In the comments to my last post Lorax who is Angry by Choice wrote the following:
Alright Ill be the fuel for the philosophical fires. The supposition here, is that Christianity saved “science” as much as possible from the ravages of political and cultural upheavals occurring during this time period. While this may be completely accurate at some level, I find the implicit idea that christianity was a friend of science (as we know it) disingenuous. Science is a relatively new field, however Christianity was using “sciency” approaches to demonstrate god, not to understand reality
I like a good burn and I’m a fan of high flames so pour on the fuel. Actually what Lorax says here is important but also displays more than one misconception. The supposition here is not that Christianity saved “science” but that the science that was preserved/conserved in Europe in the Early Middle Ages was conserved in the Christian monasteries. In order to explain the difference another analogy of Lorax’s is rather to the point:
Also, I would argue that the defense of scientific learning in Europe by Christianity is true and problematic. It seems akin to the argument that Christianity gave us all those wonderful works of art without noting that the Roman Catholic church was the only one paying ergo….
Before explaining however I will quickly deal with the science in scare marks and the ‘sciency’. Of course to use the word science in this context is anachronistic and wrong but I am using it, and shall continue to do so, as short hand for knowledge of the natural world as in an Aristotelian ‘episteme’ or ‘scientia’, although not restricting myself to the Peripatetics but meaning any of the Greek schools who offered such knowledge, Stoics, Neo-Platonists etc.
The production of such knowledge is only possible in advanced literate cultures, it is book knowledge that can be published, disseminated, taught, discussed, criticised and so forth. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire the only institutions within Europe that were capable of maintaining at least some of this knowledge were the monasteries, which retained a literate culture when this had disappeared within the rest of Europe. Here the important point is that this culture was literate not that it was Christian but it is also important that it was a culture that was not hostile to this knowledge. In this context Christianity did not use science “to demonstrate God”, whatever that might mean, but to solve practical, for them, everyday problems. They used a knowledge of astronomy, heliacal rising, to tell the time at night or also to construct calendars. The used astronomy and arithmetic to calculate the date of Easter (computus). The used a basic knowledge of medicine to treat and care for the sick and so on and so forth. The science kept alive during this period was practical science that made life a bit simpler in hard times but it also carried with it the awareness that there was a higher more abstract level of science that had been known and could be known again. When the situation improved in Europe, starting around 1000 CE, the more adventurous of the monastic scholars went out in search of that more advanced and abstract knowledge. They were perforce, Christian clerics because only they had the necessary literate culture to acquire that knowledge and again it is important to stress that there was no hostility towards this acquisition at the beginning. Some opposition did develop in Paris in the thirteenth century but this even can be interpreted as positive, something I will deal with in another post.
Lorax also wrote:
Im not an expert in islamic history, but if the impetus was competition with the Indians and Europeans then their “sciency” approaches were for a different purpose/goal (the end result was not already formulated).
Here again in the first place the important fact in that Islam turned a non-literate culture, on the Arabic peninsular, into a literate one and they acquired science in the first place to solve practical problems in the exercise of their religion. The making of calendars, the telling of time, the development of burning mirrors and lenses and so on and so forth. Within this culture individual practitioners then took the practice of science to new abstract levels that rivalled the achievements of the Greeks and once again in an atmosphere that was not antagonistic to science.