The Great Rift

Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide

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Michael E. Hobart
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , April
     520 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michael E. Hobart’s new work, The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide, traces how symbolic systems were developed and how those systems were, in turn, used to develop the abstract, relational descriptions upon which modern science was built. This book encompasses the 12th to the 17th centuries culminating in Galileo Galilei as the primary figure for analysis. 

Hobart opens the book with a discussion of the terms religio and scientia. For a figure such as Thomas Aquinas, both religio and scientia were a subset of modes of inquiry in a logos­-centered approach. Hobart observes that the categories of inquiry used by earlier scholars such as Aristotle and Augustine of Hippo were synthesized in Aquinas’s work. In fact, Aquinas’s work depended on the preservation and transmission of these ancient authors in order for him to engage with them. Hobart points out that the function of alphabets as a symbolic system should not be overlooked in the development of modes of inquiry. The alphabet allowed for scholars to store information beyond what a single person could remember. It also allowed for prior qualitative investigation to be critiqued and to be built upon. Literacy was thus, a crucial development in the storage and transmission of information.

Like the alphabet, Arabic numerals made it possible to conceive of a new type of mathematics. In Hobart’s terminology, this was a transition from “thing mathematics” to “relational mathematics” (81). In “thing mathematics,” one is concerned with information related to real world objects. Hobart’s story of the development of “thing mathematics” focuses on the bookkeeping practices of merchants and traders. The adoption of Arabic numerals also proved advantageous for representing and manipulating numbers. Within this new calculation scheme, it was necessary to develop a new symbol for an empty place in a given number: zero. In addition to making general arithmetic much easier, one could also calculate an unknown number using other known information, leading to some of the earliest instantiations of algebra. It came to be realized that one could manipulate these symbols without reference to any real world object. Not only that, but this kind of math did not depend on the particular kindof objects that one might need to calculate. One could do algebra to solve for the number of apples just as easily as to solve for the number of cows. While scholastic approaches continued in the tradition of qualitative descriptions, here was a new way of processing information that did not seem to care about the qualities of the objects that it was working with. For Hobart, this lack of relationality to a real world object made this new mathematics fundamentally empty.

Hobart’s story of the development of these new symbolic systems—from the alphabet and numerals to musical notation and markers of time—finds its culmination in the work of Galileo. Galileo, instead of using qualitative methods to describe physical phenomena, deferred entirely to a mathematical model. The ability to mark discrete periods of time in mathematical terms, for instance one second, allowed for Galileo to track the motion of objects over a given interval. The position of the object itself could also be described mathematically in numerals relative to its starting point. Galileo was able to show that gravity’s effect is constant, regardless of the type of object, disproving Aristotle’s belief that heavier objects fall faster. It appeared that mathematics had a unique power for description that went beyond the qualities of any particular thing. The Catholic Church, however, saw such work as potentially dangerous. In response, Galileo suggested that science was a separate enterprise from the religious and moral concerns of the Church—a view that Hobart describes as a forerunner to Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisterium argument (271). 

The modern religion-science divide, in Hobart’s view, can be traced to a fundamental difference in the modes of inquiry being done on each side. Quantitative approaches are grounded in numeracy and relational mathematics, whereas qualitative approaches are grounded in literacy. Relational mathematics is fundamentally unconcerned with the kinds of objects it is dealing with. Writing, however, will always be limited by what can actually be described and communicated in that medium. Still, there appears to be great mystery as to why mathematical systems map onto the real world so well.

Overall, Hobart’s book is quite detailed and meticulous in its approach. Readers who are interested in the development of the symbolic systems, and how those systems fit into a larger story of information technology, will find this book quite helpful. Hobart himself admits that The Great Rift tends to be more concerned with tracking the scientific and technological changes rather than the religious developments which accompanied them. For that reason, this book appears to be most helpful for scholars who are already familiar with the historical tension between religion and science, especially in the case of Galileo. It’s conclusion—that the religion-science divide can never be bridged given that the two forms of inquiry rely on entirely distinct methods—brings new complications to those involved in that debate. The difference between what can be described through quantitative means, and what can only be described through qualitative means, appears to be a tension between the universal and the particular. In light of Hobart’s book, philosophers, theologians, and scientists will again have to consider this question: does it matter what kind of thing that it is?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Seth Villegas is a doctoral student in Theology and Ethics at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
April 5, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael E. Hobart is Professor of History Emeritus, Bryant University, and recently Adjunct Professor in the History Department at Western Washington University.


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