Monday, December 28, 2009

Return of the Age of Unreason - Part II

This is a continuation of this: and/or the preceding post here. 

In this part, we will take up two questions rather than pick over this or that misconception in Mr. Walker's essay.  Instead, we will make the positive case.  And because the case is medieval and I just plain feel like it, I will cast them in the form of the medieval Question genre.  The format runs as follows: 
  1. The Question to be answered; sometimes broken down into separate articles. 
  2. The principles Objections (Antitheses) or arguments against the questions.  (It would seem not, because...)
  3. The principle argument in favor of the question (the Thesis)   (On the contrary...)
  4. The determination of the question (Synthesis)  (I answer that...)
  5. The specific rebuttals of the Antitheses. 

The arguments are typically in abbreviated form, as writing materials were expensive and the medieval student was assumed to be familiar with the required readings and would recognize an entire argument from a "key phrase."  To the modern ear, Questions seem oddly verbose -and- curt.  In those days, texts did not have standard pagination, so the "key" phrases were the way they "referenced" or "footnoted."  The necessary texts are listed at the end of the Questions. 

Question I.  The nature of the Scientific Revolution. 
Article 1.  Whether there was in fact a Scientific Revolution.

Objection 1.  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 was continuous and 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 “Science” is not simply an accumulated body of facts.  It is a methodology for:
a) purposefully uncovering those facts,
b) developing natural laws to describe them, and
c) formulating physical theories to explain them. 
While the facts accumulate continuously, the methodology had, by the 17th century, undergone a radical transformation involving 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. 
Arguably, this revolution was confined to the physics of motion, but spread to chemistry a century later, to biology by the 1920’s.  (In practice, Darwin was still a natural philosopher.)  But a gradual sequel does not contradict a sudden advent. Science in our modern sense is only three hundred years old. 
But how long was the pregnancy?  Pierre Duhem argued that the continuity of the sciences with the medieval tradition was greater than humanist historians had supposed; but he based this on the “pre-discovery” of specific scientific laws like Buridan's formulation of Newton’s first law, a procedure subject to accusations of “cherry-picking.”  Whether Dear’s transformations also had medieval roots will be explored in subsequent posts.
Reply to Objection 1.  That the Middle Ages contributed nothing to the history of thought is an idée fixe of the Modern Ages that grew from Protestant anti-Papist propaganda, has been inherited by fundamentalists, and is now fervently believed by their atheist successors.  Thus, as evidence grew for the medieval roots of much of the Scientific Revolution, so did the argument that there hadn’t really been one. 
But those involved in the self-styled Scientific Revolution were purposefully engaged in overturning previous paradigms.  Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy is perhaps the “Storming of the Bastille.”  Yet, even if the “revolutionaries” were correct in their self-assessment, revolutions (and cocoons) always have deeper origins.  After all, it was never called the “Scientific Coup d’Etat.”   

Article 2. Whether the Scientific Revolution was uniquely Western. 

Objection 1.  It would seem otherwise, because Western science grew from Aristotle’s natural philosophy.  Also, the ancient Greeks proposed atomism and heliocentrism, two themes of the 17th century revolution.  Thus, the Scientific Revolution began in ancient Greece. 
Objection 2.  Furthermore, the West was backward compared to Islam, and learned of Greek natural philosophy through Arab intermediaries.  Thus, the Scientific Revolution began in Islam. 
Objection 3.  Also, Shen Kua discussed magnetic declination and land formation by deposition and erosion; and maintained daily records of lunar and planetary positions.  Thus, China also had a Scientific Revolution. 
On the contrary, Stanley Jaki has written that “the Scientific Revolution was stillborn in every other civilization.” 
I answer that while all peoples and cultures have accumulated “lore, skills, crafts, technologies, engineering, learning, and knowledge,” Science is not the mere accumulation of facts.  Those facts must be arranged and understood within the context of natural laws and physical theories. But scholars must believe that natural laws are possible before they will look for them.  Obstacles to this belief have included: 
a) A multitude of self-willed gods.  There cannot be consistent natural laws if trees, rivers, and planets are capable of emotions and desires; and if sundry gods can intervene in the world to contrary purposes.  As Brian Stock writes, “[the Roman’s] daily experience led him to believe that nature’s forces could be imitated, even placated; he was less sure they could be understood.”  IOW, engineering and superstition, but not science. 
b) The absolute autonomy of God.  When even the act of handwriting is ascribed to God’s direct intervention, “laws of nature” can be no more than “habits of God,” and the reasons for them cannot be comprehended.  
c) An infinite sequence of cyclic universes.  If the cosmos and its mutations are eternal, all possibilities must eventually come to be, and “laws of nature” are merely temporary concatenations of little significance. 
In the Latin West, these impediments were mitigated or absent.  The Latins believed that the World has a beginning and an end (i.e., that time has direction and history is a progress) and that a singular, rational God “disposed all things by measure and number and weight” (Wis. 11:21).  By thus revealing His rational nature, wrote Anselm of Canterbury, and because He is faithful to His promises, God has bound Himself to act in a certain way.  Such beliefs disposed the Latins to conceive a consistent World, knowable by “measuring, numbering, and weighing.” 
The Latins made a further, crucial distinction between primary vs. secondary causation.  As William of Conches wrote, “[God] is the author of all things, evil excepted.  But the natures with which He endowed His creatures accomplish a whole scheme of operations, and these too turn to His glory since it is He who created these very natures.”  This had become a general belief by the end of the Early Midd   
They believed that their God had given material bodies the ability to act directly upon one another through their natures.  Hence, natural laws.  This “disenchanted” the World.  There is no dryad behind the tree, no nymph in the well, only natures knowable to human reason.  Further, since the heavens, too, are just another created thing (Gen 1:1), and not something “alive, divine, and influential in human affairs,” the heavens, too, must be governed by natural laws.  
That the reasons for material phenomena should be sought in the natures of things, and not in the inscrutable Will of a transcendent Deity – and that these secondary causes are both consistent and rationally accessible – was a uniquely Western worldview informed by their Christian theology.  Those few Greeks who thought along the same lines are celebrated precisely because the Christians exalted their work. 
Reply to Objection 1.  The ancient Greeks invented the very idea of “science” (historiê, lit., “inquiry” or "re-search"), as well as “nature” – and without that none of the rest would have happened.  (You can’t have a Scientific Revolution unless there is already a science to revolve!)  But historiê includes any kind of research, including (obviously) history.  Applied to nature, re-search was mostly a non-empirical speculative philosophy.  The criterion for truth was logical coherence rather than correspondence to facts.  Many, like Plato, doubted the reliability of empirical facts when they conflicted with a really cool logical theory.  
Greek polytheism also got in the way.  The planets were not merely the abodes of the gods, they were the gods.  That just was Mars out there, and study of his movements would help us anticipate wars.  In the same sense, Poseidon just was the sea, and the sea was Poseidon.  (The Greeks could actually point to their gods.  Heh.)  And if the seas and the forests and the volcanoes and the rest were actually gods, well, then the right sacrifices, the right mysteries, would let you placate them.  Those few philosophers who developed a more scientific outlook - like Aristotle - usually wound up with a quasi-monotheism: the Prime Mover, the Demiurge. 

Atomism and heliocentrism do not mark an ancient Greek Scientific Revolution for two reasons:
a) being outside the mainstream of Greek thought, they revolutionized nothing; and
b) they were not scientific in the sense intended here.  
They were not derived from empirical facts but deduced from logical necessity or assumed a priori.  Democritus’ άτομος seems prescient only because we apply the term to a very different entity.  (The άτομος is by definition "indivisible," while our "atoms" can be split.  They are in fact more like the medieval minima than like BDemocritus' άτομος.)  His five “atoms” corresponded to the five regular solids and five “elements.”  (“Therefore,” the element fire is painful because its tetrahedral atom has the sharpest corners.)  Aristarchos placed the sun in the center “because” fire was a nobler element than earth and rest a nobler state than motion.  This sort of thing can be called many things; but "scientific" is not among them.  
Aristotle “lit the fire” of Science, although the fuse was uncommonly long.  He organized a large body of empirical observations within a coherent philosophical framework, making Science into a specific discipline.  This had a stunning impact, first on Islam, then on the West.  (It should be noted in passing that our impression of ancient Greece as a hotbed of rationallism is a skewed picture based on those books that the Syriac, Byzantine, and Latin Christians thought worth copying.  Plato, Aristotle, and the rest were exceptions, not the rule.  A useful book in this respect is E.R.Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational. 

But Aristotelian natural philosophy, while necessary, was not sufficient: No scientific revolution occurred in Byzantium, which never had to discover or translate it.  Although this may reflect the paucity of documentation rather than a lack of interest, few Byzantine scholars seem to have added to their heritage, Simplicius and Philoponus being notable exceptions.  As Theodore Metochites wrote, “The great men of the past have said everything so perfectly that they have left nothing for us to say.”  Byzantium did, however, deserve its proud title of “The World’s Librarian,” and its preservation of ancient learning midwifed both Islamic and Western science. 
Reply to Objection 2.  Initially, Islam treated Greek learning with greater enthusiasm than had the Byzantine Greeks themselves.  However, no Muslim Aquinas ever reconciled Aristotle with Holy Qur’an.  The great Islamic faylasuf who embraced the Stagerite – e.g., ibn Sinna, ibn Rushd – embraced him all the way, becoming heretics to Islam.  Those who rejected him – e.g., al-Ghazali – rejected him completely.  The faylasuf prospered only under the protection of powerful rulers; and their writings found readier audiences in Western Christendom than in Islam itself.  Natural philosophy was viewed with suspicion by the traditional mujtahid.  It was never taught publicly.  With one exception, the madrassas were restricted to Qur'anic studies.  (The exception, the astronomical madrassa of Maghara, lasted only about 70 years.)  Every faylasuf at one time or another in his career was persecuted.  The great al-Kindi was publicly flogged and his library confiscated. 
Islam denied secondary causation.  According to Maimonides [Guide to the Perplexed], Islamic theologians asserted that “when a man moves a pen, it is not the man who moves it; for the motion occurring in the pen is an accident created by God in the pen.  Similarly the motion of the hand, which we think of as moving the pen, is an accident created by God in the moving hand.  Only God has instituted the habit that the motion of the hand is concomitant with the motion of the pen, without the hand exercising in any respect an influence on, or being causative in regard to, the motion of the pen.”  Al-Ghazali asserted in Tahafut al Falasifa [The Incoherence of Philosophy], that fire did not burn cloth.  God caused the fire, and God caused the blackening and disintegration of the cloth; and it was only the habit of God that the one followed the other.  Unlike Anselm of Canterbury, ibn Hazn claimed God need not even be faithful to these “habits.”  Al-Ghazali wrote [in the Tahafut], “The imponderable decisions of God cannot be weighed by the scales of reason.”  The great faylasuf Ibn Rushd countered with Tahafut al Tahafut [The Incoherence of the Incoherence], but in 1195 he was stripped of all his offices and exiled.  As “Averröes,” his popularity in Europe was second only to Aristotle, but little noteworthy science was created in Islam after his time. 
“The problems of physics,” wrote Ibn Khaldûn, “are of no importance for us in our religious affairs or our livelihoods; therefore we must leave them alone.”  An exception was made for the “practical sciences” of astronomy, medicine, etc., where Muslim scholars made outstanding contributions of facts.  But laws of nature and explanatory theories smacked of men limiting God’s autonomy. 
At the dawn of the Middle Ages, Islamic science did outshine the Latin West; but by the close, their positions had reversed.  Clearly the cause must be sought in the Middle Ages.  Yet, without the Islamic translations and commentaries, modern Science would have been long delayed. 
Reply to Objection 3.  China had a scientific revolution in the 17th century when Jesuit missionaries introduced Western mathematics, heliocentrism, and… translations of Aristotle’s natural philosophy.  (That old Greek sure did get around.)  Their revolution was the realization that there was such a thing as “Science.”  If the Muslims never had an Aquinas, the Chinese never had an Aristotle.  They had never integrated the study of the natural world into a coherent philosophy, as Aristotle and his Islamic and European successors had done.  Poetry, physics, gardening and alchemy were all ko-chih.  In effect, the Chinese had sciences, but did not have Science. 
Far from seeking causes in the natures of things, as the Latin Christians did, Chu Hsi argued that one should seek principles in the "outside realm" in only thirty to forty percent of cases; otherwise, moral principles should be sought within.  Even this was too much for Wang Yang-ming, who criticized Chu Hsi’s “externalist” views.  Nathan Sivan described Chinese thought thusly: “Empirical knowledge is neither certain nor probable, merely given.    For certainty one looks to illumination, introspection, and other alternatives to purely cognitive processes.  Certainty is, in the last analysis, a spiritual and moral stance.” 
Confuscist sages were more concerned with identifying the current point on the cosmic cycle than the natural causes of material phenomena.  Sequence, frequency, quantity, and magnitude held little interest.  Fang Yi-zhi [Little Notes on Principles of Things] wrote that sound and light “are always more subtle than the ‘number’ of things,” i.e., than their measurement.  This may be true in some sense, but when it gets in the way of trying to measure things, it is a roadblock to Science. 
    Regarding heliocentrism, Juan Yuan wrote, “Our ancients sought phenomena and ignored theoretical explanation...  It does not seem to me the least inconvenient to ignore Western theoretical explanations and simply to consider facts.”  If the Greeks valued logical theories more than facts; the Chinese prized facts with little concern for explanatory theories.  
This approach had consequences.  Everything consisted of merely following a procedure.  During Huang-yu reign of Northern Sung, the great Shen Kua noted that candidates preparing essays on astronomical instruments “were so confused about the celestial sphere, and the examiners themselves so ignorant of the subject, that all candidates were passed with distinction.”  This was the only period in which a technical subject was ever part of the Imperial Examinations.  Shen Kua's proposal for daily records of planetary positions was sabotaged by his own staff, who simply made up the data.  [He fired them all; but it did no good.  The bureaucracy was too much for him.] 
Chinese arithmetical astronomy at its peak (AD 1300) had not achieved the accuracy of Ptolemy’s geometric astronomy a millennium earlier.  Three centuries later, the Ming calendar “was regularly failing,” yet the Directorate of Astronomy resisted Hsing Yun-lu’s reforms – not on technical grounds, but as sedition.  A public admission of calendar failure amounted to a declaration that the dynasty had lost the Mandate of Heaven, tantamount to a call for revolution.
[Note, too, that astronomy was a Directorate under the Six Ministers, not something pursued independently for greater understanding of the heavens.]  This is not a milieu conducive to science.  


A Note on "Technolgical Advances"
Science is not technology, engineering, or the building of clever gadgets.  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 advance unless it advances something. 

The following articles and books were consulted in the original preparation of the Questions above. 
2.            Aristotle.  Collected works.

6.            Cantor, Norman.  The Meaning of the Middle Ages.  (Allyn and Bacon, 1973)
7.            Dear, Peter. Disciplining Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution.  (University of Chicago Press, 1995)

9.            Duhem, Pierre.  Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science, tr. Roger Ariew and Peter Barker.  (Hackett, 1996). 

11.        Gies, Frances & Joseph Gies.  Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel.  (HarperPerennial, 1995). 
12.        Gimpel, Jean.  The Medieval Machine.  (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976) 
13.        Grant, Edward.  The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages.  (Cambridge University Press, 1996). 
14.        Grant, Edward.  God and Reason in the Middle Ages.  (Cambridge University Press, 2001)

17.        Huff, Toby.  The Rise of Early Modern Science.  (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Jaki, Stanley.  The Limits of a Limitless Science.  (ISI Books, 2000)

18.        Kadhim, Najah.  “Between Text and History: Re-establishing the Intellectual Link,”

20.        Lindberg, David C., ed.  Science in the Middle Ages.  (University of Chicago Press, 1978). 
21.        Lindberg, David C.  The Beginnings of Western Science.  (University of Chicago Press, 1992). 

25.        Sivin, Nathan.  “Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China – Or Didn't It?”  At:

28.        Stock, Brian.  “Science, Technology, and Economic Progress in the Early Middle Ages,” contained in (20). 

32.        White, Lynne.  Medieval Technology and Social Change.  (Oxford University Press, 1964).

The remaining Questions are listed below, and will be posted on request:

Question II.  The medieval embrace of science.

Article 1.  Whether the Middle Ages was an Age of Reason. 

Article 2.  Whether medieval philosophers were free to inquire into nature. 

Article 3.  Whether the Middle Ages saw technological advances. 

Question III.  The medieval advancement of science. 

Article 1.  Whether medieval natural philosophers saw the world as a kind of machine and therefore sought natural explanations. 

Article 2.  Whether the medievals distinguished primary from secondary qualities, assigning the latter to the perceptions of the subject. 

Article 3.  Whether medieval natural philosophers used deliberate and recordable observation and experiment. 

Article 4.  Whether natural philosophers used mathematics as a privileged tool for disclosing nature. 

Article 5.  Whether medieval natural philosophers pursued natural philosophy as a research enterprise rather than as a body of knowledge. 

Article 6. Whether medieval natural philosophers reconstructed the social basis of knowledge around a positive evaluation of cooperative research. 

Question IV.  The medieval foundations of the Scientific Revolution. 

Article 1.  Whether the 17th century revolution could have occurred without the work of the late medieval natural philosophers. 

Article 2.  Whether a Scientific Revolution could have preceded the 17th century. 


  1. 1. Contemporary Muslims tend to consider Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd as intellectual heroes of Islam. That doesn't detract from your point about how they were considered then, but I think it's significant.

    2. I've been warned by some of my professors not to use Stanley Jaki as a reference because he's not taken seriously anymore. I have no idea how true this is, or if so, whether it's justified.

  2. 1. Contemporary muslims have learned that "science=good." Better late than never, I suppose; and there always was that mu'tazilite strain in Islam. But still, all of the faylasuf were persecuted at one time or another and the question is not whether muslims are capable of doing science. They are, so long as they abandon the extreme occasionalism of al-Ghazali. The question is how modern science arose, and that means taking account of attitudes during the Middle Ages.

    2. Stanley Jaki had doctorates in physics and in theology. That made him an odd fish to most. He was also a Benedictine monk, which put him beyond the pale. The question is whether your professors don't take him seriously because he was a priest, a physicist, or a theologian, or simply because they find his conclusions disagreeable - or disagreeably stated. He could indeed be curmudgeonly. Still, he had to tell physicists like Murray Gell-Mann what the implications were of Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem for the Theory of Everything. Hawking came to it a decade or so later.

  3. Jaki's view basically takes a Duhemian view a few steps farther, and the current tendency seems to be to try -- to the extent the data allow -- to pull away from Duhem's conclusions and qualify them as much as possible. When that's combined with how aggressively he often argues, I'm not really surprised that he gets a bit of disapproval.

    A sed contra, of course, doesn't need to be absolutely definitive on its own; and Jaki's a good choice for putting in one because he's nothing if not someone who puts things in a frank and straightforward way.


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