A response to Nature’s “Triumph of the medieval mind”

This week’s issue of Nature publishes an essay entitled Triumph of the medieval mind by Philip BallNature‘s consultant editor and freelance science writer. It takes a look at the “scientific revolution” of the 12th century AD, a time when re-circulation of translated works of ancient Greek philosophers such as Euclid, Aristotle, Archimedes and Ptolemy led to a challenging of the generally-accepted views on how the world functioned. As the essay puts it: “The translations guided scholars towards a mode of inquiry governed by scepticism and reason rather than by the search for validation in the Bible or St Augustine.”

Ball also correctly points out that, at the time, dogmas concerning nature and the cosmos were pretty much influenced by religious thinking. Even the new kids on the block like Bernard of Chartres and his student William of Conches with their “crazy” ideas on natural philosophy were pretty devout men who generally regarded God as a supreme reality – Bernard of Chatres even regarded matter as created out of nothing. Of course, those who regard him so highly today would laugh at him had he said that 800 years later.

There is certainly nothing wrong with the history laid out in the essay, and it was refreshing for once to see something in Nature that didn’t necessarily concern the next CERN experiment or a new behavioural pattern of some obscure rat or even what the NIH is doing with its funding. But other than subject matter, the essay didn’t offer much in the way of novel thinking.

And let me tell you why.

On the shoulders of giants

There is a myth about scientists that is maintained, promoted and propagated even in today’s info-stuffed times. And that is the guilty, silly and tragic belief that somehow, “scientists know best” (You disagree? Then ask yourself why so many commercials today feature models in white lab oats). As a scientist, sitting on the cutting edge of biological research, I can appreciate why people would think that: Because it’s true – with qualifications.

See, the legacy of Science often has us looking backwards – just as in the case of this essay. In fact, it is Bernard of Chartres to whom we traditionally attribute the catchphrase: “Standing on the shoulders of giants”. And it is a good idea to acknowledge those giants lest we fall and break our necks. But in doing so, we unjustifiably carry over the image of those great men, and superimpose it on their successors of today without applying the filters of history in the process. The result? A distorted but popular image of today’s scientist that sees him or her as virtually omniscient – in every walk of life.

How does this happen? Simple: The people we call early scientists had a lot less to go on with than we do now. Information wasn’t as affluent as it is now and education was a privilege rather than a commodity. Labs didn’t exist – applied science was a dream. These “scientists” worked mostly with parchment and stylus, not a laptop and Nature Online. They were great thinkers in that they attempted to establish methodologies as to how to do what we call today “research”, and they did this because they were thoroughly trained and educated in Classics, Philosophy, Linguistics, Theology (or what passed as Theology then), History, and all sorts of other fields that most researchers today would regard as utterly useless. Why? Because, in terms of applied science, they are a waste of time. I can’t count how many times I have gotten blank looks from colleagues when I ask them what the Latin name of an anatomical part means (my favourite is cornu ammonis. It stands for – wait; you have Google! Look it up!).

But Science has changed in the past 800 years. Information, knowledge and the application of these has increased in leaps. And thus, those who occupy themselves professionally with Science no longer hold all the keys to the deep mysteries of the world. In fact – and I say this from personal experience, though many agree – specialisation is a necessary evil in modern research. We operate on groups of experts who are essentially people who’ve spent a lot of time on a certain subject. And you don’t need a PhD to know that being an authority in one field doesn’t necessarily make you an authority on another. Scientists can pontificate on their fields, but not on everything – especially in today’s increasingly specialising research world.

It’s called Presumption.

Back to the essay

That simple, axiomatic fact is beautifully demonstrated in Philip Ball’s Nature essay. Now, if you’re going to write to be read by today’s scientists, you have to follow a certain agenda. Stick to certain rules. One of them is that you need to have researched your topic – and there’s no denying that Dr Ball has done so. But another one is that you need to conform to the standard way of thinking when it comes to anything metaphysical: God is dead and those who believe in Him are brain-dead. Especially the God of the Bible.

I think it is still kosher in the scientific world to admit that you believe in a god, so long as he/she/it has nothing to do with reality. Scientists are fashionably fond of the Blind Watchmaker (mostly because of Richard Dawkins), but consider it absurd to attribute a personality to him – he’s more of a natural phenomenon whom one day our valiant Toolkit of Knowledge will dissect. As Dawkins puts it, God is just a delusion of a childish humanity – as we grow and mature He’ll fade away, much like Santa Claus does when we hit our teens. In his essay, Philip Ball puts it like this: “By making God a natural phenomenon, the medieval rationalists turned Him [sic] into an explicatory contingency for which there has since seemed ever less need.”

It is phrases like that, and the entire traditionally sneering, anti-God feel of the essay that reminds me of the words of the apostle Paul: But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. – 1 Corinthians 2:13-15 (NASB)

I’ve written about this before. I am constantly surprised of the phenomenal theological ignorance that is displayed by those who either directly – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet et al – or indirectly, like this essay, attack anything even remotely related to Christianity. For example, writing of the scientific awakening of William of Conches (ca. 1090– after 1154), Philip Ball comments: If everything is subject to the whim of God, there is no guarantee that a phenomenon will happen tomorrow as it does today, therefore there is then no point in seeking any consistency in nature. A logical proposition, except that the implication here is that this is a fundamental part of Christian theology: in other words the Christian God is whimsical, unpredictable and therefore completely unreliable (and non-existent, given the consistency of the natural world). Of course, this could be true; except that the Christian God is nothing like that: the central Christian proposition is that God has revealed Himself explicitly and sufficiently to us through the Bible, thus revealing everything we need to know about His nature, which the Bible describes as anything BUT whimsical. Like Socrates said, unless someone comes from above to inform us, we would be forever in the dark.

I would like to ask Dr Ball if he’s ever heard of the sola Scriptura doctrine – the historical Christian doctrine that the Bible is the inerrant and sufficient revelation of God to men; that it contains everything we need to know of Him as mortals. And if He has revealed Himself to us, then He must be consistent – otherwise, He would be inherently false and thus not a God – and thus not part of any religion, not only Christianity. That is a historical theological principle that seems to have eluded Dr Ball.

I would also like to ask him whether in his astute study of the medieval church, he ever wondered why its very practises and beliefs were eventually countered by the Reformation. That would hint at the possibility that what was regarded as Christian doctrine in 12thcentury Western Europe had very little or no grounding in the actual Christian faith. It was, as he rightly perceives, mostly blind fanaticism, superstition and ignorance maintained by the Roman church for political, rather than theological, reasons. For example, that the earth is the centre of the Universe or that it is flat, is not even remotely proposed in Scripture, and yet was maintained as a fundamental cosmological view at the time. On the contrary, there are biblical passages that hint to the earth as a sphere (Job 26:10, Prov. 8:27, Is. 40:22 “circle” (חוּג) (khûg) was used in Hebrew to also describe spheres), some 1000 years before Copernicus. And there are more examples like this, including the water cycle (Job 36:27-28) and the warm and cold continental sea currents (“paths of the sea”), which were discovered by the father of modern oceanography Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873) solely on the basis of Psalm 8:8.

So it seems historically inaccurate to claim that the rise of 12th century scientific thinking was really a blow to the blindness of all Christian theology. Such a view makes the puerile, yet often-uncorrected mistake of identifying Christianity with the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle-Ages without taking into account a) that what was called Christianity at the time was vastly separated from the Bible and thus had grown laden with religious superstition, which led, in part, to the Reformation; and b) that Biblical theology never encouraged the “God of the gaps” notion (we attribute to God whatever natural phenomenon we don’t understand) but regards God both as Creator and Sustainer of the entire natural world and c) that the Bible never promotes the image of a dice-playing God, but by claiming to be His (only) revelation, by definition describes Him as inherently consistent, especially in terms of His creation. Miracles in the Bible only happen for a clear and unequivocal reason.

So in conclusion (though there is so much more we could talk about), we can say that superstition – rather than Christianity – and Science can’t go hand-in-hand. But the Bible and the natural world have no real rift between them, despite many witting and unwitting attempts to alienate one from the other. The cornerstone of Science is the pursuit of ultimate natural truth, whilst the Bible is the revelation of all Truth. And even though Dr Ball obsequiously sneers at the “theologically immature dogmas” (I wonder what he means by that) of those whom he considers today’s fundamentalists and the “absurdities of today’s creationism”, it is, as those early 12thcentury proto-scientists would say, a matter of definitions.

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