10 questions with ‘The Genesis of Science’ author James Hannam

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
Font Size:

James Hannam is the author of “The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution,” set to be officially released Monday.

Hannam earned his undergraduate degree in physics from St. Anne’s College at Oxford University and a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University. He has been published in numerous scholarly and non-scholarly publications and is also the author of “God’s Philosophers.”

Hannam recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about his new book and other topics of interest:

1. Why did you decide to write the book?

As someone with a physics degree who is also a Christian, I was puzzled about why science and religion were supposed to be in conflict. They certainly weren’t for me. So, I dug deeper and found that throughout history, the reality has been very different.  I also discovered a host of fascinating but forgotten Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages who deserved to be brought back to light. In short, there was a fantastic story that no one knew and which was waiting to be told.

2. You contend that contrary to popular belief, there was great scientific advancement during the Middle Ages because of the Church. How did the Church help spur this scientific discovery and why do most people believe the Church was a hindrance to science?

The Church made math and science a compulsory part of the syllabus at medieval universities for anyone who wanted to study theology. That meant loads of students got grounding in these subjects, and professors could hold down jobs teaching it.

The myth that the Church held back science dates from the “enlightenment” when Voltaire and other French philosophes invented it to attack the Catholics of their own day as impediments to political progress.

3. What are the most important and lasting scientific advancements to come out of the Middle Ages?

Fourteenth-century natural philosophers developed the arguments on relative motion used by Copernicus to explain why we cannot tell the Earth is moving; the mathematical formula that Galileo used to describe how objects fall under gravity; the concept of inertia and human dissection. All these achievements were used by later scientists without acknowledgement.  And medieval inventors gave us eyeglasses, the mechanical clock, the horse harness, the printed book, and reliable handguns.

4. You write that it is a myth that people in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat. How did this supposedly erroneous notion about the Middle Ages become part of our conventional wisdom?

The earliest record I’ve found of this myth is from a book by Sir Francis Bacon written in the sixteenth century. Sir Francis was a Protestant who claimed believing the Earth is flat was evidence for medieval Catholic stupidity. So the myth started off as Protestant propaganda but was soon used to denigrate the Middle Ages in general.

5. What are some of the other great myths of the Middle Ages that we haven’t touched upon so far but our readers would find intriguing?

There are loads! For example, witch trials didn’t get going until the Renaissance and reached their peak in the seventeenth century, so they are not really medieval at all. Even medieval torture devices like the iron maiden turn out never to have existed until 1800 when they were invented as gruesome hoaxes. My favorite myths, because they are so ridiculous, is that a pope excommunicated Halley ’s Comet and that medieval theologians liked to ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

6. Do you discount the Scientific Revolution as being so revolutionary? Do you just consider it a part of a line of scientific advancement that was ongoing from the Middle Ages?

Exactly. The story of western science begins in the Middle Ages and continues right up to the present day. There was no radical disconnection in the sixteenth century that should be termed a revolution. True, there were big changes about that time, but there were changes just as big in other periods too. In fact, you could pick on almost any century from the twelfth to the twentieth as hosting a scientific revolution, and I expect the same thing will be true of the twenty-first century as well.

7. People like to say that during the Middle Ages, the Islamic world was more interested in science than Christendom. I take it you disagree with that notion?

The Islamic world certainly has some significant scientific achievements to its name, for instance in the fields of optics and mathematical astronomy. However, I do think there has been a tendency towards overplaying the Muslim achievement and underplaying the Christian one. The basic point is that medieval Christian natural philosophy grew into modern science and gave rise to all the great technological achievements that flow from that. Islamic science, to be blunt, stopped progressing centuries ago.

8. Why are so many scientists atheists? That wasn’t always the case, right?

I think this is largely a cultural matter. Scientific training tends to be rather one-dimensional. During my physics degree, broader philosophical questions were not touched at all and no one stopped to ask where the laws of nature came from. But, in the Middle Ages and long afterwards, the whole point of science was the study of God’s creation. And science only made sense because God was believed to guarantee the orderly running of the universe. Nowadays, science needs no external justification. It just works.

9. What three books most influenced your worldview?

In science: Lee Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics.” He explains how physics has lost its way with string theory. It seems to me that much of the problem is that science has abandoned the metaphysical foundations that made it so successful in the first place.

In politics: Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate.” I know evolutionary psychology is unpopular in many circles, but I think it is just a case of science catching up with St. Augustine. Pinker explains why conservatives are usually right about society, and he is especially convincing because he is not a conservative himself.

In religion: C. S. Lewis: “The Great Divorce.” This parable about a bus tour to heaven addresses the biggest questions on sin and salvation. Lewis would be appalled at being called a theologian, but this book is better theology than anything I’ve read from the professionals.

10. Any plans to write another book? If so, about what?

In 1896, Andrew Dickson White wrote “A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom” which cemented the conflict myth into popular culture. I’m working on a new history of science and religion to show that the two have more often got along just fine, influencing each other along the way.

Jamie Weinstein