Posts Tagged ‘Scientific Revolution’

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.


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.


Francis Bacon and Science as the Road to God

May 6, 2013

Francis Bacon is one of the major figures of the 17th century Scientific Revolution. It was he who formulated the modern scientific method of induction through experimentation. This replaced the methodology of Aristotelian, scholastic science, in which one observed nature and then attempted to deduce the reasons behind it. Bacon was also deeply religious, and strongly argued that the new science promoted the belief in God, rather than atheism. The critics of the new ‘mechanical philosophy’ believed that it would lead to atheism as it concentrated only on secondary causes. Bacon strongly argued that religion and science should be kept separate. Nevertheless, he argued that although science could not tell us anything directly about God, it would still lead to Him as the Lord acted through secondary causes. He thus stated

‘Undoubtedly a superficial tincture of philosophy may incline the mind to atheism, yet a farther knowledge brings it back to religion; for on the threshold of philosophy, where second causes apear to absorb the attention, some oblivion of the highest cause may ensue; but when the mind goes deeper, and sees the dependence of causes and the works of Providence, it will easily perceive, according to the mythology of the poets, that the upper link of Nature’s chain is fastened to Jupiter’s throne’.


Basil Wiley, The Seventeenth Century Background (Harmondsworth: Penguin and Chatto and Windus 1934).

Richard Baxter and the Puritan Celebration of Science

May 3, 2013

Amongst some atheists, the Puritans have a reputation as the cruel opponents of science. Much of this appears to come from the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne’s view of Puritan responsibility for the horrors of the Salem witch-hunts. A previous generation of historians of science, such as the sociologist Robert K. Merton, believed that the Scientific Revolution was partly caused by the Puritans. This view has since been rejected. The interest in science and desire to promote and expand scientific knowledge was not unique to the Puritans, but also included other Protestants, such as mainstream Anglicans, and Roman Catholics, as is shown in the numerous scientific academies that existed in Roman Catholic countries, such as France and Italy. Nevertheless, many Puritan ministed strongly supported and took an intense delight in the new science, which they saw as leading to a knowledge of God. Richard Baxter was one of these Puritan ministers. Amongst his other achievements, he was the leading advocate of religious toleration during the British Civil War. Its inclusion into the American Constitution was due to his influence, rather than that of later Deism. He also strongly supported and promoted science. In his Christian Directory, written in 1664-5, he wrote:

‘The very exercise of love to God and man, and of a heavenly mind and holy life, hath a sensible pleasure in itself, and delighteth the man who is so employed … What delight had the inventors of the sea-chart and magnetic attraction, of printing, and of guns, in their inventions! What pleasure had Galileo in his telescopes, in finding out the inequalities and shady part of the moon, the Medicean planets…’

Modern American science owes much of its existence to the Dissenting Academies set up in England by the Puritans during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Puritan academy in Northampton, for example, taught mechanics, hydrostatics, physics, anatomy, and astronomy. The founder of one of the earliest of these academies was Charles Morton. Morton later emigrated to America, where he became vice-president of Harvard. He then introduced to that great, august American institution the system of science that he had established in England.

Far from being uniform opponents of religious liberty and scientific investigation, it was the Puritan ministers and educationalists Richard Baxter and Charles Morton who founded the American tradition of religious liberty and science respectively.

Source: C.A. Russell, Science and Religious Belief.