Posts Tagged ‘Aristotelianism’

Radio 4 Programme on Science in the Dark Ages

November 15, 2017

Radio 4 are also broadcasting a programme next week, which intends to challenge the view that the Dark Ages were a period of intellectual decline with very little interest in science. The new series of Science Stories kicks off next Wednesday, 22nd November 2017, with ‘A Wold, a Goat and a Cabbage’. The blurb for this in the Radio Times on page 135 reads

Philip Ball looks at how the Dark Ages was a far more intellectually vibrant era than is often perceived-and the monk who was the prsumed author of mathematical puzzles.

I’ve written several pieces on this blog about how the Middle Ages in the West were a period of scientific and mathematical invention and discovery, far more so than is generally recognised. Scientists have been rediscovering and re-evaluating scientific progress in the Middle Ages science Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine. The previous view, which most people of my age were brought up with, that the Middle Ages were intellectually backward until the Humanists appeared in the Renaissance, has now been overturned.

James Hannam, a scientist of Christian faith, did a Ph.D. on medieval science about ten years ago, and his book, God’s Philosophers, shows how the ‘natural philosophers’ of the Middle Ages laid the foundations of modern Western science. These writers, who were largely Christian clergy, were very much aware of the faults of Aristotelian science. While they did not break with it, they did try to modify it so that it conformed more to what actually existed in nature, or offered a more intellectually plausible cause.

And rather than creating modern science, the Renaissance Humanists were actually a threat to its emergence. The Humanists insisted on a far more faithful return to the ideas as well as literary style of the great classical authors. Which meant a far more literal and dogmatic approach to Aristotle. In his Dialogue on the Two World Systems, Galileo spoofed the Humanists by making the character, who represented them, appear as stupid as possible. In one episode, a physician invites the Humanist to come to his house one evening and see him dissect a body. The physician intends to show him that it must be the brain, not the heart, that is the seat of intelligence. Pointing to the dissected corpse, the physician shows the far greater number of nerves passing into the brain, in contrast to the single, thin nerve running to the heart. This, he says, shows that the brain must be the centre of thought and reason. The Humanist replies that he would believe him, if the great Aristotle also agreed.

The Christian medieval authors were also aware of the debt they owed to the Arab and Muslim world for editions of classical works that had previously been lost to the West. One medieval poem describes how scholars headed to Toledo and other areas in Spain to consult the Arab scholars, who were masters of these new intellectual frontiers. One of the French chroniclers of the Crusades, either Joinville or Froissart, described how, during negotiations between King Louis and one of the Arab potentates, one of Louis’ nobles trod on his foot under the table. It was intended as a secret warning. The negotiations involved maths in some way, and the nobleman wanted to warn his liege to beware, as the ‘saracens’ were much better calculators than they were.

As for the reliability of science, the poem I quoted above also remarked of one scientific phenomenon, that its existence couldn’t be doubted as ‘it was proved by SCIENCE’.

Clearly, science and the investigation of the natural world was very much in its infancy in the Middle Ages, and ideas were subject to censorship if they conflicted with Christian dogma. But the Middle Ages were also a period of scientific investigation and were far more rationalistic than is often believed. For example, the theologian William of Auvergne, described the supposed appearance of a great of demons in one of the French monasteries. These devils proceeded down the corridor, until they disappeared into the privies, from which came a horrible stench. William was not surprised. He put visions like this down to poor digestion interfering with proper sleep. After too full a meal, the stomach hung heavy on the nerves, preventing the proper circulation of the humours and nervous fluids, and so creating nightmarish visions like the one above. Other writers seriously doubted the abilities of cunningmen and scryers to find lost or stolen objects. When they did claim that an article had been stolen by a particular person, it was far more likely that the individual was a known thief than that they had been shown it by the spirits.

I’ve been annoyed before now at the way the media has continued to present the Middle Ages as a period of dark superstition, with a few notable exceptions. One of these was Terry Gilliam and his TV series, Medieval Lives, which has appeared as a book, and his radio series, The Anti-Renaissance Show, both of which were broadcast by the Beeb. Now it seems that the Corporation is once more showing the other side of intellectual life in the Middle Ages.

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The Euthanasia of the Elderly in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Titan’

July 18, 2017

A few days ago I put up a post about the nightmare, alternative future described by the British SF novelist Stephen Baxter in his novel, Titan. Baxter’s a writer of hard SF, a subgenre in which the fiction is nevertheless grounded in solid, known science fact, though often with an element of artistic license. Titan was written in 1995, and is partly set in the decaying America of the first decades of the 21st century. A militantly anti-science president, Maclachlan, has been elected with the support of the Ku Klux Klan and Christian fundamentalists. Maclachlan shuts down NASA for good after a shuttle disaster. The launch complexes are closed down. Those that aren’t demolished become simply tourist attractions, as do the agency’s headquarters and mission control. One of these, a museum to the Apollo moon landings, is altered so that it promotes instead the spiritual experiences many of the astronauts did have during their missions. Maclachlan also introduces legislation demanding that only the Aristotelian cosmology of Thomas Aquinas, with its crystal spheres, is taught in schools. What is left of the agency is given over to the USAF under the paranoid and nationalistic General Hartle, who is very much like the rogue American General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s classic nuclear black comedy, Doctor Strangelove.

Against this, the agency attempts to launch one last, great space mission, a crewed voyage to Titan, where the Cassini probe has found evidence of active biological chemistry.

I commented in my post on the remarkable similarity between the policies of the fictional Maclachlan and Donald Trump. Maclachlan is fiercely nationalistic, and withdraws American peacekeepers from their stations around the globe, as well as pulling America out of NAFTA and the various other free trade agreements. America also pulls out of the World Bank and the IMF, and the UN is kicked out of New York. Like the real anti-Semites of the America Far Right, Maclachlan believes that the US is under ‘Israeli occupation’. Maclachlan also dismantles the country’s welfare programmes, especially those benefiting Blacks and other minorities, and starts building a wall with Mexico.

He also devises a policy to deal with America’s increasingly aging society: euthanasia chambers for the unwanted or neglected elderly. These are euphemistically called ‘Happy Booths’. There’s a very touching scene in which the last, fictitious surviving Apollo spaceman, Marcus White, is gassed to death in one of these chambers by a couple of nurses, who are every bit as malign as Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. By this time, however, White is so confused with dementia, that he is lost in the delusion that he is back as a middle-aged man at NASA in his prime, suiting up and breathing the pure oxygen in preparation for another flight to the Moon.

This is interesting, as it completely turns on its head one of the truly despicable pieces of propaganda the Republicans were running ten years ago to make sure the American public didn’t get single-payer healthcare. Instead, we had Sarah Palin and the rest of the maniacs screaming that the introduction of single-payer healthcare, where all Americans would have free medical treatment financed by the state, would lead to ‘death panels’. Palin herself made a speech about how she didn’t want her children facing them. The idea was under a socialist system, medical care would be rationed. Those individuals deemed to be a waste of state money and resources, such as the elderly, would thus be humanely killed.

It was a disgusting piece of propaganda, based partly on the murder of the disabled in Nazi Germany. The Nazis were also pro-euthanasia, producing propaganda forms with titles such as I Don’t Want to Be Born. It was also based partly on the vile views of some of the founders of the Fabian Society, particularly H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who were very much in favour of eugenics and the sterilization of the biologically unfit.

Unfortunately, many Americans were taken in by this bilge. There was a BBC report on the truly horrific state of American healthcare, in which a clinic offering free treatment in California immediately attracted 50,000 + prospective patients. These are the 20 per cent of Americans, who couldn’t afford their private healthcare before the introduction of Obamacare. The Beeb’s reported also attracted the attention of Republican supporters, who’d believed all the rubbish they’d been fed by Palin and her stormtroopers. One of these was an elderly man, who rushed up to the Beeb’s crew and shouted ‘Your healthcare system stinks!’ When they politely asked him how so, he looked confused, and began to mutter about ‘death panels’.

There are no death panels in Britain, or anywhere else with a socialized, or state-funded medical system. As for Germany, state financing of medical treatment for the workers was introduced by Bismarck in the 1870s, nearly fifty years before the Nazis seized power. There is a problem, where dying individuals may be refused treatment of expensive and/or experimental drugs or other procedures on the NHS because the costs far exceed any chance of success. This is very much a controversial issue, as we’ve seen the past week with the parents fighting to send their dying son over to America for treatment. However, there are no death panels.

The ‘Happy Booths’ described in the book are a piece of artistic invention by Baxter. Conventional Christian morality rejects euthanasia for the same reasons it has traditionally ruled out abortion, except in certain very restricted circumstances. This is because both judge that there are certain forms of human beings, such as the unborn and the disabled, who are held not to have the same rights to life. If it is permitted to kill the disabled and the unborn, it is argued, there is a danger that the same attitude will spread to other groups also considered inferior, like the Jews and other ‘untermenschen’ in Nazi Germany. And Baxter is aware of this, as elsewhere in the book he describes how the British relative of one of the astronauts, stricken by CJD or ‘Mad Cow Disease’, is going to a euthanasia clinic even though their parents consider it unchristian.

A president dependent on the support of right-wing Christian fundamentalists would alienate a sizable part of his constituency if he did. What happens instead is that, through its hostility to state medicine and the welfare state, Republican politicians of Maclachlan’s type make it impossible for the poor, severely ill to support themselves. Hence Bernie Sanders’ chilling statistic that 50,000 Americans die each year because they cannot afford private medical treatment.

This is basically the same attitude of Tory party under David Cameron and Theresa May. They have extended the sanctions system and the Work Capability Tests to make it as difficult as possible for the unemployed and the disabled to quality for state support. The result of that has been that researchers at Oxford University found that in 2015 alone, 30,000 people died through the Tories’ austerity policies. And Mike over at Vox Political reported yesterday that, according to the Skwawkbox, there’s a nasty clause in Universal Credit, which means that the claimant has to find a job in two years, or they lose their benefit.

See: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/07/17/uc-gives-disabled-people-just-two-years-to-find-a-job-or-lose-everything/

This is a right-wing ‘genocide of the disabled’, as Mike, Johnny Void, Stilloaks, Tom Pride and the Angry Yorkshireman have said on their blogs, and Jeffrey, one of the great commenters here, has said on this. But it’s carefully hidden. The victims aren’t actually killed, they’re simply left to die. And the few politicos, who dare to call it what it is, are denied their ability to sit in parliament.

On Friday Mike commented on a piece in the Disability News Service about Mr. Jared O’Mara, a disabled Lib Dem MP, who has called the Tories’ policies towards the disabled ‘eugenics’, and stated that they want disabled people to ‘suffer and die’. Mr. O’Mara is to be commended for the way he tried to tackle Iain Duncan Smith, the former head of the DWP and therefore the government’s chief minister responsible for implementing this policy. However, Mr. O’Mara finds it impossible to find anywhere in the House of Commons to sit during debates. There is insufficient seating for all 650 MPs, and there is no form available for disabled MPs to fill in stating that they have particular seating needs. As Mike says, this is all very suspicious.

http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2017/07/07/disabled-mp-accuses-tories-of-eugenics-is-that-why-they-wont-let-him-take-a-seat/

As a religious person, I can’t say I’m happy about the anti-religious stance of Titan. I went to a Christian college for my undergraduate degree, and some of the students were Creationists. I am not saying that their literalist reading of the creation story in Genesis is correct, but I have to say that they were, by and large, decent people. Those I met weren’t racists or political extremists, and I know that one or two were actually left-wing. I also can’t say that they were anti-science, outside of the very specific field of evolution. Moreover, since the election of Donald Trump there has been the emergence of a religious Left in America, something which couldn’t have been predicted when Baxter wrote the book back in the 1990s. One of the authors of the collection of articles attacking the Neo-Cons, Confronting the New Conservatism, pointed out that the Neo-Cons were not necessarily going to be politically dominant for ever. Kansas, and many of the other mid-western Republican states, had in the 1920s been centres of the Social Gospel movement, which combined Christianity and Socialism. It’s possible that as more Americans recognize how truly disgusting Trump and his party are, Christians over the other side of the Pond may return to it.

However, Trump and his administration are anti-science. The Republican party is strongly opposed to climate change, and so there has been a concerted attack on environmentalism since Trump took office. Legislation protecting America’s glorious natural heritage has been repealed, and federal scientists responsible for monitoring the environment have been effectively gagged. They may not publish any scientific papers supporting climate change, and the federal agency itself has been effectively gutted.

Titan also portrays a future suffering from global warming and catastrophic climate change, as do very many of the SF novels written during the same decade, such as Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather. So far Trump hasn’t wound up NASA, though I don’t doubt that the agency is still under considerable pressure to keep expenses under control. But the real harm is being done by Trump’s deliberate rejection of climate change to appease powerful donors from industry, particularly the Kochs in big oil. This denial of climate change, and that of the other world leaders, will lead to the deaths of millions worldwide. If it hasn’t already.

Secondary Causation and God’s Purpose in Protestant Aristotelianism

May 17, 2013

In the fifty years between 1610 and 1660 Protestant Scholasticism developed a number of traits that distinguished it from its Roman Catholic counterpart. One of these was the concept of God’s concurrence. This was the idea that the world was shaped through secondary causes, which were nevertheless created and operated through God’s will. The German theologian, J.H. Heidegger, wrote:

‘Concurrence or co-operation is the operation of God by which He co-operates directly with the second causes as depending upon Him alike in their essence as in their operation, so as to urge or move them to action and to operate along iwth them in a manner suitable to a first cause adn adjusted to the nature of second causes’.

Nevertheless, the use of secondary causes did not rule out the possibility and reality of direct intevention by God:

‘Government is direct, when God either does not use second causes or uses them above, beyond and counter to their nature … But he is not said ever to have done anything contrary to universal nature, i.e., the order of the whole universe, to whihc He bound Himself of His own free will. But He frequently operated iwthout means, beyond and counter to them, to show that all things are by Him or His proximate and direct goodness.’

More recently theologians like Alister McGrath, a former microbiologist, have pointed out that the neither the Bible nor the early Church Fathers never used a particular Greek term for miracle that implied the breakdown or absence of scientific law. For the Gospel writers and the early church, a miracle was not the absence or violation of the laws of nature, but their suspension through the operation of a superior law. Thus in this view, Christians are perfectly free to accept that humanity may have been deliberately created by God through the agency of evolution while also believing in God’s miraculous intervention in ‘special acts of grace’.

Robert Jenkin: Science Demonstrates the Unimaginable Grandeur of God and His Creation

May 15, 2013

Although some Christians in the 17th century felt that the new scientific advances attacked and undermined Christianity, others believed the complete opposite. One of these was Robert Jenkin. In his The Reasonableness and Certainty of the Christian Religion, published in London in 1700, Jenkin stated that the new scientific advances not only demonstrated the power and majesty of God through His creation, they also showed how transcendent His works were. The Law of Gravitation seemed to have no rational explanation. It was nevertheless true, and a major scientific advance. It also showed how far beyond human understanding God’s construction and management of the cosmos was. He wrote:

‘Indeed infidelity could never be more inexcusable than in the present age, when so many discoveries have been made in natural philosophy, which would have been thought incredible to former ages, as any thing perhaps that can be imagined, which is not a downright contradiction. That gravitating attractive force, by whihc all bodies act one upon another, at never so great a distance, even through a vacuum of prodigious extent, lately demonstrated by Mr. Newton; the Earth, together with the planets, and the sun and stars being placed at such distances, and disposed of in such order, and in such a manner, as to maintain a perpetual balance and poise throughout the universe, is such a discovery, as nothing less than a demonstration could have gained it any belief. And this system of nature being so lately discovered, and so wonderful, that no account can be given of it by a hypothesis in philosophy, but it must be resolved into the sole power and good pleasure of Almighty God, may be a caution against all attempts of estimating the divine works and dispensations by the measures of human reason. The vastness of the world’s extent is found to be so prodigious, that it would exceed the belief not only of the vulgar, but of the greatest philosopher, if undoubted experiments did not assure us of the truth of it.’

In fact, gravitation only appeared inexplicable because Aristotelian science denied action at a distance. For the Aristotelians, for something to have an effect it had to be in physical contact with whatever it acted upon. This was not the case in Platonic philosophy, which considered that things could operate through a system of similarity and attraction/ repulsion. This, however, was associated with the occult. It was, for example, the explanation for the supposed effect the stars had on the creatures on Earth in astrology. Newton himself was very much aware how his theory contradicted Aristotelian notions of causation, and had indeed drawn his inspiration for the theory from Neoplatonism.

Modern physicists consider that gravitation is caused by sub-atomic particles of force called gravitons. In Star Trek, gravitons are the force used by the space ships’ tractor beams to tow other space ships and other objects. No gravitons have so far been detected. Some cosmologists believe that they are unnecessary to explain gravity. These scientists instead consider that gravity is the effect mass has when it bends the fabric of space-time, as described in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Whatever the precise explanation of gravity may turn out to be, one can agree with Jenkin that although its cause may have a rational explanation, that explanation in its turn demonstrates the wonderful construction of the universe by the Almighty.

Protestant Appreciation of Catholic Achievements in the Scientific Revolution

May 7, 2013

For many people, the trial of Galileo demonstrates the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s hostility to science, and has become part of the view that somehow religion is intrinsically opposed to scientific investigation and progress. Yet historians of science, from Pierre Duhem, A.C. Crombie and James Hallam have noted how the medieval church had an active interest in science, and that many of the achievements of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century were actually solidly based on those of their medieval predecessors. Some sections of the Church defended Galileo, such as the friar, Thomas Campanella. Historians have also pointed out that the trial was not simply about the science itself. One important factor was Galileo’s highly critical tone towards the Aristotelians, which included the then Pope. Another factor was that at the time the heliocentric system was underdetermined – it lacked the scientific evidence to make an absolutely convincing, watertight case. Roman Catholicism was also not alone in rejecting the new, experimental science. The 16th century Lutheran Church in Germany still remained strongly Aristotelian in its scientific philosophy, and part of it continued to reject the heliocentric theory until the 18th century.

Although many of the Protestants, who did accept and promote the new experimental science, saw Galileo’s trial as evidence that the Roman Catholic Church had been hostile to science, they also recognised that parts of the Church had also embraced it and promoted it. Thomas Sprat, the author of the History of the Royal Society, also acknowledged the Roman Catholic Church current scientific activities and achievements. He wrote

‘The Church of Rome has indeed of late look’d more favourably upon it (experimental knowledge). They will now condemn no man for asserting the Antipodes: The severity with which they handled Galileo, seems now very much abated: they now permit their Jesuits to bestow some labours upon natural observations, for which they have great advantages by their travails; and their clergy may justly claim some share in the honour, as long as the immortal names of Mersennus and Gassendus (Mersenne and Pierre Gassendi) shall live’.

The Jesuit Order was particularly active scientifically. In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius de Loyola, the Order’s founder, urged his followers to contemplate God as the Creator of the natural world, whose activity sustained it and caused it to operate. Point 2 of the ‘Contemplation for Obtaining Love’ in the fourth week of the Exercises commands the reader to ‘consider how God dwells in the creatures: in the elements, giving them being; in the plants, giving them growth: in the animals giving them sensation: in men, giving them understanding’. Point 3 further advises the reader to ‘consider how God works and labours on my behalf in all created things … as in the heavens, elements, plants, fruits, flocks’.

The Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages and 16th and 17th century was thus certainly not as hostile to science as those who consider religious faith to be opposed to science believe. Despite the trial of Galileo, some Protestant scientists, such as Sprat, recognised the Church’s positive attitude to science in their time, and readily praised the achievements of Catholic scientists.