CHAPTER FOUR: THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION OF THE 16TH AND 17TH CENTURIES
What was the medieval worldview and why was it important?
How did the Copernican system challenge the medieval worldview?
What were some of the long-term impacts of the Scientific Revolution?
This chapter will cover the Scientific Revolution which, together with the Enlightenment (see Chapter 6), make up what is sometimes called the “Intellectual Revolution,” referring to a series of large changes in how people in Europe understood the world around them and the nature of truth, which took place from the 16th through the 18th centuries. While it is possible to question whether or not these represented a “revolution,” the people, events, and ideas themselves are important to understand if we are to be able to make meaningful interpretations of the history of “western civilization” in the period following 1648.
The Medieval World View
Wisdom of the Ancient World
The 16th and 17th Centuries saw a great flourishing in scientific work that we refer to as the Scientific Revolution. The main result of the Scientific Revolution was a profound change in the way that the Europeans saw the Universe- and the position of Earth within it. Up to the 16th century, Europeans primarily relied on the teachings of ancient Greek philosophers Aristotle and Ptolemy, combined with subsequent writings by intellectual authorities from within the Catholic Church. This medieval view of the world insofar as it related to astronomy and the relationship between the planets in outer space, was known as the Ptolemaic System.
According to the Ptolemaic System, the earth did not move and was the center of the universe. This assumption, that the Earth at the center of the universe, was known as Geocentrism. In this Ptolemaic or Geocentric system, the Earth was understood to be located at the center of the universe (just above Hell – the underworld realm of suffering and damnation, according to Christian theology), and above Earth there were seven concentric spheres, containing the Earth’s moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn). Next came a starry sphere, and then the heavenly sphere – the Empyrean, where God lived. These individual spheres held the planets in motion. (The Earth, so it went, did not move.)
Indeed, the Ptolemaic system held that the other planets moved around the Earth in circular orbits, called epicycles and eccentrics. (Of course, modern astronomers would tell you that the planets really move in elliptical orbits, and they orbit around the sun, not the earth, as we shall see.) The Ptolemaic system could not explain, therefore, all the irregularities in the motions of the planets, which careful observers could note with their own eyes in some instances but which could also be seen and noted with the aid of telescopes by the 16th century. Since their guiding theory of planetary motion said that the planets do move in circles, even though reality seemed to say they do not, the Medieval Scientists had come up with 830 special rules or explanations for the epicycles and eccentrics that could somehow bridge the gap between the Ptolemaic theory and observable reality. This led to a very complex system of explanation by the 16th century.
It was not just the location, but also the composition, of planets and other bodies, that was important to medieval scientists. In the Ptolemaic system, everything below the moon in the model – meaning the Earth – was referred to as sublunary. Everything in the sublunary area was understood to be composed of earth (e.g. dirt), air, water, and fire. This is important to note, as these four elements were said to be corruptible – that is, they could change. Thus objects in the sublunary areas were not perfect. On the other hand, everything from the moon outwards, including the moon itself, was referred to as superlunary. The planets and stars in this superlunary region were thought to be in the heavenly realm and were made up of something called “divine ether.” Everything in the superlunary area was supposedly perfect. The moon was thought to be completely round with a smooth surface – sort of like a marble. It was not thought to have mountains and craters and valleys on it like earth, because God had created it that way. Also, objects in the superlunary area could not change – the number of stars was supposed to have been fixed by God at the creation – meaning that no new stars could ever be formed or old stars disappear. The speed by which the celestial bodies in the heavenly spheres moved was supposed to be constant – no changes in velocity were thought possible.
The Influence of the Catholic Church
You may have noticed that this discussion of planets in orbit seems to be creeping from astronomy into theology. That is because this geocentric view of the universe was both at the same time – science and religion existing hand-in-hand. More specifically, this theory first advanced by (non-Christian) ancient Greeks in the centuries before the Christian Church even existed was supported and embraced by the Catholic Church so strongly because it (the Ptolemaic system) went along with Christian theology. That is, this theory seemed to say that God had created the universe for humanity and the earth was the center of his creation. This view also gave people a sense of comfort and security. Furthermore, the Earth (albeit central to God’s attention) was also afflicted by all the sin of humanity, which was why it (the Earth) was unable to rotate like the other “heavenly bodies.” This was also why people needed to pray for God’s mercy and provision, so that they could be absolved of their sins and their souls could reach heaven after their Earthly bodies died. In short, the Catholic Church found the Ptolemaic system to be a highly convenient and convincing body of knowledge to support the Catholic Church’s mission on earth. Furthermore, the Catholic Church wielded enormous intellectual (as well as political) influence during the medieval time period, so few scientists or philosophers then would want to argue with the church.
60-Second Quiz #1: What was the medieval worldview and why was it important? Which statement is correct?
Medieval scientists believed that the sun was the center of the universe
Medieval scientists saw no connection between the planets and the teachings of the Bible
Medieval scientists believed that the Earth was at the center of the universe
Medieval scientists saw no importance in the writings of any ancient authors
The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries
The Scientific Revolution would eventually challenge most, if not all, of these assumptions but it is worth looking briefly at what other, contingent, factors made this Scientific Revolution possible. After all, these new scientists did not simply appear out of thin air and start doing experiments. Rather, they were influenced by people and events that came before them that who had raised questions about the nature of the Universe.
One event that had a great impact on the Scientific Revolution was the Renaissance of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The Renaissance was an intellectual, artistic, legal, political, and larger cultural event that saw the “rebirth” (this is what the word means) of knowledge created in the Classical world – ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance was the moment when people in Europe began to look back to sources of information about the world from before the medieval era. (In fact, the idea of a “medieval” era that separated the “ancient” from the “modern” was a Renaissance idea.)
More to the point, the Renaissance say scholars looking for answers to questions from sources beyond the Catholic Church. More specifically, ancient mathematical works by people such as Pythagoras, Plutarch, and Plato were rediscovered and these stimulated new thought. These works showed that not all ancient philosophers had agreed with Aristotle and Ptolemy’s view of the world. These ancient works also emphasized the importance of mathematics, just as the new scientists were to do later. The Renaissance also took new directions and encouraged researchers to think in new ways. This openness to change or questioning old assumptions was a key prerequisite for the new scientists of the Scientific Revolution.
Magic and medieval thinking
One could also argue that another contingent factor for the Scientific Revolution was something that sounds un-scientific to our 21st century ears: magic. Here we mean medieval scientific inquiries into “magic,” even if such inquiries did not produce verifiable results. During the medieval period, so-called Natural Philosophers also did crude research – mainly trying to find a way to turn base metals into gold. Although these ideas and methods were mostly misguided, they did help to foster a sense of scientific experimentation as a whole and served to encourage people to be inquisitive.
One thing in particular that a lot of these natural philosophers delved into was Alchemy, a medieval science which sought to understand the nature of matter by mixing stuff together and using “secret” formulas to do such things as change lead into gold. As mentioned above, they thought you could turn base metals into gold. Although this was wrong, it did get people to start thinking and experimenting. Another medieval science that many natural philosophers engaged in was Astrology, which sought to predict the future by understanding the movements of the planets and other heavenly bodies. Although this is highly questionable, it is important because it led to the birth of astronomy – the study of the stars and outer space.
Another medieval idea that had a big impact was that of Hermeticism. This was the idea that the ancients (specifically the Greeks and Romans) had possessed all knowledge and that if medieval people could just discover and study these ancient works, then they could understand all of nature. This led to the discovery of ancient works that contradicted Aristotle and Ptolemy. The real importance of all of this was that it got people to seek simple solutions to the mysteries of the universe. These “natural philosophers” were willing to break away from the ancient theories and launch out into new paths. They also relied more heavily on math than previous researchers had.
Another thing that fostered the Scientific Revolution was the technical developments that had come about by this time. Europeans were fascinated with technical improvements, and in recent times they had invented fairly precise instruments like telescopes, barometers, thermometers, and microscopes which made better measurements possible. With the invention of the printing press the dissemination of the new science was made much easier. This is important because, even if a scientist could use new instruments to make a discovery, that discovery would have little impact unless it could be shared with a wider audience.
The Reformation and Wars of Religion
Also, important contingent factors were the Protestant Reformation and the Wars of Religion (Chapter 4). This is because these events split Western Europe into more than one religious confession, meaning that the near-universal respect and/or fear of the Roman Catholic Church, which had been a given in Western Europe since about the 800s, was now broken. The Reformation had showed that there were other ways of understanding sacred texts and their meaning. The Scientific Revolution would push this challenge further.
The Copernican Revolution
The first real breakthrough in the Scientific Revolution was achieved by Nicholas Copernicus and it had such an impact on Europe that it is known as the Copernican Revolution. Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543) was a Polish clergyman who had studied at the University of Padua in Italy. His great work was known as On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543). Copernicus published it just before his death because he feared retaliation by those who believed in the Ptolemaic/geocentric view of the universe (like the Roman Catholic Church). Copernicus had refused to publish this book for thirty-six years, but his friends finally pushed him into publishing it pretty much on his deathbed. In his book, Copernicus stated that (a) the sun was the center of the Universe (this interpretation was known as heliocentrism), and that the Earth was just another planet – not the center of the universe; (b) the Earth rotates on its axis, not standing still; and (c) the universe is big and that the fixed stars were millions of miles away. Obviously, this was quite a refutation of the Ptolemaic theory.
Copernicus was mathematician, not an astronomer, and he adopted this new model because he felt that the Ptolemaic system was overly complicated. His work was all mathematical – he used math to calculate the motion of the planets. Copernicus believed that nature worked on simple principles, that the geocentric model was too complicated and that the heliocentric model made a lot more sense. But Copernicus still thought that the planets revolved around the sun in circles (not ellipses), so he had to maintain a system of epicycles like the Ptolemaic System to explain their revolutions. To deflect criticism, he dedicated his book to Pope Paul III. He also cited ancient philosophers in his book who had also stated that the earth moved. He took all these measures to protect himself from retribution at the hands of the church. Because the Ptolemaic/Geocentric system was partially rooted in Biblical Theology, to go against it was considered sacrilege and Copernicus (or any future scientists who read and supported his work) could be tried and possibly executed for this. So, he had to be careful.
One of the reasons that Copernicus had undertaken his study was to try and come up with mathematical formulas to reform the old Julian calendar, which had been used by Europeans since the time of the ancient Romans. The Julian calendar had problems because it contained too many leap years, and over the centuries the “date” had gotten “ahead” of where it should have been. (They did not understood leap years.) This was a problem for Churchmen like Copernicus because it affected the date of religious holidays like Easter and threw them off from where they should have been. Despite the controversial nature of Copernicus’s calculations, the Church did make use of them when Pope Gregory XIII dropped the Julian calendar and adopted a new one (the Gregorian calendar) in 1582.
Eventually opposition to Copernicus’s ideas did develop within the Church. One person who denounced Copernicus in 1616 and rejected his view of the universe on behalf of the Catholic Church was Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621). Bellarmine argued that Copernicus’s theories seemed to contradict practical sense. The earth did not seem to move. The sun and moon appeared to rotate around the earth. Bellarmine saw this as a direct challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. You must keep in mind that all of this had come about during the Protestant Reformation and the wars of religion. The Church was not inclined to be very tolerant of views that might challenge its authority and cause people not to believe. Bellarmine believed that there was only one interpretation of scripture – the literal interpretation (that everything in the scripture had to be taken as absolute fact – and he did not believe that the scriptures could be viewed any other way.) That is, he did not believe that the Bible could be viewed figuratively, meaning that when the Bible said that the Earth was only 5,000 to 6,000 years old, that was meant to be taken literally.
More to the point, Bellarmine believed that if scientists were allowed to challenge the way that the church had been preaching for centuries that the universe worked, then what else might people begin to question? All of the other teachings of the church might then be open for challenge. The Catholic Church placed Copernicus’s book on the Index Liberorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books) in 1616. Well over the next century and a half, other European scientists did work that proved Copernicus’ Heliocentric theory and overturned the Geocentric view of the world.
Tycho Brahe (1546-1601)
Tycho Brahe was a Danish astronomer and mathematician. Interestingly, he did not believe in the Copernican system but he made several discoveries that none-the-less helped lead to the overturn of the Ptolemaic/Geocentric system. First, in 1572 Brache discovered a “New Star.” According to the Ptolemaic system this could not happen because everything in the “superlunary region” – the area from the moon outwards – was fixed or set in place already. God had created the universe with a fixed amount of stars and no new ones could be produced or old ones die. So, this was a blow for the geocentric system. Five years later, in 1577, Brache discovered a comet that passed through the “sphere” holding a planet in its orbit. This called into question the existence of these spheres – if something could pass through them, then how could they be real? Another blow for the Geocentric system. Brache also comes up with precise calculations for the movement of heavenly bodies. This was empirical evidence – observations of natural phenomena that were recorded (i.e. data) that supported Copernicus’s theory that had been based on abstract mathematics.
Fun fact: Tycho Brache had a false nose made of brass, which he was said to remove while in conversation and polish it while listening to the other person speak.
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
The next scientist who made an impact on Copernican theory was Johannes Kepler, who had been an apprentice of Brahe’s. Kepler practiced astrology and mysticism as well as mathematics to search for the laws of planetary motion. Unlike Brahe, however, Kepler did believe in the Copernican system and he set out to prove that Copernicus was correct. Kepler developed three laws of planetary motion (1609 and 1619). His three laws of planetary motion were:
That Planets travel in an ellipse, not a circle as Ptolemy even Copernicus had thought. This eliminated the confusing epicycles.
That Planets begin moving faster as they get closer to the sun. This destroyed the idea that the movements of heavenly bodies were constant, which had been a big part of the Ptolemaic/Geocentric system.
He correlated the speed of a planet’s revolution around the sun with its distance from the sun. This enabled Kepler to come up with mathematical formulas for figuring out a planet’s exact location and speed.
In 1627, Kepler published the Rudolfine Tables, which combined his laws of planetary motion with Brahe’s observations about the positions and movements of planets. These tables made it easier for astronomers to predict the movements of heavenly bodies, and it made navigational calculations easier for sailors. Thus Kepler used his findings, both observations and mathematical calculations, and those of Brahe, to help prove that Copernicus had been right. It is also notable that Kepler was a devoted Lutheran (i.e. not a Catholic), and like Copernicus and later Galileo, he believed that God gave humanity the ability to comprehend the laws of nature and thus that he was not wrong to go against teachings of the Catholic Church. Thus, he was able to reconcile his findings with his religious beliefs.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
Another person to profoundly influence the way Europe looked at the Universe was Galileo Galilei, an Italian mathematician, physicist, and astronomer. Galileo built and used a telescope to observe the moon and the other planets. In doing so, he discovered two things that strike a great blow against the Ptolemaic/Geocentric system. (Kepler and Galileo were working along the same time.) First, in using his telescope to look at the surface of the moon, he sees that it is pitted and irregular. Yet according to the Ptolemaic/Geocentric system, since the moon is in the heavenly spheres, it is supposed to be perfect. So, this strikes another blow at the Ptolemaic system.
Secondly, he also discovered that Jupiter had four moons revolving around it. Well, then, how could Jupiter, which according to the Ptolemaic/Geocentric system was supposed to be revolving around the earth, have moons revolving around it as well? If planets can have moons revolving around them this meant that everything did not orbit around the Earth. This confirmed the idea that maybe the Earth revolved around something as well. This struck another blow to the Ptolemaic system.
Galileo wrote up his findings in a work called The Starry Messenger (1610). Here he argued that physical laws applied to both the heavens and the earth. For example, he used basic laws of motion (on earth) to explain the activity of sunspots. Thus, he unified astronomy and physics, and he further destroyed the notion that the earth and the heavens were composed of different materials and worked according to different principles like the Ptolemaic system had argued. Galileo took a big step (and a big risk) in 1632 when he decided to write a book to openly defend the Copernican view of the universe. The Starry Messenger had not openly done this – it had just reported Galileo’s two discoveries. This new work was called a Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican (1632).
In response, Galileo was called before the Inquisition of the Catholic Church (which was the body of the church that tried people for heresy and often tortured them and put them to death). He was put on trial and forced to renounce the heliocentric view of the universe (1633). He was confined to house arrest for the rest of his life and his teachings were condemned. Trying to defend his position, Galileo argued that mankind should not try to stretch Bible verses to explain everything in the universe. That is, Bible verses should not be taken out of context. Despite his tense dealings with the Catholic Church, Galileo remained a believing Christian. He felt that the Bible was meant to bring humanity salvation. He also felt that it was a travesty not to use the brains that God had given man to figure out the workings of the world that God had created. He argued against a literal interpretation of the Bible. (You will see this reflected in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.) He felt that observation takes precedence over the (often metaphorical) Bible, and that religion and science were separate ways of thinking about the world, so it should be no wonder if they do not always agree.
Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
Well, it can be argued that the culmination of the Scientific Revolution came through the work of Sir Isaac Newton, an English mathematician and physicist who championed experimentation and observation. Newton is important because he integrated the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo into one system—which he published in his Principia Mathematica (1687). In this work he published his theory of gravity and three laws of motion that govern both heavenly and earthly bodies, which were Inertia, Acceleration, and for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton argued that gravity provided the reason why planets did not fly off into outer space, and inertia explained why they kept moving. Newton’s theory of gravity and three laws of motion provided the final proof that Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were right.
Newton’s laws were universal, which meant that they applied everywhere. This was important because it destroyed the notion that the earth and the heavens were divided into completely separate spheres and composed of different materials and governed by different rules. He discovered that the moon determines the actions of tides on earth, and he calculated the mass of the moon. Newton also invented calculus and made important contributions to the study of optics, which he published in his work, Opticks (1704). Like most of the early scientists, Newton was a committed Christian who believed that he was merely discovering the handiwork of God’s creation. His ideas contributed to the idea of God as the Great Watchmaker (deism) who set the universe in motion and then stepped aside to let His creation work according to the natural laws that he had ordained. That is, Newton’s arguments seemed to argue that the universe was created but then could simply run as one giant machine – without a need for God to continually appear and intervene.
Newton was able to accomplish all that he did for two reasons. Firstly, Newton was able to build upon the work of those scientists who had come before – he readily admitted this which is attested to by a famous quote of his that “I was able to see so far, because I stood on the shoulders of giants (meaning the scientists like Copernicus and Galileo).” Secondly, Newton’s success was that he was English and England, due to its constitutional government and Protestant Religion, was much more receptive of new ideas and changes. (Remember it was the Catholic Church who through Cardinal Bellarmine had refuted Copernicus and through its Inquisition had tried Galileo but England was not a Catholic country.) England had the Royal Society, which had been founded in 1660 by King Charles II and is the oldest surviving scientific body in the world and this society promoted the study of pure science and discovery. (Isaac Newton was a member.)
60-second Quiz #2: How did the Copernican system challenge the medieval worldview? Which statement is NOT correct?
Copernicus argued that the planets moved around the sun
Cardinal Bellarmine agreed with Copernicus and welcomed the theory of heliocentrism, to correct their Julian calendar
Kepler argued that planets orbited the sun in elliptical orbits, and that their speed varied in relation to their proximity to the sun
Galileo was put on trial before the Office of the Holy Inquisition, and there forced to recant his findings.
The Scientific Method and its Wider Impact
Although Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo and Newton were the major scientists of the Scientific Revolution that dealt with the change in the way that Europe saw the Universe, there were several other people that need mentioning even though they did not deal with Copernican Theory. In particular, there are two theorists whose work we can see reflected in the notion of the “Scientific Method” which you are probably familiar with today.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
Sir Francis Bacon was actually not a scientist. He was an English statesman and philosopher who championed the new scientific methods, even though he did not agree with Copernicus or Kepler. He served as a chief official in the government of King James I of England. In his many books, Bacon proposed the modern scientific method, which is based on inductive reasoning —hypothesis, observation and collection of data, the general theories and finally experimentation to test your theories. Inductive reasoning means moving from the small, particular truth about this or that phenomenon in one observed instance, to the general rule for how this or that phenomenon takes place in any set of circumstances. Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton all used this kind of method, but Bacon spelled it out in a form that is still used today. More than simply enumerating the steps a scientist needed to go through to find truth, Bacon also argued that the new science could improve human life in general—including commerce, industry and agriculture. Because this new science was so important, Bacon also advocated the establishment of state sponsored research institutions.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650)
Another Scientist of importance is Rene Descartes, who wrote the Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences (1637). This was important because here Descartes developed the deductive/rational method, which is complimentary to the inductive approach and it is the basis of modern philosophy. Deductive reasoning is used in mathematics and theoretical physics. You break a problem down into small components and then move toward a complex conclusion. So here you are reasoning from the general to the particular.
Descartes’s other big contribution was skepticism—essentially a search for certainty. Descartes believed nothing that he could possibly doubt. The only thing of which he could be sure was that he was doubting. So his first principle on which he based his philosophy was “I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum, in Latin). Descartes reasoned that doubting meant that he was thinking, and that thinking meant that he existed. Descartes’s ideas were important for modern philosophy because Descartes called for the questioning of all inherited knowledge, not just taking things that are taught to you as being true – question everything. That is how you truly learn.
Importance of the Scientific Revolution
The Scientific Revolution made an enormous impact. First, it destroyed the medieval worldview. This was huge- it totally changed the way people saw the universe and their place in it. Second, it opened the door to modern science and philosophy based on observation, experimentation, and careful reasoning. This gave people new confidence in the ability of humans to reason and to accomplish great things for themselves. Third, it brought doubt into matters of religion. This is just what Bellarmine had feared. People began to wonder that since the church had been wrong about the nature of the universe- what other church teachings were also wrong? Although most of the major figures of the Scientific Revolution were devout Christians, one of the end results of the Scientific Revolution was the increasing secularization of Europe’s intellectual life. Finally, the Scientific Revolution Paved the way for the Enlightenment and for political revolutions: rejections of the ancient “authorities” and the authority of the Church broke new ground for more fundamental philosophical and political rejections of the old order.
60-second Quiz #3: What were some of the long-term impacts of the Scientific Revolution? Which statement is true?
Descartes’ emphasis on inductive reasoning became the basis for modern philosophy
Bacon’s emphasis on deductive reasoning became the basis for the modern scientific method
The Scientific Revolution increased peoples’ confidence in the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings
The Scientific Revolution decreased peoples’ confidence in the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings
KEY to 60-second Quizzes:
C. Geocentrism was an important tenet of the medieval worldview, which was based on the writings of ancient Greek authors Aristotle and Ptolemy. The ancient Greek understanding of the universe was a convenient hermeneutic device for the Catholic Church, which read theological importance into geocentric theory of Ptolemy.
B. Although Copernicus was attempting to make corrections to the Julian calendar, Bellarmine roundly rejected Copernicus’s heliocentric theory as being too radical a questioning of the church’s authority.
D. Descartes is associated with deductive reasoning, Bacon with inductive. The Scientific Revolution helped to further undermine the Catholic Church’s authority, since they could be seen as wrong about religious matters (see the Reformation), about politics (see the Early Modern State), and now intellectual pursuits.
Primary Source Exercise
What do you think is important to know about the author of this text? What can you learn from the words written on the page? What can you infer or piece together from the background information in the textbook chapter? Why is this important?
What was the author’s goal in writing this text? To whom did he or she address it? What purpose did it serve? Can you point to one or more examples to support this analysis?
What, if any, hidden assumptions can you detect in this text? That is, can you find word choices, phrasing, innuendo, or other examples of the author’s (explicit or implicit) bias with regard to the subject matter? Does this bias (or these assumptions) affect how you understand and react to the author’s words? Why or why not?