Philosophical History of Scientific Revolution – Part 2 of 2

This is the second part of the 2-part article where I explore the history of the Scientific Revolution from a philosophical perspective. That is to say – what sort of intellectual currents characterise and shape the shift in the way people viewed and studied nature. You can read the first part of the story in the last week’s post. In it, I suggest that a useful way of interpreting the Scientific Revolution is by looking at it as a move away from the Aristotelian models of explaining nature. The objections started already during the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Importantly, these objections were significantly motivated by Christian religious worries. Therefore, regarding the Scientific Revolution as some sort of rebellion of science against religion (as it is still often portrayed in popular opinion) is deeply misguided. Read on to find out more because in this second part I talk not only about the Scientific Revolution itself but also about the important religious movement that shortly preceded and partly coincided with it – the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

Placing both faith and nature in proper spiritual light

Historical sources of the period offer abundant proof of the close relationship between religious commitments and the developments in natural philosophy (what we call science today). The new theological doctrines proposed by the Protestant Reformers are a critical example. In the first part of the article, I wrote that the new philosophers of the Scientific Revolution wanted to place nature in a proper spiritual light. I think it may be useful to interpret the objections of the Reformers against the authority and practices of the Roman Catholic Church in a similar way – as an effort to place the Christian faith in a proper spiritual light.

Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin criticised the allegorical interpretations of the Bible and prioritised a literal reading that contained “the whole substance, nature and foundation of the holy scripture” (Harrison 2015, p. 75). These objections to investing too much symbolism thus obscuring the true meaning of the text were motivated by the Reformers’ rejection of the Catholic Church as the sole interpretative authority. Instead, they promoted the Bible itself as the only religious authority that people should be able to read and understand for themselves (hence, translations of the Bible began). 

Moreover, the Reformers were critical of Aristotelian final cause (the purpose of something) and inherent capacities to attain it for humans: “Not only were flawed human beings incapable of discerning their true end, but even if they were, their weakened moral and intellectual powers would be totally inadequate to move them in the right direction” (Harrison 2015, p. 81). Such a shift in theological commitments, as well as the perception of the Catholic Church as a defender and preserver of Aristotelianism (aggravated by Galileo’s trial in 1633, see Grant 1996), helps us understand the early modern thinkers who proposed their new philosophy – literal, experimental, mechanical, and causally thinner – as “a genuinely Christian approach to nature” which was no longer “contaminated by pagan philosophy” (Harrison 2015, p. 76). 

The new theological doctrines of the Reformers legitimised (and perhaps inspired) a new model of investigating nature – a straightforward description of the material world instead of a search for allegorical meanings. So, Descartes, one of the eminent early modern thinkers and the author of the famous “I think, therefore I am”, characterised his new philosophy as being “in much better agreement with all the truths of faith than that of Aristotle” (Efron 2009, p. 81). Another important figure of the Scientific Revolution, Francis Bacon also opposed Aristotle and thought that “the final cause rather corrupts than advances the sciences.” Descartes agreed that because human nature is “very weak and limited whereas the nature of God is immense,” it follows that “the customary search for final causes [is] totally useless in physics” (Harrison 2015, p. 89). From our modern perspective, it is especially interesting to see that the use of something in physics is argued based on religious commitments.

According to the Aristotelian model, the final cause of a natural thing is the natural end toward which the thing’s inherent nature moves and is predisposed. Based on this, knowing the final cause requires knowing the essential nature of the thing, which is its form – i.e., the formal cause. Therefore, if the search for final causes is denounced in the new philosophy, then formal causes representing inherent properties and secondary causal powers of natural things also lose their meaning: “For Descartes… it is laws of nature and not intrinsic properties that offer the best prospect for explaining the operations of the natural world. These laws of nature were not descriptive of relations among the properties of objects, but rather of divine volitions… Such a view not only discounted the causal role of Aristotelian forms, but ultimately led to doubts about whether there were any genuine secondary causes in nature at all.” (Harrison 2015, p. 79). 

According to Harrison, this idea of God no longer being the primary cause but the only genuine cause of natural events was aligned with the parallel Protest Reformation’s emphasis on God’s omnipotence, transcendence, and the primacy of divine will that, in turn, prompted a flattening of the causal order where natural objects no longer had any intrinsic causal powers. This shift represents a clear trend of collapsing the causal order from a richer to a narrower model that divests nature of inherent properties and associated intrinsic predisposition to tend toward the natural end. If there is no inherent nature, there cannot be a natural end to move toward. A century later, exemplified by such Enlightenment philosophers as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, causality came to be viewed as a psychological construct of the human mind rather than an ontological aspect of nature.

And so, the trajectory of the new natural philosophy of the Scientific Revolution was on track to conceiving nature as a kind of machine and studying it only in terms of material and efficient causes (for a similar view, see Grant 1996 quoting historian Peter Dear, p.202). In terms of biological organisms, it was the physical design that promised the best understanding: “Boyle spoke of the creatures as “texts, to whose exposition physiology is necessary” (Harrison 2015, p. 78). 

Finally, in contrast to the popular story of the liberation of science from religion during the Scientific Revolution, a more careful interpretation of historical sources reveals that the intellectual trends of the period were inextricably linked with the religious motivations: 

  1. To a meaningful degree compelled by Christian religious worries, criticism of Aristotelian final cause and causal hierarchy inherent in nature had started already before the Scientific Revolution – during the later Middles Ages and Renaissance.
  2. A significant driving force of the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution movements was the endeavour to place the Christian faith and the study of nature in a proper spiritual light, promoting a literal interpretation of the holy scripture as opposed to allegorical and divesting nature of any intrinsic powers, conceiving it as brute matter subject to the only genuine cause – divine will – enacted through the laws of nature. 

 keep exploring! 

Sources used:

Efron, N. J. (2009). ‘That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science’ in Numbers, R. L. (ed.) Galileo Goes to Jail: and other myths about science and religion.

Grant, E. (1996). The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages: Their Religious, Institutional and Intellectual Contexts

Harrison, P. (2015). The Territories of Science and Religion

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