The Medieval Church Sorta did Quantum Physics

It’s the strangest feeling to be reading about the Medieval Catholic Church trying to stamp out heresy and accidentally running smack into quantum physics.

Trust me. It’s a mindfuck.

God's Philosopher's by James Hannam
God’s Philosopher’s by James Hannam

Let me give you the Cliff Notes background. All of this is taken from my current bedtime nonfiction reading, “God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science” by James Hannam. Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound exciting to you, but ask my husband. I may or may not have bounced up and down with giddy joy when I found the book on sale at Brookline Booksmith. MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE.

Anyway. You can blame the whole thing on Aristotle, which is handy, because I remember suffering through Aristotle my freshman year of college, and I am eager to blame Aristotle for lots of things – headaches, tears, late nights, fruitless hours in the library, begging my senior friends in the class to explain it to me and hear that they suffered as well from an inability to understand….

I digress.

The Church had just dipped its toe into progress, saying that it was okay to study ALL of Aristotle’s work, including his work on natural philosophy, though it was paramount to cherrypick only the parts of Aristotle that fit Church doctrine and study those.

Enter Siger of Brabant (they had such cool names back then). He was at the University of Paris with Thomas Aquinas during this time, and he was an Averroist, which set Aquinas’ and the Church’s back up. What’s an Averroist?

Late 13th century French manuscript of Averroes' commentary on Aristotle's De Anima. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Late 13th century French manuscript of Averroes’ commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima. The Church’s version of a “Honey Do” list. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Averroists followed Averroes, the Arab scholar and philosopher who had translated Aristotle (Thanks, Averroes, for being part of the Arab scholarship that saved most of ancient Greek philosophy for us by actually keeping it instead of burning or losing it!).

Averroes took Aristotle a few logical steps further and said that the universe was totally deterministic (i.e. there’s no such thing as free will). He also agreed with Aristotle that the universe and the world had to be eternal, and that there was no life after death, that humans had no individual souls. Even more radical, Averroes backed Aristotle’s idea that the laws of nature even constrain God’s abilities.

Whoa. Right? Just whoa. (Oh, and sorry, Aristotle, about you being wrong about the universe and Earth being eternal. Sucks to be you. Yes, I still resent you for my freshman year).

The Church’s Condemnations of 1277 Weren’t That Bad

Back to Siger of Brabant. He was a total Averroes groupie, which didn’t sit very well with the Church, but they tolerated it as long as it was just a theoretical exercise and he *cough cough* came to the correct conclusions about faith, God, and nature.

Church Aquinas Averroes
Giovanni di Paolo’s St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroës. They never actually met. Just sayin’. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’m not going to get into the whole Siger vs. Aquinas thing because they were both right and both wrong about certain things (Schrodinger’s cat ain’t got nothing on the intellectual coruscations these guys did). Basically, the whole thing led to the Church sighing like a parent in the front seat of a long car trip and breaking them up, setting the rules with the Condemnations of 1277.

Like with all ad hoc parenting rules, the Condemnations of 1277 were a little haphazard. It was the Medieval Church’s attempt to set the rules for the intellectual sandbox and keep natural philosophers and theologians from stepping on each other’s toes (to mix metaphors).

Oh yeah, did I mention that the Church had no problem with “natural philosophy” (i.e. Science!)? Yeah, they were cool with it so long as it didn’t try and throw over some basic tenets of faith (another blog post for another time and a lot more coffee).

Back to the Condemnations of 1277. There were 219 of them, and they all dealt in double negatives. There’s not enough coffee in the world to make it through all 219 of them without a headache. They set out what people should not not believe. 219 times. Yeah, baby.

So, this is where we bump into quantum physics with some pretty progressive biology thrown in for good measure.

The main point of the Condemnations was to insist that God could not be limited by natural laws. This meant  that *clears throat and looks ecclesiastically severe at audience* it was heretical to say that:

  • God could not create multiple universes
  • God could not move the universe in a straight line (because a vacuum would result) 
  • God could not make more than three dimensions exist at the same time
  • “That the world is eternal as to all the species contained in it; and that time is eternal, as are motion, matter, agent, and recipient; and because the world is from the infinite power of God, it is impossible that there be novelty in an effect without novelty in the cause.” (Grant, Edward. (1962) “Late Medieval Thought, Copernicus, and the Scientific Revolution”, Journal of the History of Ideas, XXIII, n. 8)

What’s mind-blowing to me is that the Medieval Church, theologians, and natural philosophers of the day had actually conceptualized these ideas…and then dropped them. Understandably, it would take another 800 years (give or take) before mathematics and science actually got advanced enough to take the ideas to the next level. Still. Pretty interesting, non?

Don’t answer that.

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