Posts Tagged ‘Renaissance’

Richard Dawkins Promoting Atheism at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature

October 7, 2019

This week is the Cheltenham festival of literature. It’s an annual event when novelists, poets, illustrators and increasingly TV and radio personalities descend on the town to talk about and try to sell the books they’ve had published. There can be, and often are, some great speakers discussing their work. I used to go to it regularly in the past, but went off it after a few years. Some of the people turn up, year in, year out, and there are only so many times you can see them without getting tired of it.

Dawkins, Atheism and Philosophical Positivism

One of the regular speakers at the Festival is the zoologist, science writer and atheist polemicist, Richard Dawkins. The author of Climbing Mount Improbable, The River Out Of Eden, The Blind Watchmaker and so on is appearing in Cheltenham to promote his latest book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide. It sounds like a kind of successor to his earlier anti-religious work, The God Delusion. According to the accompanying pamphlet for the festival, he’s going to be talking to an interviewer about why we should all stop believing in God. There’s no doubt Dawkins deserves his platform at the Festival as much as any other writer. He’s a popular media personality, and writes well. However, his knowledge of philosophy, theology and the history of science, which forms the basis for his attacks on Christianity, is extremely low, and defenders of religion, and even other scientists and historians, who are just interested in defending their particular disciplines from factual mistakes and misinterpretations, have shot great holes in them.

Dawkins is, simply put, a kind of naive Positivist. Positivism was the 19th century philosophy, founded by Auguste Comte, that society moved through a series of three stages in its development. The first stage was the theological, when the dominant ideology was religion. Then came the philosophical stage, before the process ended with science. Religion was a thing of the past, and science would take over its role of explaining the universe and guiding human thought and society. Comte dreamed of the emergence of a ‘religion of humanity’, with its own priesthood and rituals, which would use sociology to lead humanity. Dawkins doesn’t quite go that far, but he does believe that religion and science – and specifically Darwinism – are in conflict, and that the former should give way to the latter. And he’s not alone. I heard that a few years ago, Alice Robert, the forensic archaeologist and science presenter, gave a speech on the same subject at the Cheltenham Festival of Science when she was its guest director, or curator, or whatever they term it. A friend of mine was less than impressed with her talk and the lack of understanding she had of religion. He tweeted ‘This is a girl who thinks she is intelligent.’

War of Science and Religion a Myth

No, or very few historians of science, actually believe that there’s a war between the two. There have been periods of tension, but the idea of a war comes from three 19th century writers. And it’s based on and cites a number of myths. One of these is the idea that the Church was uniformly hostile to science, and prevented any kind of scientific research and development until the Renaissance and the rediscovery of ancient Roman and Greek texts. It’s a myth I learnt at school, and it’s still told as fact in many popular textbooks. But other historians have pointed out that the Middle Ages was also a period of scientific investigation and development, particularly following the influence of medieval Islamic science and the ancient Greek and Roman texts they had preserved, translated, commented on and improved. Whole books have been written about medieval science, such as Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine, and James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers. Hannam is a physicist, who did a doctorate in examining the development of medieval science, showing that, far from retarding or suppressing it, medieval churchmen were intensely interested in it and were active in its research. Medieval science was based very much on Aristotle, but they were well aware of some of the flaws in his natural philosophy, and attempted to modify it in order to make it conform to observed reality. The Humanists of the Renaissance, rather than bringing in freedom of thought and scientific innovation, were actually a threat. They wanted to strip philosophy and literature of its medieval modifications to make it correspond exactly with the ancients’ original views. Which would have meant actually destroying the considerable advances which had been made. Rather than believe that renaissance science was a complete replacement of medieval science, scholars like Hannam show that it was solidly based on the work of their medieval predecessors.

Christian Theology and the Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution of the 17th century in England also has roots in Christian philosophy and theology. Historians now argue that the Royal Society was the work of Anglican Broadchurchmen, who believed that God had created a rational universe amenable to human reason, and who sought to end the conflict between the different Christian sects through uniting them in the common investigation of God’s creation. See, for example, R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press 1972).

Christian Monotheism and the Unity of Physical Law

It is also Christian monotheist theology that provides one of the fundamental assumptions behind science. Modern science is founded on the belief that the laws of nature amount to a single, non-contradictory whole. That’s the idea behind the ‘theory of everything’, or Grand Unified Theory everyone was talking about back in the 1990s. But this idea goes back to St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas said that we must believe that the laws of nature are one, because God is one.  It’s the assumption, founded on Christian theology, the makes science possible.

Atheist Reductionism also a Danger

When The God Delusion Came Out, it was met by a series of books attacking its errors, some of them with titles like The Dawkins Delusion. The philosopher Mary Midgley has also attacked the idea that science can act as a replacement for religion in her books Evolution as a Religion and The Myths We Live By. On page 58 of the latter she attacks the immense damage to humanity atheist reductionism also poses. She writes

Both reductive materialism and reductive idealism have converged to suggest that reductivism is primarily a moral campaign against Christianity. This is a dangerous mistake. Obsession with the churches has distracted attention from reduction employed against notions of human individuality, which is now a much more serious threat. It has also made moral problems look far simplar than they actually are. Indeed, some hopeful humanist reducers still tend to imply that, once Christian structures are cleared away, life in general will be quite all right and philosophy will present no further problems.

In their own times, these anti-clerical reductive campaigns have often been useful. But circumstances change. New menaces, worse than the one that obsesses us, are always appearing, so that what looked like a universal cure for vice and folly becomes simply irrelevant. In politics, twentieth-century atheistical states are not an encouraging omen for the simple secularistic approach to reform. it turns out that the evils that have infested religion are not confined to it, but are ones that can accompany any successful human institution. Nor is it even clear that religion itself is something that the human race either can or should be cured of.

Darwin Uninterested in Atheist Campaigning

Later in the book she describes how the Marxist Edward Aveling was disappointed when he tried to get Darwin to join him in a campaign to get the atheist, Bradlaugh, to take his seat as a duly elected MP. At the time, atheists were barred from public office by law. Aveling was impressed by Darwin’s work on evolution, which he believed supported atheism. Darwin was an agnostic, and later in life lost belief in God completely due to the trauma of losing a daughter and the problem of suffering in nature. But Darwin simply wasn’t interested in joining Aveling’s campaign. When Aveling asked him what he was now studying, hoping to hear about another earth-shaking discovery that would disprove religion, Darwin simply replied ‘Earthworms’. The great biologist was fascinated by them. It surprised and shocked Aveling, who hadn’t grasped that Darwin was simply interested in studying creatures for their own sake.

Evolutionists on Evolution Not Necessarily Supporting Atheism

Other evolutionary biologists also concluded that evolution has nothing to say about God, one way or another. Stephen Jay Gould stated that he believed that Darwinism only hinted at atheism, not that it proved it. Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who published his own theory of evolution in Zoonomia in 1801, believed on the other hand that the development of creatures from more primitive forebears made the existence of God ‘mathematically certain’.

Frank H.T. Rhodes of the University of Michigan wrote in his book Evolution (New York: Golden Press 1974) on its implications the following, denying that it had any for religion, politics or economics.

Evolution, like any other natural process or scientific theory, is theologically neutral. it describes mechanisms, but not meaning. it is based upon the recognition of order but incorporates no conclusion concerning the origin of that order as either purposeful or purposeless.

Although evolution involves the interpretation of natural events by natural processes, it neither assumes nor provides particular conclusions concerning the ultimate sources or the significance of materials, events or processes.

Evolution provides no obvious conclusions concerning political or economic systems. Evolution no more supports evolutionary politics (whatever they might be) than does the Second Law of Thermodynamics support political disorder or economic chaos. 

(Page 152).

Conclusion

I realise that the book’s nearly 50 years old, and that since that time some scientists have worked extremely hard to show the opposite – that evolution support atheism. But I’ve no doubt other scientists, people most of us have never heard of, believe the opposite. Way back in 1909 or so there was a poll of scientists to show their religious beliefs. The numbers of atheists and people of faith was roughly equal, and 11 per cent of the scientists polled said that they were extremely religious. When the poll was repeated in the 1990s, the pollsters were surprised to find that the proportion of scientists who were still extremely religious had not changed.

Despite what Dawkins tells you, atheism is not necessarily supported by science, and does not disprove it. Other views of the universe, its origin and meaning are available and still valid.

Radio 4 Series Challenging Stereotype that Religion and Science Are at War

June 12, 2019

According to next week’s Radio Times there’s a new, three-part series beginning on Radio 4 next Friday, 21st June, at 11.00 am, Science and Religion about the relationship between the two disciplines. From the pieces about in the magazine, it attacks the idea that science and religion are at war. The blurb for the programme’s first part, ‘The Nature of the Beast’, on page 131, says

Nick Spencer examines the history of science and religion and the extent to which they have been in conflict with each other. Drawing on the expertise of various academics, he begins by exploring what the relationship says about what it means to be human.

The paragraph about the programme on the preceding page, 130, by Sue Robinson, runs

Are science and religion at war? In the first in a three-part series, Nick Spencer (of Goldsmith’s, London, and Christian think-tank Theos) takes a look back wt what he terms the “simplistic warfare narrative” of these supposedly feuding disciplines. From the libraries of the Islamic world to the work of 13th-century bishop Robert Grosseteste in maths and natural sciences, Spencer draws on the expertise of a variety of academics to argue that there has long been an interdependence between the two. I felt one or two moments of consternation (“there are probably more flat-earthers [believing the earth to be flat] around today than there were back then…”) and with so many characters in the unfolding 1,000-year narrative, some may wish for a biographical dictionary at their elbow… I certainly did. Yet somehow Spencer produces an interesting and informative treatise from all the detail. 

We’ve waited a long time for a series like this. I set up this blog partly to argue against the claim made by extremely intolerant atheists like Richard Dawkins that science and religion are and always have been at war. In fact no serious historian of science believes this. It’s a stereotype that comes from three 19th century writers, one of whom was reacting against the religious ethos of Harvard at the time. And some of the incidents that have been used to argue that science was suppressed by the religious authorities were simply invented. Like the story that Christopher Columbus was threatened by the Inquisition for believing that the world war round. Er no, he wasn’t. That was all made up by 19th century author Washington Irvine. European Christians had known and accepted that the world was round by the 9th century. It’s what the orb represents in the Crown Jewels. The story that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, in his debate on evolution with Charles Darwin, asked the great biologist whether he was descended from an ape on his mother’s or father’s side of the family is also an invention. It was written years after the debate by Darwin’s Bulldog, T.H. Huxley. A few years ago historians looked at the accounts of the debate written at the time by the students and other men of science who were there. They don’t mention any such incident. What they do mention is Wilberforce opening the debate by saying that such questions like evolution needed to be carefully examined, and that if they are true, they have to be accepted, no matter how objectionable they may be. Wilberforce himself was an extremely proficient amateur scientist himself as well as a member of the clergy. Yes, there was opposition from many Christians to Darwin’s idea, but after about 20 years or so most of the mainstream denominations fully accepted evolution. The term ‘fundamentalism’ comes from a book defending and promoting Christianity published as The Fundamentals of Christianity published in the first years of the 20th century. The book includes evolution, which it accepts.

Back to the Middle Ages, the idea that this was a period when the church suppressed scientific investigation, which only revived with the Humanists of the Renaissance, has now been utterly discredited. Instead it was a period of invention and scientific discovery. Robert Grosseteste, the 13th century bishop of Lincoln, wrote papers arguing that the Moon was responsible for the tides and that the rainbow was produced through light from the sun being split into various colours by water droplets in the atmosphere. He also wrote an account of the six days of creation, the Hexaemeron, which in many ways anticipates the ‘Big Bang’ theory. He believed that the universe was created with a burst of light, which in turn created ‘extension’ – the dimensions of the cosmos, length, width and breadth, and that this light was then formed into the material and immaterial universe. Medieval theologians were also often highly critical of stories of demons and ghosts. The 12th century French bishop, William of Auxerre, believed that nightmares were caused, not by demons, but by indigestion. If you had too big a meal before falling asleep, the weight of the food in the stomach pressed down on the nerves, preventing the proper flow of vital fluids.

The Christian scholars of this period drew extensively on the writings of Muslim philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, who had inherited more of the intellectual legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, along with that of the other civilisations they had conquered, like Persia and India. Scholars like al-Haytham explored optics while the Bani Musa brothers created fascinating machines. And Omar Khayyam, the Sufi mystic and author of the Rubaiyyat, one of the classics of world literature, was himself a brilliant mathematician. Indeed, many scientific and mathematical terms are taken from Arabic. Like alcohol, and algorithm, which comes from the Muslim scholar al-Khwarismi, as well as algebra.

There have been periods of tension between religion and particular scientific doctrines, like the adoption of the Copernican system and Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection, but the relationship between science and religion is rich, complex and has never been as simple as all out war. This should be a fascinating series and is a very necessary corrective to the simplistic stereotype we’ve all grown up with.

Rapper Fab 5 Freddy to Host Beeb Film on Renaissance Art

January 25, 2019

More arts news. Also according to yesterday’s I for Thursday, 24th January 2019, the New York rapper Fab 5 Freddy is due to hos a Beeb documentary about the Renaissance. The article, written by Adam Sherwin, ran

Move over Simon Schama, Fab 5 Freddy wants your spot. The New York hip-hop pioneer and former graffiti artist is the unlikely choice to present a BBC 2 documentary on Italian Renaissance Art.

Fab – real name Fred Brathwaite – was approached to do the film, ‘A Fresh Guide to Florence with Fab 5 Freddy’, after the BBC learnt that he was an art lover who worked closely with Jean-Michel Basquiat in the early 80s, curating the cult artist’s Manhattan shows.

“Amidst superstar artists such as Michelangelo and powerful patrons such as the Medicis, Fab discovers groundbreaking images of a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society that have slipped through the cracks of art history,” the BBC said. (‘A ‘Fresh’ take on the Renaissance’, p. 21).

It might be a surprising choice, but it seems to be a good one in line with current arts policy of getting different voices to open up the arts. A number of BAME artists have appeared in the news complaining that there aren’t enough Black artists shown in museums and art galleries, and that when they were small they weren’t interested in visiting them because there was nothing for them there. It therefore looks like the Beeb is trying to appeal to a younger, Black audience with Fab 5 Freddie in order to stop it being viewed as just something made by old White guys for White guys.

I am also not surprised that they chose a former graffiti artist for other reasons. Archaeologists have been working with graffiti artists for several years now in order to explore rock art and its links with modern graffiti art. I can remember attending an archaeological seminar at Bristol university at least six years ago in which one of the speakers presented a piece about their research about the graffiti in a particular area of one of the Spanish towns. And Radio 4 a few years ago also presented a programme about rock art which included comments from some of Britain’s leading street artists.

As for the Renaissance, Florence was a major centre of trade and industry, but historians have pointed out in books like The Renaissance Bazaar that many of the commercial innovations that made the Renaissance possible had their origins further east in the Islamic world. This was also a period when Europeans were turning from the Slavic east to Africa for a supply of slaves, so that you do find Blacks portrayed in art in this period. Not that they weren’t here before, of course. A 12th century manuscript from London in the National Archives shows a Black person, while one of the books that used to be stocked in shop in Bristol’s M Shed was on Blacks in fifteenth century England.

I’ve no doubt critics of the programme will decry it as ‘dumbing down’ and complain about ‘diversity’, but this could be a programme worth watching because of the original insights Fab 5 Freddie could bring.

Physics Textbook on Cosmology and Gravitation

March 15, 2018

M.V. Berry, Principles of Cosmology and Gravitation (Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing 1989).

Yesterday came the news of the death of the great British physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking at the age of 76. Hawking had suffered for most of his adult life from motor neurone disease, since he was diagnosed with it in his early 20s. He was given only three years to live, but instead managed to live out a very full lifespan working on his theories of the origin of the universe and Black Holes. He was a great ambassador for science. His book, A Brief History of Time, was a bestseller when it appeared in 1980s, although he admitted that it was probably a book few finished. And he showed that it was still possible for a disabled person to do cutting edge research, provided they had the necessary technical and medical support. In his case, it was his wheelchair and the machine that allowed him to speak, first of all by keying in the words, then by twitching just a single muscle. Some of the praise seemed a bit too fulsome to me. Like when they started saying that he was the greatest scientist since Newton and Einstein. I don’t think he was. And Hawking on his own didn’t unlock the secrets of universe or Black Holes, as the Beeb’s presenters also claimed. As for his great sense of humour, well, it existed, as his appearance on shows like The Simpsons demonstrated, but my memory of it is marred by him turning up with the TV critic, Victor Lewis Smith, telling fart jokes and laughing on the 1990s series, Inside Victor Lewis Smith. But it really was inspiring to see how he was a great hero to the ‘A’ level students at a science fair yesterday, and how he had inspired them to become interested in science.

One of the complaints Richard Dawkins has made about popular science programmes is that they’re too ‘dumbed-down’. He points out that they have to have lots of explosions, and they mustn’t include equations, in case that scares people off. There’s a lot with which I don’t agree with Dawkins. I’m not an atheist, and have argued on this blog against him and the other militant atheists. But he is right here. Scientists writing the popular science books have said that they’ve been told by their publishers to leave equations out, because every equation in a book damages sales.

I think this is the wrong attitude to have. It’s why I’ve put up this piece about the above book by M.V. Berry. It’s an undergraduate physics textbook, which does contain the fundamental mathematical equations for this area of physics. Its contents include

1. Introduction

2. Cosmography
2.1 What the universe contains
2.2 The cosmic distance hierarchy and the determination of galactic densities
2.2.1 Parallax
2.2.2 Distance from velocity measurements
2.2.3 Distance from apparent luminosity
2.2.4 Weighing galaxies
2.3 The red shift and the expansion of the universe.

3. Physical base of general relativity
3.1 The need for relativistic ideas and a theory of gravitation.
3.2 Difficulties with Newtonian mechanics: gravity
3.3. Difficulties with Newtonian mechanics: inertial frames and absolute space.
3.4 Inadequacy of special relativity.
3.5 Mach’s principle, and gravitational waves.
3.6 Einstein’s principle of equivalence.

4 Curved spacetime and the physical mathematics of general relativity.
4.1 Particle Paths and the separation between events
4.2 Geodesics
4.3 Curved spaces
4.4 Curvature and gravitation.

5 General relativity near massive objects
5.1 Spacetime near an isolated mass.
5.2 Around the world with clocks.
5.3 Precession of the perihelion of Mercury
5.4 Deflection of light
5.5 Radar echoes from planets
5.6 Black Holes

6 Cosmic Kinematics
6.1 Spacetime for the smoothed-out universe
6.2 Red shifts and horizons
6.3 Apparent luminosity
6.4 Galactic densities and the darkness of the night sky.
6.5 Number counts

7 Cosmic dynamics
7.1 Gravitation and the cosmic fluid
7.2 Histories of model universes
7.3 The steady state theory
7.4 Cosmologies in which the strength of gravity varies

8 In the beginning
8.1 Cosmic black-body radiation.
8.2 Condensation of galaxies
8.3 Ylem.

Appendix A: Labelling astronomical objects
Appendix B: Theorema Egregium
Problems
Solutions to odd-numbered problems
Useful numbers.

there’s also a bibliography and index.

I’m not claiming to understand the equations. I struggled at both my ‘O’ level maths and physics, and what I know about science and astronomy I learned mostly through popular science books. But in the mid-1990s I wanted to see at least some of the equations scientists used in their explorations and modelling of the universe. One of the popular science books I was reading said at the time that this book was at the level that people with ‘A’ level maths could understand, and this didn’t seem quite so much a jump from my basic maths skills. So I ordered it. I’m afraid I can’t say that I’ve read it properly, despite the fact that I keep meaning to. Some of the equations are just too much for me, but I can follow the explanations in the text. I’m putting this notice of the book up here, in case there are any budding Stephen or Stephanie Hawkingses out there, who want to go a bit further than the pop-sci explanations, and see for themselves what the maths behind it all is like.

The Beeb also said in their eulogy for the great man, that Hawking hoped that the people reading his A Brief History of Time would come away with one point, even if they hadn’t finished it: that the universe is governed by rational law. Actually, this ideas isn’t unique to Hawking by a very, very long way. It actually comes from the Middle Ages, and is the assumption that makes science possible. Hawking was an agnostic, I believe, and many scientists are atheists. But this assumption that the universe is governed by rational laws ultimately comes from Christian theology. The founds of modern science in the Renaissance pointed to the passages in the Bible, in which God’s Wisdom creates the universes and establishes the boundaries and courses of natural phenomena, like the tides and stars. And the anarchist of science, Feuerabend, pointed out that the assumption that the laws of the universe all form a consistent whole come from Christian doctrine, quoting the 13th century theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas: ‘We must believe that the laws of the universe are one, because God is one.’

Hawking has passed away, but it’s clear that he has inspired many more people to become interested in this rather arcane branch of the sciences. I hope this continues, despite the Tories’ attack on education and science and research for its own sake.

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.

Leonardo’s Rivals

September 22, 2013

One of the most interesting series on television was a documentary the BBC screened a little while ago about Leonardo da Vinci and his inventions. It mixed drama and explanation and opinion from a variety of historians and scholars to trace the life and scientific exploration and discoveries of one of the very greatest geniuses of the Renaissance. It was fascinating viewing, particularly when they tried out da Vinci’s design for a diving suit in the canals of Venice. Da Vinci was truly a polymath, responsible for a number of amazing inventions well before his time, such as the caterpillar track and helicopter. I don’t believe, however, that Leonardo was quite the isolated figure as is the common impression of him. There were other engineers at the time working on some of the same problems.

Jean Gimpel, in his The Medieval Machine, traces some of da Vinci’s ideas back to the thirteenth century French engineer and inventor, Villard de Honnecourt. This has been challenged, and other historians have science have rejected the suggestion that he influenced da Vinci. Nevertheless, it appears that de Honnecourt and da Vinci did work on some of the same problems, even if de Honnecourt never developed his ideas to the same extent that da Vinci did his. In the 14th century another, unknown engineer, began to consider an alternative method of propulsion for ships. There’s an illustration from a manuscript of 1436 of a paddle-ship, whose wheels are turned by the oxen on board.

Madieval Paddle Ship

During the fifteenth century a number of Italian engineers attempted to design something like the modern car. Around 1410, Giovanni da Fontana produced the design below for a ‘self-driving’ carriage, operated by hand.

Medieval Car

The car designed by Francesco di Giorgio Martini was powered by four capstans, each serving one of the vehicle’s wheels. It even had a steering wheel. Di Giorgio Martini called his vehicle an automobile, which is probably the earliest use of the term to describe something like the modern car.

Medieval Automobile

Roberto Valturio, who died in 1484, designed a carriage that would be driven by the wind. Mounted on each side of the car’s frame were two windmills, each with four incline sails. These turned another, large will, which communicated the power to the two wheels underneath it.

Renaissance Sail Car

In Germany, Konrad Kyeser invented a double crane, while di Giorgio Martini created a device for lifting columns. De Kyeser also invented a diving suit. Two types of these suits are shown in one of his illustrations dating to 1400. One of the suits is from a design of the fourth century Roman scholar, Vegecius. This is simply a helmet and a leather tube, through which the diver breathed, leading to a floating bladder on the surface. This type of diving suit may have already been in use long before. In 1240 Roger Bacon stated that there were ‘instruments which men could use to walk on the bed of the sea or of rivers without endangering themselves’. The other diving suit drawn by Kyeser showed a helmet with two glass holes for the eyes, fixed to a tabard belted on the wearer. This is the first known representation of a body suit. In 1582 another German engineer, Peter Morice, or Moritz, installed a tide mill near London. This operated a force pump with enough power to supply the city of London.

Unfortunately, you rarely hear about these other, fascinating medieval and Renaissance inventions. Perhaps this may change with the increasing influence in Cyberpunk science fiction, which fantastically explores the scientific possibilities of the Victorian period. Possibly this type of SF may encourage others to look even further back in time, to the forgotten inventions and inventors of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The role-playing game, Ars Magica is already set in the Middle Ages, and is based both on the world of medieval magic and their scientific worldview. Many of its players are historians of medieval science at universities. Perhaps in time knowledge of these inventions and achievements won’t be limited to the relatively small number of people, who play RPGs, and these engineers and inventors will at last receive the recognition they deserve from the wider public.

Sources

Great Inventions through History (Edinburgh: W&R Chambers 1991.

Sigvard Strandh, Machines: An Illustrated History (Nordbok 1979).

Science Britannia and the Need for a Programme on Medieval Science

September 22, 2013

Last week, the Beeb started a new series on the history of science, Science Britannia, broadcast on BBC 2 on Wednesdays at 8.00 pm. Fronted by Professor Brian Cox, now Britain’s answer to Carl Sagan, the series traces the development of British science and the personalities of the scientists involved from the mid-18th century. The name, Science Britannia, seems to come from the various music documentary series the Beeb has screened over recent years, such as Jazz Britannia, and one on caricature, political satire, the Music Hall and burlesque, Rude Britannia. Now any series on the history of science is to be welcomed, though my problem with such series is that they are always set in the Renaissance or later. In this case, I suspect the series has been influenced in its selection of the date at which to begin by Jenny Uglow’s, The Lunar Men. This was about the 18th century society of natural philosophers – the term ‘scientist’ was not coined until the 19th century – of which Erasmus Darwin was a member. He published his own theory of evolution fifty years before that of his better-known grandson, Charles. On this Wednesday programme Cox does go back to Isaac Newton in the 17th century, to examine his psychology, as well as that of later pioneering British scientists.

I do have one criticism of these series, however. They largely ignore the amazing scientific and technological advances that went on during the Middle Ages. Historians of medieval science, such as James Hallam in his book, God’s Philosophers, and A.C. Crombie in his two volume history of medieval science, have demonstrated that there was no Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries in the sense that these ideas were a radical break with medieval science. They weren’t. Instead, they had their roots very much in the investigations and examination of nature of medieval natural philosophers even as they rejected their Aristotelianism. Roger Bartlet, in his programme on the medieval worldview, has demonstrated that the Middle Ages were not anti-science and that the mixture of science and faith made perfect sense to them, even if it now seems irrational to us. For example, I made a list of about 20 innovations that appeared in Europe during the Middle Ages. They were
Adoption for the purpose of preventing the deaths of unwanted children, Council of Vaison, 442.

Linguistics: Priscian, 6th century.

Floating Mills, Belisarius, 537.

Orphanage, St. Maguebodus, c. 581.

Electrotherapy, Paul of Aegina, 7th century.

Tide Mills, Adriatic and England, 11th century.

Armour plated warships, Scandinavia, 11th century.

Lottery, Italy, 12th century

Harness, Europe, c. 1150.

Spectacles, Armati or Spina, c. 1280.

Pencil – silver or black lead used for drawing, 14th century.

High Explosive Marine Shell, Netherlands, c. 1370, or Venice 1376.

Movable type, Laurens Janszoon, alias Coster, 1423,

Oil painting, H and J Van Eyck, 1420,

Diving Suit, Kyeser, c. 1400.

Double crane, Konrad Kyeser, early 15th century.

Screw, 15th century Europe.

Arquebus, Spain, c. 1450, first used at Battle of Moret, 1476.

Hypothermia, France, c. 1495.

Air gun, Marin Bourgeois, 1498.

Source

Great Inventions Through History (Edinburgh: W&R Chambers 1991).

This is only a short list. There have been whole encyclopaedias written on medieval science and technology.

I think one reason why such as programme has not been broadcast is because it conflicts with the received wisdom about the Middle Ages, and the aggressively atheist views of some of the media own scientific darlings. Since the Renaissance, and particularly since the 19th century, the Middle Ages have been viewed as an age of superstition, in which the Church actively discouraged and persecuted science and scientists. This wasn’t the case, but the idea is still promoted very strongly. One of those, who continues to do this, is Richard Dawkins, who is now known as an atheist propagandist almost as much for his work as a biologists and science writer. Very many of the science programmes screened on British television, whether BBC or Channel 4, included Dawkins as an expert. He is a popular speaker at literary and science festivals, even though his views on the relationship between science and faith and the history of science are completely wrong. Nevertheless, it agrees with the historical prejudices of his audience and the media. James Hallam said that he found it difficult to find a publisher for his book, God’s Philosophers, but its demonstration that people of faith – Christian priests, monks and laymen – could do great science in the Age of Faith – directly contradicted the popular view of the period. One publisher explicitly told him that they weren’t going to be publish the book because they were an atheist. Censorship and bigotry is by no means the sole province of the religious.

Unfortunately, the current institutional structure of the BBC and its commissioning process appears to make this extremely difficult to correct, at least for those outside of the television industry. A year or so ago I was so incensed at the repeat of the media’s prejudice against medieval science, that I considered writing to the BBC to propose a series on it to correct it. I ended up giving up altogether. If you go to the relevant pages on this, you’ll find that while the BBC will accept scripts and suggestions from outside the industry for drama, fiction and comedy, all factual content must be developed with a production company before they will consider it. What this means is that unless you are already a media insider, you have absolutely no chance of getting your idea for a factual series developed for TV.

I hope, however, that the Beeb’s view of medieval science will change, and that we can expect a series on it sometime soon. In the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions, how I can approach the Beeb or another TV channel or production company to get such a series made, please let me know. It’s about time we did something to challenge this fashionable atheist myth.

Review: God’s Philosophers by James Hannam (London: Icon Books 2009)

April 8, 2013

Bede's Book Cover

I received a copy of this book about four or so years ago when it was first published for review on my blog. Unfortunately, I was buy with other things at the time, and increasingly frustrated with arguing with some of the commenters. So the review has been delayed until now.

Subtitled ‘How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science’, the book is the result of James’ research for his doctorate into the history of medieval science. James’ is a Roman Catholic with a background in physics. He is also ‘Bede’, who runs the Bede’s Library website, and the Quodlibitum blog. These are Christian apologetics websites discussing science, philosophy and history. James is a Roman Catholic, but his website deals with issues that affect all Christians, and specifically those with an interest in science and its history regardless of their particular denomination. He states on his website that he initially found it difficult to get the book published. One publisher explicitly told him they rejected it because they were atheists, which should show that atheists are as capable of intellectual bigotry and censorship as their religious opponents.

The books’ chapters discuss technological innovation and advancement during the ‘Dark Ages’ following the fall of Rome, the beginning of medieval academic science with with the career of Pope Gerbert of Aurillac, the rise of rationalism and the intellectual prestige of theology, and the controversies of St. Anselm, Peter Abelard, Roscelin and Berenger. It also covers the twelfth renaissance, including William of Conches and Adelard of Bath, as well as the translation of scientific and philosophical works from Greek and Arabic, and the foundation of the first universities. It discusses the Church’s attempts to combat heresy during the thirteenth century, which included the University of Paris’ ban on Aristotle, the establishment of Inquisition and the foundation of the Dominican and Franciscan orders of friars. He also discusses the Christianisation of pagan Graeco-Roman science and philosophy by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, and the controversies with the Latin Averroeists, such as Siger of Brabant. These followed Aristotle in believing in the eternity of the world, and that humans possessed a single, collective mind rather than individual souls. That chapter also describes the architectural innovations that led to the construction of the great cathedrals. There are other chapters on magic and medieval medicine, alchemy and astrology, including the philosophers stone and the elixir of life, and the occult forces which the medievals believed permeated the cosmos; Roger Bacon is also discussed along with medieval war machines such as the trebuchet and medieval optics, which had its background in the theological view that light illuminated not just the physical world, but also the mind and soul. There are further chapters on the great medieval clockmaker Richard of Wallinford, the Merton Calculators, and the culmination of medieval science in the great scholars and clergymen of the later Middle Ages, Jean Buridan, Nicole Oresme, and its decline following the Black Death. The book also discusses fifteenth century scholars and developments such as Nicholas of Cusa, medieval geography and the impact of Columbus’ discovery of the New World the Fall of Constantinople and the invention of printing. It also covers Humanism and the Reformation, the great polymaths of the sixteenth century, medicine and surgery in the sixteenth century, Copernicus and Humanist Astronomy, as well as the further, radical developments in astronomy introduced by Clavius and Kepler. The last three chapters are on the career of Galileo, which also include a section on the execution of the renaissance heretic Giordano Bruno.

Throughout the book, James criticises and attacks many of the myths that have grown up about medieval science, particularly that the medieval church was hostile to it and that the Middle Ages was a period of scientific ignorance until the Renaissance and the ‘Scientific Revolution’ of the 17th century. In his introduction, James traces the origin of this idea from Petrarch and the Renaissance Humanists, through Enlightenment anticlerical and atheist writers such as Voltaire and D’Alembert, through to 19th century scholars such as Andrew Dickson Wright and Thomas Huxley. Popular science presenters such as Carl Sagan, James Burke and Jacob Bronowski further promoted this myth in the 20th century. The book’s conclusion ‘A Scientific Revolution?’ further criticises this idea, and argues that there was never a scientific revolution in the sense that science somehow appeared only in the seventeenth century. Instead, he argues that the great advances of the seventeenth century were built on the considerable foundations of medieval science and its scholars. One of the most astonishing pieces in the book is the fact that in some respects Renaissance Humanism was actually a step backwards from the great advances of the Middle Ages. The popular view of Humanism, that generations of schoolchildren and adults have been taught, is that the revival of classical learning at the end of the Middle Ages led people out of the ignorance of the Middle Ages and into a new age of learning and discovery. The medieval scholars and natural philosophers were aware of some of the flaws in Aristotelian science. While they remained impressed with the Aristotelian system, they sought to refine and modify it so that it conformed to observed reality. The renaissance Humanists, by contrast, wished to purge natural philosophy of these accretions and so return to the original scientific views of Aristotle himself. This was the background to Galileo’s own attack on Aristotelianism in the Dialogue of the Two World Systems. This includes a passage where a natural philosopher attempts to show an Aristotelian that the brain, rather than the heart, was the centre of intelligence through dissection. The philosopher shows the myriad nerves running to the brain, compared with only a single, thin nerve leading to the heart. The Aristotelian agrees that he would be convinced that the brain is indeed the seat of thought, if Aristotle had not declared otherwise. Such scepticism towards Aristotle did not just come from developments in anatomy, but also from medieval revisions of Aristotle, such as Jean Buridan’s theories of motion. James also points out that the Reformation did not lead to advances in science, as has been argued in the past. He also shows that the medieval resistance to the Copernican sun-centred model of the universe were scientific, not theological in basis. One Spanish theologian wrote a book stating that the revolution of the Earth was perfectly acceptable theologically, as the Bible was written to express the view of the cosmos as it was seen from Earth, rather than from space. His next book attacked the idea that the Earth moved purely because it was believed to be scientifically nonsensical.

The book has numerous illustrations and a useful section for further reading. Its written for the popular, lay audience and provides a comprehensive overview of the development of medieval and sixteenth century science. This is much needed, as many of the classic treatments of medieval science and its advances, such as Jean Gimpel’s The Medieval Machine and A.C. Crombie’s Augustine to Galileo: Science in the Middle Ages were published decades ago – Gimpel in the 1970s, while Crombie’s as long ago as 1952. Both of these are still well worth reading. Several of the recent books on medieval science are written for a university readership and can be very expensive. One encyclopedia of medieval science and technology costs about £300, which is beyond the pocket of most people. Despite books like the above, the image of the Middle Ages as an age of scientific ignorance is still extremely strong. One popular history of science for children I found in my local library went straight from the ancient Greeks to the renaissance. If it did have a section on the Middle Ages, it was so short that I missed it. Modern historians of science have rejected the view that religion and science are somehow at war and incompatible. Nevertheless, it’s a fundamental part of the New Atheism, including Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. As for Sagan, Bronowski and Burke, they were brilliant broadcasters and science journalists who did much to popularise it. Like Bede, I can remember being enthralled by Sagan’s Cosmos when it was broadcast on the Beeb back in the 80s, along with Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. As good as they were, however, their view of the Middle Ages and its achievements was partisan and extremely flawed. For a much better view, I recommend people read this book.