The Birth of Experimental Science

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
June 2016, Vol 36, No. 2, under the title ‘Out of the Dark’).

To the ancient Greeks, science was simply the knowledge of nature.  The acquisition of such knowledge was theoretical rather than experimental.  Logic and reason were applied to observations of nature in attempts to discover the underlying principles influencing phenomena.

After the Dark Ages, the revival of classical logic and reason in Western Europe was highly significant to the development of universities and subsequent intellectual progress.  It was also a precursor to the development of empirical scientific methods in the thirteenth century, which I think were even more important because of the later practical benefits of science to humanity.  The two most influential thinkers in development of scientific methods at this time were the English philosophers Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) and Roger Bacon (c.1219/20-c.1292). (Note: Roger Bacon is not to be confused with Francis Bacon).

Apart from the relatively brief Carolingan Renaissance of the late eighth century to the ninth century, intellectual progress in Western Europe generally lagged behind that of the Byzantine and Islamic parts of the former Roman Empire.[1]  But from around 1050, Arabic, Jewish and Greek intellectual manuscripts started to become more available in the West in Latin translations.[2] [3]  These translations of ancient works had a major impact on Medieval European thought.  For instance, according to Pasnau, ‘when James of Venice translated Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics from Greek into Latin in the second quarter of the twelfth century, ‘European philosophy got one of the great shocks of its long history’.[4] This book had a dramatic impact on ‘natural philosophy’, as science was then called.

Under Pope Gregory VII, a Roman synod had in 1079 decreed that all bishops institute the teaching of liberal arts in their cathedrals.[5]  In the early twelfth century, universities began to emerge from Cathedral schools, in response to the Gregorian reform and demands for literate administrators, accountants, lawyers and clerics.  The curriculum was loosely based on the seven liberal arts, consisting of a trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric; plus a quadruvium of music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.[6]  Besides the liberal arts, some (but not all) universities offered three professional courses of law, medicine and theology.[7]

Dialectic was a method of learning by the use of arguments in a question and answer format, heavily influenced by the translations of Aristotle’s works.  This was known as ‘Scholasticism’ and included the use of logical reasoning as an alternative to the traditional appeals to authority.[8] [9]  For the first time, philosophers and scientists studied in close proximity to theologians trained to ask questions.[10]

At this stage, the most influential scientist was Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) who was a leading English scholastic philosopher, scientist and theologian.  After studying theology in Paris from 1209 to 1214, he made his academic career at Oxford, becoming its Chancellor in 1234.[11]  He later became the Bishop of Lincoln, where there is now a university named after him. According to Luscombe, Grosseteste ‘seems to be the single most influential figure in shaping an Oxford interest in the empirical sciences that was to endure for the rest of the Middle Ages’.[12]

Grossetesste

Robert Grossteste  (1175-1253)

Grosseteste’s knowledge of Greek enabled him to participate in the translation of Aristotelian science and ethics.[13] [14]  In the first Latin commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, from the 1220s, Robert Grosseteste distinguishes four ways in which we might speak of scientia, or scientific knowledge.

‘It does not escape us, however, that having scientia is spoken of broadly, strictly, more strictly, and most strictly. [1] Scientia commonly so-called is [merely] comprehension of truth. Unstable contingent things are objects of scientia in this way. [2] Scientia strictly so-called is comprehension of the truth of things that are always or most of the time in one way. Natural things – namely, natural contingencies – are objects of scientia in this way. Of these things there is demonstration broadly so-called. [3] Scientia more strictly so-called is comprehension of the truth of things that are always in one way. Both the principles and the conclusions in mathematics are objects of scientia in this way. [4] Scientia most strictly so-called is comprehension of what exists immutably by means of the comprehension of that from which it has immutable being. This is by means of the comprehension of a cause that is immutable in its being and its causing.’[15]

Grosseteste’s first and second ways of describing scientia refer to the truth of the way things are by demonstration, that is by empirical observation.

Grosseteste himself went beyond Aristotelian science by investigating natural phenomena mathematically as well as empirically in controlled laboratory experiments.  He studied the refraction of light through glass lenses and drew conclusions about rainbows as the refraction of light through rain drops.[16]

Although Grosseteste is credited with introducing the idea of controlled scientific experiments, there is doubt whether he made this idea part of a general account of a scientific method for arriving at the principles of demonstrative science. [17]  This role fell to his disciple Roger Bacon (c.1219/20-c.1292CE) who was who was also an English philosopher, but unlike Bishop Grosseteste, Bacon was a Franciscan friar.

Roger Bacon (c.1219/20-c.1292)

Bacon taught in the Oxford arts faculty until about 1247, when he moved to Paris which he disliked and where he made himself somewhat unpopular.  The only Parisian academic he admired was Peter of Maricourt, who reinforced the importance of experiment in scientific research and of mathematics to certainty.[18]

As a scientist, Roger Bacon continued Grosseteste’s investigation of optics in a laboratory setting.  He supplemented these optical experiments with studies of the physiology of the human eye by dissecting the eyes of cattle and pigs.[19]  Bacon also investigated the geometry of light, thus further applying mathematics to empirical observations.  According to Colish, ‘the very idea of treating qualities quantitatively was a move away from Aristotle, who held that quality and quantity are essentially different’.[20]

The most important work of Roger Bacon was his Opus Majus (Latin for ‘Greater Work’) written c.1267CE.  Part Six of this work contains a study of Experimental Science, in which Bacon advocates the verification of scientific reasoning by experiment.

‘…I now wish to unfold the principles of experimental science, since without experience nothing can be sufficiently known. For there are two modes of acquiring knowledge, namely, by reasoning and experience. Reasoning draws a conclusion and makes us grant the conclusion, but does not make the conclusion certain, nor does it remove doubt so that the mind may rest on the intuition of truth, unless the mind discovers it by the path of experience;..’[21]

Bacon’s aim was to provide a rigorous method for empirical science, analogous to the use of logic to test the validity of deductive arguments.  This new practical method consisted of a combination of mathematics and detailed experiential descriptions of discrete phenomena in nature. [22]  Roger Bacon illustrated his method by an investigation into the nature and cause of the rainbow.  For instance, he calculated the measured value of 42 degrees for the maximum elevation of the rainbow.  This was probably done with an astrolabe, and by this technique, Bacon advocated the skillful mathematical use of instruments for an experimental science.[23]

Optics from Roger Bacon’s De multiplicatone specierum

The optical experiments that both Grosseteste and Bacon conducted were of practical usefulness in correcting deficiencies in human eyesight and the later invention of the telescope.  But more importantly, Roger Bacon is credited with being the originator of empirical scientific methods that were later further developed by scientists such as Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon and Robert Hooke.  This is notwithstanding the twentieth century criticism of inductive scientific methods by philosophers of science such as Karl Popper, in favour of empirical falsification.[24]

The benefits of science to humanity – especially medical science – are well known and one example should suffice here.  An essential component of medical science is the clinical trial, which is the empirical testing of a proposed treatment on a group of patients whilst using another group of untreated patients as a blind control group to isolate and statistically measure the effectiveness of the treatment, whilst keeping all other factors constant.  This empirical approach is vastly superior to the theoretical approach of ancient physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen, and owes much to the pioneering work of Grosseteste and Bacon.  This is why I think that the development of empirical scientific methods was even more important than the revival of classical logic and reason, in terms of practical benefits to humanity. However, it is somewhat ironic that the later clashes between religion and science had their origins in the pioneering experiments of a bishop and a friar.

Whilst the twelfth century revival of classical logic and reason was very significant in terms of Western intellectual progress generally, the development of empirical scientific methods were in my view the most important intellectual endeavor of the European thirteenth century; and Bacon’s contribution to this was greater than that of Grosseteste because he devised general methodological principles for later scientists to build upon.

BIBIOGRAPHY

 Primary sources

Bacon, Roger, Opus Majus. a Translation by Robert Belle Burke. (New York, Russell & Russell, 1962).

Grosseteste, Robert, Commentarius in Posteriorum Analyticorum Libros. In Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Secondary works

Colish, Marcia, L., Medieval foundations of the Western intellectual tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

Hackett, Jeremiah, ‘Roger Bacon’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/roger-bacon/&gt;.

Kenny, Anthony Medieval Philosophy  (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2005).

Lewis, Neil, ‘Robert Grosseteste’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2013/entries/grosseteste/&gt;.

Luscombe, David, Medieval thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Moran Cruz, Jo Ann and Richard Geberding, ‘The New Learning, 1050-1200’, in Medieval Worlds: An Introduction to European History, 300-1492 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), pp.350-376.

Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ in R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Popper, Karl The Logic of Scientific Discovery. (London and New York 1959).

ENDNOTES

[1] Colish, Marcia, L., Medieval foundations of the Western intellectual tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).pp.x-xi

[2] Moran Cruz, Jo Ann and Richard Geberding, ‘The New Learning, 1050-1200’, in Medieval Worlds: An Introduction to European History, 300-1492 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), p.351.

[3] Colish, p.274.

[4] Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ in R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) p.357.

[5] Moran Cruz and Geberding p.351.

[6] Ibid. p.353

[7] Ibid. p. 356.

[8] Ibid, p.354.

[9] Colish, p.169.

[10] Colish, p.266.

[11] Colish, p.320.

[12] Luscombe, David, Medieval thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). p.87.

[13] Colish, p.320.

[14] Luscombe, p.86.

[15] Grosseteste, Robert, Commentarius in Posteriorum Analyticorum Libros. In Pasnau, Robert ‘Science and Certainty,’ R. Pasnau (ed.) Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) p. 358..

[16] Colish, p.320.

[17] Lewis, Neil, ‘Robert Grosseteste’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

[18] Kenny, Anthony Medieval Philosophy  (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2005). p.80.

[19] Colish, p.321.

[20] Colish, pp.321-322.

[21] Bacon, Roger Opus Majus. a Translation by Robert Belle Burke. (New York, Russell & Russell, 1962) p.583

[22] Hackett, Jeremiah, ‘Roger Bacon’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Section 5.4.3.

[23] Hackett, Section 5.4.3.

[24] Popper, Karl The Logic of Scientific Discovery.(London and New York 1959). Ch. 1.’…the theory to be developed in the following pages stands directly opposed to all attempts to operate with the ideas of inductive logic.’

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1 Comment

Filed under Essays and talks

One response to “The Birth of Experimental Science

  1. Here is a video of a talk I gave based on this essay. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=55aXlNmTSv8

    Like

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