Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part VI

William Blake, The Ancient of Days setting a Compass to the Earth, frontispiece to copy K of the artist’s Europe a Prophecy

. . . continued from part V

As they sorted and tidied, the university-based natural philosophers began discovering that nature often contained its own causal explanations, which could be identified through observation and experiment. In the heyday of the scholastics, Thomas Aquinas’s teacher Albertus Magnus, for example, wrote two scientific treatises that helped to found empiricism and the scientific method—one on botany and one on zoology—and sought empirical knowledge everywhere he went through observation and experiment. “[Albert] used his journeys through the Western world to further this interest, and was forever asking questions of fishermen, hunters, beekeepers, and bird-catchers.”

Such thinkers certainly did not intend to deny God’s creative, providential activity—just to highlight the more and more evident fact that nature operates according to its own mechanisms, which are describable in naturalistic terms.

By the early 14th century, those terms were becoming increasingly mathematical. Scholars of that day such as Thomas Bradwardine at Oxford (later to become Archbishop of Canterbury) used mathematical theory to challenge and update old, incorrect scientific beliefs inherited from Aristotle. The new and more accurate groundwork they provided on a variety of scientific questions prepared the way for the work of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1717) and other stars of the scientific revolution.

Lest we think, though, that as math entered, faith exited (as some have interpreted Newton’s work!), it is important to see how our eighth fact, the harmonization of scientific and theological understandings, was already emerging in the time of the scholastics.

For Albert’s famous student Thomas and his scholastic colleagues saw that two kinds of understanding—scientific and theological—not only could be compatible, but in fact must be compatible. God was, after all, as truly the author of the Book of Nature as he was of the Book of Scripture. So the scholastics’ new hunger for what we would now call scientific understanding in the 12th and 13th-century came not as a challenge to faith, but rather as an adjunct to theology. Their “medieval synthesis” was a comprehensive view of the world that embraced both science and theology.

Robert Grosseteste’s work is one of the best early examples of this synthesis. Grosseteste himself was a walking embodiment of the so-called “12th-century renaissance”: he was a statesman, a scholastic philosopher, a theologian, a scientist, and in his later years, a bishop. He has been called “the real founder of the tradition of scientific thought in medieval Oxford, and in some ways, of the modern English intellectual tradition.”

Grosseteste wrote treatises on the causes of sound, the effects of the moon’s motion on the tides, and topics in mathematics and optics. These culminated in his theo-scientific treatise on the six days of creation – his Hexameron. Though he was not always right on scientific matters, his systematic approach was influential. Based on ancient Greek mathematics and logic, his “analysis and synthesis” method sought to draw conclusions about natural phenomena from experience – working backward to causes from effects. Some see his method here as setting the stage for the hypothesis-driven experimentation of modern science. Whatever the case, in all his work Grosseteste was seeking to understand the underlying order and rationality of the cosmos created by our orderly, rational God. And that was consistent with the other natural philosophers of his age.

Within a century of Grosseteste, the great medieval poet Dante Alighieri expressed the theo-scientific vision of the medieval synthesis throughout his Divine Comedy which culminates with the pilgrim Dante seeing a vision of the universe as animated by a perfectly rational, perfectly loving being. This is why C S Lewis could say that in the Middle Ages people could “love the universe as a man can love his own city.”

In fact, not only did Western science and theology grow up together, but some scholars have noted that the scientific revolution relied on understandings of the order and rationality of the world that were thoroughly theological. We’ve mentioned that the work of Bradwardine and the 14th-century mathematicians provided the foundation for the great innovators of the scientific revolution—who as we’ve seen were themselves Christian in conviction. Historian Peter Harrison has observed that those later scientists believed that “mathematics could provide a true account of the universe only if it were more than a human construction. . . . Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton made the bold assertion that mathematical relations were real . . . because they . . . were the products not of human minds, but of the divine mind. It was God who had invented mathematics and who had imposed mathematical laws on the universe.”

And, importantly, it was the constancy of God – his immutable character – that led those first modern scientists to trust that their scientific experiments would reveal reliable and constant truths about the world: truths that would be found to always hold true. Given all of this, Harrison asks a question quite foreign to the warfare thesis, “Could modern science have arisen outside the theological environment of Western Christendom?” He concludes that this is very hard to prove one way or the other, but that “what is certain is that it did arise in that environment, and that theological ideas underpinned some of its central assumptions.” C S Lewis put it succinctly in his 1947 book Miracles: “Men became scientific because they expected Law in nature.”

Continued (and concluded) in part VII

One response to “Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part VI

  1. Pingback: Christian foundations of science and technology innovation, part V | Grateful to the dead

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