Science, Medieval Philosophy, and the University Divided

St Albert the Great. Master of the Question Method, and dude who used to lie in fields drawing plants.

Let’s pull a few things together:

Many people – me, for example – claim that science is the product of Christianity. This claim is often violently disputed, typically by people who show no knowledge of what they’re talking about. It seems like an obvious claim to make to anyone with any familiarity with history at all – after all, science in the modern sense of a systematic, culturally supported effort to understand the physical world did arise only in what used to be called Christendom. Perhaps what is needed is a more systematic laying out of how – one is tempted to say ‘mechanically’ – this adoption and development of science came about.

Let’s take a look at how Noble prize winner, atheist and all around science god Richard Feynman explains real science versus fake Science!

From Feynman’s 1974 Cal Tech Commencement Address:

But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school–we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. …

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

(Clarification: Here, just want to make clear one particular relationship between medieval philosophy and modern science. Please read Mike Flynn’s essays linked below for a much fuller exposition of the more general topic.)

Now, to steal borrow from the esteemed Mike Flynn’s blog, here is a description of the Question format used for centuries in the Medieval universities across Europe. This is how hundreds of thousands of people were taught to think, including the great-grandchildren of the ‘pre-logical’ Franks and the other barbarians who dominated Europe north of the Alps.

One approaches the problem to be discussed by laying it out in the following way:

  1. The Question to be answered; sometimes broken down into separate articles.
  2. The principles Objections (Antitheses) or arguments against the questions.  (It would seem not, because…)
  3. The principle argument in favor of the question (the Thesis)   (On the contrary…)
  4. The determination of the question (Synthesis)  (I answer that…)
  5. The specific rebuttals of the Antitheses.

Notice the similarities? What Feynman says is the key to real science is exactly the goal that is embodied by the Question method: an extraordinary honesty expressed in giving fair credit to the possible problems with your conclusions. All good science, just as all European philosophy before the Reformation, does this – it acknowledges any possible problems and addresses them head on. It doesn’t start out by disparaging opponents and ignoring or caricaturing their arguments, but rather by giving them their due. *

With Questions, you begin by stating what you think is true – then immediately express all counterarguments that might lead someone to disagree. In the medieval university classroom, the goal in setting Objections was to see how well and strongly one could express the opposing arguments – otherwise, you’re fighting a straw man. So students and teachers would bat around the Objections until that had them in the cleanest, strongest form they could get them in. Often, the Objections developed in this way are the strongest arguments available anywhere, stronger, even, than those proposed by actual proponents of the Antitheses. (Thus, Thomas’s statement of the two reasons to conclude that God does not exist** are tighter and stronger than any offered by modern atheists, who evidently lack the discipline to tighten up their own arguments, or even to distinguish an actual argument from a petulant assertion.)

Only once you’d acknowledged the problem areas with your thesis would you lay it out, and present the arguments in favor – again, batting them around in class until they were as clear and strong as you could make them. Only then, after having laid out the Objections and the arguments in favor, would you offer your opinion.

Finally, the proponents of the thesis must specifically answer each objection, again striving for clarity and strength.

The few modern people who have been exposed to this sort of formal structure have almost certainly seen it employed on questions of theology (Summa Theologica) or apologetics (Summa Contra Gentiles) at some point during their schooling, and perhaps have assumed that the method was tied to the subjects – that all it was good for was arguing about matters of faith. Yet the Medievals did not make the methodological distinctions we make between natural philosophy (modern science, roughly speaking) and philosophy in general, and so would have used this method on *any* question.

Finally, implicit in all this is the tentative nature of human conclusions based on logic applied to experience. In other words, it is always recognized that perhaps you missed or misstated an argument or objection – maybe there’s something more to be said, some point missed or new discovered that needs to be incorporated.

So, starting in the 12th century, Christian universities started training up hundreds of thousands of people in the art of logical argument. A key part of this was respect for one’s opponent – Thomas always speaks of Averoes, a Muslim Aristotle scholar, with the utmost respect, even when he disagreed with him. When the truth is important – and, to a scholar in the Middle Ages, all truth was an aspect of the Truth, which was the God they worshipped – then one must honor any honest effort to find it. All truth, no matter how small, directs us toward God, and our thirst for truth comes from God.

The industrial revolution that was taking place during the 13th and 14th centuries in Europe had, it seems, a mutually beneficial relationship with science. The presence of thousands of logically rigorous thinkers would certainly aid in the development of practical arts, and the presence of practical arts would ease the development of the one thing missing so far from medieval science that is present in modern science – lots of cool toys with which to measure things: clocks, scales, telescopes, microscopes and so on. By the 16th century, what we think of as the tools of science began to become ubiquitous (a nasty plague reset things in the middle 14th century, causing enough social chaos to really slow things down for a long while on the science marching on front).

Around that same time, philosophy was torn in two: the methodical, rational approach that reached its pinnacle in the Question method was tossed in favor of, on the one hand, appeals to direct perception unassailable by logic or reason (Luther and Calvin, as perfected over the next 2 centuries culminating in Hegel) and on the other by hubris-drenched attempts to construct a coherent world solely inside one’s own head (starting in 1630 with Descartes and reaching an apex of sorts with Kant). These two approaches are not really so different. It’s all a question of what box one puts Reason into, to keep it from interfering with important stuff like one’s current theological adventures. Kant represents an approach where we will accept the validity of reason up to the point at which the mind apprehends reality. At that point, we must abandon all hope of knowledge – all we can come to know from contemplating the world are reflections of the structures of our own (solipsistic) mind. Hegel rejects logic outright, except as a useful fiction for little people, such as mathematicians and natural philosophers.

In other words, for those little people concerned with understanding objective reality, neither the approaches represented by Kant or Hegel, nor any of the modern mish-mashes of Kant and Hegel will work *functionally*. To put it broadly, there must be an objective reality, and the human mind must be able to grasp at least some part of that reality, AND the rules of logic MUST apply to physical reality in order for any science in the modern sense to be done at all.

So, how did we end up in the sorry state we’re in today, where a University will contain both scientists using their subset of the Question method to rationally investigate the real world AND ‘philosophers’ and their sycophants asserting that doing so is impossible or irrelevant, and that only they possess the enlightenment that can explain what’s really going on? Going back to the beginning again, a Luther or a Calvin wasn’t going to win any arguments conducted with the Question method. Because they saw themselves as having received a complete and sufficient understanding of all truly important knowledge without having gone through all the falderal of laying it out point by point and giving fair shrift to their opponents, they taught that the reasonable approach was not only unnecessary but worthless. Nope: the individual soul, guided by the Spirit, could discern all important truth by unmediated access to Scripture – that direct enlightenment was primary and sufficient. Anything else, such as using reason, was at best irrelevant, and, insofar as it was used to defeat the immediate, Spirit-breathed understanding of the Bible, out and out evil.

Hegel puts a verbose and inchoate veneer on this belief, in his whole ‘Spirit unfolding through History’ schtick; Marx merely recognizes that direct perception of reality need not apply only to Scripture – in fact, *his* personal direct apprehension was that there is no Scripture, no Spirit, just History, the Wrong Side of which one does not want to be on. Or something – Hegel also says true philosophers are not to be burdened with having to make sense.

The poor, humble scientist is left to wonder: Do *I* get to apply this ‘Insight’ method, too? Historically, many tried and many still try: they don’t let reason or any of those crass data points and facts overturn their theories. Psychology is perhaps the best example of this – starting with Freud, they just *know*. But, in general, in all areas where indisputable technological progress has been made, the underlying science still uses a subset of the Question method, as described by Feynman above. An uneasy truce is maintained: the Question-using people get to do their thing over in one part of campus, the Insight crowd gets to do its thing in the rest, and nobody pays any attention to the inevitable conflicts, especially when funding and tenure are involved.

This truce is also a cause or effect (I can’t quite figure out which) of the things eliminated from the Question method that make it into the method of modern science: final and formal causation. The Medievals considered Aristotle’s four causes to be in fact what is required to fully answer the question: what is that thing? But in order to do technology (which is what everyone almost always means when they say ‘science’) all we need are material and efficient causes: what kind of stuff do we start with, and how do we get it to do what we want? *What* exactly it is, and *why* exactly do we want it to do what we want it to do – those questions have been staked off as having to do with the other side of campus, and so we, as scientists, not only don’t ask them, we are required, evidently, to pretend they don’t exist.

Scientists, at least the kind that get time on TV, are outraged at the thought that what they do is just a watered-down version of medieval philosophy – but, historically, that what it is, with much nicer tools.

* Read, for example, Origin of Species, in which Darwin really does ‘bend over backwards’ to acknowledge all problem areas with his theory. While it gets a little tiresome to a modern reader, it makes me feel some affection for Darwin that he cares enough about the truth to give his opponents a fair shake.

** Roughly, 1) all appearances can be explained without recourse to a deity, and 2) that a loving, all-powerful god is incompatible with a world full of evil. You can look it up. “Arguments” such as “believers are stupid hypocrites” or “there is no old man in the sky” are, shall we say, somewhat less than logically compelling.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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