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'God's Philosophers' group read (in memory of JanetinLondon)

75 Books Challenge for 2012

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Edited: Feb 3, 2012, 3:21pm Top

This thread is for the upcoming group read of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, in honor of former 75 Books member JanetinLondon, who succumbed to complications of leukemia in January, 2012. Janet read this book last year, and provided us with an excellent running commentary about the book in her thread Janet sets out with high hopes.

God's Philosophers was originally published in the UK. The book has also been released in the US, but is titled The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.

We are in the process of deciding on an approximate start date, or whether people should start reading whenever they choose to. Everyone is welcome to join us.

Here's a list of people who have expressed interest in this group read:


Feb 1, 2012, 2:01pm Top

Hi Darryl, I am joining as well. I got the Kindle version and already started reading. It's not a quick read though, at least for me. So many facts that need time to settle.

Feb 1, 2012, 4:34pm Top

I'm here, book isn't.

Feb 1, 2012, 4:41pm Top

The book is sitting on the reserve shelf at my local library waiting patiently for me to pick it up. I'm overextended reading wise once again this month so I'm hoping I can renew a book that was sent to me from another library system. I'll start with the group, but will probably be one of the stragglers in finishing it. Fair warning!

Feb 1, 2012, 4:47pm Top

I'm here, book's here, but I'm about 1/3 through another book so I'll finish it first, then start God's Philosophers next week.

Feb 1, 2012, 5:02pm Top

I have a copy (Christmas Secret Santa gift) but am happy to wait until others have got one before starting to read. I am also very bad at sticking to group read schedules, but will endeavour to join in with whatever we agree...

Feb 1, 2012, 6:02pm Top

I'd love to join, but it's not in our library and I'm trying not to spend money on yet more books. I'll try ILL, but that's iffy.

Added this thread to the wiki.

Feb 1, 2012, 6:44pm Top

I hope to join you soon.

Feb 1, 2012, 8:00pm Top

I'm planning to join but my book is on its way. I don't actually know when it's coming--probably not before 2/16, according to my tracking information. If people start I will catch up later.

Feb 1, 2012, 8:31pm Top

I received the book yesterday, so I am ready to go. I am not sure I will be able to keep up, but I will be following the discussion as I can.

Feb 1, 2012, 10:32pm Top

I have a copy too and will start reading tomorrow. I'd better go on and start because I suspect that this one will be hard going for me. Of course, if we all find it difficult, maybe we won't set such a fast and furious pace as I and some of the rest of you expect.

Feb 2, 2012, 12:55am Top

It's not a fast paced read for me either. I only started reading it already, because I got the Kindle test extract (chapters 1 and 2), which I then had to read to decide whether to buy the book. I finished chapter three now, but it took me two weeks to get there. I have to read history books very slowly or I'll forget it all immediately.
Between getting the test chapters and buying the book, the Kindle price had gone up from 7 to 8 USD, but was still cheaper than all the paper versions I found. It even has some pictures.

Edited: Feb 2, 2012, 10:18am Top

I may start to read it next week, as I'll have a very busy month at work starting on Saturday and I may fall hopelessly behind if I don't start soon.

Feb 2, 2012, 10:38am Top

I'm going to try to start this weekend, since my library copy has already been recalled and is now due next Thursday. Depending on how I like it, I'll either purchase my own copy so that I can read it continuously, or else play the back-and-forth recall game and read in alternating two-week periods.

Feb 2, 2012, 12:41pm Top

My copy arrived today -- I will start now as I will have to read it slowly (too many books at once syndrome).

Feb 2, 2012, 12:46pm Top

I just purchased a copy, so when it gets here I'll give it a start. It'll be slow going for me too, but I think there'll be plenty of discussion available at whatever pace we all set. :)

Feb 2, 2012, 3:05pm Top

Wow, that looks like a great book and I'm a sucker for group reads. I might have to shuffle around my anticipated February reading schedule to fit this one in. I'm sorry to hear about your friend JanetinLondon. I'm new to this group so I haven't met her. Leukemia is such a tragic disease. :(

Feb 2, 2012, 8:36pm Top

Welcome! I skittered through the intro this aft during a lull in the action, so to speak. I just finished listening to an audiobook by Winchester about Joseph Needham The Man Who Loved China - Needham began and co-wrote most of a huge encyclopedia of Chinese scientific discoveries and contributions to civilization, correcting many a misperception about just who invented what. I seem to be in a phase of reading books 'correcting' and enlightening me about just who invented what and when and how.

Feb 2, 2012, 9:13pm Top

18: I seem to be in a phase of reading books 'correcting' and enlightening me about just who invented what and when and how.
Do they all agree with one another?

Edited: Feb 2, 2012, 9:34pm Top

I did think that Hannam was too casual about the contributions from 'the Far East' as he put it -- "True, these inventions {compass, paper, printing, stirrups and gunpowder} originated in the Far East, but Europeans developed them to a far higher degree......" I thought, Whoa! The Far East???? Let us say China, since the Far East is kind of a big place. But to answer directly, Hannam is 'correcting' the delusion that all western science began with the Renaissance -- that idea an invention of various 19th century historians, he says, with their various agendas.

Don't worry anybody -- I'm not likely to read anymore for days and days -- I seem to have a ridiculous # of books going and I wanted to see what I was in for!

Edited: Feb 3, 2012, 8:27am Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Edited: Feb 2, 2012, 9:46pm Top

On second thought, that sounded much ruder than I meant it to! What I was trying to say is that it's understandable that we (most of whom are "Westerners") learned the history that people of our own culture wrote. And history is often in the eye of the beholder. Whenever I read a book about history I like to figure out who the author is and where he got his influences so I can be skeptical of his biases.

And now I hear that my kitten has fallen into my tub full of water, and I must rescue her. I might grab my camera on the way....

Feb 3, 2012, 9:38am Top

I'm also going to order a copy of this book and read along.

I didn't know JanetinLondon either, but from the posts on her thread, she was a lovely person and I am sorry for everyone's loss.

Edited: Feb 3, 2012, 9:47am Top

I've now read the introduction and I am really looking forward to reading the rest of the book. As I borrowed it from the library I need to read it over the next three weeks - approximately a chapter a day. I know the timeline hasn't been decided so I won't talk too much about what I've read - yet.

Feb 3, 2012, 10:59am Top

I'm with you 22, I don't always mind a bias, I just like to figure out what it is so I can take it into account. Of course, my own biases can get in the way too, and while I think I am aware of most of them, I am sure plenty slip through .....

Feb 3, 2012, 4:26pm Top

I've just finished the Introduction, and I'm looking forward to reading Chapters 1 and 2 tonight or tomorrow.

Should we create a timeline, or one or more spoiler threads for detailed discussion? Any other ideas?

BTW, if anyone wants to take the lead on certain sections or the book as a whole, feel free to do so.

Feb 3, 2012, 4:58pm Top

I started Chapter 1 today.

I think there are 23 chapters including the introduction and the conclusion. I think the easiest timeline would be something like a chapter every one or two days. That depends on whether we want the group read to go into March as well?

Is this really the type of book that has spoilers? I guess I'd never thought about spoilers for non-narrative non-fiction before!

Feb 3, 2012, 5:23pm Top

>27 The_Hibernator: I was thinking of a place where people who are ready to discuss certain portions of the book could do so without spoiling it for those who haven't caught up to them yet.

Feb 3, 2012, 5:32pm Top

In my view there's no spoilage in non-fiction posts ..... And sometimes it helps me to read what others thought as they were reading a chapter, so I would be happy to have the discussion right here. I would like to finish by March...... but that is probably extremely unrealistic for me.

Feb 3, 2012, 5:39pm Top

Well, there's nothing stopping us from starting a spoilers thread, and then if people want to read from that thread even if they're not "caught up" they can...I, too, feel that reading someone else's discussion before I read the book would be more helpful than harmful--because then I could look out for those points when reading. But I'm hoping to get through the book at one chapter a day, anyway, since I have other books I need to get to. So I might be ahead if the bulk of the group is slower than that.

Feb 3, 2012, 5:58pm Top

A chapter per day would be about right for me, hope to finish in February. I don't think spoilers are an issue, but confusion may be. I'd vote against breaking the book into multiple threads, makes conversation too choppy, but strongly encourage labeling posts with bold chapter numbers and titles so anyone scanning the thread can see at a glance.

Feb 4, 2012, 5:20pm Top

I'm joining in too. First impressions (introduction and half of chapter one) are promising.


Feb 4, 2012, 10:37pm Top

After detecting a rather defensive? - offensive? - snarky? tone of the introduction, I had to look up the author. Hm. I'm keeping an open mind, but wish I was better versed in this era to better gauge when Hannam might trim his history to fit his opinions.

I returned to read up to the section on St. Anselm - at this point, I'd love to hear other comments.

Edited: Feb 5, 2012, 9:44am Top

Ok, sorry for the essay below. It's longer than I intended.

I couldn't find very much on the author. There was a small blurb about him on his webpage and a smaller one on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble pages. I think “defensive” and a bit “snarky” is really what his attitude is. I haven't noticed him actually attacking anyone yet, mainly just defending the middle ages and Church against criticism. However, I think if we keep his biases in mind the book should be really interesting and informative.


I have read through Chapter 2 now, and the impression I have is that he is going to focus on how the Westerners developed their science and math in the middle ages, and how everyone is wrong about the Church being anti-science at THAT time. When he mentions the East, he gives them a passing credit for what they've developed and then tells in more detail about how the Westerners picked up these ideas from the East and extrapolated them into Western culture. As this is the main thesis of his book, and he mentions that it would take another book to describe the development of science and math in the East, I think it's perfectly fair for him to focus on the West. We just need to keep in mind that this IS his bias.

We also have to keep in mind that he is a little defensive about the Church. An example from Chapter 2 is when he goes on for about a page or two defending the (apparently foolish) belief that the Earth was stationary and the universe rotated about Earth. He gives a lovely defense of the middle-aged people for believing this. This made me think ???. I believe that with the theory of relativity, we can call ANY point in the universe the stationary reference point; and then say the rest of the universe is rotating about that point. Making the Earth that reference point simply makes the math unnecessarily complicated. But it’s not foolish or wrong. :)

An example from CHAPTER 1 that I noticed is when he says:

“We often hear of Islam’s relative tolerance in that it accepted Christianity as a flawed but legal faith, whereas Christians considered Muslims to be infidels. In fact, this is more a matter of chronology than tolerance…Christians living under early Islamic rule were very much second-class citizens.”

He seems to be a bit defensive of Christians here…perhaps defending their belief that Muslims were infidels?

Also, it surprised me that he would say we often hear that Muslims are tolerant. I imagine many people who read this book have not heard any such thing, and more often hear about how Muslims consider Christians infidels; even though technically Muslims consider Christianity to be a “flawed but legal faith” and are even allowed to marry Christians (or Jews! Though many Muslims I’ve met feel THAT would be going too far). Am I wrong to think that most people hear about angry Muslims rather than tolerant ones?

Feb 5, 2012, 8:44am Top

#34: Am I wrong to think that most people hear about angry Muslims rather than tolerant ones?

I doubt it - the old maxim 'the squeaky wheel gets the most grease' would seem to fit.

I have not yet started the book, so I am skipping all spoilers at this point.

Feb 5, 2012, 9:19am Top

During the time Hannam is covering, the Islamic rulers and courts were (as far as I've read) far more tolerant than the Christians of the same era. Jewish life, for instance, was safe and flourished in Spain and other Moslem-controlled lands. It's one of the sad facts of current Islamic religious emphasis that the open-minded, scientific and artistic culture of centuries ago is turned on its head these days. And let's recall that the Moslems and the Jews were ejected from Spain in the same year.

That said, I did find an article where Hannam argues that evolutionary theorists and believers have not been able to discredit the idea of intelligent design (he uses a slightly different term - maybe 'refined'?). As he is a physicist by training, I found that a little worrying. And I'm not sure he doesn't sometimes already shoot himself in the foot, as in his discussion of the lively but wrong-headed discussion of geometry he describes in an early chapter.

But, as you said, keeping his biases in mind, there is still a lot to learn from the history he is presenting.

Feb 5, 2012, 9:50am Top


Hmmm, I'm not an expert on this subject, but I think that Christians were not considered equals (i.e. they were not allowed in the upper class) within the Muslim-ruled areas. But they were certainly tolerated (as were the Jews). That's probably what Hannam meant when he said Christians were "very much second-class citizens." I think by saying "very much," though, he may have over-emphasized the issue.


Judy, do you have a link to that essay? Was it on the internet? I'm not sure what the essay says, but I have no problem with physicists who believe in God (I've met a few). I'm a biomedical engineer who believes in God. :) But that belief is certainly a bias!

Feb 5, 2012, 4:29pm Top

I'll see if I can find a link. And no, I have no problem with anyone who believes in God. My problem is when a person's belief interferes with the scholarship they attempt.

And when someone publicly refutes evolution from a position of authority such as a scientist has, it makes me a little wary of his or her other statements, that's all.

Feb 5, 2012, 4:43pm Top

ah, here's the link http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/james_hannam/fta.html

I have not really read the essay, just took a peek. At first glance, it seems to be much like the argument Hannam quotes from Anselm. I'm no philosopher, but Bertram Russell notwithstanding, Anselm's argument seems to me a bit circular.

Feb 5, 2012, 5:58pm Top

Wow, I see what you mean now, Judy! That essay is almost embarrassing. His argument is VERY flawed. However, my experience with The Genesis of Science so far indicates that his grasp of history is better than his grasp of scientific reasoning—history is what he got his PhD in, after all. Despite this very clear bias, I have learned a lot about the middle ages and the development of reason so far.

I agree that the Anslem argument is circular. It DID give me a good chuckle, though. And it’s an example of the types of thing I’ve learned from the book so far—the important names that sound vaguely familiar but I don’t know why. Now I know who these people are and what they contributed to reason.

Feb 5, 2012, 6:30pm Top

I definitely think this is going to be a fun discussion. I've only read the introduction and first chapter so far, but it seems like it will be an interesting read, if not entirely persuasive.

(I don't know if there are any spoilers here? But you might not want to read on if you haven't started the book yet.)

I'm certainly pretty uninformed about the period, so I just hope Hannam will focus more on telling us what actually happened than on telling us how various people were wrong. So far he seems to be putting a bit too much emphasis on stating how wrong common perceptions are, instead of actually showing us otherwise. I suppose that's largely to be expected in an introduction, but his argument about the term "Dark Ages" struck me as particularly silly:

"It is clear that dismissing half a millennium as being filled with gloom was not intended to flatter the people who lived during it. Some historians explained that by 'Dark', they only meant that relatively few written sources survive for the period compared to those immediately before and afterwards. What they actually meant is that very little of interest happened."

I don't really see the point of accusing these people of lying, without even providing any grounds at all for his assertion. I suspect that those historians were just sticking with the common and familiar term, while making a deliberate effort to say that they didn't mean it in a denigrating way. As the phrase "Early Middle Ages" becomes more recognized instead, I'm sure it will eventually take over, and the argument will become unnecessary. In the meantime, I don't think there's an evil cadre of historians outwardly professing good intentions while in fact deliberately maligning the period, or whatever Hannam is trying to suggest here.

And I found it odd that after he made such a big deal about negative terminology in that case, he went on to use the word "barbarians" freely and without disclaimer.

Also odd: in the section "Ploughs, Horseshoes and Stirrups: New Technology in the Early Middle Ages", he says that "from almost the dawn of agriculture, peasants had tilled their land with nothing more than a metal-tipped spike, perhaps pulled by an ox, that gouged a furrow out of the ground. Then, in the tenth century AD, another method of tilling the soil arrived in England from the continent". It's only in the footnote that he mentions that "the heavy plough was known to the Romans but does not appear to have been widely adapted in northern Europe, where it is most suitable to be used, until the centuries after the Western Empire fell." I wouldn't automatically object to the standalone statement in the main text, except that in the context of him very strongly pressing a particular viewpoint about medieval science, it seems a bit dishonest. It gives the impression that this improved plough was a medieval development, when in fact it wasn't.

Which is not to say that I think this is a bad book. I may have gone into it with a bit too much suspicion, after reading some of the earlier comments in this thread. I don't have a problem with his general claim that there was actually progress in the middle ages; he just seems to force the point a bit too much sometimes.

Feb 5, 2012, 7:09pm Top

Yes, I was concerned that our picking out examples of his biases would start everyone out with a bad taste in their mouths! It is important to be aware of bias in the author--all authors have many. But I still have a good feeling about what I'll learn from this book.

And I found it odd that after he made such a big deal about negative terminology in that case, he went on to use the word "barbarians" freely and without disclaimer.

I noticed the same thing!!!

I don't really see the point of accusing these people of lying, without even providing any grounds at all for his assertion.

I'm hoping this is simply an issue in the introduction and that he plans to provide evidence for his assertions in the main body. I agree that there probably weren't an "evil cadre of historians...deliberately maligning the period,” but as I said earlier, history is in the eye of the beholder. Undeliberate bias is always inserted into texts, especially if the historians were trying to make specific points. Bias, over the years can be picked up from important texts and reinforced throughout the years, which is probably what happened in this case. I am willing to believe Hannam that the contribution of the middle ages to science and reason is undervalued, and that the Church’s opinions at the time have been misrepresented. There was a lot of anti-Catholic sentiment in Britain after the Reformation and through the years that some of these important histories were written. I’m eager to see what kind of argument Hannam presents. :)

Edited: Feb 6, 2012, 9:27am Top

I haven't been looking at the footnotes, because the first few I checked were merely citations, but now I'll have to go back and be more rigorous. Thanks for mentioning it.

I don't doubt that Hannam's work will be at least a little bit of a corrective for the conventional elisions, but he does spark my interest in other writings about the times.

eta the next morning: Does anyone have suggestions of other books on the era?

Feb 6, 2012, 12:26pm Top

Love this discussion! I need to catch up, I'll do my best.

Feb 6, 2012, 1:26pm Top

I thought I was just 25% in (Kindle), but then I saw that the book itself ends on 68% already and the rest are footnotes, bibliography, etc., so I can say I read more than a third.
I agree that the author is clearly biased, but like others here I am trying to just look at the facts, because I sadly know next to nothing about this period. His views on inquisition are a bit unusual, though.

I enjoyed the first chapters where he gives an overview of the developments between the fall of the Roman empire and the year 1000, then the reading became more difficult for me. Not really boring, but less enjoyable, can't say why. Maybe because I was expecting more science in the sense of inventions, real developments, not so much theological and philosophical discourses.
But now I am in the alchemy and medicine chapter which promises some more fun again.

Feb 6, 2012, 5:02pm Top

Ch 1 read. I was not aware that the black stone in Mecca has been worshipped since time immemorial. Plus it makes sense that trig and astronomy were developed in part to help Muslims figure out which way to kneel to pray. Looked up Alcuin -- he's Northumbrian -- but many of these scholar-monks were Irish -- a great book on that is called How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill - superb and very entertaining. Otherwise, most of this is familiar, at least to me, but useful to review, always. It's too easy in the west to forget what a huge center of learning and culture Constantinople became after Rome fell. On to Ch 2!

Feb 6, 2012, 5:27pm Top

I just finished Chapter One today as well. I found the quick history of Islam to be a little too trite, but I guess in a book that isn't technically about the East, that's to be expected. That said, I think the first chapter will have contained the most familiar to me of all the material in the book (since most of my historical knowledge falls apart after the fall of Rome, with the exception of the development of Islam and some of the Byzantine period), so I'm certainly looking forward to what's coming and hearing the thoughts from those in the group who are more familiar with European history.

And like Zoe, I was a little annoyed with the comment on the heavy ox ploughs... I wish he'd given credit where it was due in the main text, rather than resign the fact that it was originally a Roman invention to the footnote.

Feb 6, 2012, 8:01pm Top

36 (ffortsa): That said, I did find an article where Hannam argues that evolutionary theorists and believers have not been able to discredit the idea of intelligent design (he uses a slightly different term - maybe 'refined'?).

I skimmed this: http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/james_hannam/fta.html
Fine Tuning. The idea is that the universe has precisely the physical laws necessary to produce us. Of course its physical laws do allow for our existence, or we wouldn't be here. If (and I'm getting into murky territory here because my knowledge of physics is limited) various fundamental constants are tweaked, conditions would not support life as we know it. So, maybe life as we know it is not the only life there is; so far, we're confined to one planet. And, is this the only possible universe? If so, what's the explanation? Is this one of many possible universes but the only one that actually exists, so it was somehow chosen or designed? Is this one of many possible universes in a multiverse, the one we happen to be in? He is correct: we don't know.

So far as I can tell from other articles, he is a theistic evolutionist. He accepts scientific evidence, and believes that God is somehow behind / within what we see. Theistic evolution is NOT Intelligent Design of the capital letter variety. The Intelligent Design people HATE theistic evolution, because of its acceptance of science.

Feb 6, 2012, 8:04pm Top

I've read the introduction only, appreciate that he summarizes each chapter. I would not expect support of assertions in an introduction; that's for later. I'm getting a defensive tone, but I don't yet see this as a bad thing.

Feb 6, 2012, 9:51pm Top

>48 qebo: I totally agree with you. There is nothing scientifically invalid about the "fine tuning" argument--actually, it's a really good point and supports the evolutionary theory. However, he didn't do a very good job of defending the theory in this essay. There were gaping holes in his arguments. This is possibly what Judy was picking up on. Also, this essay was written when he was fairly young (I assume), since it was written in 2001 and he didn't get his masters until 2003. His writing in The Genesis of Science is much better. I'm certainly enjoying the book!

>49 qebo: It was a good introduction in that he tells us what his theory is and then outlines how he's going to tell us about it. This is really helpful because the book is debunking common misconceptions, and a good author always informs readers of this. It's also helpful because by telling us that his story is about Western civilization, he's giving us a non-verbal warning that he's NOT focusing on the East's contributions.

I just started Chapter 5.

Feb 7, 2012, 3:15pm Top

Finished up Ch 3 just now, enjoyed learning more about Anselm, Bernard etc. Of course Abelard takes the drama prize, what a life! And naming their child Astrolabe! I loved that detail! Of course, this has nothing to do with anything serious. On that topic I will say that while I consider myself rigorously rational and hardheaded as a person can be - it is hard not to sometimes wonder .... perhaps our brains have evolved to be optimistic and part of that is believing impossible things some of the time (like, "I will live another day if I kill that mastodon that is twenty times bigger than me") and that is what leads to the stubborn feeling that there is a purpose to life..... There is the oddness too of synchronicity, uncanny coincidences, etc. A fuzzy factor.

Feb 7, 2012, 4:17pm Top

>51 sibyx: Do you mean an evolutionary explantion for faith? That is similar to the theories discussed in The God Gene (among other works). Have you read it?

>45 Deern: Now that I've caught up with you, I agree that his ideas on the inquisition are a bit unorthodox. But what really surprised me is the fact that he almost completely ignored the Crusades. You'd think the Crusades would be just as important to his thesis as the Inquisition. But all he does is make some vague comment about the new literature that was translated being military acquisitions. But perhaps there will be a chapter on the Crusades later, I don't know.

Feb 7, 2012, 4:38pm Top

I'm up to chapter 6, and so far this book is really short on science and long on Church history, but that's ok, it's moving along and there's a lot more to go.

Feb 7, 2012, 6:16pm Top

>53 ffortsa: I imagine Hannam felt that we need to understand how the Church thought before trying to prove to us that it wasn't anti-science. And, I suppose, "reason" where scientific exploration comes from.

Feb 7, 2012, 7:12pm Top

I've stumbled over more than a few references to The God Gene but somehow haven't felt I had to read it - what do you think? Have you read it? Hmmmmm Maybe I'll go look and see what other folks have gotten from it.

Feb 7, 2012, 7:40pm Top

>55 sibyx: I haven't actually read The God Gene yet...though I was thinking of doing it soon. The subject interests me. The book certainly made a splash when it was first published. I was just wondering if you'd read it and could give an opinion. :)

Feb 7, 2012, 8:52pm Top

I'd be open to planning to read it sometime this year if that interests you?

Feb 7, 2012, 10:12pm Top

There's also Why God Won't Go Away, which I recall as... enlightening... but it's been awhile since I read it.

Feb 7, 2012, 10:58pm Top

There are various other similar books to The God Gene too, like The Belief Instinct and Religion Explained. I wonder how they all compare. I think The God Gene and The Belief Instinct are more popular, while Religion Explained is a bit heavier.

I read a really good short article on the subject once too; I'll see if I can manage to dig up the reference.

I haven't had a chance to make any more progress on God's Philosophers, but hopefully I'll have some more free time on the weekend. (Eek, and it's only Tuesday... sigh.)

Feb 8, 2012, 7:56am Top

I just finished up the chapter on Magic and Medicine (8, I think?). (POSSIBLE SPOILER?) I didn't expect to learn anything about the history of medicine in that little chapter since I know a little about it already. However, I was amused to learn that people were made to vomit to get rid of "black bile." I was wondering how they got rid of "black bile" since it doesn't exist in reality. :) The Emperor of All Maladies mentions that cancer was thought to be an imbalance of black bile, and I wondered while reading THAT book how that was treated. I guess followers of Galen must have made their cancer patients throw up, then. That can't have helped in the slightest since they probably had appetite problems in the first place. How horrid!

>57 sibyx: Sure, we could read it together. That would be fun. Probably not till after February though. Do you have a month that works well for you? I also plan on reading Religion Explained sometime this year, if you would prefer that one instead. :) Zoe says she thinks it's a bit heavier, but I imagine it is more general in its explanation of evolutionary faith.

>58 qebo: and 59 Yeah, I've heard of those books, too. I've been looking at reading a bunch of such books recently because I'm fascinated by the perceived conflict between science and faith.

Feb 8, 2012, 8:33am Top

>60 The_Hibernator: I'd love to join you for Religion Explained later this year. I started it last year but had to set it aside when things got too busy, so it would be great to participate in a discussion that would get me back up to speed. I'm hoping I won't have to start again from scratch.

The interesting short article that I was thinking of is "Exploring the natural foundations of religion" by Justin Barrett.

Feb 8, 2012, 9:07am Top

I'm listening to an audio book about Americans going to Paris in the early 1830's - France really was the leading country for medicine, so serious aspiring doctors who could get to Paris came to take advantage of the 'cutting edge' stuff - one surgeon used to take his new patients by the nose, make them kneel on the floor, and harangued them. He would sock you if you moved. And of course, no anesthetic, no hand or tool washing yet..... and over 2/3 of surgical patients died of infection... I haven't read the medical chapter yet, but I've been prepared ..... it seems as though mainly what was happening at this time was a growing body of real knowledge about how the body is put together and systematic identification of disease and here and there some real progress like the small pox vaccine. Not all that helpful to the sick, really, but progress nonetheless. Anyhow, it's a bit interesting to be encountering medicine at these two times.

Feb 8, 2012, 11:18am Top

Zoe and sibyx: Since I plan on reading both books, I will be happy to have you as my reading buddies for either book.

Feb 8, 2012, 1:14pm Top

I'd be interested too, in any book of the general ilk. (But not this month.)

Edited: Feb 8, 2012, 5:00pm Top

Absolutely not this month for me either.....

And, since no one has posted, stopping by to add that I finished ch 4 - read with a kind of panic of Aristotle's major work mouldering in some basement for a couple of hundred years before being recognized and taken to Rome..... a very close call. I think overall Hannam is doing a good job of staying focussed on his stated theme of following the history of the church and science during the middle ages. I expect we've moved out of the background and that the book will change some soon as the focus on particulars sharpens?

Feb 8, 2012, 5:47pm Top

Well, I'm assuming some people might want to take a break after this month's group read. Possibly we should wait until April? Anytime but February is fine by me, though! Zoe seems to prefer Religion Explained. I will be reading both, so it doesn't matter to me. Does sibyx or qebo have a preference?

>65 sibyx: Yeah, I think Hannam’s done an excellent job of laying down the foundation of what we need to know about how the Church was thinking philosophically. Even if it seems a slow beginning to people who aren’t interested in the philosophy, I’m guessing it will be important to understand all this stuff when Hannam gets into the science in the second half of the book. He may be biased, but he’s a good writer. (And let's face it: all writers are biased. At least we can see his bias and take it into account.)

So I just read chapter 8 and was rather amused by the comment about Thrasyllus. So, apparently, Tiberius had been having astrologers come to his villa for his horoscope, then he'd have his slaves throw the astrologer off a cliff afterwards so that noone knew what Tiberius' horoscope said. So then the astrologer Thrasyllus comes along and "predicts" his own precarious position. This impressive prediction wins him a permanent position as astrologer. Doesn't it make you wonder that Tiberius didn't realize astrologers would eventually notice the disappearance of other astrologers and prognosticate their own precarious positions?

Another thing that occurred to me while reading this chapter is: “what if astrology isn’t entirely BS?” Not to sound superstitious or anything…I never read my horoscope and have to pause to think about what my sign is (Libra). But I’ve noticed that the personality descriptions of signs sometimes actually do describe a person pretty well. It’s probably coincidence. But what if the planets really do exert some sort of force (heretofore unstudied by physicists) that affects the development of the brain of the embryo? I don’t see how that is impossible. And it could have some small effect on how the person thinks. Of course, that’s back to the old nature vs. nurture argument, and we all know that nurture has a lot to do with how a person acts. But I just thought I’d add this food for thought. :)

Feb 8, 2012, 6:09pm Top

66: If the personality types of horoscopes are personality types that exist then matches may occur by chance, people who pay attention to their horoscopes may come to conform to expectations, horoscopes are based on birth date and there may be seasonal influences...

I did once read a book about astrology because I was curious about the personality categories. Long time ago though, and memory has faded.

Feb 8, 2012, 7:33pm Top

This is, in a way, the temptation I was just mentioning above...... The passions devotedto astrology are astonishing, at any rate. And my most hard-headed lawyer uncle waited a day to bid on a house because his horoscope in the newspaper told him not to make a big investment that day. (!!!!!!!)

Feb 8, 2012, 8:05pm Top

Chapter 1

Not much to add to comments above. Goths and Vandals and disintegration of Rome. The language issue, "barbarians" cut off from Greek scholarship, which was preserved by the Byzantine empire. The secular power vacuum that allowed increased Church power. Charles stopping Arabs from continuing further into Europe, his grandson Charlemagne's "acceptance of a role as the Pope's enforcer" so "the conversion of disparate tribes to a single religion brought them all together into a single spiritual unit". I wouldn't quite describe the process as "spiritual"... So now we're in the late 900s, with the barbarians "coalesced into kingdoms", improvements in agricultural technology, and population increase.

Feb 8, 2012, 8:08pm Top

I used to have a roommate that hated the idea of marriage. She put off her boyfriend for YEARS. Then, suddenly, she came back from a meeting with an astrologer and said she had to get married that month. Because if she didn't get married that month, the stars were misaligned for the next several years. She was a bit eccentric. Her boyfriend was happy, though!

Edited: Feb 8, 2012, 10:01pm Top

I can certainly understand why ancient thinkers (e.g., Claudius Ptolemy) were persuaded by the idea that the planets might have an influence on our lives, in the same way that the moon and sun clearly do.

The specific modern interpretation of astrology seems far less plausible, though. It's extremely simplified, for one thing; I don't think the planets are even involved at all in the most basic determination of a sun sign. And I can't really see why the stars would be assumed to have more of an influence than the planets, since the stars are so much farther away. I'd be curious to see studies about the personalities of people who weren't familiar with the concept (to avoid conforming to expectations); I don't expect that there would turn out to be any statistically significant correlation to the various zodiac signs.

Feb 9, 2012, 7:18am Top

>71 _Zoe_: Ah! When you bring statistics in! Yeah, I don't think there's any real correlation between the month/year you're born and your personality. I was just suggesting that sometimes things that seem like magic to people in one age turn out to be scientifically valid in another age. I like to have an open mind. I just don't want to do the astrology-personality study to determine whether there is statistical significance. :)

That said, one of my favorite moments in grad school is when I found a paper published in a scientific journal in which they grew some bone cells in a flask and had a master emit ch'i from his fingers into the flask for 15 minutes and then used scientific methods like PCR (with statistics!) to show that the ch'i helped the bone cells grow. So sometimes statistics aren't everything. Or maybe I'm just too skeptical of ch'i? ;)

Feb 9, 2012, 1:11pm Top

Having just finished a book about the Westerner who made it clear just how much the Chinese invented, I am inclined to give the Chinese the benefit of the doubt vis a vis Ch'i. And I'll keep on doing my Tai Ch'i......... if it does nothing else it is fantastically helpful for good balance. Which I need as I am the sort of person who doesn't pay attention as much as I should....

Feb 9, 2012, 2:45pm Top

Yay! I'm home for lunch and my book came in the mail today. Now if only I didn't have to go back to work ....(which is after all a lab--how sad is it that today I want to stay home and read science instead of DO science).

I also want to join the group read of Religion Explained and/or The God Gene. How am I ever going to get anything off Mt TBR with this group of people starting such interesting group discussions!!!

Not to mention that my copy of Anathem also came so I can lurk around on that tutored read ...... sigh.

Feb 9, 2012, 9:48pm Top

Chapters 5-6 today -- both focussed on issues of squaring of rational thinking/inquiry/observation with theology. Hannam does have a gift for lucid prose on a difficult and complex topic. Having suffered through Robin Lane Fox's Pagans and Christians it is a delight. Speaking of that -- heresy does seem to have been an issue from the get-go. And last year I read the Rose Tremain about Thomas Cromwell..... lots of heretics going up in flames there too....

I was fascinated too by the statement that the methods of the inquisition -which required investigation, witnesses and examination of the evidence, formed the basis for (modern) criminal investigation (p.85 in my book). Before that someone would accuse you of something and you would find character witnesses - the whole thing would be not about the actual crime, but whether or not it who was 'the better' person (or richer, or whatever!).

Feb 9, 2012, 10:02pm Top

I read chapter 2 this evening, but now I'm too tired to comment. Hoping to read a bunch over the weekend, but that's a goal with an iffy track record.

Feb 10, 2012, 3:55pm Top

Another theme in my reading life lately is medicine -- in a book I'm listening to about Americans in Paris in the 1830's - I had a kind of revelation that even while medicine in terms of actually healing the patient hadn't made a whole lot of progress, what was happening at that time was rigorous and systematic identification of diseases, a real attempt to study and observe and understand the inner workings of the body.... and all of this was laying the groundwork for really really making a difference.... also things like the first use of ether (1838) - strangely the same year as the first steam engine crossings of the Atlantic. What this has to do with the book we are reading is that in practice not that much had changed in the interim, except this one aspect, which was 'science'
to the nth degree and important although not yet directly helpful to the patient. Yeah, I'm reading the medical chapter. Yeesh!

Feb 10, 2012, 5:45pm Top

Yeah, medical knowledge certainly didn't seem to develop very much during the middle ages, did it? Scientists needed to figure out what a disease was (e.g. germs? cancer?), and figure out that Galen's theory was wack before progress could be made. I am amazed looking at how quickly the progress was made when they started looking at it the right way, though! Problem is, now research has slowed down again. We’re probably spending more time and resources on research, but the progress isn’t as extreme. We understand things so much better than people 100 years ago, but we need to discover some new vital truth to open up a new epoch of discovery. Until then, I suppose biomedical science will move forward, but slowly and in defined ruts.

There's some hope for gene therapy and stem cells creating a paradigm shift in biomedical research. But there are so many ethical problems involved. I wonder if 500 years from now people will frown upon the dark ages of 21st century and talk about how religious “fanatics” banned progress for ridiculous ethical issues. (Not that I’m saying the ethical issues aren’t valid, just that ethical issues about stem cells and genetic engineering are holding back scientific research, just as we perceive the Church as holding back the progress of science in the middle ages.)

I finished up chapter 10 today, but I don't really have much to say about it.

Feb 10, 2012, 7:59pm Top

Of course, 500 years from now people might look back and say we were all ignorant, lazy fools for not moving more and eating less. I speak, of course, for myself.

Feb 10, 2012, 8:01pm Top

On the other hand, maybe people 500 years from now will be like the people in the spaceship in Wall-E. Those scenes made me laugh so hard and my poor little nephew laughed along with me even though he didn't really get why it was so funny.

Feb 12, 2012, 3:23pm Top

I finished Chapter 4 in God's Philosophers and am appreciating Hannam's "gift for lucid prose on a difficult and complex topic". Thanks, Lucy - (Msg. 75).

I can probably fit all of my prior knowledge - of both science and theology - of the Middle Ages into a thimble so I'm going to maintain a low profile here. Highlights thus far for me have been:

~ Boethius's explanation of free will: God knows the future. He doesn't make it happen.

~ The "hot affair" of Abelard and Heloise. Contentiousness, Charisma, and Castration! This stuff is better than reading the tabloids.

~ The search for knowledge to debunk theories like stars that eat. The circuitous translations from Arabic and Greek via Spanish or Hebrew into Latin. We take so much for granted these days.

~ Theology was considered "the queen of sciences" in medieval days. Who knew? Certainly not me. I'm looking forward to my many gaps of history being filled.

I took the liberty of looking up Janet's notes on God's Philosophers. In keeping with our original intent for this group read, I'll post them from time to time as my contribution. She didn't mention specific chapters, but I think her first two postings correlate to the first three chapters:

1/4/11: So, I am doing something right now I have never done before - reading THREE books at once. I know this is nothing exciting for lots of you, but I am (or have been) strictly a one book at a time kind of gal.

Hannam - His thesis is that lots of really interesting science happened in the Middle Ages, despite what the Enlightenment wanted us all to believe. So far I have been reading about how math and science came back to Western Europe via Arabic learning coming through Spain, after the west had lost access to Greek thinking after the fall of the Roman Empire (because absolutely no one learned to read Greek any more). I'm only in the 11th century so far, but I have already learned a lot, such as the fact that lots of scientists (or philosophers as they were more usually considered) did know that the world was round not flat, but it's just that the part they thought was inhabited was about a quarter of the world and so fit nicely on a flat map!

Posted 1/6/2011: Today, in God’s Philosphers, I’ve been reading about the 11th Century, and the debate about whether logic/reason (as described by Aristotle) can/should be invoked in support of faith and theology, or whether they need to be kept apart. Famous philosophers of the time, like St. Anselm and Abelard, believed logic could support faith, and in particular could be used to refute heresy. There was no inherent conflict between reason and faith, because both were gifts from God. Others felt it was dangerous, because if logic couldn’t support an argument of faith, people might start to disbelieve the faith. The Church seemed happy to give logic and reason a role, but only if faith came first. While this debate may seem ridiculous to many modern day people, brought up on the supremacy of science, reason and logic, it seems to me must find a way to accommodate the growing numbers of Christian (as well as Islamic) fundamentalists who absolutely do not see a role for reason in faith, or in life, and who therefore stop reason and science from making the progress they otherwise could. Perhaps we need to go back and really understand how earlier people were able to reconcile the two, and therefore how science was able to gain a foothold in those years, despite the prevalence of “faith”.

As an aside, this chapter also told the story of Abelard and Heloise, which I had only been vaguely aware of, and had not in fact realized was a completely true story.

Feb 12, 2012, 8:42pm Top

Thank you so much Donna for taking the time to post Janet's thoughts.

Feb 12, 2012, 9:01pm Top

Chapter 2

Gerbert in Barcelona, which was on the border between Muslim and Christian regions, building models of the universe, with the stationary Earth at center, spheres of planets and heavens revolving. A hierarchy, with hell below the surface of Earth, transient humanity, and perfect unchanging heavens. Contributed to introducing Arabic numerals and the astrolabe to the west.

The Earth was known to be spherical, but the inhabited portion could be represented in a flat T-O map (which I don't recall ever seeing).

Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy: goodness is its own reward, and God knows the future but doesn't make it happen. And he translated Greek texts into Latin. Says in the next chapter, not this, that he had to invent a new vocabulary, because many Greek terms of logic had no Latin equivalents.

Feb 12, 2012, 9:06pm Top

Chapter 3

St. Anselm wrote Proslogion: the ontological argument for the existence of God, not intended to persuade the unbeliever, but to support the believer; faith before reason. This raised concerns about the role of reason; if allowed any role in theology, it might become the "final arbiter".

Terms of logic: nominalists ("sheep" is a name applied to animals with a particular set of qualities) vs realists ("sheep" exist as a category independent of individual sheep), substance (sheep are animals) vs accident (sheep are white and fluffy).

The attraction of logic is that it could be used to defeat heresy. Berenger claimed that bread and wine merely represented the body of Christ. Lanfranc reconciled the trouble: bread and wine retain their accidental properties, so appear as food and drink, while changing their substance, so they are body and blood.

Abelard, removing the clutter of his dramatic life, went a controversial step further, putting reason before faith: "nothing can be believed unless it is first understood"; reason cannot conflict with faith because both are gifts of God, so any appearance of conflict must be due to a mistake in the argument. He wrote Yes and No, arranging quotations of the church to show contradictions, intended to aid students in resolving them, but not providing any assistance.

So all these people were running around accusing each other of heresy. Delightful.

Abelard and Roscelin argued about the Trinity, but details are not given, and I am not clear why this mattered so much.

Feb 13, 2012, 11:43am Top

I think the Abelard/Roscelin problem focused around the illogic of the 'three in one' of the Trinity - Roscelin felt it had to be three separate entities.... that was heretical..... Abelard took the view that 'reason could not argue with faith since faith came from God'.

Feb 13, 2012, 12:51pm Top

85: Yeah, Roscelin stated that the Trinity doesn't make sense unless there are three Gods,which was considered heresy by the church, and he appealed to Abelard for support, but instead Abelard refuted him in a letter to the Pope, and Roscelin accused Abelard of heresy.

God's Philosopers doesn't give details of the arguments though, and seems to assume that I know what the Trinity is, and why it mattered so much to the church. I don't.

This is idle curiosity. I could research, or I could accept that I've gotten the gist and move on.

Feb 13, 2012, 1:01pm Top

Yes, it's heretical to say that they are three separate entities because there is only one God according to the Church. It is a bit of a mystery where the idea of the trinity arose. There are biblical quotes referring to the three persons. For instance "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (Second letter to the Corinthians 13:13). But there seems to be no evidence that the trinity was a concept preached by the original apostles since the first recorded reference to the trinity was in the 2nd century.

Regardless of where it arose, by the middle ages the Church firmly believed that God was three consubstantial persons. This and transubstantiation (discussed in later chapters) were important to the Church's theology. Therefore it was heresy to say that either the trinity didn't exist or that they were three separate people made of separate physical material.

That said, I'm not sure why they were trying to confine an infinite God within the physical world. If he's a metaphysical being, then he's not confined to physical material anyway. What does "consubstantial" even mean to a metaphysical being? Maybe they should call it "conmetasubstantial." :)

I just finished the chapter that talks about transubstantiation and the philosophy of atoms (Chapter 11, maybe?). I thought it was great that Hannam was willing to admit that the Church stamped down on the philosophy of atoms even though the philosophy turned out very useful to science in the future. It gives me confidence in what Hannam says because he is willing to give honest examples of how the Church stamped down on science even though his argument is that the Church generally didn't condemn science.

I am really enjoying this book. I think Hannam did a fantastic job.

Feb 13, 2012, 1:04pm Top

Sorry qebo, I didn't get your message until after I'd drafted that. The idea of the trinity is simply that God is three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But that these three persons aren't separate beings, they are consubstantial (i.e. they are made of the same physical material).

I hope that makes sense, because it's a confusing topic which the Church labels as a "mystery" because they can't explain it either. :)

Edited: Feb 13, 2012, 2:00pm Top

88: Your post 87 is useful too. :-)

I get the father and son. What is the holy spirit? It seems a more abstract concept, as if God has two roles, father and son, but is also an entity beyond either role. But this would make the Trinity unbalanced: one of these things is not like the others.

Feb 13, 2012, 1:42pm Top

Ah, Sesame Street logic strikes again! LOL

I'm reading at about Rachel's pace, so far in chapter 12 (I think) with the atoms and mathematicians. I am rather impressed with the math - it feels like true progress before the calculus. And I agree that Hannam doesn't mince words about suppressing the atomic theory, but the reason is very interesting, that it would mess up the idea of transubstantiation, in which the host and wine become the body and blood of Christ. It's a literal, physical idea colliding with the mystery of faith, when both were supposed to be divinely created.

Feb 13, 2012, 2:01pm Top

qebo, the Holy Spirit enters into people and guides them. The Holy Spirit was given as a gift to the Apostles (and to humans in general) to help them go out and preach the word of God, heal the sick, exorcise demons, and speak in tongues (which, to the Apostles, meant that they could talk to large groups of people who spoke a variety of languages, and that everyone would hear the speech in their own language). The Holy Spirit is God's line of communication with humans since both the Father and the Son are in heaven, away from the physcial world.

Feb 13, 2012, 2:29pm Top

91: Ah. I say, as if I suddenly understand thousands of years of theology. :-)

Feb 14, 2012, 9:05pm Top

Let me see.... Roger Bacon and Richard of Wallingford - Bacon it would seem mostly interested in the bankrupting pursuit of alchemy, although he was also interested in gunpowder, how we see and the properties of light, and was enough of a truly imaginative thinker to seem prescient about automobiles and flight. The bit of news to me was about just who operated the trebuchet -- mostly priests as they were the only ones with sufficient mathematical training for the calculations necessary to figure out how to set it up to actually hit something. The Wallingford chapter has lots about just how wild students were and the information that Cambridge was formed during a period when Oxford had been shut down, for rowdiness, but also because of the Pope's quarrel with King John. Wallingford sounds like a true tinkerer, I love the image of the abbott of a great monastery obsessed with making a wonderful mechanical clock. It's sad too, that he contracted leprosy - but at least he was allowed to stay where he was not cast into isolation.

Feb 15, 2012, 5:53pm Top

Great discussion of the trinity. As one fairly new to organized religion, I still struggle with the concept and don't recommend The Shack as a way to make sense of it as my pastor advised. ;-(

I'm inching along in the book, mostly for lack of time. It is much more readable and enjoyable than I was expecting it to be.

Chapters 5 and 6: Here is my simplified take on Inquisition...
My impressions had been formed by reading The Matthew Shardlake mystery series and Wolf Hall which led me to believe that if one opened one's mouth with dissension a fire was built and...Poof! Instead I learned that strict procedures were followed and second chances were offered. Only five per cent of the cases of suspected heresy resulted in the human bonfire. These cases of unrecanted challenges of authority were less about punishment and more about a warning to others about the sins of heresy.

The upside was public outrage and a heightened sense of accountability in the Catholic Church resulting in better teaching of church doctrines and rescuing the works of Aristotle. Gradually the church became more accepting, allowing the brilliance of such scholars as Thomas Aquinas to come up with acceptable (to the church) theories based on both reason and theology.

Hannam's clear writing helps me understand the philosophy of this period and, as a bonus, he even throws in a quick lesson in Gothic architecture.

I'll continue to post JanetinLondon's posthumous comments until I'm told to stop! They are helpful to me because she has a way of highlighting the important aspects of the chapters and relating them to the theme of the book.

Edited: Jan 8, 2011, 1:54pm
God's Philosophers continues to be fascinating. I'm reading now about how educated people in the 13th Century (which meant church people) worked to reconcile all the new learning from the East (that is, stuff lost after the fall of the Roman Empire) with Christian orthodoxy, so they could use the new tools without fear of "heresy". Here's a long-ish description of what I learned over the last few chapters - you can skip it, and just take out that these philosophers were very smart guys who struggled hard to reconcile the different values in their world, and lucky for us they did or science might have taken even longer to take off as a discipline in the "West".

So: In the 12th and 13th Centuries the project to reconcile Greek thought with Christian orthodoxy continued, with the aim of “christianizing” ancient thinking so that it would be “okay” to use logic and reason in argument and to start to use these tools to explore the natural world as well as in theological argument. At the same time, Christianity was stating to conquer Islamic cities, leading up to the Crusades, and when they took over libraries they realized more and more how much knowledge they were missing out on. So another part of the “project” was to translate newly rediscovered works from Greek to Latin, often via existing Arabic translations, sometimes via translations into Spanish or Hebrew. This new knowledge was taught and fostered at universities, which first developed at this time.

Sometimes logic and reason were used in support of heresy, as the church had feared, leading to temporary bans on Aristotle as well as, of course, the Inquisition and the squashing of the Cathars (who believed in the duality of the spiritual and the material, the first controlled by a “good” god, the second by an “evil” one). It also led to the rise of new orders of monks such as the Blackfriars, Dominicans and Fransciscans, who wanted to study the new learning as much as possible, so they could debate with people like the Cathars and with ordinary Christians, and could show them that logic and reason were good tools.

The ultimate hero of this movement was St Thomas Aquinas, who set out to reconcile Aristotle with Catholicism, to synthesize Christian and pagan (and Jewish) philosophy,and to set limits for logic and reason, accepting that beyond a certain point only faith could answer certain questions. What he also did was to say “Aristotle could be wrong sometimes, he was only human”, but while still championing Aristotle’s method of enquiry, opening the way for philosophers to stop just revering Aristotle and start looking at the world for themselves, to correct or surpass him.

It can (and does, to me) seem ridiculous for it to have taken hundreds of years for the educated sections of the Western European world to have decided it was okay to think about things logically without fearing eternal damnation. And I’m sure somewhere some people were perfectly merrily thinking whatever they damn well liked. But things moved slowly in those days, and the church really did have a tight grip on what you could say publicly about thoughts which didn’t agree with theirs. It took a long time for each step to happen, but it did happen. I guess the stage is now set for an explosion of science – I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

Feb 15, 2012, 6:04pm Top

94: I'm inching along in the book, mostly for lack of time.
You're inching faster than I am. :-)

I'll continue to post JanetinLondon's comments until I'm told to stop!
Please, keep posting them. It's simpler (for us, not you) than clicking through to her thread and scanning for the relevant section. I like that you are making them bold.

They are helpful to me because she has a way of highlighting the important aspects of the chapters and relating them to the theme of the book.
Yes, when she focused on a topic she really focused, and distilled it to the essentials.

Feb 15, 2012, 6:18pm Top

>94 Donna828: I didn't like The Shack, but I guess it's one of those books that people either love or hate. I figure a novel ought to use the "show don't tell" rule. The Shack had a lot of lecturing, and not a necessarily mainstream depiction of the trinity. :) The trinity is a very hard concept to understand, and it's often used as an excuse for people to leave organized religions because they feel religion ought to make sense. I simply accept it as something that doesn't make sense in the physical world, but I don't think God should be confined to a physical world.

Feb 15, 2012, 6:45pm Top

>95 qebo:: Katherine, I have the book checked out from Washington University in St. Louis. It's due next week but I won't have it finished by then as we're going to Kansas City this week end for a birthday party. I hope I'm able to renew it. Janet's notes are easy for me to post as I've copied the comments pertaining to God's Philosophers in Evernote and just have to recopy them here.

Rachel, I did a group read of The Shack at my (Methodist) church. I had to repeatedly remind the others that the book was fiction because they took it as gospel! There's so much in this world I don't understand that adding the Trinity to the list isn't upsetting at all. I rather like how the Catholics just say it's a mystery and call it good. Works for me!

Feb 15, 2012, 8:06pm Top

Donna...you know I had the same problem with some friends of mine who believed Da Vinci Code was literal truth. Kind of makes you wonder sometimes, doesn't it?

Feb 15, 2012, 8:25pm Top

96: The trinity is a very hard concept to understand, and it's often used as an excuse for people to leave organized religions because they feel religion ought to make sense.
I don't necessarily think that "sense" has to be rational or physical, but in this context I might equate it with "meaningful", which is awfully subjective.

Feb 15, 2012, 8:26pm Top

>99 qebo: indeed

Feb 15, 2012, 9:20pm Top

It's very interesting to me to think that the Church would attempt to reconcile logic and faith at all. I can see that they would feel threatened by logic, of course (and not being a believer in any particular way, that's easy for me to say), but to go to such difficult lengths to make the two fit together, and to try for so long, is beyond my understanding.

This reminds me of a Joseph Campbell story, where he thought he had bested one of the high churchmen of New York. When he was asked if he had taken Jesus for his personal savior, he explained that he didn't believe. The churchman asked what arguments he could make that might convince Campbell to believe, and he replied that he always thought belief was a matter of faith, and therefore not able to be proven logically. (This is a lot of paraphrasing, of course.) Campbell was very proud of his answer - now I'm not so sure it's much of a triumph, if the Church as striven so long to make logic the handmaiden of faith.

That said, I must get back to the book this evening - I've let thread fever eat up my time this week!

Feb 15, 2012, 9:43pm Top

101: It's very interesting to me to think that the Church would attempt to reconcile logic and faith at all.
If you can't beat it, coopt it? Seems logic began to seep in at the periphery, and scholarly types were attracted to it, and made the effort to reconcile reason and faith in part so as not to be punished as heretics and in part because it was an interesting intellectual exercise.

Feb 15, 2012, 10:07pm Top

The Church too the position (according to Hannam) that all things come from God, and therefore logic comes from God, and therefore logic can be perfect and used to prove the existence of God in the form of the Trinity. Sometimes I'm really glad I was raised Jewish.

On the other hand, the detail and extent of logic employed by all those Torah scholars over the ages is enough to make me run screaming from whatever room in which they are holding forth. At least no one will burn me at the stake for going.

Edited: Feb 16, 2012, 8:02am Top

Remember that logic existed for many centuries before Christianity did. Like Judy said, the Church believed that God created logic and nature, and therefore these couldn't contradict religion. The one thing God can't do is contradict Himself...and by contradicting nature, He'd be contradicting Himself because he created nature. Though I don't believe that the Church ever thought that logic could PROVE God existed. They certainly don't believe that now.

The point Hannam is trying to make is that the Church didn't feel threated by logic. They supported the exploration of logic and nature, and educated their theologians in these fields. They felt threatened by people they felt were ignorant (i.e. non-theologians) making theological comments using logic. This wasn't really an issue because anybody who was educated enough to make an argument on logic or theology were educated by the Church. They also felt threatened when people used logic to suggest heresy (contradicting the trinity or transubstantiation, and writing Jesus' horoscope seemed to be the big ones they were worried about).

I think the reason the Church focused so much on logic and nature is because they felt that by studying nature and logic they were studying God. These were the tools God gave them to study Himself. So they tried really hard to use those tools in that way. However, when some people made arguments that logic contradicted their beliefs, they felt that there must be a flaw in the logic. I admit that burning people at the stake or excommunicating them seems a strong punishment for using flawed logic, though. :)

Feb 16, 2012, 8:49am Top

I'm still behind in the book, but I'm loving the discussion so far. Rachael, I'm finding myself nodding and agreeing with many of your comments about the Trinity and logic... can't wait to actually get to these chapters!

Edited: Feb 16, 2012, 4:40pm Top

Lots of good stuff in the Merton Calculator chapter -- 11 - I think. What is making this a pleasurable read to me, besides Hannam's quiet lucidity is that each chapter seems to have a tidbit (like young Astrolabe) that in my 'trivial' way, I can't help but enjoying.
Here Hannam clears up William of Ockham's real contribution to scientific inquiry, the 'razor' idea having come into play in the 19th century in a wider application of the point he was making which was a good deal simpler -- his actual saying was "Multiple entities should not be invoked unneccesarily." which only makes sense if you understand that he was a 'nominalist' and not a 'universalist' a la Aristotle and thus did not believe that there was a 'dog' that was the underlying dog of dogs, but only each individual observable dog. How this became the Razor in the 19th century Hannam doesn't fully explain, but says that Ockham 'insisted that we can only perceive individual things and that any connections we make are down to us. There is no need to postulate about the existence of real universals when we can explain the world in terms of the actual individuals it contains." It isn't hard to see how one could make the leap and apply this more generally.

Edited: Feb 16, 2012, 9:12am Top

103: all things come from God, and therefore logic comes from God, and therefore logic can be perfect and used to prove the existence of God in the form of the Trinity
There's a sentence somewhere that I liked, I'd have to dig around to find it again, that reason could be used to "illuminate" faith.

104: Remember that logic existed for many centuries before Christianity did.
I'm not, as it happens, forgetting this.

104: The point Hannam is trying to make is that the Church didn't feel threated by logic.
I've read only through chapter 6, and jotted notes only through chapter 3... So far, it is seeming that much effort is being made to put logic in its proper place wrt theology.

Edited: Feb 16, 2012, 9:30am Top

>107 qebo: Sorry qebo...I didn't mean to offend by implying that you'd forgotten. I was only trying to make the point that logic was something that the theologians took for granted. It wasn't seeping in at the periphery so much as emerging like a cancer from the inside. ;) It was the theologians who were trained by the Church who were coming up with all the heretical arguments.

So far, it is seeming that much effort is being made to put logic in its proper place wrt theology.

That may be true, though I think that's the opposite point that Hannam is trying to make. I'm pretty sure he wants us to get the message that the Church wasn't trying to stamp down logic and science. I believe the problem here is that the Church really DID support the study of logic and nature to better understand God. However, they were threatened by arguments that appeared heretical. Therefore, it wasn't logic and nature they were stamping down, but free thinking. :)

Edited: Feb 16, 2012, 9:41am Top

And as far as I'm concerned, some of these people deserved to get scolded. What purpose could you possibly have to write the horoscope of Jesus other than to annoy the Church? It's kind of silly to predict the past, after all.

Edited: Feb 16, 2012, 10:48am Top

108: The picture I have so far is this: The Roman empire collapsed in the 400s, and with a secular power vacuum, Church power increased. Greek knowledge was cut off from Europe because of language issues. Arabs expanded, but were stopped in France in the 700s. By the 900s, the "barbarians" had been converted to Christianity. Then there's a bit about Augustine adapting Plato and Boethius translating Aristotle into Latin in the 400-500s, and Gerbert in the borderlands of France in the 900s, passing Arab science into Europe. An then poof, it's the 1000s, and I'm not clear what had been happening re Greek philosophy in the interim 500 years, but now it's chapter 3 and a frenzy of activity with Anselm, Berenger, Roscelin, Abelard, and concerns about the relationship between reason and faith. So my mental image has been of Europe getting its act together internally, and this other stuff from Greeks and Arabs there on the edges, and by the 1000s the scholarly types are intensely engaged in reconciling all this stuff. Are you saying no?

Feb 16, 2012, 10:22am Top

Yes, that's what he's saying. I concede the whole peripheral point. But the Church did go ahead and adopt most of this new information into their education system, thereby training new scholar theologians on the newly acquired information, and it was these theologians that then came up with heretical arguments.

Feb 16, 2012, 10:25am Top

111: The trouble with smart people is that they think about whatever is on hand, and then some?

Feb 16, 2012, 11:36am Top

>Exactly. Free thinking is for the birds.

Feb 16, 2012, 12:02pm Top

>110 qebo: How the Irish Saved Civilization can fill in that big gap - it's a wonderful read too!

Feb 16, 2012, 12:06pm Top

114: Sigh. This is supposed to be my year of American history. There is too much world out there. Added to the wishlist regardless.

Feb 16, 2012, 1:52pm Top

It is a quick read, I promise, well written.

Feb 16, 2012, 2:13pm Top

116: One thing at a time... :-) I'm very appreciative of the gap-filling suggestion. So many gaps in my mind though...

Edited: Feb 16, 2012, 2:21pm Top

The nice thing about having gaps in your knowledge is that at least you know enough to recognize a gap. :) Sometimes it's possible to know so little that there's nothing to gap between. The more you know, the more gaps there will be.

I've had How the Irish Saved Civilization sitting on my TBR pile for years. Looks like it's a whole series now!

Feb 16, 2012, 5:55pm Top

I've added a bunch of Cahill's to my wishlist after liking that one so much. Haven't read another yet though.

Two chapters in a day seems to be about the limit of what I can absorb (probably over it). John Buridan is a revelation to me -- what a great contribution he made in coming up with the idea of impetus, and also the idea that if there was no resistance (as in a vacuum) an object might simply keep on moving. What comes across in this chapter is how often it was two steps forward and one step back -- an idea would be moving in the right direction, say the idea of atoms - but contain completely flawed ideas of what the atoms might be - like fire atoms! Brilliant as Buridan was he couldn't support the notion that the earth spins, nonetheless, as Hannam points out this is a long long way from the idea that stars might be alive and might need to eat (although black holes do, I suppose!). In any event, scienctific inquiry and progress came to a dead halt for a span of close to a century due to the Black Plague. (Which has a different resonance for me since reading Connie Willis's fine novel.

Most of the progress that did take place in the next century involved exploration, technology (guns and the printed book) and ideas about the circumference of the earth although Nicholas of Cusa advanced the idea of careful measurement that would enable the scientific method later on. At any rate, Dias gets around Cape Horn, Columbus gets to the West Indies (with a massively inaccurate notion of how far it might be to Asia) and the world changes -- whole unexpected continents exist, full of people and animals and other never-before-seen things. How magical and amazing it all must have been! Meanwhile Constantinople falls and that is the end of an era and shifts the balance of Christian western civilzation westward into Europe - where unfortunately a series of ambitious Popes were bankrupting and frustrating many in the way that would give rise to the Reformation........ I have this sense too of things starting to pick up speed......

Feb 16, 2012, 11:09pm Top

I'm still behind (partway through Chapter 4), but I'm enjoying the discussion so far while skimming over the more detailed parts about chapters that I haven't gotten to yet. I'm also really enjoying the book; I'm glad that at least for now he seems to be focusing more on basic narrative than on pushing any detailed arguments. His narrative is extremely entertaining.

I'm still taking everything with a grain of salt, though. I noticed that he casually gave exact birth and death years for Euclid, for example, when we really know pretty much nothing about his life.

Feb 17, 2012, 8:58am Top

I'm still behind too, whatever that means, since there is no schedule dictated, but others are way ahead of me an I too am skipping/skimming comments until I catch up. (Which may be why my comments sometimes seem to be missing Hannam's point.)

Re accuracy, it was Cushla who mentioned God's Philosophers and Janet's commentary to me last year, and on one or the other thread were links to Charles Freeman's crticisms and James Hannam's response. Whether these are useful context, or spoilers to people who prefer not to have outside influence while reading, I can't say.

Feb 17, 2012, 9:10am Top

>121 qebo: I think I'll save those for after I've finished the book. Thanks for posting them!

On an unrelated note, was anyone else surprised at how the story of Abelard and Heloïse played out? I hadn't known any of the details, just that it was a "tragic love story", but the actual love part didn't seem that tragic to me. They got caught out in their affair, and so they had to get married. It was only when Abelard wanted to hide the marriage for the sake of his career that things got ugly.

Feb 17, 2012, 9:17am Top

I think you might want to read that story again. Abelard was castrated, and both he (who might have intended to) and Heloise (who didn't) ended up in holy orders. Their natural talents and personalities gave them considerable success on this path, but they did not live as man and wife or together in any sense.

Feb 17, 2012, 9:18am Top

>121 qebo: Yes, thanks for posting those...I've skimmed through them and they look interesting. Though I notice that Charles Freeman is criticizing from a biased " New Humanist Godless" point of view just as Hannam has a biased Catholic point of view. Neither of them is very centered! But I guess that's the way the world works.

>122 _Zoe_: I thought it was pretty ugly to begin with if he really raped her. I view the whole "love" story with a lot of skepticism since we can never know what really went on between them.

Feb 17, 2012, 9:23am Top

I don't know if it is a theatrical conceit or if they really did correspond by letter through their lives. There is an epistolary drama I saw on TV many years ago, when TV still had things like Hallmark Hall of Fame. For some reason, I think Rod Steiger acted the part of Abelard.

Funny the things that stick with you. In this drama, Abelard relates that he is not permitted to say Mass, because God bars anyone who has been 'bruised'.

Feb 17, 2012, 9:23am Top

124: Neither of them is very centered!
Centered is overrated. :-) Useful to have people seeing things from different angles.

Feb 17, 2012, 9:27am Top

>123 ffortsa: Right, but they could have lived as man and wife if that had been their priority. Instead, Abelard cared more about his career. It was only after he got Heloïse out of the way by sending her to a nunnery that the uncle planned the castration in revenge.

>124 The_Hibernator: Yup, the rape was another clear indication that it wasn't the "tragic love story" that it's reputed to be.

Feb 17, 2012, 9:30am Top

Oh, and interestingly, wikipedia presents several versions of the story, while Hannam tells only one and doesn't make it clear that there's any doubt about what really happened. Another case where he chooses entertaining storytelling over historical accuracy.

Feb 17, 2012, 9:34am Top

Yes, I suspect he does that a lot, favoring the version that suits his point of view.

This is much more a history from the Catholic point of view than a history of science, IMO. But that's ok. It's on my kindle, so it's not heavy to tote around. It's one of those books I can read over time and interrupt for more fun fare.

Feb 17, 2012, 9:37am Top

Yup, I'm still enjoying it. I don't even know if I'll take many breaks; it's pretty fun fare already. (Except that I'm supposed to be doing another group read at the same time... hmm.)

Feb 17, 2012, 12:15pm Top

I keep wondering too what became of the child, Astrolabe. Did he survive? If so who brought him up? And what became of him?

Feb 17, 2012, 12:18pm Top

Here's what wikipedia says:

Astrolabe, the son of Abelard and Héloïse, is mentioned only once in their surviving correspondence, when Peter the Venerable writes to Heloise: "I will gladly do my best to obtain a prebend in one of the great churches for your Astrolabe, who is also ours for your sake".

I thought Hannam had mentioned that he was adopted by one of Heloïse's brothers, or something like that.

Feb 17, 2012, 12:38pm Top

131: Quick search (I'm, um, working at the moment): http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/GEN-MEDIEVAL/1997-01/0853818266.

Feb 17, 2012, 3:23pm Top

126 Centered is overrated. :-) Useful to have people seeing things from different angles.

Yeah, as long as we keep in mind what angle we're looking at it from! I have a bad habit of being a devil's advocate and trying to debate either or both sides of an argument regardless of what I believe. I always thought of it as a capability to see different angles, but I think other people see it as a capability to be argumentative. ;)

129 Yes, I suspect he does that a lot, favoring the version that suits his point of view.

Yes, I think so too. It makes for an interesting book though! I've often wondered whether this is his PhD thesis turned into a book. It was published only a couple years after he graduated which would be appropriate timing. I wonder if he simply has not yet matured as a historian yet. Perhaps his later books will be just as interesting, but with fewer direct biases. I can certainly sympathize with that feeling, as I just finished my PhD thesis less than two years ago, and I KNOW I haven't matured as a scientist yet. :) I'm eager to see what his books will be like in the future! He certainly has potential.

Feb 17, 2012, 3:37pm Top

134: Yeah, as long as we keep in mind what angle we're looking at it from!

I've often wondered whether this is his PhD thesis turned into a book. It was published only a couple years after he graduated which would be appropriate timing.
In the link above (post 121), Hannam talks about his PhD thesis vs the book, and his thinking in the interim few years.

Feb 17, 2012, 3:56pm Top

>134 The_Hibernator: Heh, I also have a tendency to debate excessively even when I don't have a particular stake in the outcome ;)

My first thought was that I sure hope this wasn't his PhD thesis, because it doesn't show enough critical thinking for my liking--it's more about presenting fun anecdotes than making a rigorous argument. Katherine, your comments did make me glance at the link you posted earlier--it's interesting to hear that he's actually changed his general position since writing his thesis, but I didn't want to read his comments in too much detail yet.

I did read his initial remarks about Greek science, though, and I can't say that I entirely agree. He says that there are no signs of Greek science "making the conceptual leaps necessary to achieve a 'scientific revolution' ", and that, basically, Greek science wasn't leading toward modern science. So "empiricism and rationalism, however laudable, are not in themselves sufficient conditions for science to progress. Whatever those conditions are (and I suggest that Christian metaphysics might have provided some of them), they were absent in ancient Athens and Alexandria". There's just so much speculation involved here that I wouldn't dare to touch the issue myself. Who knows what impact various political events had? What would have happened if the Romans hadn't conquered Greece? What was the impact of Christianity? It just seems like a big leap to say that since the Greeks didn't make more progress for whatever reason, they must have been missing some fundamental thing whose absence was holding them back. So much is determined by circumstance.

Feb 17, 2012, 6:34pm Top

Thanks Zoe and Katherine for the information and the link. I could have done that for myself...... sigh...... Good point about the anecdotal vs critical thinking. I haven't noticed much. I haven't yet read the Freeman-Hannam interaction, but I will.

Feb 17, 2012, 6:34pm Top

Sorry that I've been absent so far during this group read. I'll be off from work for the next week, so I'll catch up then.

Edited: Feb 17, 2012, 10:07pm Top

The chapter on humanism seemed to me just ..... bizarre in tone. It has a quarrelsome and petulant air, but it all sort of fizzles.

The destruction of the manuscripts is a sad thing, but what was inside of the books was not lost, which is far more important, although Hannam only grudgingly mentions that after a long tirade. I found myself thinking about the end of the card catalog, or how when something new comes along we do tend to get over-excited and toss out the old. The most recent people usually do go out of fashion when new ideas emerge. Only to be rediscovered later. Not rocket science.

Catholicism was always plagued from the get-go by heresy (and I KNOW this because I did read Pagans and Christians in its agonizing entirety.) The key words here are Authority vs the Individual - it seems hardly surprising to me that eventually someone would come up with the richly appealing idea to the robust and energetic generations following the scourge of the plague that it might be up to each individual to sort it out on his or her own.... God had certainly failed everyone mercilessly with the Black Death -- that, as much as anything, shook things up although Hannam glosses over it in his eagerness to keep a chip on his shoulder - And, as regards science, well it seems only logical to me that sooner or later the various advances would all begin to come together with a new approach as to how to figure out how things REALLY work e.g. the scientific method we cherish today.

Ah well, there just was something artificial, crafted about the 'conflict' in these two chapters as well as the whole thesis of the poor ignored scholars of the Middle Ages. And he seemed to make emphatic statements and then contradict them. At one point I thought, "This is reading like a pretty decent Honors high school term paper".

Uneven, would be a fair remark. I should add -- the strength of the book is that Hannam has a gift for putting complex issues simply, explaining things, and also for the insertion at the right moment, of an interesting bit of information.

Edited: Feb 17, 2012, 10:43pm Top

I think Hannam has done a good job of going over some of the history in a very simple and interesting manner--even though he has a strong bias. Though I think his thesis is a personal pet peeve rather than a thoughtful synthesis of all the data available.

I was wondering when he first mentioned the population boom in the early middle ages (due to better technology for farming land) whether he would bring up the point that this population boom may have been a reason for the total devastation brought on by the Black Plague. After all, doesn't disease thrive when the population booms faster than the ability to clean up after itself? Because of the boom, I'm GUESSING that the living conditions went down: sewage and trash removal doesn't improve, number of rats increases, number of people living in a small space increases...all leading to higher spread of disease. At least, this is what occurred to me while I was reading his introduction. Hannam never brought up the subject again, so I don’t know if this really a valid argument. But I guess suggesting causes for the devastation of the Black Plague is totally beyond his point, so I shouldn't be disappointed!

(PS sorry if the above paragraph doesn't make any sense. I'm a little sleep deprived taking care of my post-surgery kitten, and I really can't tell if I'm making sense!)

Feb 18, 2012, 8:29pm Top

Not incoherent at all! Sounds sensible to me -- one of the books on my tbr shelf is Rats, Lice and History - in part because the title is so wonderful -- but perhaps it's time to read it? One of the best reads EVER about the late M.A. was Barbara Tuchman's sprawling work on the 14th century, A Distant Mirror - she brings up such things and so much more.

Feb 18, 2012, 10:12pm Top

141: One of the best reads EVER about the late M.A. was Barbara Tuchman's sprawling work on the 14th century, A Distant Mirror

I read this, probably shortly after it was published, so 30 years ago. Memory is gone entirely. Maybe time for a reread.

I need a three day weekend to catch up with reading book and comments, and I don't get one.

Edited: Feb 19, 2012, 8:21am Top

It is important to me, at this juncture, to pause for a moment and reflect on Hannam's use of the word humanism. A similar thing happened when I was reading Pagans and Christians - Lane Fox used the word pagan to cover a huge group of people, only excluding Jews (no Muslims yet) -flabbily in my view, given that in our culture today the word 'pagan' has a great deal of baggage attached to it and furthermore, didn't exist as a term at the historical time Lane Fox was covering (100-400 A.D.) The term in fact is one coined by the romans to describe the 'country rustic'. However, for economy and efficiency he uses it -- who wants to write out 'Graeco-Roman' when you can just write pagan, even if it is misleading, and leads one to unconsciously think less of the Greeks and Romans. Here we have the opposite situation, it suits Hannam to use the word humanism in its strictest tightest incarnation, to mean the men (mostly, I assume) of this period who were sure that Greek and Roman literature contained the answers to everything. Just as many who read the Bible interpret it literally I am sure, too, there were plenty of humanists back then who were literalists, but I have no doubt there were many who were hungry to learn whatever they could. Furthermore because the word 'humanist' has taken on a lot of baggage since then and does not mean anything like that now, and indeed, the present-day meaning actually implies an open-mindedness and willingness to consider almost anything that comes along, provided it has a rational and empirical basis.

I point this out mainly to make sure it does not go unnoticed. It's so tempting to do this, twist a word around to suit your purpose; the reader will assume they know what the writer means, and come away unconsciously affected. It isn't necessarily malicious, sometimes it's just laziness or exigency, or just sloppy on the part of the writer. It's opaque here, but I suspect there is some emotional undercurrent -- describing a physician jealous of another, Hannam writes: "Sylvius's extreme humanism had led him astray. Like many humanists, he was a bookworm and admirer of the classical world who could not accept that Europe had long ago overtaken ancient civilization." Let me re-iterate -- I don't object so much to his use of the term, as to his flabby use of it -- never acknowledging anywhere that the word has a very different meaning and implication to us today. It's a word that has volatility and implications in our world and Hannam is exploiting it.

I am occasionally known as 'the nit-picker' and I guess I am earning my sobriquet today.

Edited: Feb 19, 2012, 8:52am Top

>143 sibyx: Perhaps you are right that he is being sloppy in his use of the word "humanism;" however, I did think that he explained how he was going to be using it in chapter 14, section THE RISE OF HUMANISM

Modern historians have piled all sorts of concepts on top of humanism and almost succeeded in turning a helpful term into a useless abstraction. Even more recently, nonbelievers have further muddied the waters by hijacking the word 'humanist' to mean a softer version of the word 'atheist.' A fifteenth- or sixteenth-century humanist was simply someone who was interested in classical Greek and Latin literature. etc.

So I think he's using "humanist" in his own way, like you said, but I felt that this paragraph was meant to inform readers what he meant by humanist. It is difficult for him to describe this particular group of people without using SOME word. Is there a better word to use? I feel that as long as he lets you know what he means by the word, that's really the best he can do.

I admit that his description of the word humanism leans towards his anti-atheist bias. :)

Feb 19, 2012, 8:56am Top

Oh yes, I do remember that paragraph -- but am I right that it was a questionable choice for him to make and a bit over-determined even and that there is some emotional weirdness there??? "a helpful term into a useless abstraction." Don't words do this, anyhow, shift and change with the times as things change? To pretend they don't or go hoity-toity about it is what I am objecting to with both of these writers. Once a word has taken on that kind of baggage it doesn't change back even if you'd like it to. Anyhow, I think it is important to be super-watchful about how people manipulate 'hot' words - he could have, for example, used the words 'classical humanist' which is what people do today to make that distinction. It is more correct and not at all misleading.

Edited: Feb 19, 2012, 10:02am Top

>145 sibyx: Oh, I completely agree! He put his own emotional charge into the word as he was defining it, even, as you said. And you're completely right: once a word has a negative connotation, or one completely different than the original meaning, you shouldn't go back and use the word with its original meaning. And you were right to point out that he was using it differently than we might interpret. It would be easy to forget that he was using an alternative meaning...or to not notice in the first place. But it is only fair to point out that he DID define it as he was going to use it for the rest of the book.

This reminds me of a time when I was younger and talking to a Hindu friend. I offended her by referring to Hinduism as a "pagan" religion. I simply meant that it is a non-Abrahamic religion based on agriculture/seasons. It wasn't an entirely correct use of the term--perhaps I didn't understand either Hinduism or paganism at the time--but I was shocked by her reaction. I hadn't meant it as an insult. And, frankly, I don't think the term "pagan" should be used as an insult. But we must be careful about our word choices!

>141 sibyx: I've been eyeballing Rats, Lice, and History...I do so love medical history and plague. I should read it sometime soon. :)

Feb 19, 2012, 10:53am Top

-- You have Rats, Lice and History -- I would be delighted to read it with you! Maybe not right away, but in the not-too-distant future.

Exactly! Pagan has these connotations now of being some practice something not really acceptable. It's a 'hot' word and I avoid it!

Feb 19, 2012, 12:30pm Top

>147 sibyx: I would be happy to read Rats, Lice and History with you, though I was still thinking of doing a group read of Religion Explained or The God Gene (Probably Religion Explained) soonish (maybe April?). So it would have to be after that. We all need time to read other books too! :)

I think it's a shame that the word Pagan has a negative connotation. I know some neo-pagans and they try so hard to keep it a secret that they're neo-pagan. I think that's a shame. I don't think people should force their beliefs down the throats of everybody they meet, but they should never have to be ashamed of their beliefs!

Feb 19, 2012, 8:18pm Top

As someone close to a neo-pagan (I don't mean I'm close to being one, but close to someone who is), I will say that in the everyday, corporate, vannila-is-the-best-flavor world, it might be taken poorly.

And do you agree that humanism carries an implication of atheism? I agree with the open-mindedness of such people, and the compassion they may espouse, but I'm not sure of an anti-religious connotation.

Feb 19, 2012, 8:21pm Top

I have trouble reading more than one book at a time, so I sprinted forward and finished this book. I think its main value for me, emphasized by the list at the end, is the introduction of so many people I knew by name only, without context Now I have a general idea where they fit in history and science.

Feb 19, 2012, 10:53pm Top

You know, there's something to be said for reading only one book at a time! I'm actively reading about four right now (and finished two others since starting God's Philosophers), so I'm still only on Chapter 6. Enjoying the read, though.

Feb 19, 2012, 11:34pm Top

>149 ffortsa: I understand WHY neo-pagans don't tell people. But I wish they didn't have to feel that way. Though I noticed that one neo-pagan friend of mine was much more anti-Catholic than I was anti-neo-pagan...we had to really hash it out before he realized my religious beliefs didn't make me an enemy. So sometimes the misunderstandings go the other way.

My view of the word "humanism" doesn't necessarily involve atheism. However, I do think that that's a common use of the word. For instance, comment 121 Charles Freeman's Criticisms--it's published in a journal called "New Humanist: Ideas for Godless People." According to Wikipedia, "secular humanism" specifically rejects religious dogma. Whereas "humanism" focuses on human values. I think vocally religious people like Hannam probably have to deal with secular humanists quite a bit, and so have negative feelings about humanists in general (as can be seen from the quote posted in message 144).

I am currently on Chapter 20, so I'm not too far behind you!

Edited: Feb 20, 2012, 6:59pm Top

>152 The_Hibernator: You nailed it exactly! The word humanist by itself no longer is a useful word as it is both laden emotionally and really can mean different things. Secular humanist is a particular 'kind' of humanist, just as, in the Middle Ages we had these 'Classical humanists' -- Really though, it you get down to it, most of the scholars Catholic, Prot or non-religious (so few of them then, I expect or very quiet about it) were 'humanists' in the sense that they all were eager to learn from whatever came their way. Hannam's use of the word is also confusing to me in that it's clear that most of the scholar-priests were as obsessed with finding and reading anything new from that era as anybody. And I think of Cosimo de Medici and those types, perfectly Catholic and all but sending his 'spies' everywhere to ferret out everything they could. The new info is what helped Brunelleschi et al build in a new way.... at least.... that is what I collected from reading a delightful short (yay) book about the dome, imaginatively called Brunelleschi's Dome. I am a bit tired of myself at this point, harping at this, so I promise I'm done.

Back because I'm realizing I didn't write up my chapters from yesterday -- and the joy of knowing someone named Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim once existed! I don't blame him one bit for changing it to Paracelsus. His great contribution to medicine was the idea that it wasn't humours but diseases that caused illness -- not that anybody was ready to listen to him for another couple hundred years, but a few did and the idea was out there. Fun stuff there about surgery, not to be read while eating, the point being that surgeons were doing more, perhaps, just by their interest in the actual workings of the body than other doctors, to move things forward. Also v. interesting that it was likely a post-mortem that caused the first dissections (e.g. a lawsuit) but I am sure that the curious surgeons, once having had a look weren't going to be stopped. William Harvey on the workings of the heart is just inspiring stuff to read. Once again, Hannam writes engagingly about medical practice.

I think I'll report on the last five or so chapters as one since they all cover advances in astronomy.....

Edited: Feb 20, 2012, 4:25pm Top

I recently came across an article in the April 2nd, 2007 issue of the New Yorker, in its occasional 'Letter from Europe' series, titled "The Pope And Islam". It is specifically about Pope Benedict XVI and his approach to and sometimes antagonistic stance against the Muslim world. The writer, Jame Kramer, deals in some of the history that Haddam touches on in the beginning of this book, and also on the idea of the Greek influence on Christianity by way of logic. This pope is a theologian - not typical of Popes prior to their elevation in the last two centuries, the author states - and (again according to this article) is anti-liberal, anti-ecumenical, pledged to returning the Church to its rules as a bulwark against the jihad he perceives, and in some ways admires.

The article caught my eye by the way it discussed many of the same points Haddam makes, regarding the history of the Church and the role of logic in theology.


Feb 20, 2012, 6:37pm Top

Ha! Thanks Judy, I think I vaguely remember reading this piece.

Edited: Feb 20, 2012, 8:04pm Top

I am still reading at your pace, Zoe. It looks like the Three Musketeers are way ahead of us. Judy, you can get out your pom poms and cheer the rest of us on. My book is due on Thursday. I need to see if it's renewable. If not, I'm afraid I'll have to be a dropout but I can continue to post Janet's comments as I have them saved in a file.

Chapters 7-9: Heaven help the person with a serious illness in the Middle Ages. They could depend on magic, God, or crude medicine which often resulted in the barbaric practice of bleeding. Balance of humours and astrology also affected the patient's treatment. I enjoyed reading about the seven known planets at the time which included the sun and the moon. I'm reading a lot about their influences through my literature class on C.S. Lewis. We have a companion book to the Narnia series that explores the parallelism of each of the ancient "planets" to the seven books in the Narnia series.

I enjoyed revisiting old friends Aristotle and Aquinas and adding some new names -- Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon (well, at least I've heard of him) -- to a growing group of philosophers and early scientists.

Janet's notes...

Meanwhile, back in the Middle Ages, some interesting short chapters on how the other “sciences” of the time started to develop into the sciences as we know them. Astrology, for example, involved lots of complicated astronomical calculations in order to get ever more “accurate” star charts, so developed that science and its related instruments, while alchemy, with its focus on turning other metals into gold, led to the discovery of acids and alcohols, the identification of new metals, the development of new equipment, and the perfection of techniques such as distillation. Medicine, however, was temporarily stalled – the ancient texts were useful in helping doctors diagnose what was wrong with their patients, but they were still clueless as to how to actually cure them, relying on bleeding and purging, which were more likely to do harm than good. Basically, you either got better or you didn’t, and medicine had nothing to do with it. “Magicians”, or herbal healers, had a bit more luck, but only a bit. Most people just prayed, which at least did them no physical harm and might have had a placebo effect.

Physical sciences, and technology generally, developed as aides to warfare, with educated monks and others employed as siege engineers, eventually trying to improve the accuracy of things like bows and arrows and trebuchets (giant slings). The ancient Greeks understood things like levers, but didn’t understand trajectory at all. Other philosophers, particularly in England, and especially Roger Bacon, got interested in the properties of light (because of its divine associations), and pulled together all known thought in that area, although they still didn’t figure out how human vision really worked. Then, at the end of the 13th Century, spectacles were invented, which were a huge breakthrough – all those monks could keep studying and copying even when their eyesight began to fail! So I guess someone understood about converging rays, refraction, etc., etc., even if not Mr. Bacon – we don’t know that person’s name, apparently, but he (or she? any chance?) was probably Italian.

Feb 21, 2012, 10:28am Top

Hey All - I only found out about this read today and have already requested a copy of the book. This is something of an area (and era) of interest for me, so I'm looking forward to reading the book and seeing whether or not I agree with your comments or have anything to add. I'm a pretty fast reader, so I might be able to catch up with the "stragglers" among you. BTW, have any of you read "Pascal's Wager: The Man Who Played Dice With God," by James Connor? It's obviously from a different time period, but it's an excellent read in the area of Christianity, faith and science.

Feb 21, 2012, 6:41pm Top

It seems like it's a popular area for a lot of people. I wonder if we could set up a long-term reading group, since we've already talked about doing at least one more book after this.... Science, Religion, and History?

Edited: Feb 22, 2012, 11:02am Top

Finished up yesterday. Happy to say the book ends strongly although on well-trodden turf. The final summary is excellent and I enjoyed learning, at last, when and where the word 'scientist' was coined. It's a sturdy enough book, though inexplicably whiney. I think Hannam is twenty or thirty years behind and that scholarship has in fact, quite a while ago, moved on, accepting fully that scientific discoveries happen on a continuum, each person contributing some little bit, the occasional person with unusual abilities to synthesize then putting a bunch of disparate pieces together and pushing the whole thing up several notches at once...... that said, the scholar-philosophers of the Middle Ages haven't been written about as fully as some of the big shots like Galileo, so as a corrective, the book is extremely strong and worthwhile. An editor should have forced Hannam to drop the combative stance, it just gets in the way and is annoying. ****

I'll keep checking in here to see what folks decide about making a thread and then what to read next.

Feb 22, 2012, 12:54pm Top

>159 sibyx: I finished too, and I totally agree with you. I think the book had some very interesting bios of early philosophers (even if he didn't mention when there was more than one version of the story). I think his book would have been better if he hadn't been so defensive about the Church.

>158 _Zoe_: I think making a long-term reading group would be a lot of fun, though we'd have to be really careful to only read a few a year (maybe 4ish?). If we had them any more than every other month, I think it would fizzle out pretty quickly because people would feel like they're getting behind on their own private reading list. But I think that a reading group would be delightful because it introduces books that you may not have otherwise read, and gives other peoples' perspectives. :)

Feb 22, 2012, 1:10pm Top

>160 The_Hibernator: Yup, I agree that spacing the books far enough apart would be key. Four a year sounds good. The Read YA Lit group used to have a good reading group going, but they tried to do a book every single month, and participation quickly dropped off.

Feb 22, 2012, 1:37pm Top

I agree, 4ish per year is about right.
I'm still here... Busy coupla days, getting caught up behind the scenes.

Feb 22, 2012, 6:09pm Top

Chapter 4

The renaissance of the 12th century.

William of Conches attempted to reconcile the natural philosophy of Plato with the creation stories of Genesis. Because the Bible was concerned with faith, literal interpretation was not required. He distinguished between primary and secondary causes; the ultimate cause is God, but a natural philosopher can ask how God works. God created eternal laws and nature obeys. God is consistent, not capricious. A miracle can be contrasted to nature only if nature has normal operation. Investigation of nature is both justified and feasible.

Adelard of Bath went to Sicily and Syria to learn from the Arabs. He translated Euclid's Elements into Latin. Euclid is "an example of just how far it is possible to go with the power of pure reason". God became a "master of geometry". Adelard wrote Natural Questions in the form of a dialog, questions and answers; his scientific explanations were flawed (e.g. stars move so they must be alive, and maybe they eat air rising from earth), but he permitted all questions, and never invoked the supernatural.
A "flood" of scientific and medical writing was translated from Greek and Arabic into Latin, sometimes involving several steps, e.g. Arabic into Spanish into Latin. This did not occur by passive osmosis: "The Arabs did not simply hand over their libraries to the Christians." The military conquest of Iberia took centuries.

Gerard of Cremona translated Ptolemy's Almagest ("the great") into Latin; it had been translated from Greek to Arabic in the 9th century. Ptolemy was the "last word in accuracy" for calendar making and astrological prediction.

Boethius had translated Aristotle's logic. Now others translated his natural philosophy, which became the basis of European science until 17th century.

Universities arose, "corporations" not dependent on a particular person or beholden to secular or religious authority. Different universities specialized in different subjects, e.g. medicine or law. The most important subject was theology. Its texts were the Bible and early Church fathers, who did not always agree. Peter Lombard's Sentences (Latin sententiae means "opinions") completed Abelard's Yes and No. Logic was a "vital tool" for theology, and universities were the place to study it.

Feb 22, 2012, 6:09pm Top

Chapter 5

The Crusades began in 1095, and infidels far and near became targets. Heresy was increasingly a problem. The Church devised the inquisition, inspired by Roman law. In the old legal system, a formal accusation was made and the defendant could enlist character witnesses, but evidence was not especially relevant. In the new legal system, a magistrate was appointed to examine evidence and reach a verdict, an improvement that "worked so well that it still forms the backbone of criminal investigation in continental Europe to this day". Punishment for a first offense was relatively light; the heretic could recant and perform penance. Punishment for a second offense could be far more serious, e.g. handed over to secular authorities to burn at the stake. (Which raises a question of the entanglement of religious and secular.) The Church also realized a need to teach correct beliefs so people would not hold false beliefs out of ignorance. Thus the founding of the Dominicans and Franciscans, who had to be educated to dispute heresy.

Feb 22, 2012, 6:09pm Top

Chapter 6

It is now the 13th century.

Albert the Great "laid foundations for the assimilation of the mass of newly translated Greek philosophy", advocating experience as a guide, by which he meant not active observation of nature, but reading various authorities and judging between them. Aristotle was a man, and therefore could err.

Thomas Aquinas was Albert's student, a Dominican, and author of Summa Theologiae. Every effect must have a cause, but this leads to infinity. And it is impossible, because without an initial cause, there can be no effect. Therefore, the first cause came from outside this world, is supernatural, is God. Faith is a gift from God. Reason, though, is appropriate for natural philosophers, the world behaves predictably.

Controversy was in the air regarding Arab scholar Averroes, whose commentary on Aristotle asserted the universe is deterministic and eternal, there is no free will, there is no life after death. His follower Siger of Brabant inspired (did not necessarily advocate himself) a "doctrine of two truths": philosophy said one thing (the universe is eternal) and faith said another (God created the universe). According to Christian orthodoxy, both reason and faith are from God so can't conflict.

A boundary had to be established between theology, "the most important and highly skilled profession", and natural philosophy, much as professional lawyers and doctors had begun taking action against amateurs. In 1277, the bishop of Paris compiled a list of 219 propositions of Averroes and Siger, all to the effect that God is constrained by natural laws, and banned teaching any. The propositions were "chaotically ordered and appear to be the product of some sort of ecclesiastical brainstorming session", but the list was successful.

Summa Theologiae and the list of banned propositions formed a framework within natural philosophers could work, studying nature without indulging in metaphysical speculation. The boundary constrained, but also protected.

Architectural addendum: Gothic cathedrals with three innovations: pointed arch, rib vaulting, flying buttress.

Feb 22, 2012, 6:12pm Top

Notes dump for chapters 4,5,6... Donna/Janet summarize nicely way back there in post 94.

Feb 24, 2012, 11:00pm Top

I've now read through chapter 13, though I haven't gotten notes organized. I'll continue to post chapter by chapter for reference. I'm expecting now not to finish this month, so I hope others who are reading at a leisurely pace will stick around. Flawed as the book may be, much of of it is unfamiliar to me, and I want to set up a skeleton to fill in later. I'm about to read the chapter on humanism, which got quite a reaction.

A bit of imagery that's stayed with me from chapter 8 is the towers of Bologna.

Feb 25, 2012, 8:55am Top

Lovely link!

Feb 25, 2012, 9:32am Top

I'm on Chapter 20 so I should finish reading this month. Sorry that I haven't held up my end of the conversation although I am enjoying everyone else's. I have lots of exclamation points and stars in margins for things that haven't been mentioned, so I'll try to post a few thoughts this weekend.

I'm in the minority here as I don't see the book as flawed or terribly defensive. He's got a bit of an agenda, but defensive? I don't see it. Yes it's not a scientific journal--but thank God for that! This book could have been a heavy slog.

Instead it's pop science/philosophy/history (and yes he gets the science wrong in a few spots) but it's a fun read. He has a quirky sense of humor and some of the anecdotes he tells have me laughing out loud. Am I the only one struck by the amount of humor Hannam inserts?

It's a superficial treatment since he has so much ground to cover. In the first few chapters, I pulled out my copy of Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy and found that the amount of information was almost exactly the same.

But I'm finding it a great introduction to a lot of people, places and events.

And I'm a big fan of all the notes, bibliography, timelines, and 'list of key players' as he calls it in the back of the book. I think 100 pages of additional reading/reference is absolutely outstanding for this sort of book and is one of the features that will give this one a home on my shelf as a reference.

Feb 25, 2012, 10:12am Top

169: Am I the only one struck by the amount of humor Hannam inserts?
No. He sometimes has a nicely irreverent attitude. I like the "ecclesiastical brainstorming session" of the 1277 ban on heretical statements.

I'm mostly trying to keep the plot straight, thus the notes dump. It's a useful overview, well organized, people placed in intellectual context with colorful stories to flesh them into humans. I expect I'll want to follow up with more detail.

I'm finding him a touch defensive, e.g. re medicine, that although treatment of bleeding and vomiting could be brutal, it followed rationally from the theory of disease, and re astrology, mathematical skill was essential, and with both sun and moon having obvious effects, it was not unreasonable to believe that planets would have effects also. I don't see the defensive tone as necessary; we know different because we've been taught different, and most of us would do no better if we had to begin from scratch. It's really really difficult to sort through how the universe works, and especially difficult if there are few successes to build on. Modern science is as it is because it has centuries of precedent and pragmatic results.

Feb 25, 2012, 10:34am Top

Chapter 7

"One of the major factors behind the success of magical healers was that they rarely did any damage." Magic depended on two dichotomies: microcosm / macrocosm, and sympathy / antipathy. Micro / macro: Everything on earth corresponds to something in the heavens; seven metals associated with seven planets: sun, moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn; planets and zodiac signs linked to body parts. Sympathy / antipathy: connected things had visible resemblance, e.g. a walnut corresponds to the head.

The major medical methods were bleeding and vomiting, both consistent with the theory of disease, which could be traced back to Galen (2nd century). The four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, black bile) had to be in balance for health, with different balance for different people. The easiest way to restore balance was to drain the one in excess. Properties of wet / dry and hot / cold were assigned to the humors (blood = wet, hot; phlegm = wet, cold), and to herbs. Doctors relied on astrology to indicate when treatment should occur. Doctors might not be able to cure disease, but could predict its progress.

Feb 25, 2012, 10:35am Top

Chapter 8

Astrology was much more complicated than it is now, and required mathematical skill. The position of each planet was defined by its "house", or zodiac sign; for the moon, more precision than date of birth was necessary. And what mattered for a reading was the time it pertained to. The Bible forbids divination. Augustine dismissed astrology because twins can have different fates. The Church initially disapproved of astrology, but astrologers claimed they were investigating natural forces. Thomas Aquinas said this was acceptable for events caused by physical forces, but not for events in the human realm. The issue was free will. Did stars and planets determine fate or just exert influence? Thomas Aquinas said they made an "impression". Ptolemy believed in astrology. Arab writers produced guides to astrology, and Christian scholars translated them. If the sun is a source of light and heat, and the moon causes tides, it was not unreasonable to think other planets had an effect. It was, however, possible to go too far. Cecco D'Ascoli, a lecturer on astronomy, also did astrology, and calculated horoscope of Jesus. This attracted the attention of the inquisition; Jesus was God incarnate, stars and planets did not determine his fate. Even so, this was a first offense, so punishment was relatively minor: he was fined and removed from the university. When he persisted, however, he was burned to death.

Alchemy was the transformation of one substance into another, a base metal into silver or gold. Although the goal was never achieved, along the way were real accomplishments: the discovery of acid, techniques of distillation and calcination, isolation of zinc, bismuth, antimony, improvements in measurement.

Feb 25, 2012, 11:06am Top

Pet peeve about the notes (not something particular to Hannam's book, but sadly common everywhere): On every page of the main book, we can see page numbers and the chapter name. In the notes, the only guide is the chapter number. The best books specify the relevant pages at the top of every page of notes, but at the very least, couldn't they include the chapter name along with the number in the notes section, or the number along with the name in the main text? As it is, I've found myself flipping back to the index at the front of the book whenever I try to look up a reference. It's almost like they don't want us to check the notes, or just don't expect anyone to bother. Argh.

Feb 25, 2012, 11:34am Top

_Zoe_ I didn't even notice that. Maybe because the way it's done is the standard way references are done in journal articles? Perhaps his science background is showing through.

Feb 25, 2012, 12:29pm Top

>174 streamsong: But in a journal article (or at least in the humanities ones that I read) there aren't multiple chapters, so the references are continuous. There will only be one footnote numbered 1, etc.

Feb 25, 2012, 12:32pm Top

I had to bail out on the book. It was borrowed from the Washington University library in St. Louis and was nonrenewable. I'll continue to follow the comments here. Kathleen, I love your chapter notes. I made it through Chapter 12 (loved reading about the early scandals at Oxford) so I will be particularly interested in your notes for the rest of the book. Thank you in advance.

And for those who are interested in Janet's comments, I'll go ahead and post the rest of them. It's too bad she didn't include Chapter headings, but it is fairly easy to determine where she is in the book.

Okay, back to God’s Philosophers. After a couple of chapters listing out some people and some achievements that Hannam thinks need more recognition, the rest of the book is more or less devoted to some of the big names of the next phase of science – Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo. Rather than seeing them as individual geniuses of science, Hannam again puts each firmly in the context and traditions emerging from the Middle Ages.

Copernicus was a student of Ptolemy’s geometry, but he hated that Ptolemy’s calculations and model of the solar system weren’t completely accurate (because God wouldn’t make mistakes). He so wanted to get it right, and improve the model, that he went and read all the maths and astronomy-related works he could find, even ones that had been more or less ignored by most scholars, and including some ancient Greek texts that had hypothesized heliocentric models. He became convinced of the heliocentric model, and wrote up the maths to demonstrate it, but only published his work in 1543, at the very end of his life, and with a preface from a friend stating it was “only a hypothesis”. Hannam says this wasn’t because of religious worries, but because the whole idea was so fantastic that the preface writer didn’t think anyone would belive it. To be fair, in order for the “fixed stars” to appear stationary in the context of the heliocentric model, the universe would have to be a billion times bigger than had previously been believed. It must have required a huge mental effort to accept a change like that, especially since people were inclined to believe God would have made things as elegant as possible – why would the universe need to be that big when the current model worked fine with a much smaller one?

Then, in 1572, a huge supernova appeared in the sky, followed by a comet in 1577 and another supernova in 1604. Astonomers all over Europe observed and measured these, and their calculations showed clearly that these were extra-atmospheric events. This pretty much put paid to the theory that the heavens were permanently unchanging, and opened the way for more serious consideration of Copernicus’ ideas. I wonder how much longer it might have taken if not for those lucky events?

As an interesting aside, Hannam also describes how Copernicus’ caluclations were used to help the Church correct the calendar. In 1582, 10 days were “skipped” in the calendar, to correct for all those 365¼ day years over those centuries, and the rules about leap years in centuries were changed to make it work better. But….. only Catholic countries made this change then, while Protestant countries adopted it later, so that for some time different countries used different dates, which must have been a bit confusing. In England, apparently, the change was only made in 1752! And, one of those little quirky facts of history, the loss of those 10 days in 1752 explains why the English tax year ends on April 5th, 10 days later than the traditional “settling up” timings of “quarter days”, which would have been the 25th of March. So now you know.

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Jan 20, 2011, 4:00pm
Nearly there with God’s Philosophers.

Hannam ends by discussing two leading figures of the 17th Century, Kepler and Galileo. Kepler is clearly one of Hannam’s heroes. Using the careful observations made by the astronomers of the recent supernovas and comet, Kepler refined Copernicus’ heliocentric model and worked out that the planets have elliptical rather than circular orbits (you remember that from school, don’t you?). He also studied light, and worked out how humans see. Hannam likes him because he was motivated by faith, built on the (medieval, Catholic – although he was a Protestant) traditions of the universities, and credited his sources. Here are two quotes:
“Kepler cracked the mystery of the planets’ movements because of his faith in God’s creative power.”
“He had solved two of the greatest scientific problems of the Middle Ages – how the planets moved and how we can see. He did so driven by a relentless Christian faith and working in the medieval traditions of the universities”.

Finally, we have Galileo. He is not one of Hannam’s heroes. He plagiarized shamelessly, apparently (which I guess writers really hate), and made out that he had just discovered or proved things which, in fact, lots of scholars already knew or accepted. You know what? I don’t care. I’m very glad Galileo came along when he did and was so smart. I don’t care if he forgot a few thank yous and “Op. cits.” along the way. His big breakthrough was the careful use of evidence to support theory. To get the best possible data, he built the best yet telescope, and observed many previously unknown stars and moons, the rings of Saturn, moon craters, and the phases of Venus, and he wrote it all down. Armed with this new evidence, even the Church’s top astronomer, Clavius, had to agree the model of the solar system had to change. There was still some controversy over publication of Galileo’s works (Hannam says this was political, because he was rude about the Pope, but it looked pretty religious to me), but eventually his work avoided suppression and became common currency. Hannam sums up his contribution like this:
“Galileo’s achievement lay in bringing together what had been done before, disposing of the vast amount that was irrelevant or simply wrong, and then proving the remainder with controlled experiments and brilliant arguments. A kind of new science did indeed begin with him, but there is no denying that he built on medieval foundations. Without them, he would never have been able to cover a fraction of the ground that he did, even in the long life he was granted.” He just never misses a chance to bang home his point about building on the past. Okay, I got it.

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Jan 21, 2011, 8:56am
Well, I'm not QUITE home - I'm waiting for my medicines to be ready, but should be leaving within the hour. Meanwhile, I can post my last post on God's Philosophers:

So (ha ha, I have been following the Beowulf conversations!). I finally came to the end of God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam. Hannam ends with the interesting observation that the word “scientist” was only coined in the 19th Century, and that we shouldn’t forget that before that it was philosophers, and primarily theologians that asked the big questions like “how far away are the stars?”, “how do we see?”, “how do things move?” and so on. He says the Middle Ages contributed to the foundations of modern science in four ways:
- Development of institutions (universities) where natural philosophy could flourish
- Technological advances, often for practical purposes, but aiding the study of natural phenoma as well (compass, clock, lenses)
- Metaphysics (that is, a reason for doing it to begin with) – the desire to better understand God by better understanding his creation.
- Theories which could be tested – this was a development of the later Middle Ages, in particular after philosophers started to combine maths with philosophy.

Of these, it seems he feels the metaphysics must be the most important, because just before he moves into that summary he leaves us with this view:

“However, the most significant contribution of the natural philosophers of the Middle Ages was to make modern science even conceivable. They made science safe in a Christian context, showed how it could be useful and constructed a world view where it made sense.”

My own view is that it’s too bad they had to “make it safe”, but that was the world they lived in, so it’s good that they found a way to do that.

I have really enjoyed this trawl through the Middle Ages, and learned a lot about how people perceived the world around them, what kinds of questions they asked, how the Church supported or interfered with that, and how all this lead to later developments that we may have previously believed came directly from the Greeks, skipping over 1000 years of thinking and ideas. I still like the Greeks, and the Renaissance, better, so I guess I am an unreconstructed Humanist, but at least I’m a better informed one now! Thanks to everyone who has shared the journey with me.

Feb 25, 2012, 12:33pm Top

Yes, exactly--the style didn't change, and it didn't translate so well into book form.

Wouldn't it be fun to know how many publishers he pitched this book to before it got accepted? 'Hey, I've got this book idea on math and religion and philosophy in the middle ages, but it will be fun, I promise!" (sound of publishers running away).

Mar 1, 2012, 7:58am Top

>177 streamsong: It's possible that he had some connections within the publishing market through one of his PhD advisors. Though even with that help, it might be hard to sell!

Just dropping in to say that although I've finished the book, I'll hang around and read the comments and reply when I have something to say. :)

For those of you who are interested in starting a group that reads Science, Religion, and History, perhaps we should start a separate thread to discuss what book should be read next and when? Would it be ok to just start a thread in the 75ers group so that others who are interested can join? I don't know what the etiquette for that is.

Mar 1, 2012, 8:31am Top

>178 The_Hibernator: Yup, I'd just go for it and start a thread!

Mar 1, 2012, 10:55am Top

But, please come back here and post a link to it? That would be helpful!

Mar 2, 2012, 6:10pm Top

I started a group read thread which lists the books we've discussed so far and asks for a vote for the next book we read and when. :)

Edited: Mar 4, 2012, 10:22am Top

I see on the 75er's TIOLO thread that there are still 4 people either reading or hoping to read this book.

I'm hoping the thread will revive again.

Perhaps we need to put off the groups read to quarterly instead of bi-monthly?

ETA--I see on the new thread that the reads are proposed as quarterly. Boy, am I behind!

Mar 4, 2012, 10:20am Top

I'm still here! I tied up loose ends of other books for February, and I have RL tasks to do in March that are cutting into reading time.

Mar 4, 2012, 2:40pm Top

Yup, I'm still here, if not progressing rapidly on the book. I had another group read going on at the same time, and now that I'm finished with that one, I should be able to move faster here (and my upcoming spring break won't hurt either!).

Mar 4, 2012, 6:52pm Top

Chapter 9

A shared religion (Christianity) and shared language (Latin) resulted in a "single international intelligentsia". Secular leaders found the educated clergy useful as councilors, ambassadors, tutors. Clergy were not supposed to shed blood, but were effective at operating seige machinery (e.g. trebuchet) because of engineering and mathematical expertise. Universities were a path to advancement for poor families. The Dominicans and Franciscans provided room and board and educational fees.

Robert Grosseteste (c. 1170-1253): Franciscan, at Oxford. He became a bishop and theologian, but his early works were about natural philosophy, with frequent references to experimentum, which meant experience, and is more about observation than the experiments of modern science. A common belief was that natural phenomena could not be expected to perform the same in the laboratory and in the wild. He was fascinated by light as divine ("let there be light").

Roger Bacon (1214-1292). Franciscan, moved between Oxford and Paris, was a student of Grosseteste. There is a "persistent myth" that he got into trouble with the church because he was ahead of his time scientifically. It's not actually clear that he was imprisoned, or why. He was concerned about the end of the world, and may (or may not) have been linked to a sect of Franciscans pressuring the church to give up its wealth in emulation of Christ because the end of the world was near. His "experimental" work was in alchemy, with plenty of magical thinking. His speculations about flying machines and horseless carriages were more imagination than science. He too was fascinated by light, and by vision, but did not conduct experiments. He synthesized various Greek and Arab authorities.

Toward the end of the 13th century, spectacles were invented, in Italy.

Edited: Mar 4, 2012, 6:53pm Top

Chapter 10

Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336): Adopted by Benedictine monk then sent to study at Oxford. He constructed the Albion to calculate the positions of planets and stars, and a clock for his church that displayed times of the tides.

Around the same time as spectacles, the clock was invented in England, made possible by the escapement.

Oxford curriculum: 3-4 years for studying the Trivium: grammar (Latin), dialectic (logic), rhetoric. Then 3 years studying the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy. Textbooks: Algorismus (named for its author Al-Khwarizmi); Arithmetic by Boethius for properties of numbers, prime numbers, number theory; Elements by Euclid for geometry; The Sphere by John Sacrobosco for astronomy. Music was the theory of harmony and rhythms. It is not true that the church resisted the introduction of 0 and Arabic numerals; abacus users resisted because the simpler math reduced demand for their skills, also it took awhile to settle on which of various forms of the numbers to use.

Mar 4, 2012, 6:55pm Top

Chapter 11

John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308): Franciscan, at Oxford and Cambridge and Paris. Building upon Thomas Aquinas, he believed the existence of God can be proven. He was not wholly in agreement though: Thomas thought the universe reflected the character of God; Duns Scotus said this restricted God's freedom of action and God could make the universe any way he pleased. Thomas thought God willed what was good; Duns Scotus said it is good because God willed it. Duns Scotus was good for science; there was no reason to assume things worked as Aristotle described, freeing speculation about other possibilities.

William of Ockham: Franciscan at Oxford, left for unknown reasons in 1320 before completing a degree; may have argued with his examiners about doctrine. A committee of Pope John XXII found 51 of his propositions heretical, and he fled to the Holy Roman Emperor. In contrast to Thomas Aquinas, he believed reason insufficient and faith necessary to know about God. He was a nominalist: we can perceive only individual things, and we make connections between them. There is no need to postulate the existence of real universals with no direct experience. This is Ockham's Razor: "Multiple entities should never be invoked unnecessarily." Nominalists tended to be more empirical than realists, had to see it to believe it, could not merely reason from first principles.

Duns Scotus was the "Old Way". Ockham was the "New Way", attractive to students. The dispute was a proxy for realism vs nominalism.

The Merton Calculators:

Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1290-1349): Students studied math, then studied natural philosophy, separately. Although it was accepted that the stars and planets move according to mathematical patterns, Aristotle had thought it impossible to apply mathematical deductions to physics. Bradwardine thought the opposite: math reveals truth. He set out to describe motion mathematically, focusing on a formula to link the force exerted on an object and its speed. He used Aristotle's laws of motion, so the formula was an accurate model of flawed concepts.

Richard Swineshead (fl. 1340-1355): Wrote Book of Calculations about situations in which a quantity such as heat or speed is increasing or decreasing. These were thought experiments, not real world applications of math. Example: What would happen to an object falling into a hole drilled through the earth?

William Heytesbury (c. 1313-1373): Wrote Rules for Solving Logical Puzzles. What happens when a moving object accelerates at a constant rate? How far has it traveled? It has traveled the distance that it would have traveled at its average speed during the same time. This is the "mean speed theorem".

Mar 4, 2012, 6:56pm Top

Demonstrating good faith effort with another notes dump.

Mar 4, 2012, 7:31pm Top

qebo wrote: "A shared religion (Christianity) and shared language (Latin) resulted in a "single international intelligentsia". "

I found this point very interesting, too, because I see the internet as being the modern parallel creating a vehicle for the 'shared intelligentsia'. And, (although I'm certainly williing to take flack here), I think English has become the language of science).

Back in post 78, Rachel was speculating about the next big leap forward in medical research. Personally, I think the computer and the internet are a huge leap forward in both medicine and scientific research.

One of the interesting things about 'huge leap forwards', though, is that they are not often recognized until many years later.

I know I got my bachelor's in microbiology in the late 70's without ever having isolated DNA. Now it's so routine and boring and foolproof-by-way-of-a-kit, we have high school students helping out by purifying plasmid DNA.

Mar 4, 2012, 8:03pm Top

189: Sharing does seem to be key, but it's a combo of common language and semi-random encounters with different ideas. Tons of semi-randomness occurring on the internet.

Mar 4, 2012, 8:24pm Top

Yes, there are semi-random encounters, but more importantly there are lots of directed encounters, too. Researchers are in touch with other researchers everywhere--and collaborations can be instantaneous. There is a huge amount of information out there in DNA databases such as GeneBank, not to mention the existance of many, (if not most) scientific papers online. You no longer need a database such as Medline and shelves of paper journals.

I'll let someone else speak to the medical uses of computers, but I think that the computer directed imaging is amazing.

Mar 4, 2012, 8:28pm Top

>189 streamsong: Personally, I think the computer and the internet are a huge leap forward in both medicine and scientific research.

You're right. I hadn't thought about the internet as the kind of huge leap forward that we needed when I was commenting way back when. However, the internet certainly has advanced medical research. My thesis advisor always told stories about how he had to go to an actual LIBRARY and look through actual HARD COPIES to search for research studies that could be referenced. Whereas now, I just go to Pubmed type in "macrophage & LPS & RANKL" and have all of the relevant papers pop up. And internet searches are an amazing way to make random connections that span the various disciplines (say bone biology and immunology). Only 1 or 2 generations ago scientists were only bone biologists or only immunologists because a bone biologist wouldn't have the foggiest idea where to look in the immunology literature for relevant papers. Now she can just type in a search on the internet and find papers in places she never would have looked. The internet is a disciplinary bridge. :)

Edited: Mar 4, 2012, 8:42pm Top

Try looking for "macrophage & LPS & RANKL' with Google. Google has pretty much replaced Pubmed/ Medline and other scientific database searches for the scientists I work with. With the info known about me here at LT, you could not only pull up every one of my authored papers with Google, but also all the papers where I'm listed in the acknowledgements section. (And being a technician, there are a lot more of those than the authored papers).

Edited for typo. Darn--now if only I had spell check.

Mar 4, 2012, 8:40pm Top

191: Seems we have different images of "semi-random".
192: And internet searches are an amazing way to make random connections that span the various disciplines (say bone biology and immunology).
Yes, exactly.

Mar 4, 2012, 8:47pm Top

qebo--191: Seems we have different images of "semi-random". You're exactly right on that. My bad.

Edited: Mar 4, 2012, 9:05pm Top

195: Sorry. I'm an excruciatingly slow writer, and I'm on LT in snatches these days, so I'll write one sentence when I should write several. Your post triggered thoughts of a New Yorker article and MIT Building 20.

Edited: Mar 4, 2012, 9:06pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Mar 18, 2012, 1:40pm Top

Just a note to say that I finally received this book from the library last week and just finished it. I found it fascinating. The chapter summaries above, both the original thoughts by Janet and the more detailed ones by Katherine, were both quite good. I think that Hannam has a point that the English filter on my exposure to history certainly glossed over a lot of these figures and their contributions.

A few semi-random thoughts: In an age where most people didn't travel more than 20 miles from where they were born, the mobility of the clergy and their students through all of Europe is pretty amazing. And the loss to the gene pool of all these amazing minds is pretty sad, although granted the Black Plague could have wiped them all out anyhow.

Mar 18, 2012, 1:49pm Top

198: I've finished reading the book (it went so much more quickly when I stopped taking notes), but I'm immersed in home renovation, so a review, or even any coherent thoughts, will be awhile.

Mar 18, 2012, 8:17pm Top

I have finished the book too and although I have not been able to participate in the discussion (you all got way too far ahead of me), I do have some comments that I will post shortly.

In the meantime, I was at a post-theater discussion this afternoon and one of the panelists (the subject was the excommunication of Spinoza) started to talk about Peter Abelard and I felt very well-informed.

Group: 75 Books Challenge for 2012

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