Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Really? Demonology was a Science?

Posted by Darin Hayton on 10/11 at 09:52 AM

Jonathan Seitz offered a fascinating introduction to the ideas about demons in early modern Europe at last night’s Science on Tap: The Science of Demonology. A nice crowd turned out to hear Jonathan explain why demonology had formed part of a rigorous and rational investigation into the natural world, and where it fit in broader discussions about nature, medicine, and religion.

Jonathon Seitz speaking to a full house about demonology in the middle ages

Jonathan’s began by distinguishing demonology from witchcraft. For the evening, he was interested in demonology, the study of demons, their characteristics, their abilities, and their actions in the world. Demonology was generally practiced by an intellectual elite. Charges of witchcraft, by contrast, were usually leveled at people further down the social hierarchy.

Ideas about demons were grounded in Aristotelian ideas about the pairs of primary qualities—hot-cold and wet-dry—and the four elements that resulted from combining these qualities—earth, water, air, and fire. Further, humoral medicine mapped easily onto this scheme. Studying demons was, in other words, a completely natural project.

The emblem at The Warburg Institute is an elaborate version of the qualities, elements, and humors (Source: From The Warburg Institute: Emblem)

Although demons were natural, there was considerable debate in early modern Europe about what they could and could not do, how they might bring about their actions, how much they might choose to do, and how to tell if a certain phenomenon or effect had been caused by a demon. These questions motivated much of the scholarship and writing on demons in the 16th century, scholarship carried out by theologians, clerics, natural philosophers, and polemicists.

Jonathan’s point was clear: Demonology was decidedly not some irrational superstition practiced by intellectual midgets or religious zealots and dullards. Demonology was grounded in a systematic theory of nature with an agreed upon body of phenomena that needed to be explained and competing explanations for those phenomena. Those differing explanations did not reject the notion of demons as natural (as opposed to supernatural), but rather argued about the details, about what they could infer from particular phenomena, about the causes of certain phenomena.

Jonathan ended his presentation by addressing the obvious “So what?” question:

Jonathan explains why a roomful of people who want to promote enthusiasm for science should care about demonology 400 years ago.

He offered three reasons we should care:

  • It mattered to them, so it should matter to us (at least to historians)
  • What seems to be blind superstition actually has theory, logic behind it
  • Ant it raises the question: What carefully studied phenomena do we believe in, which will be figments centuries from now?

Some sort of justification is always important. Historians of science have to make their work relevant, whether they study seemingly relevant contemporary topics or more remote, quirkier subjects.1 When talking to the Science on Tap audience it might be more important.

Science on Tap is variously described as a way to advance public understanding of science. One version of this story stresses Science on Tap’s genealogy:

The science café movement began in Leeds, England in 1998 when a local pub decided to foment a new kind of barroom brawl - scientific debate. The idea took off as a unique way to advance public understanding of science. Now, there are locations from Maine to California where, for the price of a beer or a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, anyone can discuss scientific ideas with leading experts in their fields and learn about developments that are changing our lives (from National Mechanics website).

The Chemical Heritage Foundation’s description stresses more the emphasis on contemporary science:

Science on Tap is a monthly science café in Philadelphia for anyone who is interested in getting together with other people to discuss a range of engaging science topics. … Science on Tap features a brief, informal presentation by a scientist or other expert followed by lively conversation. The goal is to promote enthusiasm for science in a fun, spirited, and accessible way, while also meeting new people. Come join the conversation (from the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s website)!

In both versions, Science on Tap is oriented toward contemporary, accepted and acceptable sciences. For better or worse, demonology is no longer an accepted or acceptable science. More problematically, demonology does not have an obvious and direct link to modern, accepted, and acceptable sciences. Some of the questions from the audience indicate how important it is for people to explain things in terms of modern, acceptable science. One person tried to explain away the belief in demons by invoking modern psychological explanations. The belief in demons and the purported phenomena resulted not from rational system but were merely psychological epiphenomena. Another person asked whether everybody believed in demons, or were there any people who denied the existence of demons. He wanted to distinguish between the deluded and the rational. Another person tried to use this as another example of the war between religion and science. He said this seemed yet another example that “religion is not interested in nature. Religion never cared about what the scientists care about.” Jonathan pointed out that these categories—religion-science—are incredibly problematic when we project them into the past. It was hard to distinguish between religion and science. Another person asked about how the study of demons contributed to the development of modern science. Jonathan pointed out that while there was a rigorous study of cause and effect, there is no direct connection between demonology and modern science.

Perhaps if more historians of science working on earlier sciences—not just quirky, non-obvious sciences like demonology or magic or astrology, but also subjects like medieval medicine, optics, mathematics—spoke at Science on Tap the audience have more opportunities to think broadly about what constitutes a science. This would accomplish two goals. First, it would prompt historians of science to justify their work, something all scholars—historians, sociologists, anthropologists, physicist, chemists—should be forced to do. Second, if done correctly, greater exposure to historical sciences would go some way to address Jonathan’s first two points: that science was important to people in the past so we should care about it; superstition is often a pejorative adjective imposed by the present on past activities we no longer accept. More interestingly, we might find that careful examination of these historical sciences might temper some of the hubris of the present. As Jonathan offered in his third “So what?”, we might begin to see that our current rational, logical, and well-supported interpretations of phenomena will likely turn out to be barbaric superstition in the not too distant future.

1See Nathaniel Comfort’s series of posts for an extended treatment of this topic: Who cares about the history of science?, Why should we care…? II., Why should we care…? III., Why should we care…? IV..

Tags: demonology, jonathan seitz, national mechanics, science on tap, witchcraft