The Culture of Science
Causes of the Scientific Revolution:The discovery of the laws of science and physics and workings of the universe were rewards per se for the work required to produce them; yet there were deeper underlying causes of the Scientific Revolution:
1. The contributions to science by medieval thinkers were much more considerable than scholars were once willing to believe. It had been all too easy to dismiss medieval thinking as typical of the "dark ages," a period of suspicion and thinking locked in tradition. Universities had established departments and professorships in philosophy as early as 1300. These professorships were entirely independent of theological studies. Scholars of philosophy had begun the process of inquiry, an attempt to derive meaningful conclusions about the nature of the world. In that regard, it might be more correct to speak of a Scientific Evolution, rather than a Revolution.
Science emerged from this process as a minor, but very distinct branch of philosophy. Universities established professorships in mathematics, astronomy, and physics (natural philosophy) within their philosophy departments. The great thinkers of the Scientific Revolution, including Galileo and Newton, were products of these universities. Although their theories and postulations constituted a departure from accepted notions, they were equally a product of those accepted notions.
2. Renaissance thinking stimulated scientific progress. Medieval science was limited by its own system of mathematics which was rudimentary at best. Renaissance humanist’s obsession with classicism led to the recovery of ancient Greek mathematics. The discovery of classical mathematical treatises revealed that the scholars of antiquity often differed with one another. It fell to modern thinkers to resolve these differences. Additionally, Renaissance patronage often financed the work of scientific scholars. A prime example is Galileo, whose work was financed by the Medici family.
3. The need for precise navigational instruments for trans-Atlantic voyages was also a factor. Sea Captains needed accurate instruments to measure the distant coastlines where they landed. Sir Thomas Gresham, an English financier left a large sum of money to establish Gresham College in London with the stipulation that three of its seven professorships concern themselves with scientific subjects. The professor of astronomy was directed to teach navigation to his students. The result was a seventeenth century ballad about the college’s mission:
This college will the whole world measure.
Which most impossible conclude,
And navigation make a pleasure
By finding out the longitude.
Navigational problems were the motivational force behind the invention of such useful instruments as the telescope, barometer, thermometer, pendulum clock, microscope, and air pump.
The Role of Religion:The issue of religion and science, and the support and/or opposition of Catholic and/or Protestant authorities in complicated at best. All religions, even Jewish, originally opposed the Copernican theory of heliocentrism. Originally, the Catholic Church was less hostile than the Protestants, This leniency allowed a number of Italians, such as Galileo to participate in scientific discovery. However, with the rise of the Catholic Reformation, the church’s position became more hostile. Countries such as the Netherlands which did not have a strong religious conviction allowed scientific work to go uninhibited. In England, religious conflict so preoccupied the authorities that scientific work did not draw notice.
Censorship was more common in Catholic Countries. Books of science were most commonly included on the church’s Index of Forbidden Ideas or Books. State censorship of books began in France in 1623 where, five years before, a defrocked monk had been burned at the stake for denouncing the belief in miracles after studying at the University of Padua. Each new manuscript had to be submitted to a royal office for authorization to be published. No such censorship existed in England, where political and ecclesiastical authority were not as centralized as in France.
Science Flourishes:Scientific culture gradually spread eastward, and by the 1660’s, scientists conversed and corresponded with each other on a regular basis. Lectures, meetings, and professional scientific associations soon sprang up. In 1662, King Charles II chartered the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Its members included Edmund Halley, the astronomer who discovered the actual movement of the stars and discovered the comet that bears his name. It also included John Locke, and Christopher Wren, the architect who rebuilt a number of London’s churches after the great fire of 1666. Newton dedicated his Principia to the Royal Society. The society adopted as its motto the words of the Roman Poet Horace: The words are the words of a master, but we are not forced to swear by them. Instead we are to be borne wherever experiment drives us A French Academy of Science was also formed, but it its membership lacked the formality of the British society, and much time was spent eating and drinking, and very little in scholarly discourse.
Latin had long been the language of the church and of science, but with the Scientific Revolution, more and more scholarly works were written in the vernacular of the author. Sir Isaac Newton was the exception, who preferred to write in Latin so that scholars in other countries could read his work. Galileo wrote in Italian.
The Scientific Revolution never flourished in Eastern Europe as it had in the West. Theological and devotional literature dominated universities and libraries. As a result, Eastern Europe has been remembered more for its music than for its science. The Russian Orthodox Church denounced secular knowledge and experimentation as heresy and the work of the antichrist. This fact, coupled with the fact that the Renaissance never reached Russia, kept the country from participating in the new era of science. The sole exception was the work of Peter the Great who after his trip to Western Europe wished to refute the Western view that "we are barbarians who disregard science." He promoted some scientific research, but it was all for practical purposes, such as shipbuilding and improving artillery.
The Scientific Revolution appeared to force theology into the background. Although the scholars of the time did not doubt the existence of God, or His creation of the Universe, they saw him as impersonal and uninvolved. Descartes had implied that humanity could live independently of God. He got into hot water with church officials because his writings seemed to deny the existence of God. There was no question that the role of religion and of the Deity was suddenly a matter of debate. John Donne, the English poet wrote in 1612, "The new philosophy calls all in doubt.
Unquestionably, the revolution called Absolutism into doubt by influencing the Philosophes of the Enlightenment. The belief in the intrinsic value of freedom and the philosophe’s belief that people should be ruled by law, not rulers, challenged the very nature of absolutism.