10th Grade: Ramandu and the Scientific Revolution

Greetings to all,

We spent the week looking at three key figures of the Scientific Revolution.  An explosion of scientific awareness and knowledge occurred from the beginning of the 17th to the middle of the 18th centuries.  Some of the great minds in history like Descartes, Galileo, and Newton made extraordinary discoveries and changed the way we viewed the world.  All three of these men may have been devout believers but their ideas seemed to push people away from Christianity.  Why was this?

In the aftermath of the devastating period of religious wars that ended after the Thirty Years War in 1648, people began to search for a new way of understanding the world.  During the Middle Ages things were understood first as a whole, then broken into its component parts.  Now knowledge would begin with the particulars.  One gained understanding of a thing through observation and induction.

This new way of understanding is perhaps best encapsulated by a conversation in C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Dawn Treader.’  In this volume of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the character Eustace meets a retired star named Ramandu (in Narnia stars are personal beings), and tells him that “in our world a star is  a huge ball of flaming gas.”  “That is not what a star is,” replied  Ramandu, “but only what it is made of.”  Eustace represents this new way of understanding as a result of the Scientific Revolution, the star the old.  Eustace has a reductionistic view of reality, one influenced by our modern scientific outlook.  The star sees things more in terms of their teleological purpose — who we are should be defined not by our biology, our circumstances, or even our choices — all measurable, tangible things.  Rather, our identity should come from we were made for, our design, our “telos.”

Perhaps one can see the impact this might have on Christianity, which would ultimately be robbed of mystery and imagination.  Without mystery and imagination, orthodox belief about the incarnation, the trinity, and the atonement, among others, cannot be sustained.  The full impact of this way of thinking for society would not be felt until the 20th century (at least in my opinion), but we will see the beginnings of its effects in the Enlightenment and French Revolution, and more debatably, perhaps also in the founding of America.

We began by looking at Francis Bacon, the “Father of the Scientific Method.”  He believed that science had long laid imprisoned by dogma.  Medieval Science had largely proceeded along the following lines.

1. Deduction over Induction

Deduction works like this:

All Men are Mortal

Socrates was a Man

Therefore, Socrates was mortal.

We have a certain conclusion based upon a universal premise.  But of course, the premise must be assumed, it can’t be proven.  In other words, you have to work from assumptions, from ‘faith.’

2. The Dominance of the Past

Aristotle, Ptolemy, and others held great sway over Medieval science.  Part of this fact was rooted in humility.  If you and Einstein did the same problem and arrived at different results, would you trust Einstein or yourself?  Part of this attitude had its roots in the loss of so much scientific heritage after the fall of Rome, and the fact that the Romans were not particularly scientific to begin with.  This led to an assumption that past thinkers were smarter than you.

In general, Medieval society was not geared towards innovation, both in economics, industry, and science.  That is not to say that no innovation existed in the Medieval world.  It did exist, especially in architecture.  But,  it was not their priority.

Bacon sought to overturn the whole basis of science by focusing not on unproved assumptions, but measurement, observation, and experimentation.  He favored Induction.  If we return to our previous syllogism we see it would run this way.

Socrates was a man

Socrates was mortal

Therefore, ???

What can you say in the final analysis?  You cannot say that all men are mortal.  You can only say that Socrates is mortal, or perhaps that ‘Some men (meaning at least 1 man) are mortal.  Nothing needs to be ‘taken on faith,’ but on the other hand, no ultimate truth can be discovered.  Modern science would be much more effective at advancing our specific knowledge of the finite world, but would not be able to communicate any grand meaning.

Marshal McLuhan wrote in 1964 that, “The medium is the message.”  This idea has many facets, but one of them is that the form of communication will have a decisive influence over what exactly we communicate.  Bacon did much for Science in freeing from over-reliance on accepted theory. But, if Science has as its “modus operandi” observation and experimentation, then the ability to do something becomes the reason for doing it.  Hence, science  can gallop far ahead of a society’s moral compass, i.e. abortion, nuclear weapons, cloning, and so on.

We see this specifically in the philosophy of Descartes.  Descartes fought in the 30 Years War and must have thought that the world he knew, all the old certainties, were crashing down about him.  He sought a new path to certainty.  Ultimately he wanted a fresh basis for acting in the world which certainly included God and the Church.  What went wrong?  With his famous phrase, “Cognito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) Descartes builds his system on

  • Doubt.  He found that he could doubt everything — except the fact that he was doubting.  This doubting proved that he must be thinking, and if he was thinking he must exist.
  • Himself.  It is the individual thinking man on which Descartes builds his universal system.  But we are finite, and not universal.  Thus, any system built upon something finite would be bound to fail.  In a famous Socratic dialogue, the philosopher Protagoras proclaimed that ‘Man is the measure of all things.’  “Which man?” was the essence of Socrates’s famous reply.

Again, and again, with Thomas Hobbes, Galileo, and perhaps even Newton we will see this phenomena.  Galielo, for example, said,

“In every hypothesis of reason error may lurk unnoticed, but a discovery of sense cannot be at odds with the truth.”

Is this indeed true?  Are our senses infallible?  Is what we can measure the highest standard of truth?

A great deal of good came from the Scientific Revolution, and many of these pioneering scientists professed a Christian faith.   What I want the students to recognize for how, however, is the reductionistic view of reality shared by most of these Scientific pioneers.  Descartes, for example, reduced everything to doubt, while Hobbes reduced everything to motion.  The de-mystifying of the world around us would not serve Christianity in the long run.

It is not so much the conclusions they reached, but how they reached them, that should have been of great concern to the Church.  Unfortunately the Church’s hold on the populace had diminished, mostly thanks to their own actions, wars, and brutalities.  We see this spirit of reaction against the concept of ‘faith’ in general throughout these eminent men.  Many, like Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo, seemed to be honest Christian men who thought they did Christianity a favor.  No doubt in some respects they did.  But some of  their assumptions were just as unproven as Aristotle’s.

Next week we will continue with a few other thinkers of the Scientific Revolution as we work towards the mid-term exam.

If you are curious, I include below some primary source text from the period indicating the shift that took place.

The Great Divide: Primary Sources on the Scientific Revolution and Religion

The fierceness of violent inspirations is in good measure departed: the remains of it will soon be chased out of the World by the remembrance of the the terrible footsteps it has everywhere left behind it.  And yet, though the Church of Rome still preserves its pomp, yet its real authority is also decaying.   This is the present state of Christendom.  It is now impossible to spread the same cloud over the world again: the universal disposition of this age is bent on rational religion.

Let it be a true observation that many modern naturalists have been negligent in the worship of God; yet perhaps they have been driven on this profaneness by the late excesses of enthusiasm.  The infinite pretences to . . . Divine inspiration that have abounded in this age have carried several men of wit so far as to reject the whole matter.   From hence it derives that [for religion to recover its place] it must not endeavor to cast a veil of darkness, but chiefly to allay spiritual madness.

Sprat, The History of the Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge, 1667

Man’s lot is so unfortunately placed that those lights that deliver him from one evil precipitate him into another.  Cast out ignorance and barbarism, and you will overthrow superstition.  But in the act of illuminating men’s mind’s regarding these [mental disorders], you will inspire them for a passion to examine everything, and they will apply the fine tooth comb, and they will go into such subtleties that they will find nothing to content their wretched Reason.

Bayle, The Dictionary, 1696

It is worthy to be observed and lamented that the most violent of these defenders of truth, the “opposers of errors,”  . . .do hardly ever let loose this their zeal for God, with which they are so inflamed, unless they have the civil magistrate on their side.  As soon as court favor has given them the better end of the staff, they begin to feel themselves the stronger, then presently peace and charity are laid aside.

One finds that, as soon as Christians were in a position to persecute, they leveled the same reproach against religious error that Paganism leveled at Christianity.  Unhappy advocates of intolerance!  Your malady must indeed be a bizarre one, considering that it is proof against being cured by the application of lex talionis.

John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689

When [the spirit of religious division] is rife, you need have no fear that the multiplicity of sects will create many skeptics.

Bayle, Letters, ca. 1690

The doctrine of right and wrong is perpetually disputed, whereas the doctrine of lines and figures is not so, because men care not so what be the truth as pertains to their lust or ambition.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

Mechanics is the paradise of the mathematical sciences, because with mechanics, we reach the fruit that mathematics can be made to bear.

Mechanical science is most noble above all sciences, because this one is the means by which all living bodies that have the power of movement perform all their operations.

Science is the Captain and Practice the rank and file. . . .   People who fall in love with Practice without Science are like the skipper who boards ship without rudder or compass and who consequently never knows where he is going

Leonardo da Vinci

All knowledge is to be got the same way that a language is: by industry, use, and observation.

Whatever other hurt or good comes by such holy speculative wars, yet certainly by this means the knowledge of Nature has been very much retarded. . . .  The wit of men has been profusely poured out on religion, which needed not its help, and which was thereby made tempestuous.  Experimental Philosophy [i.e. Science] will prevent men spending the strength of their thoughts about disputes by turning them into works.

Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London, 1667

It cannot be denied that it is rare to find any great religious devotion in people who have tasted of the study of mathematics, or have made any progress in the province of Science.

Bayle, The Dictionary, 1696

Only let Mankind regain their rights over Nature, assigned to them by the gift of God, and obtain that power, whose exercise will be governed by right reason and true religion.

F. Bacon, Novum Organum (emphasis mine), 1620

I perceived it to be possible to arrive at a knowledge highly useful in life, . . . .to discover a practical philosophy, by means of which — knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, . . .we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus make ourselves the lords and possessors of Nature.

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, 1637

Have a great weekend,