Birth Pangs of Western Science

I have struggled to find any rational path from Scholasticism, which reigned in the Church prior to the Reformation, through it, and well into the Renaissance, to empiricism and science. Some aspects of Christianity’s Scholastic roots remain yet today: that established by Augustine at the beginning of the sanitized and politically alligned church by which he attempted to support Christian doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy.
Upon further reflection, it appears to me that the path from Scholasticism to the world that we understand through science, was that of superstition. Will Durant had addressed that in The Story of Civilization, Volume VII, The Age Of Reason, Chapter 22, Science In The Age Of Galileo at page 575. I had not understood its relevance, its truth, or its power until this writing:

Religions are born and may die, but superstition is immortal. Only the fortunate can take life without mythology. Most of us suffer in body and soul, and Nature’s subtlest anodyne is a dose of the supernatural.

Growth is a process. Even what appear to be sudden “bursts of revelation” must be connected to the past, else they risk mere fantasy. I have previously mentioned the book, Philosophy In the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. We live in a physical world; disembodied notions have no relevance. We and the matter that constitutes us are matter aware of itself, as Teilhard described it. There is no hard division between spirit and matter. There is more to life than what we see, but not contrary to what we see.

Again, at page 575, Durant notes the ambiguity which marked the beginning of Western science: “Even Kepler and Newton mingled their science with mythology: Kepler believed in witchcraft, and Newton wrote less on science than on the Apocalypse.” Even in so revolutionary a scientist as Newton, we see conflict between science and religion. That was nothing new. Superstition has been the rule, not the exception. Moreover, these scientific discoveries hardly broke new ground concerning the understanding of the world that we live in. Long before Western science, the Greeks and their philosophy had anticipated a number of scientific premises, such as a solar center world. Additionally, Islamic civilization had explored the night skies and had made a number of scientific observations long before these great scientific figure’s of Western civilization.

At about the time of the Reformation, Islamic civilization had peaked and was about to decline. In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella had made Columbus’ discovery of the New World possible. As a practical matter, that was bound to happen sometime or another as Western society and civilization developed economically and politically. Perhaps of greatest impact upon Western civilization is Ferdinand and Isabelle’s expulsion of Muslims from Spain, better known to the West as “the unification of Spain.” Actually it was even broader than that: through their Spanish Inquisition, they attempted to eradicate all non-Christians from their unified kingdom. If one visits Spain today, he or she will still note the Islamic influence there as expressed in its Moorish elements.

Will Durant notes at page 691 that in the fourth century, the Muslim historian, Ibn-Khaldin, realized the philosophical importance of history. He wrote,

History has for its true object to make us understand the social state of man, i.e., his civilization; to reveal to us the phenomena that naturally accompany primitive life, and then the refinement of manners … the diverse superiorities that peoples acquire, and which beget empires and dynasties; the diverse occupations, professions, sciences, and the arts; and lastly all the changes that the nature of things can effect in the nature of society.

Indeed, there is much to learn from a larger view of history than just that of Western civilization. I have previously noted the remarkable rise and fall of Islamic civilization during the Dark Ages. I have also noted that during the Crusades, the Muslims were often much more honorable and true to their promises than were Christians. I am a Christian. I want to say that I do not understand the long history of Christianity intolerance of other religions, but I suspect some of it has to do with Augustine, his Aristotelian grounding of Christian theology, its adoption by both Catholicism and Protestantism, and what seems to be that it is somehow related to a literalistic view of the scriptures, to its inclination to elevate spirit over matter, and to the high publicity of Christian fundamentalism. Of course, fundamentalism, in the manner in which Jimmy Carter used it, is a curse of our times extending to each of the Abrahamic religions. The contemporary view of conservative fundamentalist and literalistic Christianity is that the creation story in the Bible is literally, scientifically, and historically true. Whether expressly or implicitly, they set up a conflict between science and religion that, as I view it, does not exist. How does one answer their argument that spirit and faith are above and in conflict with the physical world and human life, and that God is above and superior to the “corrupt” nature of matter, of mankind, and of reasoning and “man’s wisdom.” The horrors of such a schizophrenic view of nature, of the physical world vs. the spiritual world, are, to my mind, perhaps best exemplified by the Christian witch hunts when torture was viewed as an acceptable way to save “the only significant part of the human:” the soul. It has been said that when supposed witches and heretics were burned at the stake, church officials and the obscene onlookers rejoiced that the victim’s soul was saved for heaven if that victim screamed repentance before death.

The Reformation was a time of preparation for rebirth, or of Renaissance, for Western civilization. But politically it remained unstable and Islamic military might remained dominant. Will Durant notes at page 695,

It is hard for us, pigeonholed in Christendom, to realize that from the eighth to the 13th century Islam as culturally, politically, and militarily superior to Europe. Even in its decline in the 16th century it prevailed from Delhi and beyond to Casablanca from Adrianople to Aden, from Tunis to Timbuktu.

But the reality, indeed the enigma, of human existence is that virtue and evil can reside in the same person. It is no different with civilizations. From a Christian standpoint, my mother notes that the “heroes” of the Bible were flawed people as is each of us. Using King David as an example, she notes that God was able to work through him with his virtues as well as his calamitous faults. That is encouraging to her: “Then God can use an ordinary person, even a flawed person, such as I am.”

Will Durant puts into perspective the conflict between Christianity and Islam, at page 703,

Suleiman was doubtless the greatest and noblest of the Ottoman sultans, and equaled any ruler of his time in ability, wisdom, and character; but we shall find him, now and then, guilty of cruelty, jealousy, and revenge. Let us, however, as an experiment in perspective, try to view dispassionately his conflict with Christendom.

The military debate between Christianity and Islam was already 900 years old. That began when Muslim Arabs snatched Syria from the Byzantine Empire (634). It proceeded through the year-by-year conquest of that empire by the Saracens, and the conquest of Spain by the Moors. Christendom retaliated in the Crusades up, in which both sides covered with religious phrases and ardor their economic aims and political crimes. Islam retaliated by taking Constantinople and the Balkans. Spain expelled the Moors. Pope and after pope called for fresh crusades against the Turks . . .

As every political authority seeks to protect and expand its arena, so did Suleiman. He had his eye on Hungary and was poised to take it when he received a letter from Francis I, who was then held captive by Charles V, requesting that he take Hungary. Pope Clement VII urged Christian rulers to defend Hungary, but Luther encouraged Protestant rulers to stay out of the fray because to do otherwise would be to violate “the will of God.” Having successfully taken Hungary, Suleiman then turned his forces upon Italy. It appeared that the fate of Europe “hung in the balance.” However, somewhat as occurred with Hitler in the Soviet Union, winter intervened and the Sultan’s lines of communication were disrupted. This time, both Luther and the Catholic Church understood the seriousness of the threat, and Suleiman suffered his first defeat. Although they saved Italy and staved off further advances of Suleiman, Europe was not without its losses. Ultimately, the Turkish army, under the command of the sultan, ruled the Mediterranean; and the Christians, accepting the losses of Rhodes, the Aegean, and Hungary agreed to terms of peace which implicitly accepted the Ottomans as the superior power.
Suleiman survived the European campaigns to return to rule Turkish Islam. Will Durant notes that in the Ottoman Empire, the Mufti or sheik ul-Islam were the” theologians – lawyers” who directed everyday life of the Islamic Turks. Although sultans came and went, the Mufti were a stabilizing force in that society. However, being committed to the law of the past, they were very conservative, and not progressive in either the arts or the sciences. However, they were very tolerant of Christians and Jews, who enjoyed not only religious freedom, but even self-government, provided that no Muslim was involved. There was greater order, less criminal conduct, and greater civility to be found in the Ottoman Empire than in Europe. Then, as today in the Muslim world, men reigned and women served. Concerning this enigmatic man, Will Durant concludes at page 719:

Suleiman fought too many wars, killed half his progeny, had a creative vizier slain without warning or trial; he had the faults that go with unchecked power. But beyond question he was the greatest and ablest ruler of his age.

Of the Jews during this period, Will Durant notes at page 741,

It was not to be expected that the age of the Second Dispersion should produce any high culture among the Jews; their energy was consumed in the brute task of survival. Education, in which they had excelled, was disrupted by the mobility and insecurity of life; and while Christian Europe moved with exhilaration into the Renaissance, the Jews of Christendom moved into the ghetto and the Cabala law.

In European Christendom, Galileo confirmed the Copernican proclamation that the sun, not the earth, was the center of our world. That conflicted with the Aristotelian notion of geocentrism, which was adopted by the church. Galileo developed his telescope and observed the planets and their motion. Upon publication of his findings, he was tried and convicted of heresy by theologians of the Roman Inquisition, as “contrary to the scriptures.” [How far have we come in the continuing “conservative” Christian view of conflict between science and religion, evolution and creationism, and dualism of spirit and matter?] Galileo was sentenced to imprisonment, which was commuted to house arrest for the remainder of his life. Popular legend has it that following his conviction and sentence Galileo maintained “and yet it moves.” Beyond that, he accepted his fate.


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