History, Science

6 Events that led to the Rise of Modern Science

Astronomer_Copernicus

Science is a wonderful thing. Through science we have come to understand and subsequently build upon the workings of the world to a certain precision within such a short amount of time. During the 19th century we had the rise of geology as well as biology and the 20th century saw the rise of cosmology and genetics. Through science we have discovered the atomic theory, mechanical clocks, how blood circulation works, the laws that govern the universe, the relationship between electricity and magnetism and so forth and so on. Here in the Western world however, it seems we have become so accustomed to the positive effects of science that we almost take it for granted that we have it and that it is so effective. It is easy to assume that every culture around the world has held science to the same esteem that we have in the West, however, this assumption is untrue. In actual fact Wester science today is a product of highly specialize historical circumstances which were anything but a given. In discussing the historical rise of both science and religion Historian of science Peter Harrison says that the ways we view science (and religion) today “are ways of conceptualizing certain human activities – ways that are peculiar to modern western culture, and which have arisen as a consequence of unique historical circumstances”1

What is seldom filtered down to the general public – although firmly established in the scholarly field – is just how uniquely science in the Western world developed. Through my studies I have found that there are six key historical reasons for the rise of modern science. I will name the six reasons here and then I will go on to briefly expand on each of them below. 1) Islamic translators in the 9th and 10th century. 2) The universities from the 12th century onwards 3) Theologian-natural philosophers in Medieval universities. 4) A more literal interpretation of the Bible. 5) The literal consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. 6) The idea that there are laws of nature discoverable within the universe only through applied scientific investigation. (This article will mainly focus on the works of two prominent historians of science whose focuses have been on the historical rise of modern science).

1. Islamic translators in the 9th and 10th century

Historian of Medieval science Edward Grant sets this argument out in a very detailed manner and it may come as a bit of a surprise to most, but put bluntly, modern science owes a huge debt of gratitude to Islamic scholars in the 9th and 10th century. Grant names five of the most important Islamic scholars historically who initiated the rise of modern science through their translations of the works of Plato and more importantly Aristotle – two of ancient Greece’s most prolific thinkers – from Greek into Arabic. Their names were: al-Kindi (ca. 801ca. 866), al-Farabi (ca.870-950), Avicenna (980-1037), al-Ghazali (1058-1111) and Averroes (1126-1198).2 These Arabic translations were subsequently translated into Latin via Latin scholars from around the 12th century and disseminated into the universities. Islamic scholars would often add their own commentaries to the works of Aristotle and Plato and so the translations that emerged were a mix of Greek and Arabic, and thus we could rightly call the translations ‘Greco-Arabic’ in origin. Prior to Isaac Newton’s “mechanical” ideas about nature Aristotle’s metaphysics as well as physics were largely understood to be the way in which the universe worked. These ideas became hugely prominent in the West from about the 13th century3 onwards due to the translations by these five Islamic scholars, and out of the five the three most influential were Avicenna, al-Ghazili and Averroes.

2. The universities

Leading on from the first point above we come to the role of the Medieval universities from about the 12th to 15th century. The universities that developed in the West themselves were a product of highly unique and specialized circumstances and due to their rise, scientific discussion now effectively had a home. In other words Medieval thinkers were able to actively congregate in specific locations in order to hash out, debate and develop ideas pertaining to science – or as it was called back then, natural philosophy. Grant points out that “the universities had emerged as a result of the transformation of society and intellectual life that occurred in Western Europe by the 12th century4 and Peter Harrison agrees and demonstrates in his own work that there was a also a transformation in the way in which people viewed the natural world from the 12th century. Focus was for the first time in centuries was directed to the present physical world as opposed to the spiritual world that lay beyond the present.5 The translated works of Aristotle from Greek to Arabic to Latin found their home inside the Western universities and they laid the foundations for discussions relating to/regarding the natural world.6 Students and teachers were free to unpack ideas, debate and suggest new concepts which merged the two principle works that the universities were built upon i.e. Aristotle’s writings and the Bible. It was due to the unique freedom to enquire about the world that the path to modern science was made possible in the 16th and 17th century.7

3. Theologian-natural philosophers

Grant summarizes this point neatly when he states that the third reason for the scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th century can be attributed to

“The emergence of a class of theologians-natural philosophers, that is, a class of individuals who were not only trained in theology…but who also had previously attained the degree of master of arts or its equivalent and were therefore thoroughly trained in that discipline. Their importance cannot be overestimated. If theologians at the universities had decided to oppose Aristotelian learning as dangerous to the faith, it could not have become the focus of study in European universities. Without the approval and sanction of those scholars, Greco-Arabic science and Aristotelian natural philosophy could not have become the official curriculum of the universities.”8

These theologian-natural philosophers were medieval university scholars/teachers who effectively merged theology with philosophy, in that they were more than happy to apply philosophical principles to theologically challenging questions and vice versa.9 For example, the Sentences of Peter Lombard (d. ca. 1160) was a large text divided into four books which merged theology with natural philosophy in explicating on topics to do with God, creation, the incarnation, and the sacraments.10 These books were “for more than four centuries the standard text on which all theological students were required to lecture and comment.”11

4. A more literal interpretation of the Bible

This line of reasoning is supported by most historians of science, but the person who has arguably done the most detailed work on it is Peter Harrison. His overall argument is that:

“Had it not been for the rise of the literal interpretation of the Bible and the subsequent appropriation of biblical narratives by early modern scientists, modern science may not have arisen at all. In sum, the Bible and its literal interpretation have played a vital role in the development of Western science.”12

In his book The Bible, Protestantism and the rise of natural science he argues that the Protestant reformation initiated by men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin had a huge impact on the way Christians read the Bible and thus consequently viewed the physical world. Back in the second and third centuries Plato’s dualism was synthesised with Christian thought. Later Medieval thinkers adopted this platonic idea suggesting that the world had an organic nature13 to it and that God had infused the physical world with symbols of which pointed to a world of higher spiritual truths. Hence, it was the objective of the Christian to come to understand these higher truths that moved beyond the physical world. Origen (c. 184 – c.253) the early church father who probably had the most impact on how scripture and the world were viewed in the middle ages, taught that every physical wordly thing had an invisible counterpart in the unseen heavenly realm, in other words, symbolic meaning, not casual or mathematical relation, was to be sought after in the natural world.14

From about the 12th century onwards (after what we might deem a type of reformation regarding how parts of the Bible were to be understood), the importance of the physical world was brought to the forefront of religion. This was due to the fact that theologians such as Hildergard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) reacted against platonic dualistic ideas by arguing that the physical world and the spiritual world were both important in God’s creation. References to the resurrection of Christ were made i.e. the fact that Christ rose bodily from the grave not spiritually meant that the material world had to be of high important to us.15

Although this was the case, the study of nature in an experimental way was not yet established. The physical world became important only through the writings of historically established authors, that is to say that, ancient books as opposed to empirical experiments provided the basis for the Medieval Catholic understanding of the natural world – mainly the writings of Aristotle and the Bible as they were both seen as ultimate authorities (in their own right). Whatever these books stated as existing in the world was accepted as existing in the world, even if in reality it didn’t. This was largely because Aristotelian science did not have an established method of empirical experiment available. That method was only to be developed once Aristotelian science was abandoned.16

It was not until the 16th and 17th century when we start to see the development of the modern scientific method. This is due largely to the Protestant reformation which in turn caused the highly symbolic ( due to Plato and Origen) and Aristotelian reading of scripture to be jettisoned for a new more literal approach to the Bible. This led to a more literal reading of the fall of Adam which in turn led to the development of the experimental that is fundamental to modern science today, the topic I will elaborate on in my next point below.

5. The literal consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis

New biblical conceptions about the world in the 17th century took seriously the fall that happened in Genesis 3. This was now seen as a literal and historical event in which man, through Adam, had lost not only his intimate relationship with God, but also natural knowledge of the world and all its operations. In others words, the fall of Adam caused the loss of knowledge in relation to the world. Adam was fortunate in that prior to his fall he had experienced this Encyclopedia knowledge of the world (hence the naming of all the animals by himself in Genesis 2) however, 17th century scientists did not have this anymore. It became their primary task to restore this Adamic knowledge and the only way to do this was through empirical scientific experiment and discovery. John Flavell for example stated that “man who at first was led by the Knowledge of God to knowledge of the Creature, must now by the knowledge of the Creatures learn to know God.”17 in this Flavell was saying that only through studying the world could we come to restore our full knowledge of God.

Empirical experiment became key during this period and it replaced the prior Thomist-Aristotelian view which, when combined, stated that reasoning alone could furnish us with a proper understanding of the workings of nature (Aristotle), and that at the fall Adam’s supernatural gifts were lost however, his natural gifts, such as his mental capacities, remained.18 Thus the fall of Adam in Genesis 3 became the impetus for the defining feature of modern science as we know it today i.e. empirical experimentation.

6. The idea that there are laws of nature discoverable within the universe only through applied scientific investigation

Before the development of the laws of nature in the 17th century through protestant scientists such as Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton the world was thought to run according to Aristotelian physics. In particular objects had the innate capacity to go to their “preferred place”. Throughout the middle ages this ideas was seen as objects having what was known as ‘natural’ or ‘violent’ motion. Natural motion derived from the observation that when heavy objects such as rocks are left on their own they naturally move to the ground, hence that is their “preferred place”. Similarly when light objects such as fire are left to their own devices they float upwards hence that is their “preferred place”. A violent motion was thus when an object such as a heavy brick was thrown for example, in the air, since it was travelling upwards, it was clearly travelling against its natural motion therefore it was a violent motion.19

Following from the scientific reformation in the 16th  and 17th century when this Aristotelian method of understanding the universe had been slowly questioned to the point of becoming almost completely untenable, a new concept of nature had to be established. The gap left open by the loss of Aristotelianism created the opening for a new biblical principle of nature which stated effectively that instead of objects having innate capacities within themselves, objects were inherently just objects and that the laws that governed their movement were outside of and independent of the objects. The laws that governed the movement of objects were the laws that derived from a mind, namely the mind of God. In short discovering the laws of nature became tantamount to discovering the mind of God because God was the one who had laid down these laws. Historian Thomas Dixson states that “It was never the intention of the pioneers of modern science…to undermine religious belief. Far from it they envisaged nature as an orderly system of mechanical interactions governed by mathematical laws.”20

Newton’s most notable work – and arguably the most important scientific text ever written – the Principa, was the culmination of this new outlook in the 17th century and in the General Scholium to the 1515 edition of his work, he stated that “this most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without design and domination of an intelligent and powerful being.”21 In other words universal bodies had been established upon the laws of God.

Conclusion

In this article we have looked very briefly at the 6 reasons why modern science developed in the West. Each point could be and has been elaborated on in much more detail by scholars and historians however, my aim has been just to summarize the key points in each.

Historian of European science Peter Dear provides us with 6 feature of modern science that distinguish it from it Medieval predecessor. 1) Deliberate recordable experiments 2) the acceptance that the universe is couched in/to be understood in the language of mathematics 3) the loss of innate capacities of individual objects 4) a new concept of the world as seen mechanically as opposed to organic in nature 5) the idea of natural philosophy (i.e. science) as a research enterprise, rather than a body of knowledge 6) natural philosophy reconstructed as a social basis of knowledge around a positive evaluation of cooperative research

The historical development of the initial six points and then the subsequent six defining characteristics of modern science were and are anything but a given in the Western world. My emphasis has been to demonstrate how science as we know it today is contingent upon multiple and highly fine factors historically. Secondly my article has indirectly sought to dispel the myth that science and religion have always been at war by showing that at every stage religion – whether Islamic or Christian – has been at the driving seat of the advance of modern science.

The understanding of the historical origins of science is an indispensable factor if discussion surrounding science and religion is to continue in a mutual as oppose to aggressive light.

 

References

  • Harrison, P., 2015. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago: UCP. p194
  • Grant, E., 1996. The Foundations of modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, institutional, and intellectual contexts. Cambridge: CUP. p29
  • Ibid, p31-32
  • Ibid, p33
  • Ibid, p35
  • Some of the first universities established were in Paris (ca. 1200) Bologna (1150) and Oxford (ca. 1220)
  • Woods, T, E., 2005. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Regnery History. P48-66
  • Grant, E., 1996. The Foundations of modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, institutional, and intellectual contexts. Cambridge: CUP. p174
  • Ibid, p175
  • Ibid, p152
  • Ibid, p152
  • The Bible and the rise of science’, Australasian Science 23(3):14 – 15, 2002
  • Harrison, P., 2015. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago: UCP. p40
  • The Bible and the rise of science’, Australasian Science 23(3):14 – 15, 2002
  • Harrison, P., 2015. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago: UCP. p36
  • Ibid, p65
  • , p230
  • Henry, J 2010. Religion and the Scientific Revolution, p50. In: Harrison, P. The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion. Cambridge University Press
  • Grant, E., 1996. The Foundations of modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, institutional, and intellectual contexts. Cambridge: CUP. p59-60
  • Dixson, T., 2008. A Very Short Introduction to Science and Religion. Oxford: OUP. p46-47

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