Sunday, September 21, 2014

(16) Tim O'Neill's answer to Why did science make little real progress in Europe in the Middle Ages? - Quora

...The Actual Scientific Dark Age
Of course, there certainly was a period in which western natural philosophy did stagnate and then languish and in which the whole scientific tradition of the Greeks and Romans was in danger of being lost.  Later Hellenic and then Roman scholars inherited the work of the Greek proto-scientists of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries BC and built on it.  By the First Century AD Roman scholars tended to read Greek and so could read the works of Aristotle and Archimedes in their original languages, but there was also an increasing tradition of encyclopaedic collections of summaries and key points from earlier Greek works which tended to be compiled in Latin.  The scholars of the First and Second centuries added some major contributions to science, especially Ptolemy (astronomy and mathematics) and Galen (medicine), but many Roman scholars made do with the Latin summaries and encyclopaedias for their grasp of earlier work.
In the Third Century, however, there were major social and political upheavals that interrupted many aspects of Roman life, including scholarship, with profound later consequences.  The Empire entered what is now called "the Military Anarchy", where rival emperors rose and fell in rapid succession and the Empire was racked with decade after decade of civil war and political oppression.  The weakened Empire suffered from invasions by the newly resurgent Sassanian Persians and by larger and more aggressive federations of Germanic barbarians. Cities that had been peaceful for centuries began constructing defensive walls, resources that once went into buildings and public works went into endless wars and at one point the Empire even split into three parts.
A form of stability was imposed by a new kind of more centralised and more monarchical emperorship, economic reforms and an overhaul of the army and the Imperial administration by Diocletian and his successors, but parts of the Empire never fully recovered, especially in the west.  Intellectual life and education, which had been badly disrupted in the long century of chaos, certainly did not regain its former strength and in the west fewer and fewer scholars were literate in Greek.  As a result, works that were only available in Greek, especially technical, philosophic and detailed scientific works, were read and copied far less and began to be neglected.  Greco-Roman science was increasingly preserved only in the popular Latin encyclopaedic tradition rather than studied in detail via the original Greek works.
By the Fifth Century the administrative division between the Latin-speaking Western Empire and the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire became permanent and then became a political divide.  The weaker, poorer and more vulnerable Western Empire did not even survive the century, with its final collapse coming in 476 AD after another century of civil wars, invasions and spiralling decline.  What followed was centuries of invasions, fragmentation and chaos, with few brief periods of stability and centralised authority.  The faltering intellectual tradition, which had already been in decline since the late Second Century, languished to a low ebb.
The institution which managed to keep this faltering tradition from dying out altogether during these centuries of barbarian invasion and disintegration was actually the one the Enlightenment myth (wrongly) blames for causing the decline in the first place.  The Christian church came to hold political power when the decline in learning in the west had been under way for over a century, and so could not have been its cause.  Initially Christianity was ambivalent toward Greek philosophy and learning, but prominent Christian thinkers who had been trained in philosophy could see it as something to be embraced.  God, they argued, was a rational intelligence and had created the universe along rational lines.  It made sense, therefore, that humans could and should use reason to understand his creation.  Clement of Alexandria argued that just as the Jews had been given a divine gift of special religious revelation, so had the Greeks been given a gift of rational analysis.  Both were to be embraced and used.
So when the Western Empire collapsed, the Church had long since come to terms with Greek philosophy and science and found ways to incorporate both and reconcile them with their religion.  And it was Christian scholars who saw that the decline of Greek literacy in the west meant much of the original works of Greek learning were being lost.  Cassiodorus and Boethius both tried to preserve key works by translating them into Latin.  Boethius was executed before he could complete an ambitious plan to translate all the works of Aristotle, but he did manage to translate most of the key works on logic - something which meant that logic and therefore reason took a central role in early Medieval education, even in the darkest centuries of the chaos.  The seeds of the Medieval revival of science lay in that stroke of luck.
The Medieval Enshrining of Reason
One writer has compared the long road back from the intellectual catastrophe of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire on learning in western Europe to people after a nuclear holocaust trying to revive modern science with nothing but a few volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a copy of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Scholars in the Eighth or Ninth Centuries had just enough fragments of information to know that they had barely anything at all but not enough to begin reconstructing what had been lost.  What is interesting is what they did with the bits they had - they revered them.  These ancient writers, mostly pagans, were held up as all-knowing authorities and what elements of their works did survive were studied with immense reverence and painstaking scrutiny.
This meant particular attention was paid to one of the few areas in which a reasonable number of works had survived - logic, or "dialectic" as it was known.  A grasp of logic was central to Medieval education and a student had to master it, via Boethius' translations of Aristotle and other works, before they could tackle any other subjects.  This had the curious effect of enshrining reason as the key to all knowledge - a development completely at odds with the popular view of the Middle Ages and the Medieval church in particular as being fixated on unquestioned dogma and irrational superstition.  There were certainly things that these Medieval scholars accepted on faith but they increasingly came to feel they could also arrive at them, and all kinds of other forms of understanding about the universe, via reason.  In a strange way, the loss of so much Greek philosophy actually focused attention on the elements that had survived and had the effect of enshrining reason at the heart of Medieval thought in a way not seen before.  ....The Church's Suppression of Ideas?
Actually, nothing of the history detailed above sits neatly with the idea of the Medieval Church as a violent and intolerant theocracy that immediately consigned anyone with the whiff of a new idea to the flames.  In fact, the parameters for speculation and investigation into the nature of the physical world were quite wide, because the Medieval Church considered the cosmos to the the rational product of the rational mind of God and that humans were given reason partly so they could apprehend and investigate the universe rationally.
This is why Thomas Aquinas spent years and many millions of words painstakingly applying the rational principles of ancient Greek dialectic to Christian theology in an attempt at showing that all the key ideas of Christian belief could be arrived at by pure reason. It is also why the quodlibeta debates at Medieval universities were such open free-for-alls where all kinds of radical and even heretical ideas could be proposed to see if they stood up to logical analysis.
The Medieval Church also did not insist on a purely literal interpretation of the Bible (fundamentalist literalism is a modern and largely American Protestant idea).  This meant that it had no problem with seeing aspects of the Bible as purely allegorical and with the exploration of how their symbolic truth relates to the real world.  Most people who think of the Medieval period as one where Biblical literalists suppressed original thinking though fear would have a hard time explaining, for example, the work of William of Conches.  Way back in the Twelfth Century this scholar, based at Chartres Cathedral, accepted that his audience already understood the creation story in Genesis to be symbolic and went on to interpret it "according to nature'.  He proposed how natural forces set in motion by God brought about the form of the heavens and earth as we have them today.  He went on to talk about life arising from the primordial mud by the natural action of heat and how it developed from simple early forms.  He even talks about how man arose in the same way and how, in theory, some other species of man could arise via natural processes in the same way.
All these very modern-sounding (even Darwinian) ideas were accepted by Medieval scholars without the slightest problem and the Church had no difficulty with them either - indeed, William of Conches, like all other Medieval scientists - was a churchman.
The closest the Church came to suppressing science in any way was when, in reaction to some of the ideas being debated in the University of Paris at the height of the rediscovery of Aristotelian learning in the Thirteenth Century, the Faculty of Theology attempted at putting some limits on what could be discussed by the Faculty of Arts.  In 1210, 1270 and again in 1277 the Pope, at the request of the Parisian Theology Faculty, published lists of ideas proposed by Aristotle or implied by his philosophy that were contrary to Christian doctrine and so were forbidden.  What is remarkable about this is, firstly, how little in Aristotle etc was actually proscribed by these Condemnations.  Secondly, it's remarkable how ineffective the Condemnations were.  They only applied to Paris, whereas discussion of all these topics continued at Oxford and other universities unaffected.  And, as the fact that they had to be repeated twice indicates, they were widely ignored anyway.  They also had another effect - by arguing that Aristotle was actually wrong on several key points, they stimulated a more critical examination of the Greek philosopher's work which led to several of his idea being critically analysed and found to be incorrect (eg the idea that a heavy object falls faster than a lighter one).  IN a strange way, the Condemnations failed to suppress science and actually helped to stimulate it.
The fact is that the idea of the Church suppressing science and rational analysis of the physical world is a myth.  Not one Medieval scholar was ever burned, imprisoned or oppressed by the Medieval Church for making a claim about the physical world.  This why the modern proponents of the myth always have to fall back on an exceptional and post-Medieval example to prop up this idea: the Galileo case.

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