Natural sciences, Medieval natural philosophy (1100–1600)

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Natural sciences are the empirical sciences endeavoring to explain or predict nature's phenomena. (Other empirical sciences—cognitive sciences like artificial intelligence, behavioral sciences like psychology, and social sciences like economics—more directly focus on human and, in similitude, robotic functions and experiences.) There are five branches of natural science: astronomy, biology, chemistry, the Earth sciences and physics. Each domain collaborates experimental/observational and theoretical/mathematical divisions.


Aristotle's works and other Greek natural philosophy did not reach the West until about the middle of the 12th century, when works were translated from Greek and Arabic into Latin. The development of European civilization later in the Middle Ages brought with it further advances in natural philosophy. European inventions such as the horseshoe, horse collar and crop rotation allowed for rapid population growth, eventually giving way to urbanization and the foundation of schools connected to monasteries and cathedrals in modern-day France and England. Aided by the schools, an approach to Christian theology developed that sought to answer questions about nature and other subjects using logic. This approach, however, was seen by some detractors as heresy. By the 12th century, Western European scholars and philosophers came into contact with a body of knowledge of which they had previously been ignorant: a large corpus of works in Greek and Arabic that were preserved by Islamic scholars. Through translation into Latin, Western Europe was introduced to Aristotle and his natural philosophy. These works were taught at new universities in Paris and Oxford by the early 13th century, although the practice was frowned upon by the Catholic church. A 1210 decree from the Synod of Paris ordered that "no lectures are to be held in Paris either publicly or privately using Aristotle's books on natural philosophy or the commentaries, and we forbid all this under pain of excommunication."

In the late Middle Ages, Spanish philosopher Dominicus Gundissalinus translated a treatise by the earlier Arab scholar Al-Farabi called On the Sciences into Latin, calling the study of the mechanics of nature scientia naturalis, or natural science. Gundissalinus also proposed his own classification of the natural sciences in his 1150 work On the Division of Philosophy. This was the first detailed classification of the sciences based on Greek and Arab philosophy to reach Western Europe. Gundissalinus defined natural science as "the science considering only things unabstracted and with motion," as opposed to mathematics and sciences that rely on mathematics. Following Al-Farabi, he then separated the sciences into eight parts, including physics, cosmology, meteorology, minerals science and plant and animal science.

Later philosophers made their own classifications of the natural sciences. Robert Kilwardby wrote On the Order of the Sciences in the 13th century that classed medicine as a mechanical science, along with agriculture, hunting and theater while defining natural science as the science that deals with bodies in motion. Roger Bacon, an English friar and philosopher, wrote that natural science dealt with "a principle of motion and rest, as in the parts of the elements of fire, air, earth and water, and in all inanimate things made from them." These sciences also covered plants, animals and celestial bodies. Later in the 13th century, Catholic priest and theologian Thomas Aquinas defined natural science as dealing with "mobile beings" and "things which depend on matter not only for their existence, but also for their definition." There was wide agreement among scholars in medieval times that natural science was about bodies in motion, although there was division about the inclusion of fields including medicine, music and perspective. Philosophers pondered questions including the existence of a vacuum, whether motion could produce heat, the colors of rainbows, the motion of the earth, whether elemental chemicals exist and where in the atmosphere rain is formed.

In the centuries up through the end of the Middle Ages, natural science was often mingled with philosophies about magic and the occult. Natural philosophy appeared in a wide range of forms, from treatises to encyclopedias to commentaries on Aristotle. The interaction between natural philosophy and Christianity was complex during this period; some early theologians, including Tatian and Eusebius, considered natural philosophy an outcropping of pagan Greek science and were suspicious of it. Although some later Christian philosophers, including Aquinas, came to see natural science as a means of interpreting scripture, this suspicion persisted until the 12th and 13th centuries. The Condemnation of 1277, which forbade setting philosophy on a level equal with theology and the debate of religious constructs in a scientific context, showed the persistence with which Catholic leaders resisted the development of natural philosophy even from a theological perspective. Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, another Catholic theologian of the era, sought to distance theology from science in their works. "I don't see what one's interpretation of Aristotle has to do with the teaching of the faith," he wrote in 1271.

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