Saturday, April 11, 2015

Scattered thoughts on Divinity, Man, and Experience

    Our class discussion on Thursday seemed to pertain to various questions of the definition of science as much as it did to the definition of animals. As was clear from that discussion, it's very difficult to separate ourselves from modern definitions of science when reading medieval texts that were, for their time, scientific. In this post I'd like to briefly give my thoughts on three topics that interested me from out discussion, namely: the "divine" nature of humans and how it relates to the definition of animal, the medieval precursors to modern scientific methods, and dragons.
    Anyone who was present on Thursday will remember that I really struggled with articulating why the section in the Albertus Magnus, "On the Natural and Divine Properties of the Human" felt so out of place to me. All I could really say in class was something along the lines of "This is weird! He's saying that humans can do miracles/affect matter with their minds! That's crazy!". I now think that the reason for such bewilderment was primarily that I was trying to read Albertus in the same way I might read a modern scientific document, which simply doesn't work for multiple reasons. First, I had to apply the Beullens reading to Albertus to give it (and most of our other reading thus far) proper context. Beullens says the following about the purpose of these zoological treatises: "Zoological knowledge was not pursued as an aim in itself. ... The better understanding of the animal world was valued as a means toward a deeper insight into the divine plan governing the sensitive world, God's creation." (Beullens, 128) I had to discard my notion of science as something entirely divorced from religion when thinking about these texts. (That is not to say that there is some inherent conflict between the two, like some might say with regard to evolution or whatnot, but the idea of "science" being performed ultimately in the service of religion isn't something I had considered.) Once I looked back at Albertus with the understanding that he was writing it from an explicitly Christian viewpoint (which should have been obvious, given frequent mention to God) the passage made more sense. I was so stuck in the mindset of reading a modern "scientific document" that acceptance of miracles and the manipulation of matter via one's soul stuck out as scientific impossibility that didn't really make sense to me. (Why it was that the divine nature of man and the performance of miracles stood out to me more than any of the other seeming anomalies that would arise from trying to read this as a modern scientific endeavor is unclear to me.) Moreover, the discussion of the divine nature of man, once I reread it in under the framework provided by Beullens, actually clarified Albertus for me, instead of confusing it. The whole idea of humans, animals, plants, etc. existing on a spectrum of which only humans can move along, based on this relation to divinity actually kind of makes sense now. One can only understand how to properly define animals if one first understands how to define humans.
    Another topic explored in the Beullens reading was the extent to which there existed a precursor to the modern scientific method, if at all. Much of the texts we've read thus far have been either akin to, or literally, commentary on Artisotle or Pliny the Elder or the Physiologus. As a result, Beullens raises the question of whether or not "zoology in the Middle Ages equaled philology and that the authority of the ancient sources had a greater weight than experience gained from observation." (Beullens, 145) Beullens is quick to say that this is not the case at all points. To some extent, there was an attempt to construct knowledge (which, conveniently, is what "scientia" translates to from Latin. I think.) out of experience. We noted in class that Albertus' entries on dogs, deer, horses and falcons were longer than average. It is fairly clear that the reason for this is that Albertus (or perhaps his contemporaries) simply had much more experience with those animals than with the others, and contributed his knowledge gained through experience to the encyclopedic text he was working on. As he had had experience with falcons in his youth, he added that to the collected knowledge that had come before him that he was compiling. Not only did he contribute knowledge that he gained through experience, he made rudimentary attempts at experimentation, as seen in the example that Beullens give of his dissection of a mole. Though it turns out that Albertus was ultimately wrong about mole eyes, his attempt at experimentation was in some ways a precursor to modern scientific experiments; his attempt at least, was noble. My point in all of this is that reading Albertus as not only a compiler but someone adding to this tradition adds depth to my reading of the text; initially I saw him as merely another commentator, but obviously he has done more. (Of course, I should have noticed this and read him as such earlier, as he added extra books to what he was commentating on originally, so of course he was more than a compiler. But I digress.)
    A last point I'd like to address is something we addressed in class, namely the entry in Albertus on dragons. There are a few lines in this entry which suggest, here more than elsewhere, that Albertus is deeply skeptical of some of the more improbably stories/descriptions that linger in these zoological encyclopedias. As I discussed in my last paragraph, Albertus was interested in experience giving knowledge of the world. In most cases, he takes as true (or at least does not dispute) many of the claims that today we might find spurious (see, for example, the cure-all deer.) However, note the following line in the dragon entry, following a description of dragons killing elephants via constriction: "... I do not consider these things as sufficiently proven by experience." Similarly, he disagrees with the possibility of giant flying dragons: "... it is not possible for such a great weight as the largest ones have to borne and suspended in the air on wings." (Albertus, 1726). I find it interesting that it is with the dragons that he takes issue, and not with the many other unreliable or implausible entries found throughout the text. I don't really know what to make of this, however. I again must resist my urge to read this as "modern scientific text" wherein both dragons and miracles would be disregarded, and instead must try to understand a world in which one would be not only plausible, but necessary, while the other is not "sufficiently proved by experience."



  1. Could you take your musings one step further? So, we need to reexamine our categories "science" and "theology" to see the way in which Albert is arguing along a continuum from God to human beings to animals. Then, we recognize that Albert is doing more than just repeating what he has learned from the previous compilations of descriptions, but both adding to and testing them, which does sound a lot like our modern understanding of experimental "science" gained from testing previous descriptions. The question is, what drives Albert's desire for "experiment" if not his desire to understand God? So the modern scientific method which we now think of as distinct from theology was itself a product of theology. How's that for mind-bending? RLFB

  2. This blog post tests understanding, not only Albert’s understanding of the world around him, but also our understanding of broader notions of science and religion. It seems as if science and theology are not as distinct as people in the modern world—including us—would like them to be. Albert’s method of cataloging knowledge reminds me of similar chronicles written by early explorers/conquerors of America. Both Albert and these conquerors were acquiring knowledge to try to get a sense of something unknown. To do this, they applied their own framework of understanding, their own values and descriptions, to the unknown. This is not only a knowledge acquisition—it has greater purposes. This type of chronicle is also a method of valuation and a method of control. Valuation in that different unknowns—i.e. animals for Albert—acquire certain values in the mind of the chronicler. Control in that known entities are captured entities. Once an entity is known, it ceases to be unknown. This seems obvious but it also reduces some of the huge anxiety created regarding a vast unknown. I believe it is worth recognizing the intertwined nature of science or chronicle and theology. In the Middle Ages, in India and Central Asia, there were many Buddhist monks, who in their monastic travels produced prolific chronicles. This is not explicitly a scientific gathering of knowledge but had the effect of linking science and theology. This discussion deserves a short pause to reflect. What purely scientific method do we do when we set out to make a chronicle? Is there no purpose other than experimentation? What is the end goal?