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.Continue reading