roughly AD 500-800.  Two good histories covering the run-up to and most of the Dark Age is Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, A.D. 400-700 by Randers-Pehrson and The World of Late Antiquity AD 150-750, by Peter Brown. 

The age was dark because a lot of barbarians burned down a lot of stuff, and a lot of documentation went up in smoke.  It is a Dark Age because we "see" by documentation, and very little has survived "the shipwrecks of time."  It is not called "dark" because the people in it suddenly became stupid. 

3. A Note on Sources
Furthermore, Mr. Walker makes much of his sources.  It is unclear whether he has read any of these or has simply skimmed the Publisher's Weekly summaries and other such marketing materials.  In any case, he writes, "I did, however, provide links within the text and sources at the end that are central to the argument. I guess that doesn't count as source material in Flynn's mind." 

To which I must answer, actually, no; not particularly.  Most of them have nothing to do with the origin of science, and the authors are journalists, novelists, art historians, Egyptologists, medical doctors, and the like.  None are trained in medieval history or in the history of science.  What has Christopher Hitchens' opinion of Mother Teresa to do with the matter, let alone a pair of magicians?  "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets" appears to be the usual post-modern feminist gnosticism; but whether Red Riding Hood is based on Diana the Huntress seems unrelated to the origins of science. 

Andrew Dickson White's screed is in fact where the meme of "warfare" between science and religion first got rolling.  White is not taken seriously by historians, and many of his "facts" are simply made up. 

Links to crackpot sites like jesusneverexisted are as unpersuasive as answersingenesis.  It is no great revelation that other atheists believe the same myths and legends, or that they pass memes among each other like a bad headcold. 

Digital recreations of ancient Rome or surveys of scientists' opinions on matters outside their expertise are also irrelevant. 


Not content to put forward this roster, Mr. Walker then disparages the research of actual scholars of the subject.  He writes:

And no, I do not accept his comical list of pictures of books copy & pasted at the end as a valid way to cite source material. Did he actually derive his sources from them or did he just go to and search for books that look like it might impress his readers. I don't know. Lets hope not, because if he did get his sources from them, then the authors of those books got the information wrong, wrong, wrong.

Perhaps Walker missed the part where I wrote, "The following are from my personal library, saving only that some of the editions shown are more recent than the ones I have."  I have read each one of these, most of them while researching the novel Eifelheim, which is set in the 14th century, others because I sustained the interest afterward.  Mr. Walker is welcome to do the same; but somehow I doubt he will.  Actual research does not seem to attract him.  As a result of reading these texts, I changed my mind about much of what I had previously believed regarding the Middle Ages.  That Mr. Walker believes that the premier scholars specializing in medieval history and medieval science are not just wrong, but "wrong, wrong, wrong" tells us more about his familiarity with the field than it does about the scholars or the medievals.   His mind appears to be made up on the basis of proof-texts, web-legends and the like.  Actual research is replaced by googling:

This is the world of the internet and Flynn provided no links for his readers to check his sources.

Alas, my sources called "books." They are printed with ink or paper and are sprinkled with footnotes and other such scholarly stuff.  They require a reading protocol very different from "surfing."  See "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" for a discussion of the loss of attention span and the growing inability to actually read texts closely. 

4. A Note on Hypatia
Michael Deakin, Hypatia of Alexandria: Mathematician and Martyr, is a mathematician, not an historian.  As such, he may be a reliable authority on the mathematical value of Hypatia's work.  He writes: "The most likely Hypatian material [in Diophantus' Arithmetic] is the detailed checking that the solutions are valid. Not particularly inspiring stuff, I'm afraid; rather the sort of thing one would prepare for rather dim students!"  This hardly makes her "the world's greatest living mathematician and astronomer," as the publisher's blurb would have it.  As to whether she was "a strikingly beautiful woman and a devoted celibate" there is no evidence at all.  If the rest of Deakin's book is like that, it should be approached with caution.  But his website is an invaluable compendium showing how little we really know about Hypatia and - more importantly - who we know it from. 
For simplicity, here are direct links:
Socrates Scholasticus
Chronicles of John of Nikiul
Damascius' Life of Isidore, reproduced in the Suda
Letters from her pupil Synesius, bishop of Ptolemais in Cyrene:
Plus a handful of passing mentions included in the earlier link. 
Have fun. 

5. A Note on "Science"
Before getting now into the meat, we must first settle what we mean by "science."  All peoples have collected facts about nature, lore, rules of thumb, etc.  But science is not the mere accumulation of haphazard facts.  One may gather pragmatically a great many facts without forming any coherent world picture. 

Secondly, and for the same reason, science is not technology, engineering, or the building of clever gadgets.  Building pyramids or aqueducts or clocks is not science.  Such things may or may not boost science.  It depends on WHAT CAME OF IT.

Example: the mechanical clock.  Mr. Walker thinks it significant that Su-Sung invented a clock before the Europeans.  (The European escapement is different from the Chinese one, so it is not something "learned from China," but independently invented.)  But the important thing about the Sung Clock is that it was THE Sung Clock.  That is, the only one.  By the time the Jesuits reached China, it had long since been disassembled and Su-Sung's treatise had been lost (until rediscovered by the Jesuits).  That is the way of it when technological "advances" are simply toys for the One Man.  In China, the right to Proclaim the Hours belonged to the Emperor, so public clocks were forbidden.  In Islam, timekeeping came under the rule of the muwaqqit of the mosque, and the Grand Mufti declared public clocks haram.  In Europe, clocks were not used to ornament the Emperor's court; they were not used as pious temple deceptions (as so many Hellenistic "advances" were), but were delighted in as Kool Gadgets.  Cities and towns vied to erect the most impressive clocks in their public sqaures.  
Rule of thumb: a device is not an advancement unless it advances something. 

Peter Dear laid out the six essential features of the scientific revolution in Mersenne and the Learning of the Schools:
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.

Throughout history folks have stumbled over things or developed rules of thumb and accumulated facts or tinkered gadgets; but science in the modern sense is a "machine" for creating new knowledge.  It opened for business in the 17th century Latin West, but only a fool would assume it appeared out of nowhere - Galileo bursting pristine from the forehead of Copernicus.  The foundations were laid in the Middle Ages.  And if a foundation is not so glamorous as the grand facade of the building, the building could never have been erected without it. 

To be continued

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