Proceedings 20        November 1990        the Danson Room, Trinity College, following the meeting of the Society, chaired by the President Dr Crombie.



The speaker began by quoting Dr Crombie’s aperçu that: 'The whole historical experience of scientific thinking is an invitation to treat the history of science ... as a kind of comparative anthropology of thought..' Inspired by this thought she had approached the problem of motivation of scientific: thinking in medieval Europe as an aspect of cultural patterning in societies both primitive and literate. She had drawn on texts of Cognitive Neurology, notably work by J.Z.Young, Steven Rose, Francis Crick, John Maynard Smith and Jean-Pierre Changeux. Her endeavour was to explore the possible value of this rather new discipline--already being exploited by philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists--to historians. She would investigate two human characteristics, cognitive thinking and the continuity of cultural tradition to propose a theory to account for the climate of uninterest, when not hostile, during the Middle Ages, against those wishing to pursue open inquiry into the natural world.

The ancient Greek passion for open inquiry was fostered by the fact that a wide variety of local traditions in the autonomous city-states effectively eliminated the threat of a social force imposing limits on scientific activity. In medieval Europe however, this could be inhibited by strong traditions shared by all members of the community, which imposed an attitude of conformity to and respect for received wisdom. Medieval scientists believed that one reason for their work was to increase appreciation of the Creator. Adelard of Bath held that the natural world was accessible to human reasoning and the pursuit of science was a privilege conferred by God. But Adelard was resigned to opposition and disapproval: 'I have found most men wrongheaded ... they point to me as an object of scandal.. William of Conches berated those ignorant of the 'forces of nature'. But the majority establishment view summed up from St Augustine--'science must be subject to the authority of Scripture', to St Bernard--'for us, curiosity is no longer necessary after Jesus Christ nor inquiry after the Gospel.' In the face of this massive distrust the scientific work and originality of such men as Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon and William of Ockham demand our admiration and respect.

The universal tendency in all societies to form and to cleave to a unique way of life, a particular tradition, covering every aspect and activity could, the speaker argued, best be understood with the new data provided by Cognitive Science concerning structures and functions of the human brain and thus relevant to patterns of behaviour. The discipline aimed to map the evolutionary development in the structure of the mammalian brain in its journey from primate to Homo sapiens.

These changes moved in the direction of improving the mechanism of the cognitive systems that programmed the brain far coping with the environment far survival purposes. Each system governed a set of body functions and was intricately designed to connect those functions and was designed to strengthen the brain’s total effectiveness.

Certain [notably the speech] areas gradually expanded in our species to provide a vast increase in cognitive power. In fact, the kind of cognitive thinking required far scientific investigation, or open inquiry: reasoning, forming categories, inference and deduction, all of which demanded and made use of a wide palette of symbolic sounds, i.e. wards--all made possible by the enlarging of speech areas. The invention of writing immeasurably strengthened the capacity for cognitive activity as well as aiding the transmission of tradition.

The speaker proposed to distinguish two aspects of tradition: [1] as custom, prescriptive of the entire way of life--food, fighting, mating clothing, etc and [2] the explanatory--all received explanations far natural events. This category far which the speaker proposed to coin the term 'PARADOSIS, was of concern to the would-be scientist because it was the portion of the inherited wisdom of society that he necessarily threatened by investigating the natural world. Tradition in the general sense is apposed to scientific enquiry as this threatens the reigning paradoasis and thus is to be feared. And yet the human species is programmed to react to threats not only by fighting and fleeing, but also by holding firmly to the umbrella of the known and accepted--and in the case of science, the reigning--paradosis.

Medieval scientists had to contend not merely with the hostility of their peers, not only with the inertia of the prevailing paradosis, but also. by the 13th century with a thought system of great weight-Scholasticism-capable of turning into an aspect of tradition. Could it be that the human brain was so fashioned in its neuronal connections as to have a special affinity far patterning, repetition and balance of ideas which made Scholasticism peculiarly resistant to examination.

The hypothesis concerned two related functions of the human brain: - cognitive thinking and the building and preservation of a tradition tailored to fit each society: both served survival ends vital to the species. Cognition organized the individual's experience and formed estimates and evaluations of the environment, *(WHEREAS)tradition compelled the group to cohere and hence ensured its survival. The hypothesis was potentially useful, particularly to historians of science; it was based upon recent research and the physiological substrate of human cognition --the structure and chemistry of the brain and the neural mechanisms of behaviour. Future historians would surely find other instances where cognitive science could assist their studies.

The President thanked the speaker for her talk, and after questions from the floor and discussion of some of the issues raised, drew the meeting to a close.

Summary by GSH