Thursday, April 24, 2014

God's Philosophers by James Hannam

And now for another non-fiction book!

I have to admit to a personal failing. Science has never interested me. A ptarmigan is merely a ptarmigan to me. The periodic table of elements, I can take or leave. I admire wasps, but only at arms' length. As a child, science textbooks filled me with an impulsive desire to go and read The Divine Comedy or something.

That's why James Hannam's book God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations for Modern Science would have been perfect for me. Science in a cotehardie! I'm there.

In God's Philosophers James Hannam traces medieval natural philosophy--and some of the other disciplines we've come to think of as scientific, such as medicine--through the reign of Plato and Aristotle to the discoveries of Kepler and Galileo. Along the way he merrily explodes a few common myths about religion and science. For example, "the Church never supported the idea that the earth is flat, never banned human dissection, never banned zero and certainly never burnt anyone at the stake for scientific ideas."

The first thing you'll find reading the book is that modern science as we think of it did not exist back then. So this is necessarily the history, not of a study or occupation, but of the men and threads of philosophy that eventually made modern science possible.

I loved this book. I sat in our living-room reading passages aloud to my family. One of the biggest themes of the book was that no amount of empirical evidence will lead the observer to the truth if his beginning hypothesis is false.

Here's one story Hannam told to illustrate this. This is pretty awesome. Back in the fifteenth century, if you lost your nose to disease or a duel, the surgeons could give you a nose job. They'd slice a bit of flesh off your arm and attach it to your face. You'd then have to go around for a few months with your arm tied to your face, because the skin hadn't been parted from the arm. Once the skin was growing nicely to your face, they'd cut it off your arm and reconstruct your nose.

One nobleman thought he'd rather not go around with his arm attached to his face, so he decided to use his servant instead. The operation went smoothly. A few months later, though, the servant died of unrelated causes and around the same time the new nose perished and fell off. Hannam says,
You could hardly ask for better proof of action at a distance and the attendant doctrine of sympathy. Again, this illustrates just how important it is that empirical results are linked to a reliable theory before they can be extrapolated into a general law.
Hannam himself, though a Catholic, sounds like some kind of evolutionist, so he's not just saying this to score a point.  (He totally should've.)

The bulk of the book is a history of the relationship between Aristotle, philosophers, and the Church. Around the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Aristotle got a stranglehold on natural philosophy, so that his hypotheses on physics, anatomy, and other areas were accepted by all serious academics. The problem was that many of Aristotle's hypotheses were wrong. He also had bad theology, believing that there was no personal God, that the universe had never been created, and that the laws of logic dictated how the universe could work; therefore if there was a God, He could not do anything that would contradict the laws of logic.

See? Science in a...OK, this is more of a T-tunic than a cotehardie.
Medieval natural philosophers were thus early on faced with a familiar dilemma: accept the teaching of the Church at the cost of Aristotle's and the scientific establishment's displeasure, or accept Aristotle's word and embrace heresy. Eventually the Church declared that Christian natural philosophers would just have to ignore some of Aristotle's beliefs. This set the natural philosophers free to dream up daring new hypotheses. Aristotle said that nature abhorred a vaccuum and one could logically never exist in nature. But the philosophers believed that God could do anything. If He wanted to, He could create a vaccuum. If He wanted to, and if He did, how would that work?

In other words, Hannam argues that at key points in the development of modern science, the Church intervened to avert heresy with the eventual result of freeing the natural philosophers and early scientists to think outside the establishment box and come up with much better hypotheses.

Much of this good work was actually reversed during the Renaissance. Hannam says:
Renaissance humanists’ obsession with the classics led them to search out the lost works of the ancients. They scoured dusty monastic libraries for forgotten books and sent travellers to the remnants of the Byzantine Empire to bring back Greek manuscripts. The trouble was, they also cleared away the vast bulk of medieval commentaries that had expanded on and criticised Aristotle’s thought. They did not recognise that medieval writers had made great advances. As far as humanists were concerned, medieval thinkers were far too recent to have produced anything worthwhile. Scholasticism was undeserving of their attention and so they dumped it. The effect was rapid and nearly disastrous for natural philosophy.
Now I didn't agree with Hannam on everything. I've done a fair bit of reading on the period he covers--from the early medieval period to the Renaissance and the Reformation--and I found a few things to disagree with. Like most Catholics, he's very skeptical of the Reformation, and recites the hoary old chestnut that Michael Servetus was burned "at Calvin's insistence", which is overstating the case, to put it mildly. I would recommend reading Nancy Pearcey's Total Truth, Rodney Stark's God's Battalions and Christopher Dawson's The Making of Europe to address some of the book's other imbalances. Also, given the bones I was able to pick in the parts of the book that covered material I'd already studied, I wouldn't be surprised if there were similar gripes to be found elsewhere.

This said, the book was endlessly fascinating. Notes on interesting little technologies of the Middle Ages. A really helpful and illuminating history of that much-maligned institution, the Inquisition. Mini-biographies of a range of fascinating philosophers from the saintly to, well, Abelard. And finally, another look at Galileo.

Maybe my favourite chapter of the book was the one about Johannes Kepler finally successfully modelling the solar system. Hannam says,
A rising tide of scepticism made out that it was impossible to accurately map the planets and certainly to know how they really moved. Astronomy was just a matter of trying to construct the best mathematical model of the planets’ observed paths across the sky.
Kepler rejected the defeatism of the sceptics although his reasons were religious rather than scientific. As far as he was concerned, the heavens must reflect their maker. ‘For a long time, I wanted to be a theologian’, he wrote, ‘now however, behold how through my effort God is being celebrated through astronomy.' As the Bible itself states: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork.’ There was no imprecision about God and he did not make eight-minute mistakes. Nor was he the capricious sort who would make the heavens into an unsolvable puzzle.
Again, it was Kepler's faith in the God of the Bible which allowed him to ignore the complicated (and wrong) hypotheses that everyone else was working with, to arrive at an explanation that worked.

God's Philosophers was a fascinating read--an intriguing blend of history, philosophy, and science, well-written and easy to read. I do recommend it, with the caveats mentioned above.

Get God's Philosophers from Amazon, The Book Depository, or Open Library.


Radagast said...

A great review!

Tim O'Neill said...

"Hannam himself, though a Catholic, sounds like some kind of evolutionist ... "

Since the Catholic Church has fully accepted evolution for almost a century, why is this a surprise?

Suzannah said...

Well, you learn something new every day ;).

Unknown said...

Sounds like a fantastic book and as a Catholic I'm thrilled to find such a book from this pov. Catholics can believe in evolution as long as they believe it was/is guided by God.

Suzannah said...

I'm sure you'll love it, Nicola. It was fantastic!


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