Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Christianity and Sueprnature, part 3 (final)

While rising from Purgitory, toward the heaven of the moon, Dante wonders how they can enter the pearl-like substance. It is a mystery, "like the union of divine and human nature in Christ." Dante than asks how it is that the moon, a perfect heavenly body, has spots. Beatrice answers that the distribution of the intelligence which governs each body varies in different places. She then gives him an experiment to perform which confirms this revelation. The important point is that here knowledge is coming from both faith and reason (revelation and experiment). Since this is an occasion in which sense data will suffice, experiment will confirm what faith has already taught. Beatrice praises experiment as the fountainhead of the arts, "From this objection may experiment deliver thee, if thou its virtue try, (Source where from stream the arts that you invent)." (Paradiso, Canto II. 4-6. Thus, Dante forms the perfect bridge between medieval and early modern, he forms perhaps the greatest literary expression of the medieval cosmos just before the transition into a scientifically defined universe. The Comedy also represents one of the last great artistic expressions of the valuation of nature in relation to the divine, the exaltation of grace over nature.

The dissolution of the unity began in the middle of the twelfth century, when a dispute arose over the independence of science from classical learning and tradition. This dispute set science on the road to mathematical precision, and to the view that the universe must be viewed as a dynamic system, no longer described in traditional ways. But, with the rise of Renaissance humanism, the exaltation of nature over grace begins. A comparison between Dante and Pico Dela Mirandola demonstrates how far the change had gone. Dante's Virgil is willing to remain silent in matters pertaining to revelation. The Comedy is a perfect description of the medieval cosmos, complete with the ontological relation of nature and grace. Human nature is exalted by grace, but human aspiration is in line with divine will. Thus, when Dante asks if those trapped in the heaven of the moon don't long for a higher state, he is told, "brother, the virtue of love hath pacified our will; we long for what we have alone, nor any craving stirs in us beside. If we desired to reach a loftier zone, our longings would be all out of accord with His will..."(Par. Canto III. 70-74). With Pico's oration "On the Dignity of Man," however, the notions of the Microcosm and Macrocosm are extended to their logical humanistic conclusions. These themes emerged out of the ontology of supernature, but with Pico, "there is nothing to be seen more wonderful than man." All the choice is with humanity. "He [God] took man, a creature of indeterminate nature...and addressed him thus,...`thou constrained by no limits, in accord with thine own free will, in whose hand we have placed thee, shall ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature.'" In the medieval ontology, humanity is fallen in will, but a spark of the Imago still resides in human nature, which bestows rational reason and spiritual love, and thus, grace can exalt and perfect human nature. With Pico's Renaissance humanism, humanity is set no limits, can choose for itself to rise to the heavens or sink to the earth. Humanity determines its own nature.

This exaltation of nature over grace grew until, almost four centuries latter, a new valuation of nature emerges, independent of grace. The old relation of nature and grace was rejected, identified too closely with scholasticism. The Reformation, while preserving the relationship between God and the world (immanence and transcendence, God's grace present in the world) Luther removed the centerpiece form the system. For Luther, humanity was not "God-capable." A whole new relationship between nature and grace was forged, one based on sheer volunterism and equivocity (the unlikeness of creature and creator). Equivocity, for Luther, is based primarily upon the doctrine of the fall. He assumed that the act of sin had completely destroyed the image of God in which humanity was originally created. By the 16th century a new feeling for nature was forming. People wanted to own the world they had discovered, to feel comfortable in their new relationship with nature. Humanism marked a total rejection of scholasticism, the relation of nature and Grace was almost reversed. Thus, Fontenelle's Marquise, when asked "did you not have a more grandiose conception of the universe?" replies, "well, I hold it in much higher that I know its like a watch..." There was a trend toward the diestic view of a God "out there." The older view Fontenelle describes as "...a false notion of mystery wrapped in obscurity. They only admire nature because they believe she's a kind of magic."

Newton and Boyle, having totally rejected scholasticism, in the last quarter of the 17th century, nevertheless maintain an ordered relation between God and the universe. Newton's sensorium of God, which explained "action at a distance" involved in gravity (his private explanation) was taken directly from the work of 14th century scholastics (Thomas Bradwardine and Nichole Oresme) who identified God with space itself. "Despite the virtuosi's sustained and vigorous denounciation of scholastic philosophy, they heavily upon the medieval heritage in their use of teleology...they combined the mechanical view of nature with the medieval conception that nature is the product of divine goodness." Newton and Boyle were at pains to explain God's activity in a mechanical universe, but, as Brooke says, "for latter generations less tolerant of paradox, less tolerant of things above reason, less tolerant of a realm of grace above a realm of nature, a clockwork universe demanded nothing more than an original clockmaker." D'Alembert said that one could understad the existence of God though natural reason, but he went on to say that scholastic ontology was superstition. Nature was valued in its own right, but as a separate piece of machinery, divorced from divine valuations and grace. For Newton and Boyle, grace was not so much completing nature, as it was propping up their cosmologies. In a sense, nature was completing grace.

The supernatural ontology ceased to be important to scientific explanation, not only because it ceased to inform the scientific method, but also because cultural values had as much to do with the process as did scientific method. Scientists could have continued to understand the God-world relationship as an important completion of scientific understanding (as indeed they did until well into the 18th century). But, the cultural value of autonomy changed the way in which "higher" explanations were connected to the causal world. Rather than the immanent God who worked through supernature, dietic thinkers, and philosophes in the enlightenment, came to value the for itself apart from God, and to view God as the absent God who wound up the universe and left it to run on its own.

When historians of science, such as Grant, Lindberg, and White, argue that Christian belief helped to spur the development of science in the middle ages, their accounts of those developments are incomplete as long as they ignore the supernatural ontology. White attributes the interest in science to developments in natural theology, but an understanding in natural theology is incomplete as long as it ignores the supernatural ontology upon which the whole foundation of natural theology was built. The 12th century developments above describe the rise of natural theology. Moreover, White explains the interest in natural theology merely as an attempt to "understand God's mind by examining his creation. Clearly, there is much more to the rise of natural theology. It was not only attempt at understanding God through creation (that attempt was made in using nature as a symbol of the divine). There was an actual value of nature which went into the process. The conception of nature as a whole, the notion of the Universitas, had given rise to an appreciation of nature in its own right. That was made possible by the value bestowed upon nature through its intimate connection to the divine, the harmony between immanent and transcendent. Grant argues that harmony between science and theology existed in the 12th century because theologians were trained in both natural philosophy and natural theology. True enough, but there must have been a reason why they were so trained. Grant suggests that the reason is because, being trained in both, they knew how to relate the two disciplines. On the other hand, there must be more to it than mere lack of professional jealousy. Why were they trained in both? Because, they saw both as an inter-related whole. Nature was valued "in its own right," but not as an autonomous piece of clock-work which with no relation to grace. They understood the valuation of nature as an extension of grace, nature was valued in its own right because it was the creation of a God who was immanent, as well as transcendent, and who gave nature theological significance.

No comments: