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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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The Medieval Inheritance of Modern Science


The medieval mind focused on questions that only sometimes resemble modern questions. Some of the abandoned questions seem trivial, based on misconception, or for some other reason no longer relevant to present culture. In other instances, the questions and answers are already imbedded in current culture and thought and grow increasingly invisible. (For instance, modern scientists frequently privilege an experimental approach to testing the ideas of scientific hypothesis. However, if the approach should violate the rules of basic Aristotelian reasoning, it's unlikely that a resulting paper would pass peer review.) The more profoundly ingrained a concept, the less consciously a culture acknowledges its meaning and consequence. With over half a millennia to absorb or reject the intellectual contribution of the Middle Ages, it is hardly surprising that the nature of this contribution has become obscured over time. The path between medieval philosophy and modern science is further convoluted because of the medieval lack of philosophical and disciplinary boundaries by which we now define the sciences. In order to obtain a just understanding of the medieval contribution, one must transgress the modern boundaries, even to the realm of theology.

Science is ultimately a historical and cultural endeavor. The questions scientists choose to pursue are grounded in values and assumptions of the culture in which a scientist participates. We may take for granted the scientific focus of our own time, but the study of science in historical context emphasizes how cultural mores can influence the pursuit of knowledge. For instance, in the Middle Ages light served as an important theological metaphor. Consequently, natural philosophers exhibited a profound interest in optics and vision. As a result, some of the most modernly coherent medieval natural philosophy focuses on optics (Durant, 1950).

Science may advance even under the influence of false assumptions. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn (1996) used the Ptolemaic system as an example of a now discarded scientific paradigm. Kuhn argued that paradigms last as long as they remain sufficiently functional for the cultures that use them. In Ptolemy's cosmology the sun, moon, planets, and fixed stars rotated around an unmoving earth. This theory was put forward in the second century BC. Not until Copernicus in the 15th did the first serious challenge arise against the Ptolemaic paradigm. This was not because no one ever offered alternative opinions to Ptolemy, however. The century before Ptolemy, Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric cosmology. During the Middle Ages two Arabic astronomers raised issues concerning the Ptolemaic system. Abu Ishaq al-Bitruji criticized the epicycles and eccentrics required to explain the movement of the stars. Abu al-Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni suggested that astronomic data could be explained by a daily rotation of the earth on its axis and an annual rotation around the sun (Durant, 1950). Still, Ptolemaic astronomy was sufficient for the needs of the time. Astronomy did not stagnate for the 16 intervening centauries. Arabic scholars improved on the astronomy that they borrowed from the Greeks. When Arabic astronomy was transmitted to Europe, European scholars continued the work. It was the accumulation of this astronomic knowledge that paved the way to the Copernican revolution.

The Arabic science of alchemy was based on premises that have long since been abandoned. Still, working under these premises Arabic and European scholars experimented and obtained a useful working knowledge of chemistry. It helped contribute to a knowledge base from which the modern discipline of chemistry was eventually shaped.

Much of the intellectual legacy that Medieval Europe passed on to posterity was not wholly original to the time or place. The historical periods of greatest intellectual vitality, both in Arabic and European scholarship, came with exposure to literature of ancient Greece. This exposure to an alien culture brought about the absorption of new ideas and resulted in intensely creative response to the new concepts and knowledge. Both cultures reformed and synthesized the products of philosophy to fit their own needs. It is through the filter of this synthesis that later generations have come to read classical literature.

Important medieval approaches to the acquisition of knowledge have done much to influence how we approach science in modern times. Naturalism passes on an essential assumption to the project of scientific inquiry. In naturalism we assume a rational, lawful universe, without which there is no purpose in the pursuit of science, because if the universe is truly arbitrary it is also unintelligible. The scholasticism of theologians such as Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Ockham provide some of the most precise and carefully honed examples of logical and metaphysical reasoning available from history. Both logic and metaphysics form an important foundation on which scientific methodology is built. While some Greek philosophers identified mathematics as the language of natural philosophy, it was medieval natural philosophers such as Roger Bacon who first truly began to integrate mathematics into disciplines such as physics. In a further move towards creating a more mathematical science, Duns Scotus and Ockham introduced the idea of applying probability to truth claims. In addition to theory, the Middle Ages introduced an important institution to modern times in the form of the university. The practice of science is profoundly influenced by this academic institution. In both theoretical and physical ways, the history of science would be profoundly different without the contribution of the Middle Ages.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages the philosophical groundwork for the development of modern science had already been laid. Additional refinements were to be added over time, but all the essential building blocks were there. Yet, it was another several centuries until a truly modern science began to emerge. It is hard to define what exactly lead to this delay. Certainly, one factor occurred in the middle of the 14th century, when Bubonic plague broke out. In less than a decade approximately a third of the population of Europe died. Successive, though less devastating outbreaks continued over the century that followed, further reducing the population. It was a difficult, demoralizing time and not conducive to further intellectual advances. Also, it was a time of transition, as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance. The intellectual climate changed, and scholars began shifting their focus to different types of questions (Williams, 2007). Many Renaissance scholars disdained the contributions of their medieval predecessors, even as they built new theories on the works of the prior age. For a long time the contribution of medieval philosophy was downplayed or even entirely ignored. Even today, the contributions of the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution are easier to point to, as the works of Galileo, Descarte, Sir Francis Bacon, Newton, Hook and Boyle are more tangible. But without the foundation provided by medieval natural philosophy, it is doubtful that these later contributors could have offered as much as they did to future generations.

© 2008, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals


  1. Burnett, Charles, ed. (1998) Adelard of Bath Conversations with His Nephew, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

  2. Clegg, Brian. (2003) The First Scientist: a Life of Roger Bacon, Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York.

  3. Durant, Will. (1950) The Age of Faith, Simon and Schuster, New York.

  4. Hall, Alexander. (2007) Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus: Natural Theology in the High Middle Ages, Biddles Ltd. Kings Lynn, Norfolk.

  5. Kuhn, Thomas. (1996) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd Edition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

  6. Lindberg, David. (1992) The Beginnings of Western Science, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

  7. Luscombe, David. (1997) Medieval Thought, Oxford University Press, London.

  8. Ranca, Italo and Matthew Curr eds. (1997) A Dialogue on Natural Philosophy, The University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame.

  9. Rubenstein, Richard. (2003) Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages, Harcourt, Orlando.

  10. Stanford University. (2007) "Robert Grosseteste" in Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

  11. Thornburn, William. (1918) "The Myth of Ockham's Razor" in Mind, 27, 345-353.

  12. Williams, Thomas. (2007) Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages, The Teaching Company, Chantilly.