The Roots of Modern Science and Society in the West, Islam and China

Michael Flynn FAITH Magazine July-August 2009

Michael Flynn, author of popular science fiction novels in the States, considers the impact of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas upon the development of our technological culture.

"It is through reason that we are human. For if we turn our backs on the amazing rational beauty of the World we live in, we should indeed deserve to be driven therefrom, like a guest unappreciative of the house into which he has been received." Adelard of Bath, Quaestiones naturales

It is often said that until the Scientific Revolution Islam was far ahead of the Christian West in the natural sciences. This belief is a reaction to an earlier age of Western triumphalism that overlooked the genuine achievements of the Islamic philosopher (faylasuf); but like many reactionary movements, it overcompensates and praises a golden age that never quite was. Europe was never quite the dark age of ignorance that the "enlightened" philosophers pretended.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, Islam was clearly the most scientifically advanced civilisation on Earth, and China boasted a more advanced technology. Yet by the end of the Middle Ages the Latin West was clearly ahead of both Islam and China. How did this reversal of fortune take place? Joseph Needham called this 'the Grand Question'[1].

There were two reasons: China never had an Aristotle; Islam never had an Aquinas. Consequently, logic, reason, and science in those cultures were like the seed that fell on barren ground, or among the weeds. In China, science withered; in Islam, it was choked out after a promising start.

The Aristotle Factor

To the Stagerite, we owe: the idea that the natural world is a coherent object of philosophical study, the structure of that philosophy, and the rational and logical tools with which to study it. Aristotle also insisted that knowledge was rooted in sense experience. To most of the Ancient Greeks, the criterion for truth was logical coherence, not correspondence to facts, and many, like Plato, were quite able to doubt empirical reality when it conflicted with a really good logical theory.

Muslims and Christians inherited this framework, but there was nothing like it in China. There, the rational Moist school had been eclipsed early on by Confucianism. Shen Kua was perhaps the greatest of early Chinese scientists, but his writings have none of the conceptual integration of Aristotle or his Muslim and Christian successors: "Notices of the highest originality stand cheek-by-jowl with trivial didacticism, court anecdotes, and ephemeral curiosities."[2] In Nathan Sivin's words, China "had sciences but not science"[3]. Astronomy, medicine, statics, optics, etc. remained isolated subjects guided by rules of thumb.

The Aquinas Factor

To the Angelic Doctor, we owe the concordance of philosophy and religion, and the admonition never to cite revelation in the proof of a philosophical proposition. Centuries before, Origen had called God the author of two books: scripture and nature. Because of this, Aquinas held that if revelation seemed to conflict with nature, one or the other (or both) had not been properly understood.

Islam initially treated Greek learning with great enthusiasm. The faylasuf translated Aristotle's natural philosophy and wrote brilliant commentaries on it. However, no Muslim 'Aquinas' ever reconciled Aristotle with Holy Qur'an. The great Islamic faylasuf who embraced the Stagerite - e.g., ibn Sinna, ibn Rushd -embraced him all the way. Those who rejected him - e.g., al-Ghazali - rejected him completely. Consequently, the faylasuf were regarded as heretics and, unless they had a powerful protector, were subject to persecution. Al Kindi was publicly flogged and his library confiscated; ibn Rushd was deprived of all offices and forced to flee al-Andalus.

Ibn Sinna tried to reconcile matters with the claim that a proposition could be 'true in philosophy' but 'false in religion.' This "Double Truth" was specifically rejected by Aquinas and the West.

Early mu'tazilite Muslims claimed "parity for reason and revelation," but they were suppressed by the Caliph al-Mutawwakil. The rationalist strain never entirely disappeared, but, like the Chinese Moists, has been a distinctly minority position.

The Necessary Cultural and Institutional Context

Cross-cultural studies of science have usually focused on techniques and facts: whether, for example, experimentation was used, or this or that fact discovered. But every culture has produced brilliant individuals enthusiastic about nature. We need only think of Shen Kua in China or ibn Rushd in Islam. What seems important for the development of advanced technology is not so much individual brilliance, but the "embedding" of science within the culture as a recognised, legitimate institution.

How is this achieved? To elucidate this we need a working definition of science. We would suggest that science consists of three somewhat overlapping layers:

a) empirical facts (often deliberately created by experiment and planned observation, as the term factum est implies)

b) natural laws describing (in mathematical terms, if possible) regular relationships among these facts;

c) physical theories that 'make sense' of the laws and facts, and from which the laws can be deduced and the facts predicted.

All cultures have accumulated facts, but not all have rigorously pursued natural laws and physical theories. That requires "a vibrant, inquisitive natural philosophy that has substantial societal support and encouragement."[4]

China illustrates this. Chinese astronomers could calculate eclipses tolerably well [facts and formulas], but had no clear explanation for what caused them [physical theories]. Wang Chhung, for example, cited a cyclic waxing and waning of the light of the sun and moon themselves - yang and yin - and dismisses as absurd the idea that the moon consumed the sun during a solar eclipse; for what then would consume the moon during a lunar eclipse?. These were matters that the Greeks had settled with geometry three hundred years before! Lacking a sound basis in theory, the purely arithmetical Chinese astronomy decayed; formulas were applied by rote; and by the seventeenth century, the Ming calendar was regularly failing.

What About the Medieval West?

The philosophers of the "Age of Reason" called the Middle Ages the "Age of Faith," and claimed that because "God did it!" was the answer to everything, no one searched for natural laws. Some have since imagined a "war" between science and religion, and accused the medievals of suppressing science, forbidding medical autopsies, and burning scientists. Bad times for science and reason.

Or was it? In fact, the Middle Ages were steeped in reason, logic, and natural philosophy. These subjects comprised virtually the entire curriculum of the universities. The first medical autopsies anywhere were done in medieval Europe. And no medieval philosopher was ever prosecuted for a conclusion in natural philosophy. In his 12th century Dragmaticon, William of Conches wrote, "[They say] 'We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it.' You poor fools! God can make a cow out of a tree, but has He ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so." Not even the "Age of Reason" could have said it better.

The Embedding of Science

A culture is a web, composed of many intellectual strands. Some of the most relevant to the embedding of early modern science are described below.

1. The universe is rationally ordered. When a multitude

of self-willed gods work at cross-purposes, there can be no consistent order to the universe. Hera may overrule Zeus; or Poseidon veto the acts of Apollo. Trees are dryads and wells have sprites and the stars are alive, divine, and influential in human affairs. Both Christians and Muslims believed in a single God, and therefore in an ordered universe.

The Latins believed further that God had "disposed all things by measure and number and weight" (Wis. 11:21). Medieval art frequently depicted God using compasses and other measuring tools to fashion the cosmos. Anselm of Canterbury wrote that by revealing His rational nature, God had bound Himself to act in a certain way. Thus, the Christians were disposed to see the cosmos as reliably consistent.

The matter was less clear in Islam. The mu'tazilite Muslims also believed that God was rational and dependable: "Justice is the essence of God, He cannot wrong anybody, He cannot enjoin anything contrary to reason"[5]. But to say that God cannot do something struck orthodox Muslims as impious. Some like ibn al Hazm claimed that God's autonomy was absolute: He need not be true even to His own promises.

2. This order is knowable to human reason. Paul states that the demands of the law are written in our hearts (Rom. 2:15-16). From this faculty of synderesis, or 'conscience,' stems all of Western law, freedom, and responsibility. Aquinas wrote that we must disobey the orders even of our sworn liege if those orders go against our conscience. "From William Penn, who would not take off his hat, to Rosa Parks, who would not give up her seat," we admire people who are disobedient for moral cause.

One consequence of this recognition of the 'image of God' in human faculties, was the belief that by use of reason man could learn the natural order of things. Adelard of Bath neatly summed this up in Quaestiones naturales, with this rejoinder to his nephew:

"The natural order does not exist confusedly and without rational arrangement, and human reason should be listened to concerning those things it treats of. But when it completely fails, then the matter should be referred to God. Therefore, since we have not yet completely lost the use of our minds, let us return to reason."

Islam stressed the inherent limitations of man's intellect and his inability to truly understand creation. Al-Ghazali wrote in Tahafut al Falasifa [The Incoherence of Philosophy], "The imponderable decisions of God cannot be weighed by the scales of reason." Because the Holy Qur'an was perfect and complete, everything needful was contained in it, although the scholar might have to apply analogy (qiyas) to find it. Human reason could add nothing new. Reason-based kalam could not become the "queen of sciences," as theology did in the Latin West and remained subordinate to traditional ijtahid. And because man lacked the ability to arrive at ethical and moral truths by reason, neither could philosophy become "the handmaiden of theology." This not only set philosophy in opposition totheology, it cast doubt on the ability of the faylasufXo truly grasp the philosophy of nature.

3. Secondary causation. Both Muslims and Christians believed God to be the primary cause of existence itself. But Islam lacked the concept of secondary causation. This lack was perhaps the greatest conceptual obstacle to science in Islam.

William of Conches explained secondary causation thus: "The natures with which [God] endowed His creatures accomplish a whole scheme of operations, and these too turn to His glory since it is He who created these very natures." This sentiment was common. Albertus Magnus, in De vegetabilibus etplantis, wrote,

"In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show forth His power; we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass."

Two centuries later, Nicole d'Oresme, who became Bishop of Lisieux, wrote in De causa mirabilium,

"I propose here [...] to show the causes of some effects which seem to be miracles and to show that the effects occur naturally [...] There is no reason to take recourse to the heavens [i.e., to astrology], the last refuge of the weak, or to demons, or to our glorious God, as if he would produce these effects directly."

In the twelfth century John of Sacrobosco, flirting with Deism, referred to the universe as machina mundi, the 'world-machine,' and this phrase became a commonplace in the writings of Abelard, Hugh of St. Victor, Robert Grosseteste, and others.

Oresme famously compared creation to a great clock that God had willed into being and set ticking.

By the eleventh century, the idea of secondary causation had become fixed in Western thought. It disenchanted the World. There is no dryad behind the tree, no nymph in the well, only natures knowable to human reason. Further, since the heavens, too, are just another created thing (Gen 1:1), the heavens, too, must be governed by natural laws.

Orthodox Islam denied this. Weirdly pre-figuring David Hume, Al-Ghazali, in Tahafut al falasifa [Destruction of philosophy], wrote that fire does not burn cloth:

"The agent of the burning is God, through His creating the black in the cotton and the disconnection of its parts, and it is God who made the cotton burn and made it ashes either through the intermediation of angels or without intermediation. For fire is a dead body which has no action, and what is the proof that it is the agent? Indeed, the philosophers have no other proof than the observation of the occurrence of the burning, when there is contact with fire, but observation proves only a simultaneity, not a causation, and, in reality, there is no other cause but God."[6]

This reduces laws of nature to "habits of God." Ibn Rushd, a firm Aristotelian counterattacked with the Tahafut al-Tahafut [The Incoherence of the Incoherence]. But the faylasuf eventually lost the intellectual struggle. Their writings found larger and more enthusiastic readership in Latin Europe than in Islam itself. As "Averroes," ibn Rushd was esteemed in the West second only to Aristotle.

4. The study of nature is a worthy pursuit. The Bible praises the knowledge of nature.

"For [God] gave me sound knowledge of existing things, that I might know the organization of the universe and the force of its elements, the beginning and the end and the midpoint of times, the changes in the sun's course and the variations of the seasons, cycles of years, positions of the stars, natures of animals, tempers of beasts, powers of the winds and thoughts of men, uses of plants and virtues of roots." (Wis 7:17-20).

On the other hand, influential Muslims like ibn Khaldun could write, "The problems of physics are of no importance for us in our religious affairs or our livelihoods; therefore we must leave them alone." And when Chu Hsi argued that one should seek principles in the "outside realm" in only thirty to forty percent of cases Wang Yang-ming criticised him for "externalist" views. In China, Sivan writes, "For certainty one looks to illumination, introspection, and other alternatives to purely cognitive processes."[7]

In China, virtually none of this mental machinery was in place; while in Islam, it was incomplete. Early in the Middle Ages, Muslim faylasuf pursued natural philosophy, but they were never accepted by the culture at large and "Greek studies" remained a marginal, private affair.

The above mental machinery was necessary, but it was not sufficient. Other factors came into play as well.

5. The translations of Aristotle's works furnished the Latin West with a ready-made curriculum that gave coherence to the study

of nature. At first, this came through Arabic intermediaries, later through direct contact with Byzantium.

The Caliph Haroun al Rashid endowed the famous House of Wisdom in Baghdad to translate this material into Arabic, a programme carried out by the Nestorian Christian, Husayn ibn Ishaq and his nephews. The accomplishments of Aristotle, Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy, and the other Greek philosophers, mathematicians, and physicians had a stunning impact on the Arabs and inspired many to study and comment on the books.

But this was always referred to as "foreign studies" or "Greek studies" and was never incorporated into the main body of Islamic thought. To the European Christians, on the other hand, there was nothing foreign about it. They had lived for centuries in a vibrant pagan culture, alternately tolerated and persecuted. They had to come to grips with Greek learning. Had the medieval Church rejected pagan and Islamic learning, Science might never have been born.

6. The independence of church and state. Charlemagne had modeled his empire on Rome, and that included imperial control of the priesthood, but the Hildebrandine Revolution secured the right to appoint bishops, preside over church councils, etc. By thus stripping princes of their spiritual roles, the medievals created something new in the world: the secular state. In declaring itself legally autonomous and creating the first body of codified law since the collapse of Rome, the Church took on all the aspects of a modern State. In effect, the first secular state in Europe was... the Church.

Church and State could argue about where the boundaries lay but neither doubted that there was a boundary. This prevented medieval society from becoming totalitarian along the Chinese model, and (as A.D. Lindsay put it in The Modern Democratic State) "preserved liberty [...] by maintaining in society an organization which could stand up against the state."

Thanks to this separation, self-governing collective actors -guilds, towns, universities, professions - could grow in the social space 'between throne and cathedral.' Elsewhere, these were subordinate to emirs or mandarins.

7. The universities. Brilliant and creative individuals have adorned every culture. Abelard and al Ghazali were contemporaries. So were John of Salisbury and ibn Rushd; al-Tusi and Aquinas; ibn Taymiyya and William of Ockham. In China, we need only think of Wang Chhung, Shen Kua,

or Chu Hsi. Clearly, there is no shortage of powerful intellects in any culture. But only in the Latin West did science find a self-governing home base where the 'ready-made curriculum' in the translations could be taught.

As Toby Huff points out, the idea of legal autonomy and corporate persons brought in its wake: constitutional government, consent in political decision-making, the right to political and legal representation, the power of adjudication and jurisdiction, and the power of autonomous legislation. Among the new corporate actors were Europe's greatest contribution to the world: the universities.

These universities were unlike anything else in the world. They possessed a standard curriculum (built around the works of Aristotle), lectures and debates, examinations, degrees of achievement. They elected their own rectors and chancellors, and set their own rules, thanks to the papal bull Parens scientiarum [Parent of the sciences], sometimes called "the Magna Carta of the universities."[8] Graduates received the ius ubique docendi, the 'right to teach anywhere.'

There was nothing similar elsewhere. The Imperial College in China was a training academy for government bureaucrats and the private shu-yuan were no more than cram schools to get candidates through the examinations. They had a standard curriculum in the Confucian classics, but they were not independent of the State. Nor did the curriculum address logic, reason, and natural philosophy.

Islam possessed independent, self-governing colleges, the madrasas, but no standard curriculum. A professor taught whatever books he wished. There were no degrees of achievement. Each instructor could issue an ijaza, which was an authorization to the student to transmit the material learned, usually a particular book. Students could make the rounds of masters, collecting ijazas, but there was no sequence; and no set ofijazas added up to anything like a master or doctoral degree.

With one exception, the charters of these madrasas specifically excluded the "foreign sciences" of Aristotle. Books on natural philosophy and reason were not forbidden. They could usually be found in the madrasa's library and could be read and discussed privately; but they were not taught publicly in the madrasa. The single exception was the observatory-madrasa of Maragha, where al-Tusi refined Ptolemaic computations. But Maragha only lasted about 75 years. Natural philosophy never found a home in Islam.

8. The theologian-natural philosophers. Because the entire undergraduate curriculum in a western university was devoted to logic, reason, and natural philosophy, virtually every medieval theologian had been trained first as a scientist. This had a tremendous impact on the receptivity to science in the West.

9. Freedom of inquiry into nature. Peter Abelard's seminal work, Sic et non, which quoted Church Fathers on both sides of a series of theological questions, set the tone for the Questions genre of the Middle Ages, The writer set out a Question, stated the best arguments on both sides (thesis and antitheses), made a determination (synthesis), and then rebutted each of the antitheses in detail. The Summa theologica of Thomas Aquinas is an example. Buridan, Oresme, and other natural philosophers wrote hundreds of Questions in natural philosophy.

The format carried over into university instruction, where the afternoons centred on the public debate, the disputatio, in which students were assigned to argue for and against a given Question, with the master determining the 'winner.' These debates were immensely popular, and often featured pop Questions thrown up by the audience - the quodlibets.

All this encouraged what Grant called a "culture of poking into things"[9]. William of Ockham declared, "Assertions [...] concerning natural philosophy, which do not pertain to theology, should not be solemnly condemned or forbidden to

anyone, since in such matters everyone should be free to say freely whatever he pleases."

It would be impossible to imagine cadets at China's Imperial College being encouraged to argue against passages in Confucian texts. Even in courts of law, the Chinese abhorred disputation. It violated harmony and filial piety. It is likewise difficult to imagine the give-and-take of the disputatio in a Muslim madrasa.


In sum, the Latins believed in:

1) The universe was rationally ordered because a single rational God had willed it into being,

2) This order was knowable by autonomous human reason

by 'measuring, numbering, and weighing' (and reason could be trusted in this regard),

3) Matter could act directly on matter in "the common course of nature"; and because God was true to his promises, these actions were dependable and repeatable; and

4) The discovery of such relations was a worthwhile pursuit. They also embedded this pursuit in their culture through broad-based cultural institutions:

5) Creating independent, self-governing corporations in the social space between Church and State.

6) Accepting with enthusiasm the work of pagan philosophers and Muslim commentators and reconciling them with their religious beliefs.

7) Encouraging freedom of inquiry and a culture of "poking into things" by means of the Questions genre and the disputatio.

8) Teaching logic, reason, and natural philosophy systematically across Europe in self-governing universities, in consequence of which:

9) Nearly every medieval theologian was first trained in natural philosophy, which created enthusiasm rather than resistance.

Many of these internal factors were muted or a minority position in Islam and were wholly absent in China. Consequently, after an exciting and promising start, rational inquiry into nature in Muslim lands gradually sputtered out; and in China hardly got started. This does not and should not detract from the genuine accomplishments of these cultures in technology, mathematics, and the "exact sciences," and in the accumulation of facts and lore about nature. In particular, the medieval revolution in natural philosophy could not have happened without the earlier Muslim commentaries on the works of Aristotle, Galen, Ptolemy, and others.


[1]Needham, Joseph. The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China,2 vol., abr. by Colin Ronan
[2]Cambridge University Press, 1985.) 2Grant, Edward. Science and Religion. (John Hopkins University Press, 2004), Cf also his The Foundations of Modem Science in the Middle Ages. (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and God and Reason in the Middle Ages. (Cambridge University Press, 2001)
[3]Sivin, Nathan. "Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China - Or Didn't It?" At:
[4]Huff, Toby E. The Rise of Early Modem Science: Islam, China and the West. 'Cambridge University Press, 2003)
[7]Sivin, Nathan, op. cit
[8]Gregory IX. Parens scientiarum. (Vatican, 1231)
[9]Grant, Edward, op. cit.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2009