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Adelard's Questions and Ockham's Razor:
Connections between Medieval Philosophy and Modern Science

(Released November 2008)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


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Naturalism in Medieval Natural Philosophy


The 12th century development of naturalism in medieval natural philosophy came on the cusp of change. Just as Arabic scholarship and the revival of ancient Greek texts were beginning to filter into European scholarship, intellectuals began to reclaim the domain of reason implied in the logical works of Aristotle that had survived in the literature of the early Middle Ages. Medieval natural philosophy assumed the existence of God and that the universe was formed through an act of divine creation. Medieval naturalism did not challenge this assumption, but relegated God to the source of creation, not an active participant in it. The scholar Thierry of Chartes, in describing the creation story, limits God's role to just the first instant of creation. In that initial instant God created the four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. Everything else from that moment onwards just occurs through unfolding causation (Lindberg, 1992). Naturalism recognizes the existence of natural order, and philosophers espousing this belief looked for natural explanations for observed physical phenomena.

Adam, Eve & nature
"Adam and Eve" Lucas Cranach, 1526
The 12th century English scholar Adelard of Bath is notable both for his contribution to natural philosophy and as an Arabic translator. He contributed the first full Latin translation of Euclid's Elements and introduced trigonometry to Europe as transmitted through Arabic astronomical tables. In the preface of Questions Naturales Adelard refers to his travels to Antioch and attributes his ideas to Arabic learning (Burnett, 1998). The text is written in the form of a dialogue between Adelard and his nephew. His nephew puts forward a series of 76 questions regarding subjects in natural philosophy.

The Questions Naturales covers subjects such as plants and animals, the four elements, the hydrological cycle, weather, and astronomy. The answers Adelard provides offer an intriguing insight into the state of knowledge at his time. What is particularly interesting about the work is its focus on reason, even to the exclusion of authority unless it is seen to be firmly based on reason. Early in the dialogue, when Adelard's nephew makes reference to God, Adelard replies,

I am not slighting God's role. For whatever exists is from him and through him. Nevertheless, that dependence [on God] is not [to be taken] in blanket fashion, without distinction. One should attend to this distinction, as far as human knowledge can go . . . . (Burnett, 1998)
Throughout the rest of the work Adelard makes repeated reference to the use of reason. At then end of the dialogue Adelard's nephew brings up the role of God again, referring to God as an efficient cause. Adelard dismisses this as a discussion for another day. By this device, Adelard places supernatural explanations outside the realm of natural philosophy. Reason, not divine intervention, should be used to explain the material universe.

Adelard's contemporary, William of Conches, wrote the Dramaticon Philosophy in a similar vein to Questions Naturales. This work takes the form of a dialogue between the Duke of Normandy and an unnamed philosopher. In a prior work, Philosophia, William offered some views that were challenged by the religious community. In the opening of Dramaticon Philosophy, William attempts to assure his audience of his Catholic orthodoxy. Still, he focuses on giving natural explanations. When the duke questions this approach, the philosopher's response is,

What is more foolish than to assume that something exists simply because the Creator is able to make it? Does He make whatever he can? Therefore, whoever says that God makes anything contrary to nature should either see that it is so with his own eyes, or show the reason for its being so, or demonstrate the advantage of its being so (Ranca et al., 1997).
The natural philosopher concedes God has the power to interfere with the natural order of things. But natural philosophy postulates a rational creator that does not intervene.

In the tension that existed between reason, theology, and authority, medieval philosophers made explicit an assumption that had existed implicitly in natural philosophy; namely, that the universe is rational and intelligible to the human mind. This assumption, important for natural philosophy, is for science essential and foundational. Science is confined to commenting on the potentially explicable world, and relies on a continuity of causes and effects. If the world is inexplicable and continuity does not exist, science has little to offer in explanatory power.

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