Wednesday, March 24, 2010

David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science (2d ed. 2007)

Following footnotes, I fear, is not a passion of many students today. Lawyers understand the importance of following footnotes, because the footnote or citation in a judicial opinion is just as important to understanding how the court arrived at its decision as the text of the opinion itself. Footnotes and citations document the development of the common law --- the precedent, rationale, and history on which the court relied.

A footnote in Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind (2005) brought my attention to the 1992 edition of David Lindberg's book, The Beginnings of Western Science, several years ago. I put the book on my Amazon wish list. Freeman also cited Edward Grant's The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, which I subsequently read. The subject here is the history of science from the classical period up the period preceding the Enlightenment, and the extent to which cultures and institutions either encouraged or restrained scientific inquiry during this period. Freeman's thesis is that the unification of Roman state authority and Christian faith by Constantine stifled, if not suppressed the Greek intellectual tradition that relied on mental reasoning, a thesis that fits well with the nomenclature used to describe these times: the "dark" ages, and the "medieval" period. Not so fast, warns Lindberg. While not denying that much of Western Europe lost touch with Aristotelian philosophy and Greek mathematics. medicine, and science from the classical era, and observing that Aristotle and Greek mathematics, medicine, and science became a foundation for scientific progress in the Arab and Muslim world that ultimately found its way to Spain, Lindberg documents that there remained at some, scattered level an awareness of Aristotle and Greek math, medicine and scientific research that was not entirely lost to the Western world and certainly enough for Lindberg to claim that the history of western science from the classical era had some degree of continuity.

Throughout this treatise, Lindberg reminds his reader that it is error to appreciate (or critique) scientific inquiry in the Dark Ages or the Medieval Period based on our modern vantage point, and essential that scientific inquiry during these periods be examined in light of the the culture, institutions, and scientific knowledge then existing. Lindberg's focus, in contrast to Freeman, is less on the influence that Christian institutions had on scientific inquiry and more on the actual historical record of scientific investigation and research. His ultimate goal is to identify what, if anything, in the history of science was revolutionary about the Enlightenment. And to this end, Lindberg concludes, contrary to what most of us have believed or surmised, that the Enlightenment was not revolutionary because faith and magic was replaced by experimental methodology testing reasoned hypotheses with empirical research. Examples of testing reasoned hypotheses about nature, the cosmos, and medicine with experimental investigation can be found across the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period. The revolution of the Enlightenment, Lindberg says, was "metaphysical and cosmological." Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics, which had "skirmished" throughout the medieval period, came to be replaced by another Greek tradition: Epicurean atomism, which describes "a mechanistic universe of lifeless, indivisible atoms moving randomly in an infinite void." At the core of the difference between these Greek traditions (Plato and Aristotle on the one hand, and atomists on the other) are differences in viewpoints toward a teleological principle, which has meaning for both religious institutions and science to this day.

Teleology. The principle that physical phenomena are explained by a purpose or design has been debtated since antiquity, and it continues to be debated today under the rubric of "intelligent design." Teleology implies that creation is an act of foresight and planning. I first read about teleological principle nearly 30 years ago in Jacques Monod's book, Chance and Necessity. Monod denied that a teleological force was behind the creation of life, and instead subscribed to a teleonomical principle, whereby a non-purposeful evolutionary process that relies on hindsight and the acquisition of information that allows life to cope with the future. Richard Dawkins, the author of The Blind Watchmaker, is a natural ally for this view. Ironically, a teleonomical approach fits comfortably within Hebrew literature, whose "prophets" did not actually foretell the demise of the ancient Jewish state, but in hindsight explained that demise. I mention this not specifically to support Monod's argument, but to demonstrate that the creative human mind finds a way of defining purpose not on the intentionality of some one or thing in the past, but on what it discerns in the design of things as they already exist, and then confusing the two.

Plato and Aristotle both fell victim to this confusion. Plato concluded, based on his view of the structure of the world and its a priori order in the world of forms that some intelligent god was behind the creation of the universe. Aristotle, on the other hand, saw the hand of an intelligent unmoved mover, not a creator, behind the moving forces in the cosmos, but this view was based on the orderliness of the world as he observed it. Teleology embodies an anthropomorphic bias, which ascribes to non-human spirits the same purpose that human actors would ascribe to something they had created. There is no reason to believe this bias is objectively warranted, especially if the non-human spirit is an omniscient deity for which anything is possible.

Lindberg is on to something when he says the Enlightenment is more about a change in metaphysical views than it is about a revolution in scientific inquiry. To be sure, the rate in which experimentation and empirical knowledge was employed by the scientific community accelerated during and after the Enlightenment, and perhaps Lindberg does not give enough weight to this fact, but the revolution in metaphysical orientation meant that atheism, deism, and theism all found opportunity to claim the new science for themselves. Atomism replaced the Aristotelian concept of teleology that prevailed by the end of the Medieval Period and enabled theists and deists to claim that there was an intelligent creator whose initial design of the universe set in motion the evolution that we now witness in hindsight (with some theists believing that a god can still intervene in earthly matters), and it enabled atheists to deny any initial or continuing design or purpose to nature and to appreciate the successes and failures in nature over time, as well as the chaos and order of nature, as some combination of both chance and necessity.

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