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Modernity and Medieval Science

February 6th, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Like Matt Milliner, I’m impressed by David Schaengold’s post over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, wherein he relates observation decks, science, and the joy of observation:

Being happy merely to see and to understand, as scientists are, is the feeling responsible for observation decks, whose most intellectually incurious and aesthetically stolid visitors thrill with joy as they marvel at the works of Man and discover how familiar neighborhoods tessellate. Though surmise about the psychology of ages past is hazardous, I’ll venture to guess that the civilization of the modern West has privileged and encouraged joy in the way the universe works more than any civilization in history.

Schaengold’s point is well made, which is why I find his criticism of medieval science unfortunate and unnecessary:

Nothing like the scientific method was found in antiquity, and what glimmers of it appeared in the Middle Ages were feeble. The systematic use of the method, institutionalized in journals and laboratories, is characteristically modern, but the psychology of the scientists who employ it represents a Christian ideal.

There are, of course, some differences between the moderns and the medievals with respect to science.  But Schaengold’s dismissal of the medieval understanding of the scientific method as “pretty feeble” is an injustice to the work that went on during that period  Most famously, the work of Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon were using experiments to do remarkable work in optics (motivated as they might have been by the medieval emphasis on the notion that God is light), and in the case of Bacon advocating for something that very closely resembles the contemporary “scientific method.”

In fact, while the relationship between the medievals and the moderns with respect to science was contentious in the 20th century, the bulk of scholarly opinion seems to have moved toward thinking that the scientific revolution wasn’t a revolution at all, but rather a modification of what they inherited from the medievals.

Consider the judgment of David Lindberg, a leading historians of medieval science, on the matter:  “The underlying source of revolutionary novelty in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries…was metaphysical and cosmological, not methodological.”  Lindberg’s work even challenges Schaengold’s claim that “nothing like a scientific method was found in antiquity,” at least if we’re discussing the actual practices of experimentation and not its rhetoric.  In fact, his entire chapter really is worth reading.

One way of telling the story of science in the late-modern period, then, is that these metaphysical changes eventually dislocate science from its proper position in our understanding of the world and (ironically) begin to impinge upon the scientific method itself by calling into question the rational basis of the universe.  But that moves toward the source problem of (as Schaengold aptly puts it) the alienation of man from himself in the late modern world.

All that aside, Schaengold’s basic point about the joy of observation is well made, and clearly a point of contact between the later modern scientists and their medieval forerunners.  While I doubt Schaengold’s point that our modern period empahsizes that joy more than any period before, I for one am glad that Schaengold has found it, and even more glad that he is intent on spreading it.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.