Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 790, September 28, 2014

That is all they have.
That is the whole trick.

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Why did science make little real progress in Europe in the Middle Ages?
by Tim O'Neill

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Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

Summary: This question is based on the common but erroneous belief that there was no scientific progress in the Middle Ages. In fact, modern historians of science have long since shown this to be a myth and have gone on to show that far from being a scientific dark age, the Medieval period lay the foundations of modern science.

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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