God and the Medieval Cosmos

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Scholastic natural philosophers sought to understand the physical world at a time when controlled experiments, systematic observations, and the application of mathematics to physical phenomena, were rare occurrences. They had to rely on two powerful tools of analysis available to them. The first was REASON, which they usually applied in a largely a priori manner, based on a minimum of observation and empirical data. They applied reason most effectively in circumstances of their own devising, that is in the realm of the hypothetical, which enabled them to make use of the second great tool: THE HUMAN IMAGINATION, used in ways that I have already described. The conditions they imagined were possible, but only by virtue of God's absolute power, provided that God's action did not imply a logical contradiction. It was by such means that medieval natural philosophers got beyond Aristotle's limited world and came to consider momentous problems about space, vacuum, and other worlds. Many of the non-scholastics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries grappled with the same problems, and profited from the earlier discussions. They were, however, in no mood to acknowledge indebtedness to the defenders of Aristotle and the status quo. After all, they were bringing a new world order into being, a Copernican-Newtonian heliocentric world that would completely replace the Aristotelian scholastic geocentric model that had reigned for more than four centuries. They saw no need to be gracious in triumph. Indeed, they had only contempt for their medieval predecessors, whose opinions they mocked and scorned at every opportunity. The image of medieval scholastic cosmology and science will forever be the hostile one Galileo constructed. Nevertheless, the significant process of "getting beyond Aristotle" had already begun in the Middle Ages, though it would come to spectacular fruition only in the seventeenth century. In retrospect, then, it seems appropriate to accord a small measure of credit to those much-maligned scholastics, and thereby modestly begin to redress a long-standing injustice inflicted upon the Middle Ages by the victors in the science wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
This public lecture was delivered at Harris Manchester College Chapel, Oxford University on July 29, 1999.
medieval, middle ages, Christianity, religion, theology, St. Augustine, Peter Apian, cosmology, Thomas Bradwardine, Aristotle, Willima Vorilong, John Blund, Robert Kilwardby, Jonh Buridan
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