From: James Hannam [] 
Sent: 02 February 2011 13:17
To: ''
Subject: The Background to Modern Science 
Dear FIS list members,My sincere thanks to Pedro for asking me to contribute to 
a discussion on the origins of modern science.  The subject is vast and so the 
comments below are very much focused on my own areas and period of concern.  I 
hope this is of some interest to list members.Best wishesJames The Background 
to Modern ScienceHowever much we might admire the achievements of the ancient 
Greeks or the celebrated civilizations of China and Islam, modern science as we 
understand it arose in Western Europe within a deeply Christian milieu.  
Historians have now rejected the idea that there has been an inevitable 
conflict between science and religion, preferring what John Hedley Brooke has 
dubbed a “complexity thesis” or what I call “creative tension”.  But the larger 
question of why science flourished when and where it did remains unanswered.  A 
recent attempt by Toby Huff was greeted, rather unfairly, by something 
approaching derision in the history of science community. 
Despite the excellence of their mathematics, the Greeks never produced an 
experimental science which was able to distinguish between hypotheses about 
nature.  As a result, they relied too much on reason.  This led to notorious 
mistakes, such as Aristotle’s belief that heavy objects fall faster than light 
ones and that a moving object must be moved by something else.  In the Middle 
Ages, Greek philosophy was still studied, but there had been important changes 
in several key areas. 
Christian Metaphysics 
Medieval science took place against an entirely different metaphysical 
background from that in pagan Greece.  For medieval Christian natural 
philosophers, such as William of Conches, the world was not a product of 
natural forces but was created by an intelligent and loving God.  This gave 
them sanction to study nature, even though there were no practical advantages 
to doing so.  Today science is justified, in large part, by the technological 
marvels, like computers and medical drugs, which it helps to develop.  But this 
close relationship between science and technology is a product of the 
nineteenth century.  Before that time, the concept of applied science hardly 
existed (at least excepting the esoteric disciplines of alchemy and 
astrology).  The religious sanction of natural philosophy meant that there was 
a good reason for studying it.  Together with mathematics and other subjects, 
it became a compulsory part of the curriculum at the new universities.  Indeed, 
in order to study theology, a student required a thorough grounding in the 
lower sciences. 
The Christian doctrine of creation had other implications for the study of 
nature.  Aristotelian science presupposed an eternal universe which was the 
product of logically necessary relationships.  This meant that the laws of 
nature were necessarily the way that they are and so could be established 
through the exercise of pure reason.  This view was deemed heretical by the 
Bishop of Paris in 1277 and Christians were required to believe that the 
Creator was free to do as he liked.  Thus, he could make the world as he saw 
fit and not as Aristotle said he ought to have done.  This freed natural 
philosophers to consider cases, such as vacuums, that Aristotle said were 
impossible.  It also encouraged them to successfully challenge the most basic 
axioms of Greek science.  In the early twentieth century, Pierre Duhem 
suggested that 1277 represented the birth of modern science because this was 
when the stranglehold of Aristotle was broken.  Although this now seems an 
exaggeration, Edward Grant continues to emphasise the importance of the 
condemnations at Paris.VoluntarismIn the seventeenth century, Descartes 
explicitly stated that the doctrine of divine freedom, known as voluntarism, 
must lead to an empirical science.  If God was free to create the universe as 
he liked, Descartes said, the only way to find out how he had done it was to go 
out and look.   But experimental science needs more than careful observation 
(something at which the Greeks excelled).  Nature must also be put to the 
question, in the sinister phrase of Sir Francis Bacon.  This required that the 
holistic worldview be abandoned.  Nature had to be expected to perform in the 
laboratory in the same way that she did in the wild.  In fact, there is no 
particular reason to believe that the aberrant situation of the controlled 
experiment can yield results that are generally applicable.  This conclusion 
could only be drawn after a good deal of trial and error.Technological 
AdvanceAlthough technology as applied science was practically unknown before 
the nineteenth century, medieval inventions helped to illuminate science and 
provide the apparatus necessary to do experiments.  For example, the invention 
of spectacles in Italy in the late thirteenth century may have furnished clues 
as to how the eye works.  But, more importantly, spectacle-makers provided the 
lenses that eventually gave birth to the telescope.  The compass became an 
object of study for Peter the Pilgrim in his seminal treatment of magnetism.  
And the mechanical clock, first recorded in thirteenth-century England, 
immediately brought to mind the cosmos itself as the creation of a divine 
The UniversitiesThe universities represented an entirely new kind of 
institution that provided a safe haven for academy study.  A university is a 
corporation with its own legal personality with which it faces the world.  The 
members of the university run its internal affairs, but they act together 
against external challenges.  This has proved an extremely robust model that 
allowed the medieval universities to play the Church off against the state so 
as to enjoy a relatively high degree of academic freedom.  They also provided 
an institutional home for the sciences which was not dependent upon royal 
patronage or wealthy individuals for support. 
Thus the philosophers of the Middle Ages provided modern science with an 
explicable metaphysical background, a theological reason for study and a 
warrant for the experimental method.  They also enjoyed a secure home at their 
universities and new equipment to focus their studies.  Nowadays, science can 
justify itself through its success, but we must not lose sight of the fact that 
this success could not arise until an effective way of doing science had been 
developed.  It might even be the case that abandoning its original axioms has 
left contemporary theoretical science rootless and no longer so good at dealing 
with fundamental questions. The current impasse over string theory might have 
been provoked by a return to pure rationalism divorced from empirical results. 
BibliographyDavid Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European 
Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 
Prehistory to AD 1450, Second Edition (Chicago, 2008)Edward Grant, The 
Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, 
Institutional and Intellectual Contexts (Cambridge, 1996)Edward Grant, God and 
Reason in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2001)John Hedley Brooke, Science and 
Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, 1999)Stephen Gaukroger, The 
Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210 – 
1685 (Oxford, 2008)Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China 
and the West, Second Edition (Cambridge, 
2003) ------------------------------------------
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