Posted by: Linda Proud | February 2, 2011

God’s Philosophers


I spotted it through the window of Blackwell’s, this attractive book with such an attractive title. It was on a three-for-two table, so of course I bought two others, but I haven’t got on with them so well, whereas I’ve had my nose stuck in God’s Philosophers for a month or more.

It tells the story of ‘natural philosophy’ in Europe, beginning with a review of the early Middle Ages up to AD1000, then goes on to cover the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, to end with Galileo. There are some very familiar names here, and some I’ve never heard of and would like to know more, such as the Merton Calculators and the Italian Cardano. The story is how ‘natural philosophy’ became modern science.

Hannam has a few points he would like to make, and he makes them very well. One is that more science came out of medieval Europe than we have been led to believe. As he says, we credit countries and cultures where things began, but not where they were developed. So, for example, the Chinese ‘invented’ gunpowder, but it was the French who made it usable as a powder for guns.

Another point, made repeatedly, is that the Church was never against science. I’m not going to give lots of examples of this – you must read the book – but suffice to say that even the dreaded Inquisition only acted on repeat offenders. Last night I read that the man who sent Giordano Bruno to the stake before turning his attention to Galileo was ‘kindly’ and only ‘doing his duty’. This seems bizarre as I write it down, but Hannam has a powerful way of putting the case that the Church has been thoroughly misunderstood and misrepresented by history.

At first this was completely refreshing: a history of science with God back in the picture. And that’s why I’ve loved this book, it seems so balanced. But I’ve had to turn a blind eye to Hannam’s blindness when he speaks of magic, alchemy, the magical world view, astrology, with less than balanced language, using words like ‘gobbledegook’. By the end of the book, sadly, this lack of balance is tipping it out of my favour. What a shame that a book which shows so well the separation and estrangement between church, science and magic could not treat them all with equal fairness. On one hand, yes, the magical world view can provide no ‘testable hypotheses’, but what this book shows is that it produced quite a number of major scientists. One smells the gunpowder coming off the author’s own foot at this point. Despite this regrettable imbalance, I have enjoyed reading this enormously and am very grateful to have been introduced to such a fabulous cast of colourful characters.

One question dominates all others as a consequence: have all the innovators and visionaries been more heretical than orthodox? Especially in the story of medicine, one gets the sense of universities stuffed with black-robed reactionaries, practicing invasive medicine that killed people, and making life very difficult for men such as Cardano, who advocated good diet and plenty of rest. But those crows do not feature as individuals in this history of science. It would seem that none of them contributed to the world’s great discoveries, that the academically proper have no part to play. Is that true? Is it still true? Are all those neo-atheists who call herbalism ‘snake oil’ and the magical world view (still alive, thankfully) ‘irrationality’ part of a non-productive heap of learning, the husks and not the kernels?

What this book promotes, possibly unintentionally, is the Marxist version of history as progress by way of revolution and rebellion.

But it is very good to have God back in the picture, and I hope ex-city financier, Mr Hannam, will be doing a sequel which will tell us when God was finally ousted and why. He was certainly present in Einstein’s thinking, but since then seems to have been anathema to the scientific world view. (My GP was recently forced to resign from his practice and the NHS would not say why, but the word in the village was that this overt Christian had advised a patient to pray).

Anyway, whatever I think of God’s Philosophers in the end, I do like a book which makes me think, wonder and, even better, look things up and continue reading in the subject.

Hannam runs a blog called Quodlibeta, listed on the right panel.

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