At the risk of being told that I am obsessed, I am going to dedicate yet more time to the question of whether people in the Middle Ages were engaged in scientific activity. I spoke about this at length with Seb, and with my guest, J, during the post-interview reflections segment of the episode. But clearly, I’m not satisfied and I need to say something more. One might wonder – “why does it matter whether they were doing science in the Middle Ages?”. I think it matters because science is one of the most important activities that we have invented and getting clear on what is science and what is not is essential.
So, let’s start with the obvious question: what is science? Science is looking at the world around us and making claims about it. Right? If we follow this definition of science, then, Thales of Miletus did science, Aristotle did science, and Newton did science. They all did the same thing and the fact that science looks slightly different from Aristotle to Newton can be explained by the simple fact that things change over time. There is nothing substantially different in the fact that Galileo used a telescope to make conclusions about the heavens whilst Aristotle used reason. They are both just using whatever tools they have at their disposal – it just so happens that telescopes are more accurate than reason when it comes to making claims about the heavens but this doesn’t mean that Aristotle wasn’t doing science. What this view has going for it is that it can explain a nice, long activity under a single concept. Ancient Greek science clearly influenced Medieval science, which influenced modern science – they all influenced each other because they are all doing science.
But there are some difficulties with this view. Firstly, it accommodates all kinds of practices that are not scientific by our standards. Unless you want to take a relativistic view and say that astrology and alchemy were science from the perspective of their practitioners, which I do not, their inclusion in “science” makes for an awkward fit. Of course, one might want to square the uncomfortable circle by putting these “false” sciences under the same category of “it was a different historical age”. This is sort of what Seb wants to argue: we shouldn’t expect things to look the same because things change over time, we might even say that things get better over time, but the point that things change and get better does not necessarily mean that we’re dealing with a different concept. It’s still science when they’re doing alchemy, it’s just not the best science. So, whichever way you want it, you still have to find a way to explain a pretty obvious difference between some scientific practices in the Middle Ages, like alchemy and astronomy, with modern scientific practices. You can either do that by saying that the latter is a better version of science than the former, thus underlining a distinction between them, or you could say that they’re actually different things.
Let’s suppose we want to say that they’re different things. We’ve already admitted that there’s a distinction between medieval science and modern science, the latter is better at science than the former, and we might think that that distinction is actually a distinction in kind. There’s one obvious difficulty, however. Modern science does not just pop up out of nowhere, it is importantly connected to the Medieval world and especially with what some might call medieval science. If medieval science looks like modern science and if it is what modern science emerges out of, then, isn’t it just science? This is an important point to contend with and I think that the most effective way out of it is to get into the nitty-gritty of what is science?
Instead of just thinking about science as this thing that individuals do when they observe the natural world and draw conclusions about it let’s think of it as a peculiar social activity. Just like a writer is only an author within a society that has concepts of creative ownership, publishing houses, literary agents, and book tours, we might think that doing science is more than just looking at the natural world. So, what might science be? Well, modern science has a whole community of experts that work together – they read each other’s work, they draw on each other’s work and they criticise each other’s work, and they trust each other’s comments because they trust that they are all experts. Science also has the idea of an experiment. I speak a bit about the distinction between experiment and experience in the interview with Seb. An experience is something that happens to you – you can certainly seek out experiences, you can stand under the night sky with the aim of seeing something but you are not active in the phenomenon itself – whereas an experiment is something that is designed by an agent to show something. The reason why experiments are an important aspect of science is because they engage an aspect of experience that is devilishly tricky – experience is fundamentally anecdotal; it falls prey to the fallacy of induction. Experiments are an attempt to mitigate the pitfalls of experience by (a) creating control environments where the regulation of variables can give a greater degree of certainty that was is being observed is happening because of x rather than some unknown factor, and (b) because an experiment can be replicated. Replication of experiments can only take place within a society that has a community of experts who are trusted to replicate experiments and to dutifully report their replicability. Moreover, the replication of experiments helps to deal, to some degree, with the pesky issue of induction since the more people you have independently conducting the same experiment the more likely it is that is represents something real.
If we consider these aspects to be essential to the activity of modern science then we might think that medieval science is not science. Of course, this is all theoretical and a proper historical study is necessary, one that investigates the rise of these practices and doesn’t just retrospectively identify them as essential to science. Luckily, one such study exists and it’s David Wootton’s “The Invention of Science”. I know I’ve harped on about this book a lot – perhaps too much in the context of Seb’s book but unfortunately, for better or worse, I’m just interested in the concept of science and Seb’s book is making a claim about what counts as science. What I enjoyed most from the Light Ages were the various accounts of how individuals practiced science. However, in the absence of an argument for what the concept of science is, I necessarily had to turn to The Invention of Science which does give an argument for what the concept of science is and to use the arguments there as a sounding board for the material in the Light Ages. The Light Ages provided me with a wealth of fascinating material about the Middle Ages and with potential candidates of science but ultimately, I remain unconvinced that there is such a thing as medieval science. The Middle Ages were certainly an essential precursor to the invention of science but I do not think that they were doing science.