Science

They were so ignorant back in the Middle Ages that they just talked a lot about God and didn’t do any experiments … right?

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The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in ScienceEvery loudmouth on Airhead TV knows that for a certainty without any background whatever. For the record,

… the actual record of scientific methodological practice in the Middle Ages shows this to be false. Ptolemy (c.90–168) was extensively involved in astronomical observation and optical experimentation.The Alexandrian Christian platonist philosopher John Philoponus (c.490–570) performed imprecise experiments to ascertain the truth of the Aristotelian contention that the speed of descent was proportional to the weight of a dropped body, discovering—contrary to Aristotle—that there was very little difference.

During the historical period when medieval Islam was scientifically productive, Ibn al-Haytham (c.965–1039) performed experiments to ascertain the truth of optical theories and Kamāl al-Dīn al-Fārisī (c.1267–1320) devised the first mathematically adequate explanation of the rainbow on the basis of experiments using a camera obscura to analyze light rays passed through transparent glass globes filled with water, an experiment that was duplicated around the same time in medieval Christendom by Theodoric of Freiberg, a Dominican friar.

Astronomic observations were made by Levi ben Gerson (1288–1344) and Johannes de Muris (1290–1351), using a variety of instruments to refute certain aspects of Ptolemaic planetary models and to observe solar eclipses for the purpose of showing certain predictions of Alfonsine astronomical tables to be incorrect. Roger Bacon (c.1220–92) argued extensively for empirical methodologies that would subject scientific arguments to experimental tests and pursued a variety of scientific experiments himself.The thirteenth-century physician Petrus Perigrinus de Maricourt, a contemporary of Bacon, did extensive experimentation with magnets to determine their properties and anticipated many of the discoveries that would be credited to William Gilbert in the seventeenth century.  Another contemporary of Bacon, the Franciscan friar Paul of Taranto, though an alchemist, conducted a variety of laboratory experiments attempting to achieve the transmutation of substances. It is fair to say that such researches paved the way for modern chemistry.

The bottom line is that scientific experimentation was widely recognized as useful from late antiquity throughout the Middle Ages, and experiments were performed when it was recognized that doing so could help to confirm or disconfirm a scientific claim; the experimental method, therefore, was not a distinctive of modern science.  Bruce Gordon, Introduction to The Nature of Nature , (pp. 20-21)

(Note: The next Uncommon Descent contest has been delayed, due to a postal strike in Canada.)

14 Replies to “They were so ignorant back in the Middle Ages that they just talked a lot about God and didn’t do any experiments … right?

  1. 1
    goodusername says:

    A rather odd article. It seems to be arguing against the common assertion of the great lull of science during the European Middle Ages. But if that’s the case the list of names given are irrelevant.

    Ptolemy (c.90–168) was before the Middle Ages.
    Ibn al-Haytham and Kam?l al-D?n al-F?ris? weren’t in Europe, or even part of the “Western World”.
    The rest were late 13th or 14th century Renaissance figures. It’s generally understood that things were getting better during the Renaissance (that’s why it’s called the Renaissance).

    The only name with any relevance is John Philoponus. If I wanted to nitpick I suppose I could point out that he wasn’t in Europe either, but rather Alexandria, although it was at least part of the “Western World”. Alexandria was probably one of only two bright spots left in the Western World (the other being Constantinople). Alexandria had what was probably the last pagan academy left, which is where John studied.

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    So give us your timeline. What are the relevant dates?

  3. 3
    kairosfocus says:

    GUN:

    Interesting games with dates and centuries.

    The Sci Revo is usually dated among educated people from Copernicus to the turn of C18, i.e. about 1543 – 1700, let’s just round off from Copernicus’s On the Revo of the heavenly bodies to the publishing of Opticks, 1543 – 1704. Revo is a Latin work of scholarship on Ptolemy’s model from C 180 AD, by a Canon. Opticks was published by a lionised leading scientist [and somewhat heterodox Protestant layman], in the popular language, reflecting what was now a dominant cultural force.

    Wiki has a useful 101 on the Renaissance, with an eye to dates and locations:

    The Renaissance (UK: /ri?ne?s.?ns/, US: /ren.??s??ns/, French pronunciation: [??n?s???s], Italian: Rinascimento, French: Renaissance, from ri- “again” and nascere “birth”)[1] was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Florence in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not uniform across Europe, this is a general use of the term. As a cultural movement, it encompassed a flowering of literature, science, art, religion, and politics, and a resurgence of learning based on classical sources, the development of linear perspective in painting, and gradual but widespread educational reform. Traditionally, this intellectual transformation has resulted in the Renaissance being viewed as a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Modern era. Although the Renaissance saw revolutions in many intellectual pursuits, as well as social and political upheaval, it is perhaps best known for its artistic developments and the contributions of such polymaths as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, who inspired the term “Renaissance man”.[2][3]

    There is a general, but not unchallenged,[by whom?] consensus that the Renaissance began in Florence, Tuscany in the 14th century.[4] Various theories have been proposed to account for its origins and characteristics, focusing on a variety of factors including the social and civic peculiarities of Florence at the time; its political structure; the patronage of its dominant family, the Medici.[5][6]

    The Renaissance has a long and complex historiography, and there has been much debate among historians as to the usefulness of Renaissance as a term and as a historical delineation.[7] Some have called into question whether the Renaissance was a cultural “advance” from the Middle Ages, instead seeing it as a period of pessimism and nostalgia for the classical age,[8] while others have instead focused on the continuity between the two eras.[9] Indeed, some have called for an end to the use of the term, which they see as a product of presentism – the use of history to validate and glorify modern ideals.[10] The word Renaissance has also been used to describe other historical and cultural movements, such as the Carolingian Renaissance and the Renaissance of the 12th century.

    Bacon and many others in the list above were not exactly Florentine Italians; if you had emphasised Uni of Paris, that would have made more of a point. But, what we clearly have is a movement of initial experimental science from the 1200’s on, which is centuries before the 1540’s – 1700 or so for the usual dating of the sci revo.

    1540 – 1250 ~ 300 years. That is directly comparable to the 300 years since 1700 or so to today, and if we compare to the hot times in the mid 1600’s, that adds up to another 100 years.

    Next, from the era of Jihads and Crusades on Arabian and European cultures strongly interacted, so events in the one are relevant to the other.

    What has been shown, then is that the scientific era has roots that go back far deeper than is often recognised, and that is important, especially in the face of the persistent myth of the rise of science in the teeth of the church, rather than being supported by the cultural matrix of Christendom, and often sponsored by the churches and princes of Christendom.

    of course such sponsorship sometimes led to problems as with Galileo, but we must recognise that he pattern is significantly diverse form what is commonly believed.

    GEM of TKI

  4. 4
    goodusername says:

    Mung,

    “So give us your timeline. What are the relevant dates?”

    –If the article is going to argue against the commonly held idea of the dark period in intellectual European history, than I’d say roughly 400ad-1200ad. As KairosFocus mentions above, things were clearly improving after that period.

    There are a couple of names that I’m surprised the article didn’t mention – the Venerable Bede and Anselm. But, then again, the article is primarily focused on science, and neither of them are regarded as “scientists”. The article mentioned the only “scientist” I can think of from that period (John Philoponus, who was studying in an academy that had remarkably survived).

  5. 5
    goodusername says:

    KairosFocus,

    “The Sci Revo is usually dated among educated people from Copernicus to the turn of C18, i.e. about 1543 – 1700, let’s just round off from Copernicus’s On the Revo of the heavenly bodies to the publishing of Opticks, 1543 – 1704. Revo is a Latin work of scholarship on Ptolemy’s model from C 180 AD, by a Canon. Opticks was published by a lionised leading scientist [and somewhat heterodox Protestant layman], in the popular language, reflecting what was now a dominant cultural force.”

    –I’m not sure what the purpose of mentioning this was. Unless you’re equating the Sci Revo with the Renaissance? But the sci revo is usually regarded as starting well after the Renaissance among educated people.

    “Bacon and many others in the list above were not exactly Florentine Italians; if you had emphasised Uni of Paris, that would have made more of a point. But, what we clearly have is a movement of initial experimental science from the 1200?s on, which is centuries before the 1540?s – 1700 or so for the usual dating of the sci revo.”

    –Again, the sci revo is irrelevant. But I agree that there was clearly a movement of initial experimental science in the 13th century, and that’s generally well understood. If the article is going to try to argue against the commonly held idea of a dark period of science in European history, than it would make more sense to list Europeans dating from around the fall of the Roman Empire up until around 1200ad. The article didn’t mention one example of such (which, of course, favors the commonly held idea). But perhaps I’m mistaken in what the article was arguing against.

  6. 6
    kairosfocus says:

    GUN:

    Please re-read the original post, the sci revo and its roots are precisely the key issue and context. That is why the rise of experimentation in years prior to the late 1500’s is so stressed.

    GEM of TKI

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: Also, the “dark ages” is now a seriously deprecated term. If you want to identify a time when things in W Europe began to look up, 800 Ad would be a safer bet, after the end of the collapse of empire, fall of pop, and when the Jihad had been turned back. Charlemagne’s reign is as good a point of departure as you will get.

    Notice even Wiki’s caution — testimony against known inclination:

    “Dark Ages” is a historical periodization emphasizing the cultural and economic deterioration that supposedly occurred in Europe following the decline of the Roman Empire.[1][2] The label employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the “darkness” of the period with earlier and later periods of “light”. The period was characterized by a paucity of historical and other written records for much of the period, rendering it obscure to historians. The term “Dark Age” itself derives from the Latin saeculum obscurum, originally applied by Caesar Baronius in 1602 to a tumultuous period in the 10th and 11th century.[3]

    Originally, the term characterized the bulk of the Middle Ages (c. 5th–15th century) as a period of intellectual darkness between the extinguishing of the light of Rome and the Renaissance or rebirth from the 14th century onwards.[4] This definition is still found in popular usage,[1][2][5] but increased recognition of the accomplishments of the Middle Ages since the 19th century has led to the label being restricted in application. Since the 20th century, it is frequently applied only to the earlier part of the era, the Early Middle Ages (c. 5th–10th century).[6][7] However, many modern scholars who study the era tend to avoid the term altogether for its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate for any part of the Middle Ages.[8][9]

    The concept of a Dark Age originated with the Italian scholar Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) in the 1330s, and was originally intended as a sweeping criticism of the character of Late Latin literature.[4][10] Petrarch regarded the post-Roman centuries as “dark” compared to the light of classical antiquity. Later historians expanded the term to refer to the transitional period between Roman times and the High Middle Ages (c. 11th–13th century), including not only the lack of Latin literature, but also a lack of contemporary written history, general demographic decline, limited building activity and material cultural achievements in general. Later historians and writers picked up the concept, and popular culture has further expanded on it as a vehicle to depict the Middle Ages as a time of backwardness, extending its pejorative use and expanding its scope.[11]

  8. 8
    goodusername says:

    Kairosfocus:

    “Please re-read the original post, the sci revo and its roots are precisely the key issue and context. That is why the rise of experimentation in years prior to the late 1500?s is so stressed.”

    –I’m not sure what you mean by the “original post”, perhaps you mean one further back; I was specifically responding to the news article above which says nothing about the Scientific Revolution. Instead it seems to be arguing against the common conception that “they were so ignorant back in the Middle Ages that they just talked a lot about God and didn’t do any experiments” and argues in favor that “the bottom line is that scientific experimentation was widely recognized as useful from late antiquity throughout the Middle Ages”.

    When people argue about the “ignorance” of the Middle Ages, they generally aren’t referring to the 15th century. And giving examples of people doing science in the 14th or 15th century is hardly an argument in favor of people doing science “throughout the Middle Ages”. If there are any “interesting games with dates and centuries” going on here, I would say that is it.

    If one is going to argue that science was going on “throughout the Middle Ages”, they should probably use examples of people that lived during the time period that’s in contention. I don’t think most people’s view of history is that there was the Dark Ages and then – BAM – Scientific Revolution. The Renaissance in between is pretty well known.

    “F/N: Also, the “dark ages” is now a seriously deprecated term. If you want to identify a time when things in W Europe began to look up, 800 Ad would be a safer bet, after the end of the collapse of empire, fall of pop, and when the Jihad had been turned back. Charlemagne’s reign is as good a point of departure as you will get.”

    — I’m more in agreement of the Kairosfocus of post #3 that said 1200’s was a time when things began to look up 🙂
    Things may have been relatively better in the 9th century than, say, the 7th or 8th century – but not by much – particularly in the field of science.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C.....scientists

    I realize that “Dark Ages” isn’t considered PC, and perhaps the connotations of the term are too negative, but one of the best arguments in its favor is to read articles trying to argue against the idea (much like I believe the one above was trying to do) and when trying to come up with examples of scientists from the period – completely miss the period in question (c. 400ad – c. 1200ad) altogether.

    And IMHO, the more we discover how advanced they were prior to the Middle Ages, the more “dark” that period appears.
    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....0%9D-file/

  9. 9
    kairosfocus says:

    GUN:

    In this context, Orig Post refers to what is at the head of a blog thread.

    And, while the TERM Sci Revo is not mentioned, that is the plain context of discussion. That is for example seen from the reference at the end of the clip: the experimental method, therefore, was not a distinctive of modern science

    It is also the case, BTW, that the phenomena being discussed are also pre-renaissance [which last is ALSO not mentioned in the OP].

    GEM of TKI

  10. 10
    kairosfocus says:

    F/N: Courtesy AmHD:

    _____________

    >> Dark Age (därk)
    n.
    1. also dark age
    a. An era of ignorance, superstition, or social chaos or repression. Often used in the plural: a novel depicting the dark ages in the aftermath of a global war.
    b. The early or crude stage in the history or development of something. Often used in the plural: back in the dark ages of radio technology.
    2. Dark Ages
    a. The period in Europe from the fall of Rome in the fifth century a.d. to the restoration of relative political stability around the year 1000; the early part of the Middle Ages.
    b. The entire Middle Ages, especially when viewed as a troubled period marked by the loss of classical learning. No longer in use by historians.

    The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. >>
    _____________

    That should be clear enough. The term was excessively rhetorical and was abandoned. As a matter of fact, a fairly considerable body of technical progress occurred across the period after the collapse of the W Roman Empire, which was largely driven by its internal instability [tax base, military base, politics, population base, and over-extended lines on the Danube and the Rhine — had they conquered Germany that may have been decisive, as the line would have considerably shortened.]

    –> But then, all of this is tangential, the key point is that the roots for the rise and progress of modern science are a lot older than is often given credit.

  11. 11
    goodusername says:

    kairosfocus:

    Well, I will agree that Bruce Gordon (in addition to what I was saying) is indeed arguing that “the experimental method, therefore, was not a distinctive of modern science” – and in fact, I agree with him there. And he further argues that the methodology pre-dates the Middle Ages back to antiquity and even mentions Ptolemy.

    He should set Nancy Pearcy straight:

    “experimental methodology of modern science did not come from the Greeks; rather it was derived from the biblical concept of a Creator.”

    “modern science arose in one place and one time only: It arose out of medieval Europe, during a period when its intellectual life was thoroughly permeated with a Christian worldview. Other great cultures, such as the Chinese and the Indian, often developed a higher level of technology and engineering. But their expertise tended to consist of practical know-how and rules of thumb. They did not develop what we know as experimental science”

  12. 12
    kairosfocus says:

    GUN:

    Read in context and you will have a different understanding; the two are not inconsistent.

    The rise of science in question — and remember this is the consensus of the historians of science as summarised — is:

    modern science arose in one place and one time only: It arose out of medieval Europe, during a period when its intellectual life was thoroughly permeated with a Christian worldview. Other great cultures, such as the Chinese and the Indian, often developed a higher level of technology and engineering. But their expertise tended to consist of practical know-how and rules of thumb. They did not develop what we know as experimental science–testable theories organized into coherent systems. Science in this sense has appeared only once in history [fully emergent of course with the Newtonian Synthesis of the 1680’s]. As historian Edward Grant writes, “It is indisputable that modern science emerged in the seventeenth century in Western Europe and nowhere else.”

    GEM of TKI

  13. 13
    kairosfocus says:

    PS: Notice the significance of the words beyond your clip-point.

  14. 14
    Robert Byers says:

    There can be no question about who achieves in mankind.
    I agree there was no smart stuff going on in the European middle ages.
    Always it was taught that the protestant reformation made a more intelligent populace and elite.
    It was, we say the true faith, religious motivation that got people doing smarter in everything.
    This is why europe left the rest of the world behind.
    A close count will not show a equity between protestant and catholic countries.
    its just not true.
    This is why its a English speaking world today.
    protestants always said religion was not going on in the middle ages.
    It was just superficial or wrong ideas not much different then islamic nations today who lag behind.

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