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The Scientific Revolution

Causes of the Scientific Revolution

What you need to know

Things:

  • Aristotelianism
  • Reductionism
  • Entelechy
  • Quintescence
  • Celestial spheres
  • Axial rotation
  • Progressive motion
  • Theory
  • Measurement
  • Evidence
  • Barometer
  • Telescope
  • Microscope
  • Pendulum clock
  • Gravity
  • Centrifugal force
  • Induction
  • Deduction
  • Random mutation
  • Natural selection
  • Periodic table

People:

  • Aristotle
  • Copernicus
  • Paracelsus
  • Vesalius
  • Kepler
  • Bruno
  • Galileo
  • Bacon
  • Descartes
  • Leeuwenhoek
  • Roemer
  • Boyle
  • Torricelli
  • Mersenne
  • Newton
  • Darwin
  • Mendeleev

Events:

  • On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, Copernicus, 1543
  • On the Fabric of the Human Body, Vesalius, 1543
  • New Astronomy, Kepler, 1609
  • The New Organon, Bacon, 1620
  • On the Anatomy of the Heart and Blood, Harvey, 1628
  • Dialogue on the Two World Systems, Galileo, 1632
  • Discourse on Method, Descartes, 1637
  • Principia Mathematica, Newton, 1687
  • On the Origin of Species, Darwin, 1859
  • The Properties of Atomic Weights and Elements, Mendeleev, 1869

Works:

Questions to answer
  • Why was Aristotle such a formidable force to overcome?
  • How did science overcome Aristotle?
  • What is the significance of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica?
  • Why was Copernicus’ theory so revolutionary? Why was it so hard to prove?
  • What is the difference between Bacon’s and Descartes’ approaches to science?
  • What was the significance of Principia Mathematica?
  • Why was the Catholic Church so hostile to science?
  • What role did Martin Luther play in the early culture of science?
  • How did Marin Mersenne (temporarily) reconcile religion and science?
  • What heresy prompted the Church to silence Galileo?
  • Give three illustrations of how mathematics proved central to the development of science.
  • Newton + Darwin = God. Explain.
Sample questions answered

Why was Copernicus’ theory so revolutionary?

Copernicus’ theory was revolutionary because it contradicted three sources of intellectual authority. First, it contradicted the authority of the Bible and the Church. The Bible was the principal source of “knowledge” at the time of Copernicus and the Church used it to enforce orthodoxy in what could be officially known. The Bible states “Man shall stand upon the firmament and the celestial spheres shall be in orbit, around him, glorifying him.” It MUST have been true.

Second, Copernicus’ theory contradicted Aristotle who was the overwhelmingly dominant authority on matters intellectual at the time. Aristotle had written in the 5th Century B.C. that the earth lay at the center of a system of nine “celestial spheres” which orbited the earth in frictionless rotations. His authority was amplified when the Church assimilated Aristotle into its official theology via Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in 1250. So both the Church and Aristotle said the earth was at the center of the universe.

Finally, the visual senses tend to reinforce both the Church and Aristotle, lending common sense support to the authority of the Church and Aristotle. From any vantage, the earth appears stable. But anyone can watch the “progression” of the sun across the sky throughout the day, or the stars at night. It was the combination of all of these sources of “knowledge” that made Copernicus’ theory—which contradicted them all—so revolutionary.

What role did Martin Luther play in the early culture of science?

There were three elements to the role that Luther played in the early culture of science. They were: the remoteness of God; the mundane earthly sphere; and the individual’s capacity to discover fundamental truths.

First, in Luther’s understanding, God was infinitely remote, so far above man that he was unapproachable by any means but faith. This was quite different than the Platonic world where the essence of God suffused all of the universe.

This led to the second important element: that with God so remote, the earth itself was mundane. It was simply material, not divine as the Church said, nor “quintessential” as Aristotle had taught.

Finally, in Luther’s theology the individual person was empowered to discover profound truths about salvation. But when this empowerment of the individual was turned to the material world, which was mundane, individuals could discover profound truths about that as well. The result was a culture where science was a natural condition of human inquiry.

Newton + Darwin = God. Explain.

In Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, Newton propounded the theory that the planets were held in place in their orbits around the sun by the combination of centrifugal force and gravity. Centrifugal force made them tend to fly outward, but this is perfectly balanced by gravity, which pulls them inward. The significance was that these forces applied to all inanimate masses throughout the entire universe.

In On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin theorized that evolution was the result of two processes. First, in the process of reproduction there occur Random Mutations in all living species. If these Random Mutations happen to confer improved survivability onto the organism in which they occurred, that organism’s genetic material will be propagated. If they do not confer improved survivability, that organism will be more likely to die, and removed from the gene pool. Darwin called this second process Natural Selection.

The significance of the two theories, Newton’s and Darwin’s, is that Newton’s applies to all inanimate matter in the universe. Darwin’s, as far as we can tell, applies to all living things—all things that reproduce. So between them, they explain the behavior of all living and non-living things in the universe, hence dispensing with the need for God as an explanation (or so, at least, their proponents claim).

Original documents
Supplementary notes
Intro to the book

In Europe, in the 1500s and 1600s, a new way of thinking was invented that completely changed the world. It overturned centuries of established patterns of thought and altered forever how people would view the world. It wasn’t called so at the time, but this radical rearrangement of human thinking would come to be known as Science and the process of inventing it, the Scientific Revolution.

This Scientific Revolution wasn’t a single event. It didn’t happen in a single country. It didn’t happen quickly. It wasn’t caused by any one person. And it wasn’t even a singular way of thinking, at least not in the beginning. Rather, it was the product of two important “discomforts” shared by educated people throughout Europe: 1) a deep resentment of established authority, especially the authority of the Catholic Church; and 2) an irrepressible curiosity about how the world really worked, versus how people were told it worked. These discomforts led to changes in human affairs as profound as anything since the invention of agriculture.

If we were to characterize the Scientific Revolution in the sparest phrasing possible, it might be this: “Theory and Evidence Replaced Faith and Authority.” Prior to the Scientific Revolution, what Europeans “knew” about the world came from two sources: the Catholic Church and Aristotle. The Church represented knowledge from Faith. Aristotle represented knowledge from Authority. By contrast, Science relied on Theory and its confirmation through Evidence to tell humans how the world worked. The use of Theory and Evidence as the primary way of “knowing what you know” signaled a radically different mode of thinking, a profoundly different way of understanding the world.

Of course, it would take several centuries for this new way of thinking to become fully accepted. But it led to a stunning increase in humans’ control over their material world and, eventually, over other people as well. It was this efficacy, more than anything else, that persuaded people of Science’s superiority over religion, at least as far as concerned matters of the physical world. It would catapult Europe and European Civilization to the most powerful position among all the nations of the world.

Table of Contents to the book
  1. Introduction
  2. The Cultural Context
    1. Greek Origins
    2. Knowledge in the Middle Ages
    3. The Impotence of “Learning”
  3. The Problem of Aristotle
    1. Towering Authority
    2. Specific Beliefs
  4. How the Revolution Began
    1. Overturning Aristotle
    2. The Role of Perspective
    3. The Influence of Islam
    4. Martin Luther
    5. Copernicus
  5. The Process of Science
    1. Induction/Deduction
    2. The Scientific Method
    3. The Role of Mathematics
    4. Messy Beginnings
  6. Science and Society
    1. The Church Opposed
    2. Scientists in Favor
    3. Science as a Religious Tool
  7. The World Turned Upside Down
  8. Appendix: Foundations and Founders of a New World View
    1. Mathematics
    2. Astronomy
    3. Chemistry
    4. Biology
    5. Physics
    6. Medicine
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