God's Philosophers

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Lausten
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God's Philosophers

Postby Lausten » Thu Dec 30, 2010 9:21 pm

God's Philosophers, How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam is a very readable bit of history. It centers on the 12th to 16th centuries with a little introduction on the Fall of Rome and a few chapters at the end on the beginnings of so-called modern science. From the title you might get the idea that the book is trying to debunk the notion that Christianity has always fought against science, and you'd be partially correct. The author does stop periodically and say, "and so you see, the notion that so-and-so was persecuted for not believing in God isn't really true." Fortunately these are few and far between enough to not detract from the rest of the story.

For me, it filled in a lot of the gap of how we got from speculation by Aristotle, much of it way off the mark, to a scientific method employed by Galileo. Galileo is shown up as a bit of boaster who conveniently fails to mention that he got some his ideas from 14th century texts. This partially explains the idea that Bacon, Copernicus, Kepler and he invented science out of nothing in a matter of a few generations. This book goes a long way in answering the Wittgensteinian question of why people thought the earth was stationary. There were quite a few problems to be solved to put the earth in motion and a big change in thinking to accept that the universe is as large as it is.

One question that isn't answered, and I'm not sure it can be, is why people didn't do more experimenting early on. Thought experiments and direct observation were the methods of the day. The idea of simulating something in a lab mostly didn't occur and if it did was poo-poo'd. Of course, they did not have the advantage we have of knowing that such methods could lead to the vast understanding of the universe we now have and improvements in health and well-being. It is difficult to put ourselves back in that mind set.

I was hoping for a little more on the Arab influences. The influence on Europeans of the rediscovery of ancient Greek works is covered, but why is it that those who held on to those works for so long weren't able to make the same use of them? There is a "suggestions for further reading" in the back, so next I might try "Science and Islam" by Masood, or Turner's "Science in Medieval Islam"
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Jeff D
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Re: God's Philosophers

Postby Jeff D » Thu Dec 30, 2010 10:40 pm

Lausten, thanks. You might find Charles Freeman's books (especially The Closing of the Western Mind, which deals with the 4th - 10th centuries) interesting as well. Freeman covers the loss or the turning away from Aristotelian thought starting in the Christian world of the late 4th century C.E., and the preservation of much of Platonism. Freeman is not alone in identifying Thomas Aquinas as the guy who was one of the principal re-discoverers of and advocates for Aristotelian rationalism, as a positive tool that could be reconciled with faith. Except at the margins, I think that Aquinas was wrong about that, but what the heck. . . .

One question that isn't answered, and I'm not sure it can be, is why people didn't do more experimenting early on. Thought experiments and direct observation were the methods of the day. The idea of simulating something in a lab mostly didn't occur and if it did was poo-poo'd.


I'm not sure of the reasons, but I am inclined to blame (1) Platonism (that things in their true natures existed and exist as pure ideas best appreciated through pure logic and contemplation, unsullied by real-world observation), and (2) the long, strong influence of Aristotle's don't-bother-me-with-the-facts pronouncements on the natural world. It seems like most of the folks who followed Aristotle were too lazy, too incurious, or too dazzled by Aristotle's B.S. to actually investigate whether Mr. A was right (e.g., whether the brain's chief function was to cool the blood, and whether women have fewer teeth in their heads than men).

The Chinese had their own mental blocks that inhibited experimental science. According to James (Connections) Burke, medieval Chinese Taoist philosophy believed that real phenomena in nature were imbued with an essence (shen?), and that becuse it was impossible to install or inject shen into an experimental model of some part of nature, it was really pointless to do experiments of the sort that, say, Boyle or Lavoisier or Priestley would later do.

Of course, in Classical Greece of the 5th - 3rd centuries B.C.E., there were no laboratories as we think of them now, but some of the Greeks (Erastothenes, Aristarchus, Archimedes) did use some direct experimentation, and mathematical prediction / testing, to do such things as come up with a pretty good estimate of the circumference of the earth. This is covered, I think, in Dario Livio's book Is God a Mathematician?

I suppose that the chemists and alchemists (Christian, Muslim, Chinese, whatever) were pretty much forced to do experiments, but I'm not sure how rigorously. Because of the religious prohibitions on experiments with cadavers, the science of anatomy didn't really resume its progress until the Renaissance, when men like Vesalius decided to ignore the rules and cut up cadavers. Outside of the fields of anatomy and astronomy, the other guy whom I think of as one of the first Europeans to design and carry out science experiments carefully, and to record his results, was Galileo (with his experiments involving rolling objects down inclined planes, which helped him deduce principles that apply to falling objects). But I am sure there were others.
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Re: God's Philosophers

Postby Lausten » Mon May 23, 2011 2:09 pm

A post over at Butterflies & Wheels alerted me to some public comments by the author of this book that are revealing him to be more of an accomodationist than his book indicated. The book spends quite a bit of time bashing early humanists, but makes mostly neutral comments about Christians and Muslims. I also noticed a lack of footnotes when he got to the sections on humanism, and a lack of comment on book burning and decrees to prevent scientific investigation etc. As an amatuer historian, I can look up a footnote and make a judgment on the quality of it, but when I see gaps, I can only be suspicious.

Fortunately there are people who know a lot more about this stuff. Charles Freeman makes some comments on the post and directs you an online debate he has with Hannam. http://newhumanist.org.uk/2416/why-gods-philosophers-did-not-deserve-to-be-shortlisted-for-the-royal-society-prize
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Re: God's Philosophers

Postby Lausten » Tue Apr 28, 2015 10:07 pm

I want to resurrect this thread, since I know have read Charles Freeman's AD 381. Also, The Swerve has come out since then too, maybe someone else has read that. If we are ever going to solve the religion vs science debate, I think we need to go all the way back to ancient Greece. If you start at Galileo you get a picture that is a composite of all those centuries that came before. Anyway, just wanted to raise this up for now, see who jumps in.
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Re: God's Philosophers

Postby gorgeous » Tue Apr 28, 2015 10:49 pm

Are you saying scientists don't believe in God or the value of religion?
Science Fundamentalism...is exactly what happens when there’s a significant, perceived ideological threat to one’s traditions and identity.


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