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Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why Natural Science rose in the western world.

I could be wrong, but it seems as if the Roman Catholics of the 12th century believed in a type of theosis through the accumulation of the rational knowledge of not only the world, but also the universe. It was believed that Adam had perfect knowledge before the fall, and that he lost this knowledge when he fell, so the western christians of the 12th century used the methods of Aristotle to try and regain this lost knowledge.

Dr. Peter Harrison did research in this area and wrote about it in the book "The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science". From what I've seen in reviews of his latest book (The fall of man and the foundations of natural science), he goes into more detail about this very thing.

pages 56-63

" Restoring Lost Likeness
If the book of nature was to be read in conjunction with the book of scripture, it was no less true that the message to be read in the natural world was similar to that of scripture: nature provided knowledge of God and pointed the way to redemption. The possibility that God might be known through resemblances in the world was already familiar to readers of those Platonic works which had proved so influential in the twelfth century, all of which had stressed the world is 'a sensible God who is the image of the intellectual'. The Asclepius repeats this claim describing the cosmos as a god 'who can be seen and sensed'. Macrobius further extended this conception, describing the visible world as the temple of God:

In order to show, therefore, that the omnipotence of the Supreme God can hardly ever be comprehended and never witnessed, he called whatever is visible to our eyes the temple of that God who is apprehended only in the mind, so that those who worship these visible objects as temples might still owe the greatest reverence to the creator, and that whoever is inducted into the privileges of this temple might know that he had to live in the manner of a priest.

Twelfth-century writers, while wary of the dangers of pantheism, were nonetheless influenced by these conceptions and came to stress in an unprecedented way the possibility of knowing God through his creatures. Hildegard, for example, tirelessly reminds us that "all Creatures are an indication of God'm that 'it is God whom human beings know in every creature'. Whereever we look', agreed Grosseteste, 'we find vestiges of God.' Hugh of St Victor was similarly enthusiastic about the prospects of a knowledge of God through nature: 'Every nature tells of God; every nature teaches man; every nature reproduces its essential form, and nothing in the universe is infecund.' Indeed, of all twelfth century writers, it was Hugh of St Victor who most explicitly set out the connexion between the reading of the two books.

Hugh's Didascalicon, subtitled De studio legendi (On the study of reading), was the twelfth-century equivalent of Augustine's De doctrina christiana. In it Hugh advances familiar platonic arguments: on the hand, because the 'invisible things can only be known by visible things', the whole of theology must use visible demonstrations; on the other, 'worldly theology' never progressed beyond the appearances of things, was always marred by the 'stain of error'. Hugh like th emajority of his contemporaries, also endorsed Augustine's view that in scripture 'things as well as words are significant.' Hugh's advance on Augustine comes in his conclusion that the study of things must therefore be a significant source of truth in its own right. As it turned out, the curriculum of the medieval schools neatly matched this distinction between the study of words and things. The seven liberal arts were taught in order to serve the higher purpose of uncovering the meanings of the sacred page: the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) illuminated the meanings of words; the Quadrivium (music arithmetic) illuminated the meanings of words; the quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy), the meanings of the things referred to by the words. Again, the reading of things was controlled by the now standard categories of tropology and allegory: tropological interpretation of things led to virtue, allegorical interpretation led to truth. These two things, virtue and truth, together restore the divine likeness: 'Now there are two things which restore the divine likeness in man, namely the contemplation of truth and the practice of virtue. The contemplation of truth required knowledge of things of nature, and such knowledge was a means of restoring a lost divine likeness.

To know the world, then, is not merely to come to know God, it is to become like God: it is to restore a likeness which had been lost. For all

that medieval thinkers were to place the human race at the very centre of the cosmos, theirs was no shallow optimism. They had read beyond the Idyll in Eden, to the fall, the first homicide, and the sordid events which brought on the Deluge. Whatever pride might have resulted from the vision of man as a microcosm of the universe was thus muted by the sober recognition that human beings were fallen creatures, and that when the crown of creation had fallen, his dominions had fallen with him. The lustre of the luminous signs of divinity which had once shone out in the material world had now dimmed through that first human misadventure. Those similitudes which originally had borne witness to the spiritual origins of the world were now reduced to what Augustine and Grosseteste both termed 'vestiges'. Other created things, too, lost their obvious similitude to those divine ideas which had been their original cause. Indeed, for those scholled in Platonism, the whole physical world become a place of dissimilitude, for as Plato had observed in The Statesman, when creatures fall away from God, they enter 'the bottomless abyss of unlikeness.' Plotinus had reiterated this sentiment, describing the fate of human souls in these terms: 'We are become dwellers in the Place of unlikeness, where, fallen from all our resemblance to the Divine, we lie in gloom and mud.' The idea that this fallen creation was a 'region of dissimilitude' (regio dissimilitudis) was adopted by Augustine, and like so many of his borrowing from Platonism, found its way into medieval thought. Yet, whereas for Augustine the solution to our plight lay in retreat from this earthly region of dissimilitude to the more ordered world of the mind, for those progressive spirits of the twelfth century the lost similitudes of things could be re-established, and while such an ordering process was ultimately still to take place in the mind, it began with a knowledge of the sensory world. Empirical nature was to be re-ordered by human knowledge, and thus the human conception of the world, of 'nature', would be that same conception which had been in the mind of the Creature. In this manner the human mind would come to resemble the mind of God, and the human likeness to god would by this means be restored. Human beings stood in need of redemtion, and indeed it is this necessity for their redemption, and the redemtion of the world, which transformed what in antiquity had tended to be a static and sterile representation of their relation to the whole, into a dynamic programme. god's creatures must now embark upon that path which would result in the restoration of their former dignity, and that path would lead them to the attempt to know and master the world. Through knowledge, the world would be reunited, and both knower and known would be redeemed. The human being was to 'comprehend' all things in both ontological and epistemological senses of that term. The turn to the natural world was in some sense a turning away from the sacred page, but it could hardly be said that it was motivated by a secular, or non-theological impulse. On the contrary, acquisition of knowledge of the order of nature was enjoined on mankind as an integral part of the procees of human redemption, and more specifically, a reversal of the losses incurred at the Fall.

In the emerging recognition that the goal of human life was to do with knowledge, mastery, and the regaining of an original perfection through a re-ordering of similitudes, there are again unmistakeable achoes of Plato. In the closing lines of the Timaeus Plato informs us that 'learning the harmonies and revolutions of the universe, should coorect the courses of the head which were corrupted at our birth, and should assimilate the thinking being to the thought, renewing his original nature, so that having assimilated them he may attain to that best life which the gods have set before mankind. Knowledge of the harmonies and revolutions of the universe thus leads to a renewal of corrupted human nature. The study of nature was thus an essentially religious process. Similar themes can be found in the Hermetic writings: 'learning the arts and sciences and using them preserves this earthly part of the world: god willed it that the world would be incomplete with out them. In a more elaborate passage, the reader is given this counsel:

so you must think of god in this way, as having everything- the cosmos, himself, the universe-like thoughts within himself. Thus, unless you make yourself equal to god, you cannot understand god; like is understood by like.....Having conceived that nothing is impossible to you, consider yourself immortal and able to understand everything, all art, all learning, the temper of every living thing. Go higher than every height and lower than every depth. Collect in yourself all the sensations of what has been made, of fire and water, dry and wet; be everywhere at once, on land, in the sea, in heaven; be not yet born, be in the womb be young, old, beyond, death. And when you have understood all these at once- times, places, things, qualities, quantities- then you can understand god."

The human, according to the Corpus Hermeticum, was created 'to be a working witness to nature; to increase the number of mankind; to master all things under heaven.......and to discover every means of working skillfully with things that are good.'

This analysis of the human quest as one involving the restoration of original similitudes is also a New Testament theme. St Paul wrote: 'And because for us there is no veil over the face, we all reflect as in a mirror the splendour of the Lord; thus we are transformed into his likeness.' Elsewhere, he was to speak of Christian life as being a new life 'which is being constantly renewed in the image of its creator.' The means by which twelfth-century thinkers proposed this redemption take place however, was quite new, for the process of the restoration of the divine similitude in man required the similitude between all created things to be restored. This was to take place in two ways: first, by knowing the world, the human mind would restore things to the original unity which they had possessed in the divine mind; second, by controlling and subduing the world, human beings would be restored to their original position as God's viceroy on earth, and harmony would be restored between those creatures wiyhin their constituency. The restoration of a lost likeness to God was thus to take place through imitation of God: of his power, by manipulating the world; of his wisdom, through coming to know it. To know God, to become like God, to possess the knowledge of the mind of God, these were synonyms for the process of redemption Redemption, in short, did not entail as it did for Augstine, flight from the material world, a mastery of the beasts within, and a mystical absorption into divine reality, but rather an ordered knowledge of the natural world.

The restoration to the human race of a lost similitude to God was thus seen to entail a restoration to creatures of their proper relations-relations which were to be established on the basis f similitude. For the human mind again to be godlike, it had to recapture the vision of nature as an ordered whole. The accumulation and systematisation of information about animals and plants was an ordering process, a rehearsal of that event in Eden, in which God had paraded the animals before Adam to be named- and event which, according to a long exegetical tradition, indicated Adam's perfect knowledge of the natural world. This knowledge had been lost as a result of the human Fall. Adam had penetrated to the true nature of things with the eye of reason, we now are forced back on sensory experience and grope our way' towards knowledge. 'Through [the organs of sense' man looks upon all the creatures', wrote Hildegard, 'knowing them for what they are, distinguishing them, separating them, naming them'. The Fall was the occasion of the loss of direct access to the spiritual world. Thereafter, knowledge of spiritual truths was mediated through material things.

This idea-that the accumulation of knowledge about the natural world would in some measure restore to man what had been lost at the Fall-is most commonly associated with Francis Bacon and the rise of modern science. Yet we can now see that the roots of this conception go back much further. The imperative element which is incipient in the vision of man as the unique locus of two images becomes increasingly obvious in the writings of the twelfth century. Hugh of St Victor(1142) suggested that the chief depredation suffered by man at the fall was a loss of knowledge. Through study, the soul could rediscover the divine truths hidden behind the veil of the creatures and theliteral words of scripture, and thereby be restored to its original dignity. In his Didascalicon Hugh explains that the aim of study is 'to restore within us the divine likeness' so that 'we are conformed to the divine nature' and 'there begins to shine forth again in us what has forever existed in the divine Idea or Pattern, coming and going in us but standing changeless in God. Similar ideas are expressed by Honorius Augustodunensis. Despite the Fall and the ills it brought upon the world, terrestrial reality remains the sphere of 'multiple divine appearances'. Man is the celestrial animal in which God willed all things to be re-united. the idea that man was a microcosm was thus at once indicative and imperative. All creatures were in a sense to be found in man, and in another were to be re-united in him through an orderly knowledge of the natural world. In the thirteenth century, Bonaventure again stressed the role which the visible world was to play in the redemption of mankind. Man, 'in the state of innocence possessed knowledge of created things and was raised through their representation to God and to his praise, reverence, and love'. While this knowledge was lost through the misadventures of our first parents, its re-acquisition is still 'the goal of the creatures and the way in which they are led back to God'. To accumulate systematic knowledge of created things was both to restore the knowledge of Adam, and approach knowledge of the very mind of God. Through the acquisition of knowledge came also the redemption of the world, for knowledge was assimilated or incorporated in the human mind, and thus redeemed along with it." The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witness the end of the religious indifference, or even hostility, to the physical world which had been fostered by the Fathers. Augustine had believed that a person might be deficient in knowledge of nature, and yet have a robust faith. There is no shame in being 'ignorant of the position and nature of a physical creature', he wrote, provided that one 'does not believe something unworthy of you, Lord'. Now the pendulum was beginning to swing back, and an ordered knowledge of this world could not be so easily divorced from the knowledge of the other. Adelard of Barth observed that 'if anyone born or educated in the residence of this world neglects learning the plan underlying its marvellous beauty, upon attaining the age of discretion he is unworthy and, were it possible, deserves to be cast our of it.' William of Conches likewise expressed contempt for those who would perpetuate the Augustinian indifference to science: 'Ignorant themselves of the forces of nature and wanting to have company in their ignorance, they don't want people to look into anything; they want us to believe like peasants and not ask the reason behind things.' With those who habitually invoked the direct activity of God in physical explanations he was equally impatient: 'You poor fools, God can make a cow out of a tree, but has he ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so. or cease to hold that it is so.' This period thus witnessess the beginnings of the transformation of the study of nature into a thoroughly theological enterprise. Thereafter, in the schools natural philosophy was increasingly intergrated into the Christian scholarly endeavour. In the renaissance of the twelfth century we see a religiously-motivated indifference to the natural world transformed into a religiously-motivated quest for knowledge. Alongside the words inscribed by God upon the human heart and on the sacred page of scripture, stands the book of nature. The search for truth reguired the diligent study of both books."

Later, the rise of Protestantism and their rejection of multiple interpretations of the text of scripture would soon cause for the rejection of the symbolism of nature. So just as scripture would only have "one" meaning, "nature" too would only have "one" interpretation, and that would be "philosophical naturalism". Some centuries after the protestant reformation, this "hermenutic" would backfire, and would cause not only the rise of protestant liberalism and the rejection of the supernatural in scripture, but also the secularization and independance of the natural sciences from western christianity.

As seen from the preface of the book:

"In this book Dr Harrison examines the role played by the Bible in the emergence of natural science. He shows how both the contents of the Bible, and more particularly the way it was interpreted, had a profound influence on conceptions of nature from the third century to the seventeenth. The rise of the modern science is linked to the Protestant approach to texts, an approach which spelt an end to the symbolic world of the middle ages and established the conditions for the scientific investigation and technological exploitation of nature." [2]


[1] pages 56-63, [2] preface, from the book “The Bible Protestantism and the rise of natural science” by Dr. Peter Harrison


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