Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Scientific Revolution vs Religious Dogma

Ideas that emerged out of the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth Centuries not only instigated Enlightenment thinking, but also created the conditions necessary for which Darwin would form his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. The new scientific method made a “profound change in the way Europeans viewed the world” and reverberated to all human enterprises.

The Old World view of the medieval period in Europe was dominated by an adulation of the ancient Greeks (especially Aristotle). Their writings along with Church scriptures became indoctrinated, literal, infallible and immutable. Aristotle theorised the earth to be the centre of the universe and that all other heavenly bodies were faultless and revolve around us. The creation story of the Bible held humans to be created in the likeness and image of God. Therefore humans were given the duty to watch over all of creation, “Man thus stood above nature instead of being a part of it” - Bowler.

When in 1543, Copernicus demoted man from being the centre of the universe in On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres he challenged the holy notion of a hierarchical Great Chain of Being that was at the centre of the medieval world view. Copernicus “dethroned the earth” when he hypothesized from observations of earlier astronomers a heliocentric model. This theory better explained the motion of the planets, accurately explaining the apparent retrograde motion of planets across the sky.

A generation later Galileo strongly criticised the Church’s ‘unquestioning acceptance’ of Aristotle’s views and argued that the Church was able to “teach people truths necessary for salvation”. It could not, however, provide us with the physical laws for the universe, for this was the role of science; these truths needed to be arrived at by careful and ‘objective’ observations of physical systems. For this Galileo embraced Copernican theory and widely publicized it . Galileo was himself able to discover that Jupiter’s four moons and spots on the surface of the sun from observations using a telescope (Redwood 22), facts that testified against the geocentric model theory and the perfection of the heavens.

Galileo realised that the universe must be a mathematical system that could be studied in terms of mathematical relationships and ratios, a concept that became inherent to modern science. For Galileo the objectivity found in mathematics made it an ‘absolute authority’ in the physical world. Mathematics served as proof that the universe is not arranged into hierarchical levels but is uniform throughout, an idea that Newton’s laws of motion would later prove.

Francis Bacon was a contemporary of Galileo and perhaps more prominently championed the Scientific Method of Inquiry. He set about denouncing the old Aristotelian doctrine and the idea that truth can be arrived at purely from scripture, insisting that the old world view was no longer suited for a new emerging age of science. He further asserted that “the construction of systems that had little to do with the empirical world” (Perry 83) and the continued reliance on old Greek authorities was even harmful to society, because it fixed theories to fit established notions, ignoring any anomalies that did not fit the expected results.

For Bacon the only method for the acquisition of knowledge was careful observation of the natural world and the inference of theories from those observations. Only from “testing these laws through constant experimentation” was knowledge possible. The championing of the “inductive approach” by Bacon paved the way for the new world view constructed from the Scientific Method of inquiry.

In this new approach any person was a potential source of new knowledge and any new theory held its value on its empirical evidence. No theory could be indoctrinated and only stood until surmounted over by more fitting theory. Bacon believed that this new inductive methodology could improve understanding on all fields and improve the quality of human life. Indeed, without this new scientific paradigm, observations of the natural world might not have ever been compiled into Darwin’s theory of evolution two centuries later.

The ideas of the scientific revolution gave us a new method for inquiry “into nature and the recognition that science could serve humanity”. The success of the Scientific Method culminated when in 1678 Isaac Newton answered the mysteries of the mechanical universe in three simple laws that could be expressed in mathematical terms. Newton proved that physical laws apply everywhere in the universe and that the heavenly bodies are not governed by different laws from those of the secular world, finally destroying the hierarchical universe model (Perry 81) and introducing doubt into the special role of humans in the universe.

Newton derived these laws by reasoning about observations of the physical world made by earlier scientists and realised that the universe must be a vast mathematical system that could be predicted in a series of equations. By explaining that apples fall to the ground and not vice versa, not by a predetermined order of things but simply by the difference in their masses, Newton created uniformity of all things physical.

This final ingredient to the new world view established a scientific method as the only modulus for acquisition of knowledge for the modern mind. It created a faith in science that reinvented European society’s way of looking at the world with a new methodology to answer questions from all human disciplines, worlds apart from the medieval belief in the ancient Greek texts as the only authority on physical truth.

The Enlightenment ideas of the late sixteenth century, seventeenth century continued the conception of the new world view; changing our relationship to knowledge in all human endeavours, dumping old approaches and opened a new age of reason that celebrated the scientific method as a modulus for the development of society.

Newton’s success was used as proof of the success of the scientific method. This new approach towards reason as the only means of finding knowledge was interpreted into the human sciences to mean that any kind of truth must be objective and thereby universally true for all humanity.

Scripture and doctrine were no longer the sole sources of knowledge on the nature of man. A new general curiosity absent in the medieval period emerged in a quest to find answers on human identity. The Scientific revolution produced a new paradigm where any one theory only gathered value from empirical proofs. Francis Bacon endorsed the scientific method, believing that it would bring the “'advancement of learning'; [and that] such newly acquired knowledge would lead to power, and thereby ... to effecting all things possible”.

The Enlightenment thinkers thought themselves analogous to the natural scientists; the famous Scottish philosopher, David Hume thought himself to be the “'Newton of the moral sciences'”. It was primarily a revolution of the mind and soul, where traditional notions and presuppositions were finally questioned in much the same way that Copernicus had done with astronomy.

By the end of the sixteenth century, Enlightenment thinkers had established that only an initial scepticism, first-hand experience and a general understanding of the “regular order of nature ... would reveal the laws of man's existence as a conscious being in society, much as they had demonstrated how gravity governed the motions of the planets in the solar system” (Porter 17).

Thus the Enlightenment thinkers went on a quest for a 'science of man' to bring objectivity to the social sciences (Porter 12). With the revelation that humans no longer inhabited the centre of the universe the relationship between man and nature had to be rethought. New theories needed to be of such a nature that they were universally applicable to the human race (Hyland 176).In a way the new universality made man part of nature rather than above it. This concept would be fully realised in Darwin's theory of evolution.

By the 19th considerable developments in the natural sciences had embedded a firm trust in the capabilities of science to improve the quality of life. For instance, the increase in understanding of thermodynamic processes was advancing the industrial revolution.

In 1859 Charles Darwin explained many unanswered mysteries of biology with his theory of Evolution by means of ‘natural selection’, an idea that seemed to contradict the belief that man was created in the likeness and image of God and required “a complete reinterpretation of our spiritual role in creation” (Bowler 4). Evolution created a new revolution in the way of thinking about our relationship with nature. It eliminated the notion of a Great Chain of Being by deducing that all living things evolve from inferior organisms, revealing the possibility that man might not actually hold any special standing in nature and is simply the most advanced life form.

The cultural climate that the scientific revolution created was necessary for the creation and consequent general acceptance of Darwin’s idea. Despite being controversial the idea of Evolution was widely accepted by way of its strong empirical backing. If the idea of evolution had emerged in the medieval period it would have been labelled as heretical and quickly discarded.

Only through the scientific method could such a thorough understanding of the biological world could have been established. Like Newton and Copernicus before him, Darwin derived his idea by compiling what he and others had observed about the natural world (Bowler 189). Darwin’s theory is unbiased logical truth derived from a process of induction; it is independent and unconcerned with any religious beliefs or social implications. Darwin did not intend to disprove religious convictions but only to explain the natural world. This objectivity is specifically what the new world view of Scientific Revolution created and Enlightenment thinkers sought.

The Scientific method of inquiry has significantly expanded human understanding of the world. Its application to the human sciences during the Enlightenment had a permanent effect on human society and it is not unreasonable to presume that given scientific practise the creation of a Theory of Evolution was inevitable.


· Bowler, P. J. Evolution, the history of an idea. Los Angeles, USA: University of California Press, 1989.

· Porter, Roy. The Enlightenment. Hong Kong: Macmillan Education LTD, 1990.

· Coursebook: Perry, Marvin. An intellectual history of modern Europe. Boston, Toronto: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. 67-77.

· Hyland, Paul Ed. The Enlightenment: a sourcebook and reader. London; New York: Routledge, 2003.

· Redwood, John. European Science in the Seventeenth Century. Plymouth, Great Britain: Latimer Trend & Company Ltd, 1977.

· European 100: Thinking Europe | Scientific Revolution 1. Ed. Dr Bernadette Luciano The University of Auckland. 7 May 2007 .

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