Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Natural Philosophy

William of Conches (1085-1154), as mentioned yesterday, wrote on Plato's Timaeus. The Timaeus was a popular work or analysis because, for a long time in the Middle Ages, it was the only work of Plato accessible to scholars. Medieval scholars, looking to create a "unified theory" of the world, did not want to reject material from the venerated philosophers of the past—even if they were pagan. Instead, they tried to reconcile earlier writers to Christianity to make a complete picture.

William of Conches manuscript, recently sold at Christie's
Natural Philosophy—the attempt to explain how the world works—had its own goal of reconciliation: to explain how a world where choice was possible could co-exist with a God who oversaw and was the motivator of everything that happened. There is an idea that science and religion find themselves in conflict because determining physical causes is pointless in a world where God determines everything. The classic example of this is: what should a good Christian do if he becomes ill? Should he visit a priest or a doctor? Is illness a divine punishment for sin, or best understood as a physical failing that can be treated?

In the Middle Ages, of course, the sufferer would not take chances, and would visit both. But men like William of Conches wanted to bring these two sides intellectually into agreement. He recognized that God was the ultimate cause: His omnipotence made him the primary cause that underlies everything in the universe. As a natural philosopher, however, William drew a distinction between this aspect of God and His methods for achieving His aims. There are actions, he said, that are secondary causes.

For instance, if I put a kettle with water on the stove to make tea and turn on the flame, my actions will cause the water to boil. A natural philosopher can examine the boiling water, measure its temperature, gauge the length of time it takes to boil and how active the boiling is, and find uses for boiling water. Those are all secondary causes and effects, however; the primary cause is my desire to make tea and my application of heat. The natural philosopher can learn about heat and water without knowing about my desire for tea. If he observes the water heating several times, he will learn to predict the outcome through his understanding of natural law.

God shapes the world and its laws
What about miracles? Well, a miracle is an event that we recognize happens that contravenes natural law; in order to recognize a miracle, however, William said we first need to thoroughly understand natural law. By analyzing natural laws, the philosopher does not challenge God's authority; he is analyzing the secondary causes, with the understanding that they are an "additional layer" between God and the world.

Given that miracles are possible, however, does this invalidate our observations of natural law and are reliance on our predictive ability regarding them? For his part, William was very clear: he believed that God was loving and consistent, rather than capricious. The natural laws that God established would remain natural laws forever. The few times we observe something different are either a miracle—an anomaly that we do not have to understand, or merely more information that will enhance our understanding of natural law.

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