Lecture 3: The Middle Ages and the Birth of Science
The Middle Ages are often neglected and derided, but an objective analysis shows that they were one of the most outstandingly creative periods in human history. It is convenient to define them as the period between 800 and 1450, the later years from 1200 to 1450 being the High Middle Ages. That period saw in Western Europe the foundation of universities, unprecedented technological developments that raised the general standard of living to new heights, the organisation of a financial system and most important of all the birth of modern science.
Underlying all this was a new attitude to the material world, a new confidence, dynamism and sense of purpose. This in turn had its roots in the Christian vision of a world created by God. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe fell into chaos. Gradually, over the centuries, a new world came into being, largely inspired by the Christian faith. The process has been finely described by Newman, writing on the mission of the Benedictine order:
St Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins, and his mission was to restore it in the way, not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it, not professing to do it by any set time or by any rare specific or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often, till the work was done, it was not known do be doing. It was a restoration, rather than a visitation, correction or conversion. The new world which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing, and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes, and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully deciphered and copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one that 'contended, or cried out,' or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning, and a city.
Through the early Christian centuries there were many who studied the natural world and wrote about it in the context of Christian theology. This gradually formed a new attitude to nature that was destined to lead to the birth of modern science. This attitude is found in Adelard of Bath, and in the work of Robert Grosseteste, the founder of experimental science (section 3.2).
The most obvious result of a new attitude to nature is the development of technology, and this was so marked during the Middle Ages that it has been described as a mutation in human history. These technological innovations aredescribed in section 3.3.
Technological innovations are the product of lively enterprising minds, eager to progress and to make new things. Such people are found to a greater or less extent throughout human history. The unique development in the Middle Ages was at a much deeper level; the urge to understand the inner workings of the world. This could succeed only on the basis of beliefs about the material world that are in accord with its nature, and these are provided by Christian theology. The way this happened in described in section 3.4.
The evidence for the Christian origin of science was originally found by the French physicist Pierre Duhem in dusty Parisian archives, and the way his work has been received provides an illuminating chapter in the history of the relations between science and belief; it is described in section 3.5.
Although they inherited the legacy of the Greeks, the Eastern Christians and the Muslims failed to develop science; the reasons for this are discussed in sections 3.6 and 3.7.
3.2. The Foundation of Experimental Science.
The beginning of the High Middle Ages was a time of intellectual ferment. Schools, generally associated with cathedrals, and universities were being founded all over Europe, and the writings of the ancient Greeks were becoming available in translation. Christian theology was being re-thought using their unfamiliar but powerful concepts. The writings of Augustine and of others like Philoponus were already forming new attitudes to the natural world.
In the early twelfth century, Adelard of Bath wrote his Quaestiones Naturales, which marks the dawn of medieval science. His nephew believed that the spontaneous appearance of life in a dish of dried soil was miraculous. At a time when there was a strong devotion to miracles, it would have been easy for Adelard to agree. Instead he drew a firm distinction between the action of the Creator and the natural workings of His creation: 'It is the will of the Creator that herbs should sprout from the earth. But the same is not without a reason either.' When his nephew persisted and pointed out that a natural explanation from the doctrine of the four elements was inadequate, he stuck to his point: 'Whatever there is, is from Him and through Him. But the realm of being is not a confused one, nor is it lacking in disposition which, so far as human knowledge can go, should be consulted.' In other words, we should persist in seeking a natural explanation, and avoid attributing anything that we do not understand to the direct action of God. This advice, that is still worth heeding today, contains the essential attitude to the natural world that lies at the basis of science.
The two characteristics of the Western intellectual tradition that make science possible are the insistence on logical coherence and experimental verification. These are already present in a qualitative way among the Greeks, and the vital contribution of the Middle Ages was to refine these conditions into a more effective union. This was done principally by insisting on the quantitative precision that can be attained by using mathematics in the formulation of the theories, and then verifying them not by observation alone, but by precise measurements. This transition was achieved in the twelfth century, principally by Robert Grosseteste (c 1168-1253), who is regarded as the founder of experimental science.
Grosseteste was a widely-read man who made extensive contributions to many areas of human knowledge. He was one of the first Chancellors of the University of Oxford, and did much to establish the nascent university. He was also Bishop of Lincoln, the diocese in which Oxford used to be situated.
His work on experimental science owed much to Plato, who taught that the pure forms behind the appearances of things are mathematical in nature, and so if we are to show this our theories must be themselves mathematical, and so the results of our measurements must be expressed in numbers.
Grosseteste elaborated his theory of the scientific method in some detail, though he did not himself carry out many experiments. He recommended the method of analysis and synthesis; namely that the problem is first resolved into its simplest parts and when these are understood the results can be combined to give the explanation of the whole. The observations and experiments may themselves suggest hypotheses and then theories, and these in turn may be verified or disproved by comparison with further observations and measurements.
He first applied his method to the phenomena of light. He believed that light is the most fundamental form, the first principle of motion, so that the laws of light must lie at the basis of scientific explanation. God created light, and from that all things came. Light itself follows geometrical rules, in the way it is propagated, reflected and refracted, and is the means whereby higher bodies act on lower. Motion is therefore also geometrical. He studied the rainbow and his criticisms of the explanations of Aristotle and Seneca were useful steps along the road to an adequate explanation. For all his emphasis on mathematics, he was clear that mathematical entities have no objective reality; they are simply abstractions from material bodies.
Implicit in his work is the insistence on quantitative measurement, and this in turn comes from the Biblical insistence on the rationality of the Creator, who disposed everything in number, weight and measure.
The prevailing Platonism made it difficult to understand the works of Aristotle, and in addition many of his views were contrary to Christian theology. Early in the thirteenth century his works were prohibited, but by 1231 his works were accepted and widely studied. Robert Grosseteste wrote an explanation of Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, a classic of scientific methodology, and Albertus Magnus was among the first to master Aristotelian science. He wrote a huge compendium of learning covering natural science, logic, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, politics and metaphysics. This was more than an exposition of Aristotelian thought; he corrected and extended his treatment, and added many new observations of his own. He made particular studies of motion, seen as the most fundamental problem of nature. By motion he understood physical changes of every kind, growth and decay, increase and decrease, and movements from one place to another. In 1941 Pius XII designated him as the Patron Saint of all scientists.
It should not be thought that these examples are typical of medieval thought about the world. They are in fact rather untypical of an age whose thought has been described as 'an almost unimaginable mixture of insights and rumours, of sound principles and fantastic tales, of critical sense and baffling credulity, of reason and magic' (Jaki, S&C, 223).
Nevertheless, in spite of this confusion, there did exist the insistence on rational thought, on mathematical formulation and quantitative verification, that was eventually to lead to modern science. At first it may have been but a flicker in the darkness, but that flicker grew steadily stronger until modern science was born. Essential to that birth was the insistence on quantitative precision, and this was made possible by the immense technological growth in the Middle Ages, which must now be considered.
3.3. Technology in the Middle Ages.
At the beginning of the Middle Ages the monasteries were the centres of technological innovation. They were primarily houses of prayer, but the need to be largely self-supporting, often in rather remote and underdeveloped areas, forced them to develop a wide range of skills, including building and architecture, farming, cloth-making, clock-making, metallurgy and printing.
First and most obviously the monastery itself was an integrated complex of buildings housing the monks and lay-brothers and their various activities, with the church at its centre. Often the abbey church also served as the cathedral of a city, and we still have visible reminders of the magnitude of the achievements of those generally anonymous medieval builders. Visitors to Canterbury and York, Salisbury and Winchester, Durham and Lincoln, to name but a few English cities, go first to their medieval cathedrals. These were constructed when the population was but a small fraction of today's number, and there were no steel cranes or electric saws to facilitate their construction, and yet we can now barely afford to keep them in repair. They bear silent witness to the extraordinary technical skill, tenacity of purpose and self-sacrifice of their builders.
In the countryside, the monasteries mainly supported themselves by farming. They often owned large areas of land, sometimes in more remote areas hacked out of the wilderness by the monks themselves. The actual farm work in the larger monasteries was done by lay-brothers. The medieval centuries saw many advances in agricultural techniques, such as the modern plough, which turns the earth over as well as opening it up. Horses were made more efficient by providing them with nailed horseshoes, and the breast harness enabled them to pull loads four times heavier than before. Horses were harnessed one in front of another, and the stirrup gave horse riders much greater control.
Monasteries were often built near a river, so that the water could drive machinery as well as clean the buildings. Fishponds provided the monks with fish, and frequently there was a water mill to grind the corn, and fulling machines to make cloth. The latter made use of the cam, another medieval invention, to transform rotational to linear motion. The cam also made possible mechanical saws that enabled wood for building to be prepared much more easily. Windmills were known quite widely; in Tibet they drove prayer wheels, while in Europe they ground corn.
Monasteries were strictly regulated by a Rule, for the Benedictine monasteries that of St Benedict. This prescribed the hours of prayer, of work, eating and sleeping, and all had to be aware of the time, even those working in distant fields. The bells of the monasteries chimed the hours and regulated all the activities throughout the day and night. Clocks were thus essential to the smooth functioning of the monasteries. The early sand and water clocks, accurate to a few minutes, might well have been sufficient, but this did not satisfy the monks, and they developed the earliest clocks. A very early example (1386), showing a sophisticated double feed-back mechanism, is to be seen in the nave of Salisbury cathedral. Clocks were soon installed on towers in the city centres, where they regulated commerce. Extremely complicated clocks were made, such at that in Strasbourg cathedral that gave not only the time but a whole range of astronomical information.
The manufacture of bells and clocks required enhanced metallurgical skills, and here again the monks were among the leaders. Brass was first made in Tintern Abbey, now an imposing ruin in the narrow valley of the river Wye.
In the early Middle Ages, manuscripts were laboriously copied by the monks, and so were very rare. Wood-block printing was introduced from the East, and followed by moveable type in the early fifteenth century. The improved methods soon allowed books to be produced in ever-increasing numbers. This was an invention that has transformed our society more than any other. Although many of these technological developments started in the monasteries, they were eagerly taken up by others, and soon became generally available.
Another important industry was the manufacture of glass, that made possible both the stained glass windows and around 1280 the first spectacles. Mining became a key industry, as it provided so many of the minerals needed by the growing manufacturing industries, and also the coal that was rapidly replacing the increasingly scarce wood.
From the thirteenth century onwards, universities were founded in many cities such as Bologna, Padua, Paris, Oxford and Prague and soon became very active centres of learning. The core of the curriculum was provided by the logical, philosophical and scientific works of Aristotle. Students studied a wide range of subjects, including arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and musical theory (The Quadrivium) and logic, grammar and rhetoric (The Trivium), thus bringing together the mechanical and liberal arts. Thus in medieval times the university was true to its name in providing a universal education, and one that contained a large scientific and technological component.
All this activity stimulated the growth of international trade, as commodities were exported from one country to another in ever-increasing quantities. This required a reliable monetary system, including a coinage and an international banking organisation. Great merchant banks such as the Medici in Florence were founded and controlled trade over all Europe. This led to greatly increased standards of living, although progress was sometimes interrupted by famines, plagues and wars.
3.4. The Christian Origin of Science
During the Middle Ages, the thought of Europe was moulded and dominated by Christian theology and philosophy. It is therefore interesting to see how the beliefs that we have seen are necessary for science are related to Christian beliefs about the world. There is indeed a close relation between them, so Christian theology prepared the way for science by teaching that particular attitude to the world that provides the basis of science.
We can see this by recalling the beliefs already listed. The Christian believes that the world is good because God made it so: "And God saw all that He had made, and indeed it was very good" (Genesis 1.31). Matter was further ennobled by the Incarnation: "The Word was made flesh and he lived among us" (John 1.14). The world is rational and orderly because it is made and kept in being by a rational God. It is contingent because it depends on the divine fiat: God could have chosen to make the world in a different way. There is here a delicate balance between the freedom and the rationality of God: tip the balance one way or the other and you have a belief in a chaotic or a necessary world, both inimical to the growth of science. Finally the Christian believes that the world can be apprehended by the human mind because God commanded man to subdue the earth, and he does not command the impossible: "Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and conquer it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all living animals on the earth" (Genesis 1.28). Thus the Christian mind is steeped through and through with the beliefs about the material world that are necessary for the development of science.
The Christian also has the strongest motivation to study the world. Christ himself reiterates the divine command to subdue the earth when by the parable of the talents he urges us to make full use of all our faculties and powers. Furthermore, as soon as it becomes clear that scientific knowledge can be applied to grow more food and improve his medical care, to provide better clothes and housing, it becomes a special obligation on man to do this in view of the injunction to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty and to clothe the naked.
The remaining condition for the development of science, the belief that knowledge must be freely shared, is enjoined by the Book of Wisdom: "What I have learned without self-interest, I pass on without reserve; I do not intend to hide her riches. For she is an inexhaustible treasure to men, and those who acquire it win God's friendship" (Wisdom 7.13-14). The Book of Wisdom also contains the declaration that the Creator ordered everything in measure, number and weight (11.20), the most frequently quoted Biblical phrase in medieval times.
We thus find that during the critical centuries before the birth of science the collective mind of Europe was moulded by a system of beliefs that included just those special elements that are necessary for the birth and growth of science. There is thus a living organic continuity between the Christian revelation and modern science. Christianity provided just those beliefs about the material world that are essential for science, and the moral climate that encouraged its growth.
It might however be said that the medieval origin of science is just a historical coincidence: how can we know that there is a real causal influence operating? This can indeed be found if we examine the work of some of the philosophers of the Middle Ages.
At that time the prevailing ideas of the nature of the world were derived from the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He believed in the eternity of the world, in a cyclic universe and in a world of purpose even in material things. He also believed that celestial matter, the world of the stars and the planets, is incorruptible, unlike terrestrial matter that can undergo change. These beliefs in effect prevented the development of science for two thousand years, This stranglehold had to be broken before science could develop into its modern form.
So great was the prestige of Aristotle that the philosophers of the medieval schools taught by commenting on his texts. Some of Aristotle's teaching, however, was inconsistent with the Christian faith, and the philosophers did not hesitate to differ from Aristotle when it seemed necessary. In 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that all creation, spiritual and material, took place out of nothing and in time. This is directly contrary to Aristotle's belief in the eternity of the world accepted as a self-evident truth. There was intense discussion on a variety of topics, notably concerning the creation of the world and the motion of bodies. In 1277 the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, found it necessary to condemn 219 philosophical propositions as contrary to the Christian belief. His main purpose was to defend God's absolute power against any attempt by the Aristotelian philosophers to set limits to it. Several of the condemned propositions set limits to God's power, saying for instance that He cannot make more than one world or to move the world so as to produce a vacuum. Tempier thus reasserted the belief that God can freely create any world, just as He chooses. This was a turning point in the history of thought, as it liberated philosophers from bondage to Aristotle and channelled philosophical speculations about motion in a direction that led eventually to the destruction of Aristotelian physics, thus opening the way to modern science.
The theology of divine omnipotence had important consequences for the development of science as a result of Aquinas' distinction between God's absolute and ordained powers. God always has absolute power over all things, but he endows the natural world with specific natures, according to His plan for creation. These normally determine the behaviour of natural phenomena. It thus becomes a reasonable activity to try to find out about the world. Normally, by virtue of God's ordained power, the natural world strictly follows God's laws, and yet this does not prevent God from doing whatever he chooses by virtue of his absolute power. This reinforces the stability of nature as a sign of God's faithfulness so frequently expressed in the Old Testament (Jer 31:35-36; 33:25-26), while leaving open the possibility of miracles.
One of the medieval philosophers, Jean Buridan, was particularly interested in the nature of motion. This is the most fundamental problem of physics, and so if science is to begin it must begin here. In full consistency with his belief in creation, he wrote that 'God, when He created the world, moved each of the celestial orbs as he pleased, and in moving them He impressed upon them impetuses which moved them without Him having to move them any more except by the method of general influence whereby He concurs as co-agent in all things which take place'.
This shows a clear break with Aristotle, who required the continuing action of the mover throughout the motion. What Buridan called impetus was later refined into the concept of momentum, and the idea in the above passage became Newton's first law of motion. Buridan's works were widely published and his ideas became known throughout Europe, and in particular to Leonardo da Vinci and hence to the scientists of Renaissance times.
The Christian belief in the creation of the world by God also undermined Aristotle's sharp distinction between celestial and terrestrial matter. Since they are both created, why should they be different? Indeed, Buridan illustrated his concept of impetus with reference to the long jump; thus implicitly presupposing that celestial and terrestrial motions are similar. This made it possible for Newton to see that the same force that pulls an apple to the ground also keeps the moon in its orbit.
A vital component in the rise of science is the belief in the order of the world, that is the idea that every event is the precise result of preceding events. This implies that whatever measurements we make should correspond exactly, that is within the uncertainties of measurement, with our theories. A corollary is that if we want to test out theories we should make the most accurate measurements we can. This insistence on precision is essential for the progress of science, and it was made possible by the strong belief in the order of nature. It led Whitehead to say, in his Lowell lectures in 1925 on Science and the Modern World that 'the Middle Ages formed one long training of the intellect of Western Europe in the sense of order.' This by itself is not enough,and he went on:
I do not think that I have even yet brought out the greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement. I mean the inexpungable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research: -- that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled.
He went on to ask how was this conviction so vividly implanted on the European mind, and concluded: 'My explanation is that the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.'
One might indeed query whether unconscious is the right word, for many of the medievals explicitly saw their work as showing forth the works of the Creator. Furthermore, explicitly Christian beliefs played a decisive part in making modern science possible. Thus the debilitating belief in a cyclic universe was decisively broken by the Christian belief in the uniqueness of the Incarnation. Henceforth history was no longer an infinite series of dreary cycles, but a linear story with a beginning and an end.
The transition from Greek to modern physics has been graphically described by Pierre Duhem: 'The demolition of Aristotelian physics was not a sudden collapse; the construction of modern physics did not take place on a terrain where nothing was left standing. From one to the other the passage takes place by a long sequence of partial transformations of which each pretended to retouch or enlarge some piece of the edifice without changing anything of the ensemble. But when all these modifications of detail had been made, the human mind perceived, as it sized up with a single look the result of all that long work, that nothing remained of that ancient palace and that a new palace rose in its place. Those who in the sixteenth century took stock of this substitution of one science for another were seized by a strange illusion. They imagined that this substitution was sudden and that it was their work. They proclaimed that Peripatetic physics had just collapsed under their blows and that on the ruins of that physics they had built, as if by magic, the clear abode of truth. About the sincere illusion of arrogantly wilful error of these men, the men of subsequent centuries were either the unsuspecting victims or sheer accomplices. The physicists of the sixteenth century were celebrated as creators to whom the world owed the renaissance of science. They were very often but continuers and sometimes plagiarisers.'
3.5. The Work of Pierre Duhem
These Christian roots of modern science are not generally known. The man primarily responsible for uncovering the evidence for the Christian origin of science was the French physicist Pierre Duhem. He was a theoretical physicist working mainly in the field of thermodynamics, but had always been interested in the history of physics. He was asked to write a series of articles on the history of mechanics, and easily wrote the first one on the ideas of the ancient Greeks. Like most historians of science, he expected to pass rapidly over the Middle Ages to the giants of the Renaissance. But he was a careful man, not content to rely on secondhand sources. He found obscure references to earlier work, and following them up, primarily in the archives in Paris, he discovered the work of Buridan and his pupil Orseme, and of many other medievals who contributed to the origin of science.
Duhem wrote two volumes on the history of mechanics, three on Leonardo da Vinci, and then began a monumental account of the history of science in several volumes, the Systeme du Monde. The first volume, devoted to the Greeks, was published in 1913, and was highly praised by George Sarton, the founder and editor of the journal Isis, who said that he looked forward eagerly to the second volume. When however he read the second volume, he realised what Duhem had found was highly uncongenial to his secularist beliefs. Duhem left him in no doubt whatever. Writing on the doctrine of the Great Year, the belief that history continually repeats itself, he said: 'To the construction of that system all disciples of Hellenic philosophy -- Peripatetics, Stoics, Neo-Platonists -- contributed; to that system Abu Masar offered the homage of the Arabs; the most illustrious rabbis, from Philo of Alexandria to Maimonides, have accepted it. To condenm it and to throw it overboard as a monstrous superstition, Christianity had to come.'
Sarton did not try to refute Duhem; that would have been impossible. Instead he used the one remaining weapon, that of silence. None of the following volumes was reviewed in Isis, and the name of Duhem was thereafter hardly ever mentioned. In Sarton's own vast volumes on the history of science Duhem receives but a few mentions, whereas quite minor figures receive extensive discussion.
Tragically, Duhem died in 1916 when only five volumes of his Systeme du Monde, had been published. Duhem left the text of the remaining five volumes in MSS, and the publisher was bound by the terms of the contract to publish them in successive years. The secularist establishment however was bitterly opposed to their publication, and succeeded in preventing this for forty years. Only the death of his most determined opponent, and the threat of legal action, finally forced the publishers to act.
It is not surprising that secularists should be so determined to prevent the publication of books of massive scholarship that completely undermine their view of the development of science, and show that science as we know it is built on Christian foundations. What is surprising is that Christians have been so slow to recognise and to publish his work. Even today, after many decades of scholarly work on medieval science, the name of Duhem is hardly known outside specialist circles. It deserves to be familiar to all Christians, particularly those concerned with the education of the young, who are still taught that there is a fundamental opposition between science and the Christian faith.
3.6. Science in Eastern Christendom
This explanation of the rise of science in Western Europe during the High Middle Ages as due to the beliefs concerning the material world inherent in Christian theology raises the question why it happened in Western Europe and not in Eastern Europe, where Christianity also flourishes. One might indeed have expected science to arise first in the east, because it was the heir to the wisdom of ancient Greece, preserved and to some extent developed by Arab scholars. Thus from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries mathematics, astronomy, optics, physics and medicine were far more developed in Islamic countries than in Western Europe. In one vital area, for example, Arabic astronomers had so improved the Ptolemaic system that it was mathematically equivalent to the Copernican system, although it was still geocentric. And yet the lead was lost in one area after another as the West surged ahead and Arabic science decayed. This learning came to the West not via Eastern Christendom, but mainly through translations from the Arabic made in Spain. The Byzantine scientific tradition lacked originality, being content with the achievements of the Greeks and the Romans. They were thus unable to develop technology and to apply their theoretical knowledge for practical purposes.
Could the explanation of the difference between the vitality of science in the West and its virtual absence in the East be due to a difference between Eastern and Western theologies, or are there other explanations, perhaps in terms of sociological factors, which themselves may or may not have their origin in theology?
The theological beliefs of Eastern and Western Christendom are essentially the same, but there are important differences at the conceptual and practical levels. These differences are difficult to describe, because there are many counter-examples to any general statement that can be made. Thus both attach high value to reason and to prayer, but the emphasis is different. In the West, scholarly work is itself considered to be a form of prayer. Orders of friars, such as the Dominicans, were founded to preach, and to teach in schools and in universities, and their times of prayer are regulated to allow time for study. Dominicans such as Thomas Aquinas taught in the universities and used reason to find out what they could about God, thus developing scholastic theology. In the monasteries of the east, the monks spend long hours in prayer, but as a result they have less time for study and for writing.
Of great importance for the origin of science is the concept of time. Before the advent of science our activities followed biological time, governed by the natural processes of night and day, the phases of the moon and the progression of the seasons. In contrast, scientific time is a regular sequence, and to each instant there corresponds a number, measurable to high accuracy. Monasteries need to have a way of marking the time to regulate the hours of prayer and work and initially they followed biological time, supplemented by sand and water clocks. In the Western monasteries, clocks of high sophistication were developed as early as the twelfth century, whereas clocks, imported from the West, were not used on Mount Athos until the eighteenth century. Even now, the east has a more relaxed sense of time.
The use of biological time is associated with primitive technology, whereas more developed technology comes with scientific time. Thus the larger western monasteries made many technological advances for domestic and industrial purposes, such as water mills and saws. This is of crucial importance for the development of science.
There are also several sociological reasons why science arose in the west and not in the east. It is essential for creative intellectual work that there are places where it can be carried on without external interference, so that the people there are free to think what they like and to follow wherever their reason leads them. Such opportunities are provided by universities, and many were founded in the West from the twelfth century onwards. The crucial steps that led to the birth of modern science took place in the university of Paris.
In the east, there was a spectacular intellectual and artistic revival in the ninth century after the end of the iconoclastic controversy, and the university of Constantinople attracted many distinguished scholars. There was, however, little interest in science or technology.
Byzantine society was rigidly authoritarian, with Church and State closely linked. The Emperor was considered the vicegerent of God, and as ruler of both church and state his word was law. There was a highly centralised state organisation with a well-developed civil service, so that practically all activities were controlled by the Emperor. Trade and commerce were rigidly controlled, not to serve the interests of the merchants but to subordinate economic life to the interests of the state. There were indeed schools, but they did not encourage independent discussion, and the static conception of life was not conducive to the development of science. In the west, on the other hand, the universities were centres of intellectual discussions, where novel views were expounded and discussed.
People speak and discuss freely when they are personally secure, when they know that they can say what they like without danger of any kind. This security can be provided by belonging to an organisation, such as a university, which encourages free discussions, or by a society that respects the right of private property. In the west this is legally established, whereas in the east property was held subject to the will of the ruler, and may at any time be revoked. If one lives in perpetual fear that the ruler will suddenly take away one's house, one is hardly likely to indulge in any activity that may incur his wrath.
In the twelfth century the Crusaders caused consternation in Byzantium as they passed through on their way to the Holy Land, exacerbating the age-old tensions between east and west. These came to a head with the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Byzantium survived another two hundred years, but was fatally weakened and finally fell to the Turks in 1453.
Such sociological factors are sufficient to explain why science did not arise in Eastern Christendom, and it seems that these are more important than any theological differences.
An instructive example of the effect of sociological factors on intellectual activity is provided by the contrast between the English, French and Spanish colonies in north and central America on the one hand, and the Dutch colony in South Africa on the other. In America, there was from the first a thriving intellectual activity, with printing presses and newspapers, and great Colleges and universities were founded within a few decades of the arrival of the colonists. Mexico was conquered in 1521, and by 1553 had a university. In North America, the colonists arrived in 1619, and Harvard was founded in 1636. In South Africa, on the other hand, everything was controlled by the Dutch East India Company, and profit was the only motive. There were no printing presses, newspapers, colleges or universities. The Church was also partly to blame for this situation, because they insisted that their ministers be trained in Holland, and were not willing to establish Colleges in South Africa.
3.7. Islam and Science
The wisdom of ancient Greece was transmitted to Europe by the Arabs. They saved and copied the Greek manuscripts, and published extensive commentaries on them. It was just these works of the Greeks that had such a seminal influence on the Middle Ages and profoundly modified European thought. The Arabs made important advances in may areas, notably in algebra, optics and ophthalmology. From the eighth to the fourteenth centuries, astronomy, optics, physics and medicine were far more developed in Islamic countries than in Western Europe. Arabic astronomers, to take one instance, had so improved the Ptolemaic system that it was mathematically equivalent to the Copernican system, although it was still geocentric. And yet the lead was lost in one area after another as the West surged ahead and Arabic science decayed.
We may well pause and ask ourselves what would have been the consequences for world history if they, and not the medievals, had developed our modern scientific knowledge of the world. It was one of the most monumental failures of history. They had a start of five hundred years, and a great Empire stretching from Cordoba to Baghdad. What was missing? It is simply that Islamic theology emphasises the freedom of Allah at the expense of His rationality, so that their grasp of the order of the world is not strong enough for science to develop.
It is also part of Muslim belief that scientific research should not be undertaken unless it can be shown that it will lead to a useful practical result. This error appears again in Marxism. At first it sounds plausible enough, even praiseworthy. Scientific research is very expensive, so why should society pay for it if it is not going to produce anything useful?
This argument is based on a misunderstanding of the very nature of scientific research, which can only develop in accord with its own internal criteria. It cannot, except in a very general way, be directed by external criteria, however laudable they may be. Scientists want to find out about the world; this is their motive and should be their only reward. If Roentgen had been interested in helping medical diagnosis he would never have found X-rays. If Madame Curie had started by looking for a cure for cancer she would never have found radium. As in these examples, it often happens that after the scientist has found some new property of the world, it is found to have great practical value and can be used to benefit society. Scientists welcome this, but the prospect of such applications cannot be allowed to affect the conduct of their research.
The reason why modern science never developed in Muslim countries is thus a theological one. They need European science and technology, and are willing to pay for it. Unfortunately however, that very science is alien to them as it is based on Christian beliefs about the world that they cannot share. There are of course many eminent Muslim scientists, but most of them have been trained in Western countries and so have come to share implicitly those Christian beliefs about the world on which Science is based. There do not as yet seem to be many indications that science has really taken root in Muslim countries.
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