SUMMARY: Several things or factors had to come together for the Scientific Revolution to take place. The factors include logical reasoning, empiricism, peer review, and at least two basic worldviews.
(About a 7 minute read)
If you’re like me, your first question about this blog post will almost certainly be, “How did Paul’s briefs ever come to prime the Scientific Revolution?” I myself would say that’s a pretty good question!
On the other hand, if you’re NOT like me, but you instead suffer from a dangerous infestation of sanity, you probably already know that the Scientific Revolution is arguably one of the most consequential events in the entire intellectual and material history of our noble and esteemed species of poo-flinging, fur-challenged super-apes — and that it is still unfolding. Moreover, that knowledge may have gotten you to wondering how such an extraordinary thing ever got started?
As it turns out, that’s a huge question. Huge!
I mean, HUGE! Even bigger than my cosmos-dwarfing ego huge! And there is no one right way to briefly answer it. Rather, there are several ways you could answer that question, depending on how far back you want to trace the roots of the Revolution, and on how much you want to gloss over.
(Fair Warning: We’re going to be very glossy here!)
For instance, you could start by pointing out that an ancient Greek aristocrat, Thales, living approximately 2,600 years ago in Asia Minor, can be thought of as beginning the Scientific Revolution when he invents the notion that all natural events have natural causes that can be discovered by the use of reason.
In other words Thales believed that, if there was a good olive harvest, you could assume there were natural reasons (as distinct from supernatural reasons) why the harvest was good that year. Moreover — and this is key — you could figure out what those reasons were by using logical reasoning to do so.
After Thales, for the next 1,400 years or so, the overriding principle of “science” — as the ancients understand science — was logical reasoning. There are, of course, numerous exceptions and qualifications to that statement (e.g. Archimedes, for one. He apparently used more than logical reasoning), but for quite some time, science is like a bird with only one wing, reason. It’s now and then making some impressive, flutter-assisted hops, but overall it’s miserably failing to soar aloft — at least, by our own contemporary standards.
Then about 800 AD the Arabs got hold of the ancient, mainly Greek, learning and combined its overriding emphasis on reason with the Medieval Arabic genius for experiment, quantification, and empiricism.
Science now had its two essential methodological wings — logical reasoning and empirical evidence — but it as yet lacked a will, spirit, or motive, so to speak. Where will it go? Will if fly? Will it soar? Or will it stay safely in its nest?
Then came the Renaissance.
Fortunately, the Renaissance placed an emphasis on digging up ancient things, ancient art, ancient wisdom,
ancient old farts like Paul, etc, and this search for antiquity turned up a peculiar bundle of manuscripts — manuscripts purported to be written by — or written by the close associates of — a sage, priest, and prophet named Hermes Trismegistos.
These Hermetic writings offered a new and different account of creation, one in which God makes humanity more fully in his own image: Not just a rational animal, but also like God, a creator:
Humans could imitate God by creating. To do so, they must learn nature’s secrets, and this could be done only by forcing nature to yield its secrets through the tortures of fire, distillation, and other alchemical manipulations. That is, through “Arabic experimentalism” (The very word, “alchemy” is derived from the Arabic word alkīmiyā, which in turn traces back to a Greek word for “transmuting metals by fire”).
The reward for success at learning nature’s secrets was said to be eternal life and youth, as well as freedom from want, disease, and misery. That was a heady vision, and it gave rise to the notion that, through science and technology, humans could bend nature to their wishes.
So now, you have the two methodological wings of the bird — logical reasoning and empirical experimentation — and part of the will or spirit of the bird — a desire to “bend nature to our wishes” in order to free ourselves from want, disease, and misery, etc. The other part of the bird’s spirit comes from Christianity.
Christianity asserts that the mind of God is reflected in his creation, the universe or nature. That is, God created the universe to operate in a way fundamentally like his own mind operates. Logically, for instance.
Most or all of the key figures of Renaissance science were just as aware of this notion as they were aware of the Hermetic notion that the secrets of nature could be revealed and exploited. And, while not many scientists today see their primary job as getting to know the mind of God, it was a major motive back then and for hundreds of years afterwards.
So now the bird of the sciences is almost ready to fly. We have the methodological wings (logical reasoning and empiricism combined) and the motives for it to soar. What’s missing, you might ask? The body of the bird, of course!
That body in my impressive and esteemed opinion takes shape over 120 or so years between 1543 when Copernicus publishes his great life’s work, Six Books Concerning the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs, and the 1660s, when the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of
Carnal Knowledge Natural Knowledge, and the Académie des Sciences of Paris, are founded. In the grand scheme, those years are when the “body of the bird” – i.e. the notion of reliable inter-subjective verification – becomes firmly established as essential to the sciences.
Reliable inter-subjective verification is a fancy-pants term for the reliable verification of something by two or more people.
For instance, let’s say you observe (i.e. verify) that combining hydrogen and oxygen results in water. That’s subjective verification – subjective because you, a “subject”, have verified it. Now suppose I also observe the same thing: That combining hydrogen and oxygen results in water. That is inter-subjective verification because now not one, but two people, or “subjects”, have verified it. And if we find that we can – not only once, not only twice, but always (and perhaps even in different ways) — verify that combining hydrogen and oxygen results in water, then we’ve reliably verified it! What fun! What joy to reliably verify something!
Naturally, not every scientist nor philosopher of the sciences thinks reliable inter-subjective verification is as important as I do. I, who call it “the body of the bird”. But it just so happens they happen to all be stark, raving bonker-jockies. Only I myself am sane. They think you could get the sciences without reliable inter-subjective verification. And I will actually grant that in theory you could.
But not in practice. No. No. No. Not in practice.
Human nature is so interwoven with inherited cognitive biases and errors in reasoning that — without the reality checks provided by reliable inter-subjective verification — any human trying to do science would sooner or later derail into sheer madness. They might even turn into a Republican! Yeah, it could be that bad. Their natural biases and propensities for erroneous reasoning would quickly subvert whatever accomplishments they managed without reliable inter-subjective verification.
Or so I say. And I know because the unverifiable, invisible leprechaun who lives outside beneath my window sill, and who farts undetectable rainbows, has told me so. Issue solved. Reliable inter-subjective verification is the body of the bird.
Several factors had to come together to create the scientific revolution. On the methodological level, those factors included logical reasoning combined with empiricism, and the principle of reliable inter-subjective verification (sometimes called “peer review”).
On the motivational level, the factors included at least two worldviews. First the notion — derived from alchemy — that humans could bend nature to achieve such goals as an escape from want, disease, and misery, etc. And second, the notion, derived from Christianity, that learning about nature was learning about God.
Naturally, I have left out way more than I’ve included in this all too brief primer to the Scientific Revolution. Volumes have been written on this topic by far and away more knowledgeable people than me. I myself aim only to get a good discussion going.
Comments? Observations? Muddled rants? Exaggerated claims of sexual prowess?