HistoryBits: Scientific Revolution

HistoryBits: Scientific Revolution

Bits and Pieces of History

Culture

Culture/Philosophy/Classical Liberalism and the Scientific Revolution

Liberalism and the Scientific Revolution were two sides of the same coin, and to the practitioners of the liberal creed, the scientific method could be applied to religion and politics as much as to alchemy and astronomy. All the bulwarks of the Old Order–whether in the form of censorship or divine dicta, aristocratic privilege and the constraint of equal opportunity, or the general oppressiveness of ignorance—must be made to yield to the sense of optimism that good would inevitably triumph over evil, that education and technology was the best remedy for society’s ills, that government must be checked-and-balanced, and that rationalism would reign. In the same way that the Scientific Revolution would enable man to achieve dominion over the earth, liberalism would become a tool for achieving mastery over his own affairs, whether in support of how man served his God, or his freedom of movement, conscience, assembly, and expression.

Culture/Science/Leading Lights

Brahe picked up where Copernicus left off, gazing for some twenty years out his telescope from his observatory at Uraniborg, and patiently compiling a statistical record of the positions and movements of the stars and planets. Kepler was not quite so methodical, being partial to the mysteries of Hermetic mathematical magic in his conception of a universe constructed on the basis of geometric figures like pyramids and cubes; this was the basis for his infatuation with the “music of the spheres” that mirrored the harmony of the human soul in the numerical relationships existing among planets. Both Rome and the Protestants thundered that it was contrary to Scripture and common sense, which just goes to show that common sense is, above all, common. Galileo took the heat, dragged before the dreaded Inquisition and forced to recant his heresy that it was the earth–not the sun–that moved (his parting remarks, unheard by his inquisitors, insisted that “Yet, it does move!”). And when Newton came along and cobbled all of this (and more) into his theory of the universe as a grand Clockwork Mechanism, whose laws could become known (and mastered) by investigation, nothing would ever again stand in the way of man’s mastery over nature. Logic—Aristotelian or otherwise—has its limits.

Culture/Science/Copernicus

The script for Ptolemy’s geocentric (“earth-centered universe) was straight out of Mystery Science Theater. With the earth at dead center, nine concentric crystalline spheres moved in circular orbits around the earth. Circular movement, according to Aristotle, was the most “perfect” kind of movement and hence appropriate for the “perfect” heavenly bodies thought to consist of a nonmaterial, incorruptible “quintessence” (pineapple Jello?) These heavenly bodies were pure orbs of light and embedded in the moving concentric spheres, and moving outward, they contained the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the fixed stars. The ninth sphere imparted to the eighth sphere its motion, and the tenth sphere was the Prime Mover that imparted motion to all the other spheres. Now, if I haven’t lost you yet… beyond the tenth sphere was the Empyrean Heaven—the location of God and all the saved souls; this Christianized Ptolemaic universe was a finite one–it had a fixed boundary in harmony with Christian thought and expectations. God and the saved souls were at one end of the universe while humans were at the center; while we humans had been given power over the earth, our real purpose was to achieve salvation. I don’t know how anyone could have doubted any of this, but Copernicus did cast doubt, not only on this wondrously contrived universe, but on the role of us humans in the universe as well as on God’s location. Both Rome and the Protestants thundered that it was contrary to Scripture and common sense, which just goes to show that common sense is, above all, common. Logic—Aristotelian or otherwise—has its limits. I find it hard to believe that an intelligent being can look around and conclude that a flower is just an angiosperm, that the sun is just an exploding star that we happen to have situated ourselves in precise relation to so that we neither roast nor freeze, that a concert violinist–or even the most mundane of mortals–came from the mud. I believe that we must look at life—and its origins–with a sense of the magical and miraculous, and try to appreciate the profound limitations that our senses and sense of logic impose on our coming to grips with the metaphysical (metaphysics being “ultimate reality”) nature of it all. We need to look beyond what our senses are telling us. I suspect, in other words, that we have been ill served and deluded by science, and that mankind may one day regard the Enlightenment and the spirit of scientific and philosophical inquiry that attended it as a necessary but misguided detour in our search for truth.

Culture/Science/Galileo

The script for Ptolemy’s geocentric (“earth-centered universe) was straight out of Mystery Science Theater. With the earth at dead center, nine concentric crystalline spheres moved in circular orbits around the earth. Circular movement, according to Aristotle, was the most “perfect” kind of movement and hence appropriate for the “perfect” heavenly bodies thought to consist of a nonmaterial, incorruptible “quintessence” (pineapple Jello?) These heavenly bodies were pure orbs of light and embedded in the moving concentric spheres, and moving outward, they contained the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the fixed stars. The ninth sphere imparted to the eighth sphere its motion, and the tenth sphere was the Prime Mover that imparted motion to all the other spheres. Now, if I haven’t lost you yet… beyond the tenth sphere was the Empyrean Heaven—the location of God and all the saved souls; this Christianized Ptolemaic universe was a finite one–it had a fixed boundary in harmony with Christian thought and expectations. God and the saved souls were at one end of the universe while humans were at the center; while we humans had been given power over the earth, our real purpose was to achieve salvation. I don’t know how anyone could have doubted any of this, but Galileo did cast doubt, not only on this wondrously contrived universe, but on the role of us humans in the universe as well as on God’s location. Both Rome and the Protestants thundered that it was contrary to Scripture and common sense, which just goes to show that common sense is, above all, common. Galileo took the heat, dragged before the dreaded Inquisition and forced to recant his heresy that it was the earth–not the sun–that moved (his parting remarks, unheard by his inquisitors, insisted that “Yet, it does move!”). And when Newton came along and cobbled all of this (and more) into his theory of the universe as a grand Clockwork Mechanism, whose laws could become known (and mastered) by investigation, nothing would ever again stand in the way of man’s mastery over nature. Logic—Aristotelian or otherwise—has its limits.

Culture/Science/Mechanics and Magicians

The greats of the Scientific Revolution (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton) were both Mechanics and Magicians. Newton came along with his theory of the universe as a grand Clockwork Mechanism, whose laws could become known (and mastered) by investigation. They were also very much Magicians, altogether taken with Hermetic magic and alchemy. With both magic and mechanics, we’re really talking about the same thing here: the Hermetics saw the world as the living embodiment of divinity, and man could use his own spark of divinity to work magic (especially mathematical magic) to control and dominate the natural world–the same objective advanced by the Scientific Revolution.

Culture/Science/Newton

From the time that Newton then came along with his theory of the universe as a grand Clockwork Mechanism, whose laws could become known (and mastered) by investigation, nothing would stand in the way of man’s mastery over nature. To the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the role of philosophy was to change the world, not just discuss it; rationalism was a scientific method that could be applied to everything, including religion and politics. The Enlightenment, with its handmaiden of the Scientific Revolution, formed the Great Divide between the Old World and the New, between East and West, between Faith and Reason, and between mystical societies who revered man’s relationship with nature, and the scientific societies of the West who manipulated it to their material advantage and spiritual detriment. The trick has been to learn from both, as to how to develop our God-given patrimony without destroying ourselves in the bargain.

Culture/Science/Isaac Newton

In one sense, Newton was the Mechanic, who came along with his theory of the universe as a grand Clockwork Mechanism, whose laws could become known (and mastered) by investigation. In another sense, he was very much the Magician, altogether taken with Hermetic magic and alchemy. Yet, with both magic and mechanics, we’re still talking about the same thing here: the Hermetics saw the world as the living embodiment of divinity, and man could use his own spark of divinity to work magic (especially mathematical magic) to control and dominate the natural world–the same objective advanced by the Scientific Revolution. Newton, then… a Mechanical Magician?

Culture/Science/Scientific Method

It turned out that the Scientific Method could be applied to religion and politics as much as to alchemy and astronomy. All the bulwarks of the Old Order–whether in the form of censorship or divine dicta, aristocratic privilege and the constraint of equal opportunity, or the general oppressiveness of ignorance—must be made to yield to the sense of optimism that good would inevitably triumph over evil, that education and technology was the best remedy for society’s ills, that government must be checked-and-balanced, and that rationalism would reign. In the same way that the Scientific Method would enable man to achieve dominion over the earth, liberalism would become a tool for achieving mastery over his own affairs, whether in support of how man served his God, or his freedom of movement, conscience, assembly, and expression.

Culture/Science/State Sponsorship of Science

The Scientific Revolution acquired an enormous impetus from state sponsorship. The implications (and potential rewards) of embracing and controlling this revolution must have become glaringly evident to the authorities from the riches that certain critical advances in navigation made possible in the early Portuguese voyages abroad in quest of gold and spices, and in Columbus’ efforts to discover a quick route to China.


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