Medieval Ages and The Roots of Modern Science

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How the Medieval Ages paved the way for modern science

Scientific Development in the Medieval Ages

Now we get into the medieval foundation of modern scientific thought. Contrary to common opinion, science was not “suppressed” as is the common understanding of this time period. Modern scholarship has brought about the reality that contrary to the common opinion, the Middle Ages actually is actually the root of modern scientific thought.

Some of the most compelling arguments came from the medieval times. For example prior to the start of Christianity, and definitely from the time of the Middle Ages, there was a popular scientific consensus that the universe was “eternal”, that was the belief that the universe had no beginning and no end. This belief was common throughout most if not all the pagan civilizations. This is true of the Babylonians, Aztecs, and even to some extent the Romans and Greeks. Modern science disregards this as wrong. Most atheists denounce this claim, stating that the universe is not eternal but rather created to what is referred to as the Big Bang. This belief in a created universe however roots itself in Christianity’s belief in a created universe by God, which was a predominant belief in medieval Europe; a predominant Catholic place.

Similarly prior to the medieval ages, and definitely prior to Christianity, there was a certain animism that was held in scientific consensus throughout the entire pagan world.

“Such stillbirths can be accounted for by each of these culture’s conceptions of the universe and their lack of belief in a transcendent Creator who endowed his creation with consistent physical laws. To the contrary, they conceived of the universe as a huge organism dominated by a pantheon of deities, and destined to go through endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. This made the development of science impossible. Created things had a mind and will of their own”1

Fr. Stanley Jaki further explains that it was the Christian belief in the Incarnation which helped disprove an “eternal” and animist universe. “The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation militates strongly against such thinking. Christ is the monogenes or “only begotten” Son of God. Within the Greco-Roman worldview, on the other hand, the universe was the ‘monogenes’ or ‘only begotten’ emanation from a divine principle not really different from the universe itself.”2

Astronomy was greatly advanced as well during this time period. It was the monasteries of the medieval world that provided scientists to develop their astronomical understandings and knowledge. Most monasteries during that time served not only as a sacred place of worship but also practically as solar observatories. “In its scientific zeal, the Church adapted cathedrals across Europe, and a tower at the Vatican itself, so their darkened vaults could serve as solar observatories. Beams of light that fell past religious art and marble columns not only inspired the faithful but provided astronomers with information about the sun, the earth and their celestial relationship”3 It is shown that the Church gave a lot of financial support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries.

There are several other scientific breakthroughs and innovations which came about during the Middle Ages. For example a German monk named Gerbert de Aurillac (943-1003) became Pope Sylvester II. “History credits him as the Pope who introduced the system of Arabic numerals to the West”4

It was through Saint Thomas Aquinas who helped develop the scholastic approach to science, including philosophical inquiry that we use today. “A scholastic argument begins with a question, followed by a contrary argument and then to state the contrary to the contrary argument”5 It was through this scholastic approach that Aquinas helped develop another modern scientific concept called the principle of objective reality. This states that things that can be observed are real (Metaphysical Realism).

Basically metaphysical reality holds that, “truth is the correspondence of the mind with reality”. Thus, that which exists in the mind must be similar (the same) with what is the case in reality for a thing to qualify as truth. This view of truth and knowledge which dates back to Aristotle was prevalent in the middle ages.

The Galileo Case

I think the best way to conclude this article is by briefly talking about the Galileo case which involved Galileo Galileo_facing_the_Roman_InquisitionGalilei. This is the most commonly used case against the Church, but in defense of the Church I will help give a brief background regarding the case itself and show that Galileo was not completely “blameless”. Cardinal John Henry Newman once stated that “ Galileo was the one stock argument against the Church” He found it amazing that this is in reality the only case that people could come up with in regards to the Church’s apparent opposition to science.

Before we get to Galileo and the case itself we should go back a little in regards to Nicholas Copernicus and Ptolemy. Nicholas Copernicus was a Catholic scientist who came from a devoutly religious family. Nicholas Copernicus believed in the Ptolemaic view of the universe. Ptolemy was a Greek philosopher who believed in the geocentric view of the universe. He believed that the earth was the center of the universe and that all the other planets including the sun revolved around it. He also believed that planets were perfect spheres and that they orbited in a perfectly constant speed.

Nicholas Copernicus believed in the Ptolemaic view of the universe and accepted most of its ideas for granted however he just wanted to change a few things. He stated that the sun was at the center and that all the planets revolved around it (heliocentric model). What should be noted is that for most part the Copernican theory of the universe (heliocentric model) was actually applauded by the Church. “Copernicus died in 1543 he had published a series of work at the urging of Catholic Cardinals. It was not primarily the Church, but astronomers who objected to it because they had strong arguments against it”6

Now we get into the actual topic of Galileo. Galileo Galilei was an astronomer who started to observe the universe through a telescope and he observed certain things which seemed to undermine the traditional Ptolemaic system. For example Galileo observed craters on the moon which seemed to contradict the notion of a perfect sphere which the Ptolemaic system was founded upon. Similarly he found moons on Jupiter which also seemed to contradict the traditional Ptolemaic system of the universe. What is to be noted is that Galileo’s work for a long period of time was actually celebrated by prominent churchmen. “In late 1610, Fr. Christopher Clavius wrote to tell Galileo that his fellow Jesuit astronomers had confirmed the discoveries he had made through his telescope”7

Furthermore even the popes of that time found favor in his scientific theories he was bringing forth. Galileo “enjoyed a long audience with Pope Paul V, and the Jesuits of the Roman college held a day of activities in honor of his achievements.”8 Even Cardinal Maffeo Barberini who became Pope Urban VIII praised the work of Galileo. It was after all Pope Urban VIII who brought the case against Galileo. So the question is what happened? Why did such change take place in regards to Galileo?

What should be noted is that the Church always allowed Galileo to bring forth his scientific observations with the only prohibition that he treat them merely as theories until they are fully proven. It is specifically this which got Galileo in trouble “Galileo believed the Copernican system to be literally true rather than merely a hypothesis that yielded accurate predicitons.9 The problem is that Galileo did not have sufficient proof to back up his argument. As the scholar Jerome points out

Galileo was convinced that he had the truth. But objectively he had no proof with which to win the allegiance of open-minded men. It is a complete injustice to contend, as some historians do, that no one would listen to his arguments, that he never had a chance. The Jesuit astronomers had confirmed his discoveries; they waited eagerly for further proof so that they could abandon Tycho’s system and come out solidly in favor of Copernicanism. Many influential churchmen believed that Galileo might be right, but they had to wait for more proof10

Thus the reality is that Galileo started to promote his scientific ideas against the prevailing geocentric Ptolemaic model, when he could not even find solid proof for defending his own argument. The only real argument that Galileo had for proving his scientific theory was in regards to tidal waves. For example Galileo used the example of a tidal wave and argued that the reason we see waves is because the earth is both rotating and revolving and the result is that it creates waves. While this argument is not altogether bad, it did not even come close to the arguments that his opponents had. When you study the prevailing ideas regarding those who held the geocentric model, you can easily see that they were not mere simpletons who had absolutely no scientific understanding. Rather it was precisely because their arguments were pretty well grounded that Galileo had a hard time refuting them.

In the first place, the geocentric ideas make common sense. If the universe is truly rotating and revolving the why don’t we feel like we are moving? On a more sophisticated level the geocentric model did work quite well for observing planetary motion. There would not be any reason why this model would have been used for about 2000 years if it were not the case. The most solid evidence that the geocentrists had however was in regards to stellar parallax. A parallax is simply the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer. A stellar parallax is simply the extension of a parallax in regards to stars. The geocentrists argued against Galileo stating that if he was so sure that the earth is revolving around the sun then why do we not see parallax shifts? This is a rather sophisticated argument.

Besides the fact that Galileo started to teach his own scientific views without sufficient evidence, which went against the prohibition of treating his views as mere theories, there are two other significant incidents which got Galileo further in trouble. The first one is simply Galileo’s insistence that all biblical verses which portray the world as motionless needed to be reinterpreted. The question that arose was, can a layman simply go around and demand that biblical verses be re-interpreted based on a theoretical model that he couldn’t even prove?

Saint Cardinal Robert Bellarmine being more of a scientist than Galileo commented:

If there were a real proof that the sun is in the center of the universe, that the earth is in the third heaven, and that the sun does not go round the earth but the earth round the sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. But as for myself, I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me11

 The most significant incident that got Galileo in trouble was his Dialogue on the Great world Systems in which he expressed the Copernican heliocentric model as literal truth instead of as a mere theory. Furthermore Galileo wrote this book as a dialogue and one of the characters of this dialogue was named Simplicio (simpleton or simple-minded; stupid) an individual who did not know much. In this character he put Pope Urban VIII’s opinion which justifiably got him angry. Galileo was known for having a pretty rough personality which made it easy for him to make enemies.

In conclusion it is most definitely true that the Galileo case could have been handled better, but the fact is that Galileo is not altogether blameless. The Church allowed Galileo to express his scientific theory with the only provision that he treat them as such and not as anything more without sufficient proof. For this reason Galileo went against this provision with a lack of proof and solid arguments to defend his position. Furthermore his personality was noted to be quite rude in general.

Notes:

  1. Woods “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” op. cit pgs. 76-77
  2. Stanley L. Jaki “Medieval creativity in science and technology” in patterns or principles and other essays (Bryan Mawr, Pa.: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995), pg. 80
  3. William J Broad “How the Church aided ‘Heretical’ Astronomy” New York Times, October 19, 1999
  4. Benjamin M. Vallejo Jr. PhD “There was nothing dark about the Dark Ages. The Medieval Origins of Science” (Essays in science, Technology and society college of science, University of the Philippines) pg.5
  5. Vallejo “There was nothing dark about the Dark Ages” pg.7
  6. Thomas E Woods “Catholic Church Builder of Civilization” Episode 49
  7. Woods “How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” op. cit pg.69
  8. Ibid
  9. Woods “How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” pg.70
  10. Jerome Langford “Galileo, Science, and the Church” pg.68
  11. James Brodrick “The Life and work of Blessed Robert Francis Cardinal Bellarmine” pgs. 267-97

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