Question I. Whether Christianity promoted the rise of science
Article 1. Whether there was a Scientific RevolutionObjection 1. It would seem otherwise, because the term science is not well-defined. Lindberg (1992), for example, provides no less than seven different definitions. Therefore, there was no Scientific Revolution because there is no one thing called science.
Objection 2. It would seem otherwise, because the term science means "knowledge" and mankind has always accumulated knowledge. Therefore, there was never a scientific revolution.
Objection 3. It would seem otherwise, because, as Charles Homer Haskins wrote, "The continuity of history rejects such sharp and violent contrasts between successive periods" of history. Therefore, Science emerged gradually and not through a “revolution.”
Objection 4. It would seem otherwise, because a revolution consists of definitive points of change, and is carried out during a short time according to a plan. But the development of science took place over an extended time and was unplanned.
On the contrary, British historian Herbert Butterfield wrote that the Scientific Revolution “outshines everything since the rise of Christianity and reduces the Renaissance and Reformation to the rank of mere episodes… within the system of medieval Christendom.”
I answer that a distinction must first be made. Science in the modern sense is the effort to devise physical theories that account for the metrical properties of physical bodies. Thus, when we speak of the "rise of science," we do not mean mathematics (which works with ideal bodies), tinkering/invention, nor the mere accumulation of facts and rules of thumb, even if retrospectively those things look sorta scientificalistic to us. Nor do we include the social "sciences," whose objects are human beings rather than natural physical bodies.
Astronomy was a specialized kind of mathematics and was not regarded as physical science because its objects (stars and planets) were regarded as "alive, divine, and influential in human affairs." Not being physical bodies, there was little effort to provide physical explanations. Astronomical models were simply mathematical calculations by which the motions of the heavens could be predicted. Because of the privileging of mathematics in scientific discourse, the Late Modern Era often regards mathematics as a science, rather than the language of science.
For most of history, clever innovations were the result of trial and error by tinkerers and ingeniatores [engineers], and science came along after the fact to explain them. This point is often overlooked because most "science" fiction is actually "technological" fiction and in the Late Modern Era, engineering and science have been wedded.
Likewise, medical doctors, alchemists, and others might accumulate a potpourri of facts, but these do not constitute a science because the physical causes remain occult [hidden] rather than manifest [made evident]. One may discover per accidens that combining sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter produces an explosive black powder, but it is not science unless one attempts to discover the reason why the mixture does so.
|The great pyramid of science|
Haskins, writing that "modern research shows the Middle Ages less dark and less static, the Renaissance less bright and less sudden, than was once supposed," identified a "twelfth century renaissance" that included a renaissance in science.
This culminated in the 17th century (Kepler, Harriot, Scheiner, Gilbert, Clavius, Vieta, Beeckman, Stevin, et al.) in a transformation that involved six “innovative and essential features” identified by Peter Dear:
- The view of the world as a kind of machine.
- The distinction between “primary” and “secondary” qualities.
- The use of deliberate and recordable experimentation.
- The use of mathematics as a privileged tool for disclosing nature.
- The pursuit of natural philosophy as a research enterprise.
- The reconstruction of the social basis of knowledge around a positive evaluation of cooperative research.
|Frank Bacon: science for Men!|
In addition, there was a philosophical transformation spearheaded by Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, David Hume and others that pushed nominalism or conceptualism over realism and kicked off 400 years of "philosophical squid ink." In this new vision, science was conceived to be not a form of art criticism (as the medievals had done with their emphasis on final causes) but rather a servant to engineering and business (as the moderns did with their emphasis on metrical efficient causes). The details of these issues need not detain us here.
Arguably, this revolution was confined to physics, but spread to chemistry a century later, and to biology by the 1920’s, losing bits and pieces along the way. (See Dear's #4: Where are the Darwin equations?) As for the social "sciences," sociology cannot suit up in the same game as physics and chemistry.
The upshot is that man's study of the natural world underwent a transformation between the 14th and 17th centuries that resulted in the formal activity that today we call "science."
However, it might be a better metaphor to call this transition a "Scientific Tipping Point" rather than a "Scientific Revolution," to emphasize both its fundamental continuity and its historically abrupt shift. This is a familiar phenomenon in topological catastrophe manifolds, where the equilibrium state may "suddenly" change while the system parameters have smoothly and gradually changed.
This activity has been so successful that the term "science" became a mere "approval word," and to call something "scientific" became just another way of saying that it was "good." Thus: "scientific socialism," "scientology," "creation science," and so on. By the 1950s, advertisers were featuring hucksters in white lab coats in their commercials, and those who lacked the Good as such in their lives turned to Science!™ as a substitute.
A "pleat" surface shows how continuous
processes running "left and right" can
result in sudden changes vertically.
Reply to Objection 1. The term scientia once meant "knowledge," simpliciter. Thus "military science," "political science," the "sweet science" of boxing, the "science of theology," and so on. In each case, the meaning is a systematic and analytical study of a subject using evidence, logic and reason. There are some who try to define science in this manner, but then police detectives and building contractors become "scientists" and the term loses its more precise meaning. Modern usage restricts "science" primarily to the natural sciences: the systematic and analytical study of Nature using evidence, logic and reason. The objection arises from equivocation between the earlier and more recent usage of the term.
Reply to Objection 2. The great physicist Henri Poincare wrote that a pile of facts is no more a science than a pile of bricks is a house. Methodological naturalism requires that the natural world be regarded of lacking in values or meaning, and this in turn implies that facts [which are phenomena/events in the natural world] are lacking in value and meaning. Whatever meaning they may acquire comes from human intellect arranging the facts into a theoretical structure. (The Latin word for the "act of shaping" is fictio.) Facts are meaningless in the absence of physical theory, and what we see is often mediated by the theoretical glasses through which we see it. The accumulation of facts is thus necessary for the emergence of science, but it is not sufficient.
Reply to Objection 3. Haskins, Duhem, and others quite rightly pointed out that the rise of science began prior to the vaunted Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. It is obvious that you cannot have a scientific revolution unless you already have a science to revolve. The term dates only from 1803, and is thus a conceptual invention of the Revolutionary Age projecting (as always) their political and cultural biases onto the past.
Alexandre Koyré placed science "as an essentially intellectual enterprise, squarely in the historical mainstream of modern thought" and disabused readers of the notion that science was "a series of right-thinking lads and crucial experiments," whose "trajectory... was predictably rational, linear, and progressive" and somehow unaffected by religious, philosophical, or cultural bias.
Reply to Objection 4. Those involved in the 17th century Scientific Revolution were purposefully engaged in overturning previous Aristotelian paradigms. Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy is perhaps the Storming of the Bastille. Yet, even if the Revolutionaries were correct in their self-assessment, revolutions always have deeper origins.
Continue to Article 2
- Dear, Peter. Disciplining Experience: The Mathematical Way in the Scientific Revolution. (University of Chicago Press, 1995)
- Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages. (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
- Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. (Harvard University Press, 1927)
- Hatch, Robert A. "The Scientific Revolution: Paradigm Lost?" (Feb 1998-2002) [accessed 4 Nov 2013]
- Huff, Toby E. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West. (Cambridge University Press, 2003)
- Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western Science. (University of Chicago Press, 1992).