Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Augustine and Science

This is the talk I gave at October's Canadian Chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Conference, slightly amended.
I would like to expand it even further if they chose to put it in their journal. The sections on the Genesis commentaries and the Manichaean view of 'knowledge' require expansion. As usual, footnotes are absent.

For the same reason that there is little or nothing written on ‘Augustine and horses’ or ‘Augustine and games’, there has been little written that directly addresses the topic of Augustine and science. In his seminal study, The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine, Etienne Gilson, mentions the phrase, ‘natural science,’ but once. This is not because these concepts do not appear in Augustine or were unknown to him. All of them do, and, indeed, of the three, by far the most frequent to appear in his writing is ‘science.’ Just like in the case of St. Thomas Aquinas, scientia was his word for knowledge, of course. It was one of those terms that admitted of some specialized usage, but unlike Thomas, he hardly ever hesitated before the standard of uniformity. In general, we can say that when he thought of ‘science’ he did not conceive of the methodology of trial and error out of which truer understanding emerged. He customarily spoke of certain things as the object of true knowledge (true scientia), and yet never in regard to certain other things. He did not confine the term to that group of things that had been confirmed by means of empirical verification. In fact, such things sat lower down on his epistemological scale of value.

Science, defined as a methodology of empirical verification, did not as such exist in Augustine. This was not because he was a sceptic who doubted his senses, like many other Ancient thinkers. He acknowledged the existence of the world as generally perceived, but, for instance, allocated to this sort of knowledge merely instrumental value in his work on biblical interpretation, De doctrina christiana. As with most thinkers, his value system directly impinged upon his epistemology. According to his value system, we find a most peculiar belief – that it was always the case that things more easily determined were less important. Anyone could use their eyes to see physical bodies. Physical bodies were the easiest to apprehend, and were, thus, clearly not meant to be the focus of a man’s attention. As with any Platonist, the being of an object of sense-perception was considered very low. Since what was being detection of these objects was essentially time-dependent (for instance, their colour and shape continually altered) these objects cannot be said to possess much epistemological significance, and so neither much metaphysical weight, or moral importance. While certain other aspects of his view of knowledge would change, this aspect would not. In the great work, De Trinitate, we have, perhaps surprisingly, the fullest flowering of his sense of knowledge, of scientia. Why he would concentrate his best epistemological thinking in a work on the Trinity lay simply in the fact that non-physical realities were truer and more important, and of these non-physical realities, God was the truest and most important. In other words, Augustine’s early belief that interior and inscrutable things were at the heart of the ‘important’ kind of knowledge functioned as a seed to all his mature theological discoveries. He could not share our conviction – shared by the Sceptics of his own age – that the truth of exterior objects was much more elusive than might appear. This was something else he held in common with St. Thomas. If Scepticism is an offshoot of Platonism, on this account Augustine could be said to have venture off in another direction.

Manichaeism Gives Science a Bad Name

The time that preceded his earliest extant writings was the time of his most radical thinking about epistemology. We catch glimpses of this from Confessions and from various other hints he provides of that time. When the available evidence is closely examined one soon discovers that the Augustine known to us through his important mature writings was still very much in formation. By the time of the composition of his earliest writings Augustine had already made up his mind about a great deal of the issues involved. One of the mistakes scholars make in their interpretation of this epoch is to consider it as most significantly as a time of preoccupation with, and reaction to, Scepticism. In fact, as we shall see, this time in his epistemological development was characterized first and foremost by a reaction to Manichaeism.

If one thing marked the first stage of this pivotal time of intellectual formation for him it was optimism, optimism both with regard to his view of his own powers of reasoning and in regard to what he expected to gain from them. It was a time when he thought every kind of knowledge was a mine promising the greatest rewards, and most of all, happiness. It is not easy to determine the precise character of his intellectual environment as a young man. Confessions seems to portray this time of meandering discovery and eventual disillusionment as one of total isolation. Of course, knowing Augustine’s penchant for friendship, we cannot believe that was the case. The tone of inter-personal isolation detectable in Confessions simply serves to strengthen the mood of isolation from God. Nevertheless, of what and of whom his intellectual community was composed, we can only guess. Certainly books occupied an important place. We get the impression that a form of bastardized, popularized Platonism was the preoccupation of young Augustine and his friends, a Platonism constructed out of an odd assortment of Ciceronian and other miscellaneous philosophical texts. Perhaps just as importantly in the birth of this philosopher was the fact that he almost immediately became interested in, and apparently persuaded by, the Manichaean philosophy.

It is right to call Manichaeism a ‘philosophy’ in Augustine’s case. This was how he seemed to have looked at it – in much the way an intellectual convert to Catholicism would look at his new Faith, as the philosophy he has always been looking for. Eventually, as we know, Augustine’s estimation of Manichaeism would change. He found it increasingly unable to explain the world as he experienced it.

The importance of his history with Manichaeism for our question consists in part in this: proof that he was at one time interested in cosmology. Although he would continue to wonder about the shape of the heavens, there was something decidedly different about the early Augustine’s focus on them. His interest in the moon and the sun, etc., did not lead him pursue mathematics formally or to investigate such things as the size of these heavenly bodies, which matters some of his contemporaries were investigating. Augustine’s mind always possessed a tendency towards the things of ‘higher criticism,’ so to speak, not to wonder about physical realities, but about spiritual realities, not – in Aristotle’s terms – to wonder about material and efficient causation, but about final causation. This evolution in Augustine’s intellectual interests took some time. From his references to astrology in Confessions, especially in Books 4, 5 and 7, we can conclude two things of consequence. The first is that he had at that time meticulously studied the behaviour of the celestial objects. The second is that his interest in them was decidedly utilitarian and not speculative. In time he would strongly condemn the kind of intellectual pragmatism that this interest in astrology embodied, yet what he replaced it with was not interest of a purely theoretical kind per se – i.e. knowledge for the sake of knowledge – but a new kind of theological pragmatism, that narrowed-in on that one source of all truth and beauty, that one source of eternal life. In other words, when he condemns the sort of crass utilitarianism of the astrologer we are not to think that he replaces it with a purely speculative love of knowledge characteristic of Socrates, that kind extolled in Cicero’s work, Hortensius. Yes, his condemnation of astrology in Confessions is a condemnation of the sort of curiosity that does not respect Him who is the source of all truth.

He discovered that astrology was a false science. The proof for this lay, on the one hand, in its failure to explain the actual behaviour of natural things. On the other hand, it was false because it was immoral. In Confessions it is actually this second proof that is considered the stronger argument. The first point merely lends weight to the second; the first is merely symptomatic of the second. Confessions does not condemn astrology because it is false. It condemns it because it is immoral. Its immorality consists in disregarding the Source of all Truth in attempting to ‘pluck’ secrets out of nature. Astrology is intrinsically flawed. Augustine never suggests that this is so of other sciences. Astrology is intrinsically flawed just as Manichaeism is intrinsically flawed: both disregard the truth of the universe as God’s creation. As in the well-known case of the pears, Augustine, both as an astrologer and as a Manichaean, had ransacked and defiled God’s creation. Yet this does not constitute a comprehensive condemnation of knowledge of the natural world; it is a condemnation of intellectual plundering.

His comment in Book 4 (16.28) of Confessions regarding his reading of Aristotle’s Categories is also instructive. He observes that of all the objects of which these categories treat the one it does not – God– is the only one really needing to be known. This certainly echoes the well-known phrase from one of his first post-conversion works, Soliloquies, where he professes that he wishes only to know God and the soul. However Augustine’s intellectuality must be described, it must take cognizance of the fact that these were his central preoccupations, not knowledge of things in themselves.

If these preoccupations would eventually lead Augustine to abandon anything resembling science in his mature years, we must say something more about this interest in the soul, indicating how this was itself a sort of ‘biological matter’ for him in those early days. Augustine engaged in innumerable written and dialogical meditations on the soul, all through his career. Yet it is to the earlier ones that we must look in order to understand his conception of biology. When the younger Augustine thought about the soul he was simultaneously thinking of all living creatures. This was not really the case as time went on. Certainly he accepted the gradations of soul made familiar by Aristotle, but it was not the differences among them that exercised his attention in those days, but the single mystery of the living principle called ‘soul.’ When the younger Augustine thought of the human soul it was relevant to refer to the behaviour displayed by the annelid, whose both halves continued to move for a time after bisection. What would change with time was not Augustine’s interest in the soul, but the manner in which he carried out his thinking about it. His later attempts to grapple with this subject consisted in the analysis of Scripture, something which these earlier writings did rather sparingly. Yet even as this constituted a difference of exposition certainly, and, indeed, even of method itself, it did not signify the invention of a supernatural sphere that could be isolated from the sphere of nature. It would always remain the case for him that nature had a great deal to reveal about what was of ultimately consequence – the heavenly realm to which the realm of nature was oriented. The change in Augustine’s epistemology over time was really a shift in his habit of studying heaven from the perspective of earth, to that of studying earth from the perspective of heaven.

Augustine’s optimism about knowledge decreased as a result of his disaffection with Manichaeism. He tells us that he used to think that knowledge could make one blessed. The state of error into which he had been plunged as a result of his confidence in his own intellectual abilities, and the intellectual failure of Manichaeism as a whole, signalled to him that not only had he initially thought knowledge too easy to come by, but that he had also been mistaken about its relationship with happiness. Why the latter should have been the case for him is less a philosophical point than it is a psychological one. It is simply the case that this whole escapade had taught him that something as fragile and changeable as opinion (it was not knowledge after all, he realized!) could not be the hinge upon which human fulfillment hung. Augustine felt forced into a soberer consideration of the intellectual life. Manichaeism was at fault for inspiring and for failing to condemn his overconfidence. He knew that he had to concentrate his efforts upon those fewer but more important matters (God and the soul) if he was to have any hope at all of finding the truth for which he longed. He came to see his former optimism as mistaken, and, ultimately, that the pursuit of any knowledge for its own sake was doomed to end badly because of how elusive knowledge really was to man. It is, nevertheless, important to add that at no time did he reject any specific type of knowledge as intrinsically flawed, even if he would get used to recommending certain sciences solely for their utility in aiding the interpretation of Scripture.

Evaluating the error he had made about Manichaeism constituted an important part of Confessions. What was it that allowed him to be duped about that religion that could not be applied to his adherence to Catholicism? He tells us that pride was at the heart of it. By this he meant willfulness, the very opposite of which was the operation of grace that was behind his conversion to Catholicism: whereas willfulness had been behind his entrance into that vain sect, the Spirit was behind his conversion to the true Faith. But how did he know this? He could look back and see that the very type of ‘knowledge falsely so-called’ that was a part of that false religion was characterized by a plundering, prying kind of curiosity. On the other hand, his realization about the truth of Catholicism, just as was the case for every other really true thing he had ever learned was the result of docility, poverty, and a sense of desperation. These dispositions had enabled him to imbibe the Latin language as an infant, and yet as an adult, in addition to these things, was required an overt, conscious acknowledgement of God’s exclusive power. Augustine characterized the Manicheans’ approach to truth in the same way he characterized astrologers’. The condemnation he makes of these two groups is a condemnation of his earlier approach to knowledge as a whole, which goes a long way to explain his practical neglect of natural science in his mature thought. And another important sign that Catholicism was true: he was finally able to live chastely. Manichaeism and astrology had done nothing to relieve him of his vices of pride, overconfidence, and lust. The true Faith was able to do all of these things for him. We are not used to Augustine’s ‘proof from moral standing.’

Several years after he had left Manichaeism behind was still detected his disdain for Manichaean epistemological forcefulness. The fascinating work, Disputation Against Fortunatus the Manichaean, revolves around Augustine’s hostility toward the Manichaean lack of reverence toward the substance of God which they presume, both literally and cognitively, to mix into their bizarre understanding of the world and its physical processes. The manner in which the Manichaeans think they can know God by physically examining the world forces Augustine into a radically different attitude. To his mind, the world is so much not of God’s substance that interest in it for itself becomes that much more difficult for him to justify.

The Genesis Commentaries

How the theological (for lack of a better word) and the natural worlds were to become related epistemologically in his thought can be seen especially in his Genesis commentaries. What was the early Christian commentator doing when he examined the Creation Account? What was Augustine doing – natural science, theology, philosophy, or a combination of all of these? It is easy enough to answer that in Augustine’s case he was doing all of these things to some extent. Augustine’s final commentary on the Creation Narrative is specified by him as a ‘literal’ commentary, by which term he meant to distinguish a commentary that focused on ethical, apocalyptic or allegorical issues. He was focused on the historical sense. Since the world was created in time that meant to him that the literal meaning of this passage was about the creation of the world in time. Yet it suffices to note, despite the fact that this was not meant as anything more than an exposition of the literal meaning of a passage of Scripture, that Augustine’s interests in the history of creation are properly defined as metaphysical and not as scientific. There is nothing surprising in this. His was an age dominated by a physics not much more advanced than that of the Timaeus. Yet there are still many subtle differences between Augustine’s account of creation and Plato’s, even with respect to the narrower subject of physics. Plato puts much more effort into explaining how the natural characteristics of known substances are a result of and a factor in the creative process. Augustine’s interests are never very far away from the theological. It cannot be said that Augustine completely ignores the characteristics of natural substances as he knows them, but, unlike Plato who is committed to an ‘emanationist’ account of creation – that the substance of the world flowed out of the divine substance naturally or inevitably, Augustine might simply minimize the importance of the particular qualities that substances possess because he knows that their current place in the world is not explained by their nature, but by God’s will. This likely has a great deal to do with the fact that Augustine’s literal or historical account of creation is not an essay on physics, but on metaphysics. Although he is forced to explain certain physical or biological problems that the creation narrative presents to the attentive reader, his interest lies more with metaphysical – theological questions, like the moral fittingness in the sequence of creation, the problem of time, and the question of the creation of spiritual beings. To Augustine these are the important questions, the only ones in which he is really interested.


Does Augustine’s approach to the Creation Narrative embody the only consistent Christian approach to the question of the beginning of the world, and to biology and physics?

Rightly is Catholic scholarship re-examining its intellectual heritage. It has been brow-beaten into using terms like ‘middle’ to describe those centuries over which the Church exercised its greatest intellectual influence. More and more scholars have joined their voices to the likes of Gilson and others to register their dissent from the allegation that Christianity is anti-intellectual. Distorted notions of the Church’s response to Galileo, to Darwin have entered the mainstream of contemporary folklore. These a-historicisms must be challenged. Nevertheless, the Catholic tradition has not advanced, and indeed ought not to be conceived as having advanced, an unqualified ‘yes’ to empiricism. For as often as Christians have inspired intellectual progress with their stable metaphysics and linear sense of time, have the voices of various Tertullians resounded, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ Augustine was not anti-intellectual, yet his sense of the vocation of learning contributed less to an impending scientific revolution than any well-meaning Catholic revisionism should dare suggest. If Augustine’s spurning of the world of chance through his spurning of astrology was an important moment in the pre-history of the scientific revolution, it can equally be said that his preference for the interior over the exterior was a force contributing to its delay. Even in light of the amazing advances mankind has achieved in medicine and other technologies, Augustine would have considered technological progress a far less important matter when compared to an individual’s moral progress. Therefore, in this sense, does Augustine’s final Literal Commentary on Genesis embody something inescapably Christian, and that is, that in and of themselves, physics and biology are of minimal importance to human life, and that the correctness of our religion is not displayed first and foremost in term of the degree to which it promotes scientific discovery.


  1. is emending mending stuff online? perhaps ammending? your editor, two rows ahead and to the left at st. h's.

  2. you are lucky this is a Christian blog.

  3. I really did try to email you but I had lost your email. I even checked your profile for your address and no luck. I was nursing and getting frustrated as I had only one hand; so, I resorted to the comment box. Trust me, I felt like ducking when I went up for communion and saw your fam a few rows back. Horrible woman. Go make a mean comment on my blog - you are already absolved.

  4. I would never! I take it as a sign of friendship that you correct me...

    But I would like more frequent posts on Swimming Upstream!

    I check everything first before I post because of you and Christine Schintgen... ;) I don't know how emend got past me. The Latin for to amend is emendere. That is why I always spell that word wrong. Too much education is a bad thing. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. haha.

    If only you could forgive me for setting your microwave clock. :(

  5. Ha! From, no idea what time it is. (Never emend my clock again.)

  6. What I want to know is - did you read this whole post Elena? I need to make a pot of tea to get through this one.

    When I read both your blogs I miss BB! Makes me want to buy that nice place on Lakeshore by the park and just settle right in.

  7. It'd be great to have you - but what would Bethany think? haha.