Jason Rosenhouse – an author and contributor to scienceblogs - has blogged a review of ‘Galileo Goes to Jail and other myths about Science and Religion’. This book was conceived by the historian Ron Numbers because he and his colleagues were sick and tired of encountering the same myths being trotted out in the modern day American ‘culture wars’. Numbers himself has attracted some controversy for being on civil terms with a number of creationists and (whilst not agreeing with it) appearing sympathetic to their position; though this is perhaps understandable given he is the author of the definitive history of the anti-evolution movement.
Rosenhouse’s reaction to the book demonstrates the difficulties of refuting the set of comfortable myths that people on both side of the science-religion debate tend to subscribe to. Although you might succeed in denting them, you will commonly find that a smaller, yet no less weaker myth is erected next to them and asserted with just as much force. Our view of late antiquity –through the lens of Edward Gibbon – used to be that of a book-burning free for all with fanatical Christians running around destroying the fruits of the Greco-Roman world and replacing the rational thought of Hellenistic culture with obscure discussions about how three people could fit plausibility into one person and what angels get up to at weekends. This is such an appealing image that it’s a hard one to let go of. Eventually the view Rosenhouse goes for (which is similar to Richard Carrier’s) is that the early Christians did not kill science, they merely lost interest in it (although I don’t know what a figure like John Philoponus or Boethius would have made of that). This is in many ways as powerful a myth as the previous one. A concerted effort by Christians to kill all science for a thousand years is, well, kind of cool. Simply losing interest is just lame.
The truth I think is something like this. There was undeniably a decline in scientific knowledge in the Western Roman Empire as it declined and collapsed but the roots of this can be traced to the pagan Romans. After 200 BC there was a fruitful cultural contact between Greeks and the bilingual Roman upper classes. This introduced a version of the classical tradition into the Roman Empire but it was a thin popularised version which was translated into Latin. Bilingualism and the conditions which favoured scholarship then declined rapidly after AD180 as the empire entered the 3rd century crisis. Roman citizens who were gradually becoming Christian were therefore limited to pieces of the classical tradition which had been explained and summarised by Latin authors. Meanwhile the richer, more complete version of the classical tradition fell into the hands of the Muslims as they rapidly expanded across Asia and the Mediterranean. It was then translated into Arabic, further developed and moved across north Africa to Spain. As soon as Western Europe had recovered sufficiently it’s intellectuals travelled to Spain to translate the materials and bring them into medieval culture.
One thing certain commentators point to is an 'anti-intellectual' streak which was exhibited by some of the church fathers, and here the most commonly quoted example is Tertullian, who famously said 'What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?'. Ultimately this counter-cultural point of view lost out to those like Justin Martyr who sought common ground between classical philosophy and Christianity, and (more importantly) Augustine of Hippo who, while being ambivalent toward Greek learning applied it vigorously to scripture in his writings and came up with the vastly influential 'handmaiden formula' whereby natural philosophy could be put to use in the interpretation of the bible. Of course we now all think that – in principle - science should be studied for it's own sake, but this would have been alien to the classical world in which it was always subordinated to ethics and the wider philosophical enterprise. It’s also far from being a safe principle today and, in practice, over the course of the twentieth century science has been used as the handmaiden of pretty much any loony ideology you’d care to mention.
What explains the 'anti-intellectual' stream of Christian thought? It appears to have been a principled stand rather than simple 'know-nothing-ism' as you can see from consulting the great teachers of antiquity. You would find, for example, in Plato's republic that the guardians of the state should be produced by selective breeding. That wives and offspring must be assigned to a common pool for the general good and humanity is divided into men of gold, men of silver, men of brass and men of iron. The populace, regarded as a kind of mob, must be ruled as if they were a bunch of rowdy children. If births don't result in desired 'types', infants will have to be put to death. If you look at Aristotle (of whom the early Christians had rather less knowledge) you'll find that he is very much taken by the natural world but his thought contains no trace of the loving and providential God of Christian faith. He also displays the elitist attitude held by upper class Greeks of his day. As Bertrand Russell said:
the distinction between moral and other merits has become much sharper now than it was in Greek times. It is a merit in a man to be a great poet or composer but not a moral merit; we do not consider him more virtuous for possessing such attitudes or more likely to go to heaven. .......When we come to compare Artistole’s ethical tastes with our own, we find in the first place an acceptance of inequality which is repugnant to much modern sentiment. Not only is there no objection to slavery or to the superiority of husbands and fathers over wives and children, but its is held that what is best is essentially only for the few—proud men and philosophers. Most men are mainly means for the production of a few rulers and sages…There is in Aristotle an almost complete absence of what might be called benevolence or philanthropy. The sufferings of mankind, in so far as he is aware of them, do not move him emotionally; he holds them intellectually, to be an evil, but there is no evidence they cause him unhappiness except when the sufferers happen to be his friends’.
To make matters worse, those who were most conversant with Hellenistic thought were the very effete, aristocratic Romans who could afford to school their children with philosophy and rhetoric. This would not have been the world of the early Christian, rather it was the world which had been intermittently persecuting them, the culture of the oppressor. So I think that partly explains why the city of God and the city of man were held to be separate in early Christian writings and why there is this suspicion of philosophy as the right guide.
The reason why it did not persist is that, once a religion gains greater prominence it has to be promulgated by teaching. This requires a firm background in the history of thought; for example, the partial rejection of Aristotelian requires that you be an Aristotelian. You can’t mount a credible attack on a system of thought without being schooled in that system of thought yourself. Even Tertullian was trained in dialectic and used it in his own work.
Rosenhouse was also displeased with Michael H Shank’s essay tackling the myth that the Medieval Church suppressed the growth of science. Shank’s conclusion, if I recall correctly was that, if the church has been trying to repress science they had done an amazingly bad job of it. Rosenhouse will have none of this and brings up the 1277 condemnations as an example of the Church’s meddling.
‘Shank, it would seem, is unfamiliar with the notion of a “chilling effect.” To argue that the only people affected by a given condemnation were those specifically under the authority of some local prelate simply ignores the indirect effects such things have. Some eager young scholar, noting that church authorities are routinely in the habit of condemning certain modes of thought and argument, quickly learns not to step out of line.”
He must be unfamiliar with the conclusions of Edward Grant that in stressing ‘the contingency of God’s operations and his omnipotence to do as he pleased, short of a logical contradiction’, the condemnations favourably influenced scientific development by stimulating philosophers to contemplate possibilities such as a plurality of worlds of the existence of a vacuum. (Edward Grant ‘The effect of the condemnation of 1277 in ‘The Cambridge History of Later Medieval Philosophy’ 537-539); or James Edward McClellan’s view that ‘An extraordinary flourish of what might be termed ‘hothouse science resulted, theologically inoffensive work wherein scholastic philosophers entertained all variety of scientific possibilities, but only hypothetically, on the basis of suppositions’ or thought experiments, or as products of their ingenious imaginations’(Science and Technology in World History (p187-88); or David C Lindberg’s view of the condemnations as a 'conservative backlash' but one which nonetheless 'encouraged scholars to explore non Aristotelian physical and cosmological alternatives'. I think he probably is familiar with Pierre Duhem's (over enthusiastic) view that "if we must assign a date for the birth of modern science, we would, without doubt, choose the year 1277 when the bishop of Paris solemnly proclaimed that several worlds could exist, and that the whole of heavens could, without contradiction, be moved with a rectilinear motion" since it was actually cited in Shank's essay, but perhaps he skim-read it. If that’s what a ‘chilling effect’ does then we could do with a few more of those.
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