Free The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment Essay Sample

The seventeenth century opened a new era in world history. In the economic sphere it was manifested in the intensive decomposition of feudal property relations, in the beginning of classical period in the history of manufacture, in the formation of European and world capitalist market. In political sphere the new era meant a gradual degeneration of the old absolutism, its crisis and the advent of a new phase of its evolution, when the internal and external policy of absolute monarchy was strongly connected with the interests of the nobility. This meant the beginning of the phase of decline and decay of absolutism. Finally, the spiritual life of the 17th century witnessed a scientific and worldview revolution – coming of the rationalist world view, which replaced the traditional theological worldview. It was the enlightenment of mind, which—in most European countries—turned out to be ideological basis of future social upheavals in the course of revolutions of the 18-19th centuries. It was also a time when it was first accepted that knowledge of nature and its processes could best be understood by close observation and by mathematical analysis, and when it was first realized that the operations of nature followed precise law-like rules. Since the middle of the 17th century the feudal system in Europe has entered a final phase of general crisis.

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The Scientific Revolution of the 16-17th Centuries

The 16th century is the era of profound contradictions: it gave birth to Erasmus and Montaigne, but it was also the era of the Council of Trent; the new astronomy was combined with the flowering of astrology, the revival of mathematics was followed by popularity of magic and alchemy. The mentality of this century was founded on the wisdom of the ancients, and at the same time it was based on the perceptions and wisdom of the new time. Wild superstitions existed side by side with refined and skeptical minds, and amazing erudition with an equally amazing credulity, which was ready to classify fiction and fantasy as knowledge. Finally, despite the spread of printing, the perception of information still relied upon hearing, which had an advantage over seeing. In other words, the 16th century was the century of unrest of minds, shocking of foundations, rising of the human spirit and a deep skepticism regarding the authenticity of its conquests.

The 17th century became the first century of the new science, i.e. science in the modern sense of the word. Although it may seem, that new eras arise unexpectedly, a more detailed study of the problem reveals that they are being prepared gradually, during a very long time. For example, the idea of the infinity of the universe and rotation of Earth was suggested by Nicholas of Kues in the middle of the 15th century. Any change in philosophical paradigms even of the universal scale begins with a light and barely noticeable shift of emphasis. But that’s why the final amazing result of such shifts is perceived as unexpected and astonishing for contemporaries.

To analyze the issue of the Enlightenment it is crucial to note the paramount importance of shifts in the conditions of human existence, and role of these shifts in the appearance of experimental science. First of all it concerns the important acquisitions of European society in the sphere of material production, invention of gunpowder and firearms, compass and new equipment of ships, air pump and iron-melting furnaces, machines with a mechanical drive, etc. Francis Bacon in his philosophical work Novum Organum (1620) wrote that “the introduction of great inventions appears one of the most distinguished of human actions” (Bacon 104).

The second of these shifts abruptly changed not only the role of science in the progress of European civilization, but also literally revolutionized world-view as a whole. Invention of printing proved to be a blessing for the future of mankind in all areas of life. As a result, on the edge of the 16th and 17th centuries Europe became the scene of the scientific revolution that prepared the intellectual premises of the industrial revolution of the 18th century.

In addition to the above-mentioned conditions of the scientific revolution there were some other factors, such as the development of the fundamental ideas of natural philosophy. The late 16th and early 17th century was a period of so-called late Renaissance, in other words, its decline. The explanation of a complete exhaustion of its spiritual energy had been found already by the most sagacious contemporaries. They mentioned such aspects as utopianism of its socio-ethical ideal and anachronism of its identity. The call “back to the classics”—once so promising for the leading minds of that epoch—was considered an explicit formalism and mannerism in the new environment. By the end of the 16th century it became a universal belief that the new reality could not be explained with the postulates of classical wisdom. Nevertheless, it was the natural philosophy of the Renaissance that gave impetus to the development of science as an experiment, the results of which were meant to serve people, i.e. to have practical value.

The first act of the scientific revolution was the mathematical basis of heliocentric universe by Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543). Copernicus’ work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) was published in Nuremberg in 1543. Copernicus was convinced not by personal observations, but by mathematical calculations. The hypothesis “the Earth rotates around its axis and around the Sun” much more easily and more accurately explained the astronomical facts known by that time, than geocentrism, i.e. the idea of immobility of the Earth with the celestial sphere and luminaries rotating around it. He was a scientist in the modern sense of the word, since

to conceive the idea of revolving the earth, instead of the whole heavens with their eighty crystal spheres, every twenty-four hours, was the kind of simplification that is the mark of a scientist rather than a mystic, and it required a masterly recalculation of astronomical data to fit all the known facts into the new pattern (Cobban 33).

Discovery of heliocentric universe not only turned the Earth—the biblical center of the universe—into a satellite of the Sun, it also robbed man of his proud position as the crown of creation, the central figure of the universe. From now on, he was a grain of sand on some planet. Copernicus was opposed not only by Catholic and Protestant theologians; his theory was not immediately accepted even by many famous astronomers of the 16th century.

For the heliocentric theory to be definitively established a new physics was needed and a new celestial mechanics. Foundations of a new mechanics and dynamics were created by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Unlike Copernicus, in his scientific discoveries he based upon experimental observations, and mathematics only served as a means to explain them. Among his findings in this regard astronomical observations are particularly important. The genius of Galileo enlarged the limits of representation of the universe, and thus he actualized the category of space in the scientific thought. The first event, which pointed at the vastness of space, was the emergence in 1572 of a new star in Cassiopeia constellation. In the framework of Ptolemy system it was an incredible event, which literally shook the foundations of the traditional picture of the universe. In 1610 Galilei constructed a telescope, by means of which he—during only one night—discovered a new and boundless universe. Also, he was one of the first scientists, who tried to teach the new language of science:

Philosophy is written in that vast book which stands forever open before our eyes, I mean the universe; but it cannot be read until we have learnt the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to understand a single word (cited in Cobban 34).

The idea of an infinite universe—of course purely speculative—was expressed in the 15th century by Nicholas of Kues and—shortly before the discoveries of Galileo—by Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). In two treatises, De Spacio and De Infinito, he poetically expressed his ecstasy of the infinity of the universe. Bruno was a radical follower of Copernicus; he developed views anticipating pantheism of Spinoza.

Thus, Galileo’s astronomy and Bruno’s philosophy joined in the assault against the traditional picture of the universe. Earth is not the universe, but only a part of it. In turn, the universe, which has the Sun in its center, is only one of many universes that fill the space. They extend far beyond the limits achievable for the human eye, even armed with a telescope. The multiplicity of universes in the infinity of space became the picture of universe, which was intended to change the picture created by Aristotle and Ptolemy.

In the early 17th century important discoveries were made in medicine, chemistry and botany. For example, William Harvey (1578-1657) apparently sharing the traditional notion of “life force” (spirit), etc., focused on the mechanism of functioning of the body. He tried to learn and teach anatomy not from books but from the anatomy, not from the judgment of philosophers, but from the mechanism of nature. Based on the data of comparative anatomy Harvey discovered the circulatory system. This was the beginning of the revolution that has transformed medicine.

These were the first, the biggest acts of the scientific revolution that laid the foundations of experimental and mathematical science, i.e. the science of modern times. This meant that science finally broke the union with the traditional philosophy and theology and started to exist independently. In such circumstances the problem of the scientific method has acquired special importance. A truly revolutionary answer to the question of nature and methods of knowledge was given by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). He substantiated the inductive method as the only method worthy of science.

Bacon’s empiricism was a reflection of a new, experimental and inductive method of science. The purpose of scientific knowledge, he saw in increasing the power of man over nature. Within a generation the relationship between science and philosophy was radically changed. The new philosophy was influenced by the success of a new, mathematical science. A prominent role in this process was played by Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who wanted to bring the doctrine of the method in accordance with the new achievements of science. Following Francis Bacon Descartes saw the highest purpose of science in the conquest of human domination over nature, putting it in the service of man. The practical use became the ultimate goal of the new science. But this science required accurate knowledge, not speculation. In this issue of paramount importance Descartes did not agree with Bacon. Sharing his view that science begins with doubt, Descartes considered that doubt is the act of thinking, its validity is confirmed. This was the famous Descartes’ principle – “cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). It was followed by the idea of the leading role of scientific hypotheses in the process of obtaining new knowledge.

The scientific revolution of the 17th century was completed by works of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). The new Copernicus’ astronomy before him had not given an answer to a number of fundamental questions, and above all to the question of the ordered movement of celestial bodies, if they are not hold by gravity and spheres, rotating around the Earth. Explanation of all preceding discoveries of astronomy, physics and mechanics, combining them into a single coherent system based on mathematical proof was achieved in the discovery of Newton’s law of universal gravitation.

Thus, a new picture of the world became relatively stable and univocal. Its philosophical meaning was in the fact that instead of a theological explanation of the universe, i.e. explaining the issue of purpose of things, a new science was interested in how these things are arranged and how they function. In other words, the explanation of the universe became causal and provable by science, and Newton’s mathematical laws finalized the picture of the scientific world as it existed by the end of the 17th century:

It was a time when it was first accepted that knowledge of nature and its processes could best be understood by close observation and by mathematical analysis, and when it was first realized that the operations of nature followed precise law-like rules (Henry 11).

The style of rationalist thinking, which was formed in the course of scientific revolution, shared all the features of mechanism, which triumphed in the 17th century. Its guiding principles were: a) the absolute nature of time and space (existing in themselves, independently of matter and motion), and b) the universal nature of movement (along with length), and c) causal connection of all phenomena in the world.

The result of the scientific revolution of the 17th century included not only the Copernican astronomy and Newton’s mechanics, but a fundamental renewal of the method of scientific knowledge, the procedure for investigation and evidence. The medieval concept of knowledge required neither empirical evidence, nor the actual test. The refutation of this concept was carried out systematically during the scientific revolution. It is obvious, that scientific revolution of the method was a revolt against speculative philosophy, in which it became philosophical itself, i.e. it acquired the ability to critically examine its own ideas. The works by Galileo, Descartes, Newton and Leibniz rejected the logical principles of scholasticism and created a new science method, which was based on the fact that inductive generalizations made in the course of experimental observations cannot lead to understanding of the totality of things in the world; this understanding can be obtained only when the results of the induction are highlighted by the new picture of nature, i.e. on the basis of the laws mathematically expressed, but proven by experience.

Enlightenment and the Idea of God

It is easy to imagine how radically the nature of knowledge was changed, as well as the ways of getting knowledge and criteria of what could be called the new knowledge. Knowledge which was impossible to be expressed in a mathematical equation no longer deserved the name of knowledge.  The image of nature became dominant in terms of worldview. Nature was considered to be everything, including man, all that could be subject to experimental study, and thus rational explanation. The connection with mathematical logic of experimental science resulted in final separation of religion and science. The latter, as a matter of fact, no longer needed the idea of God to explain the mechanism of functioning of the universe. As a result, this idea was practically banished from it completely. Nature as an object of scientific knowledge was as much rationalized as the method of science, and the prominence of God was “chiefly a device to reveal the absolute trustworthiness of human reason as the tool to achieve certainty in knowledge” (Schouls 27).

It should be emphasized that the rationalist worldview of 17th and 18th centuries was not entirely free from the idea of God. This was caused not only by the strength of inherited forms of thought and surrounding historical reality, but also by understanding of the world in which there were still many unknown and unexplained things. And though it was either a completely depersonalized God, identified with the global integrity and deeply immersed in nature (pantheism), or God completely driven out of nature, abstract and devoid of sensory features (like Deists’ God), in both cases, this God had little to do with God of dogmatic Christianity, though he remained a special being symbolizing, by Spinoza’s words, “the asylum of ignorance” (Spinoza 33).

Thus, rationalism of the 17th and 18th centuries did not reject the idea of God, but presupposed this idea as the guarantor of the reasonableness of the universe, constancy of its physical laws and rationalist cognoscibility. At the same time reason as the main source of truth no longer needed this idea. The only kind of knowledge was scientific knowledge, everything else was called faith. Knowledge is the technique which must be mastered. From this perspective, all knowledge is “technical” knowledge. What cannot be demonstrated with the help of the scientific method is an opinion, or even worse – a superstition.

Impressive development of science in the 17th century resulted in the spread of natural philosophical views on society and its history. The reasonableness of human nature meant not only the inclusion of man in nature, his ability to know it, but also his ability to regulate social life according to the requirements of “natural laws”. Of course, when it comes to man as a social individual, reason acts as a regulator of his actions, which makes possible social life. In other words, reason in this context is a measure of the most decent beginning in man as a social being. With regard to the community of people reason is the social structure that provides an individual with satisfaction of his inalienable, “natural needs”, including some needs, which were considered “natural”, but in fact were the product of social development, namely the right to self-preservation, civil equality, human dignity, and so on.

Reason is the dominant idea of the Enlightenment. From the perspective of enlighteners, this meant the existence of a relatively small number of the eternal, self-evident truths, accessible for understanding of each person in any era. In other words, the emphasis was made on the instrumental function of reason – the ability of the human mind to discover the truth, to penetrate into the essence of things, to embrace them as integrity. At the same time the notion of reason included belief in the universal intelligibility of the world, i.e. the belief that nature, including human nature, is arranged in reasonable way and can be learned by rational means.

As a result of the Enlightenment and scientific revolution the image of the universe for the people of the early 18th century was strikingly different from the image of even the 17th century. It was the intellectual shift of the immense importance. The idea of nature as a giant mechanism set in motion by a complex system of springs and balances, the laws of which can be discovered in a reasonable way finally replaced the religious mysticism. It was the birth of the belief that all manifestations of human activity—economic, political, spiritual and moral, ethical, and religious—are subject to the universal law of nature, and therefore are an integral part of the natural order of things.

Modern philosophical and political thought, such as liberalism, was largely influenced by the Enlightenment. Modern philosophers consider such virtues of the Enlightenment as strict geometrical order of thinking, reductionism and rationalism, as opposed to emotion and irrationalism. In this regard, the liberalism inherited much from the Enlightenment, including its philosophical basis and critical attitude to intolerance and prejudice.

Ideas of the Enlightenment also form the basis of political freedom and democracy as core values of modern society, as well as organization of states as self-governing republics, religious tolerance, market-based mechanisms of capitalism, scientific method, etc. Since the epoch of Enlightenment thinkers insist on their right to seek the truth, whatever it is, and no matter how it might threaten the social fabric, without being subject to threats of repressions.


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