Once upon a time there was no such concept of science. The universe and man’s conception of himself, his place in nature/the world/the universe, and these relations were all completely different than as they are perceived today. The universe was a completely different place.
In order to truly comprehend just how significant and consequential the scientific revolution was in terms of man and his conception of his place in the universe, the universe itself, space, time, and meaning, one has to understand the world as it was before the scientific revolution.
Aristotle (4th century BCE) and his philosophical views were the widely held and accepted views for nearly 2000 years. Specifically, the conception of causality, meaning, purpose, physics and cosmology were directly influenced by Aristotle. Over the centuries the Christian church underwent a synthesis of Aristotle’s philosophy with their own, as they were quite compatible. This synthesis came under the banner of scholasticism and was a front runner in education throughout the universities of Europe up until about the 18th century.
In this universe, man saw his place as a natural position in the universe. He was not “in” the universe, but a natural part of it. Nature consisted of the earth being at the center of the cosmos with all planets, the sun, the moon orbiting the earth, and on this earth was all the natural elements which existed in continuity with, and for the purposes of man. Man was directly related to God, and this relationship was evident and obvious as Man’s place was at the center of the cosmos, and nature was there for him.
There was not so much thought on quantity, and there was not so much thought on ‘how?’. The questions that mattered were ‘why?’, and it was quality that mattered.
‘Why?’ was explained by objects’ natural resting places, their ‘fate’, their ‘destiny’, their natural order, their dharma you might even say. Everything was qualitative, and all of nature was composed of a various mixture of earth, fire, air, water and aether elements. In this universe things did not fall to the earth because of gravity (ie. the attractive forces between two masses). In this universe, matter fell to the earth because it was made of earth. Like attracted like. The natural resting place for an object that is composed of the elemental quality of earth, the destiny of that object, is to return to the earth. That is its end. That is its natural resting place. That is why it falls. And it accelerates towards the earth as it moves onward because it is getting closer and closer to its home, and thus, is drawn towards it more and more. A bigger piece of earth falls towards the ground quicker than a smaller piece of earth because it contains more elemental earth, thus more of it wants to get to its final resting place. Airy and fiery substances move upwards, because that is where their natural resting place is. In this universe, things stay where they are naturally meant to, unless an unnatural force is applied to them (ie. me picking up a stone and applying a force to lift it away from its natural place).
Now, we should take pause. When reading this, it is important not to try to understand it through your world view, your concepts. It might be easy to think ‘that is stupid, we KNOW now that things fall because of gravity, that things aren’t made up of qualities called elements’. That removes you from seeing the significance of it all. Instead, try to imagine being such a person, where such concepts DO NOT EXIST. The only concepts to understand your experience, your world, your universe, are those provided for you, and those are of Aristotelian physics and scholasticism.
Man had purpose and a place in the universe. Not just this, but the universe was not dead, it was very much alive. In this universe time was conceptually quite different. For one, it was more cyclical (moon cycles and seasons), and less linear and quantified. I will speak more on that at another point. Space is conceived as completely different. For Aristotle space wasn’t something someone occupied, rather, the world was filled with qualitative things (ie. a human body was a qualitative thing, a tree was a qualitative thing, not a quantity such as space/volume) that were surrounded by space.
There is much more to be said, but to keep it short, it is important to realize that the universe was different. It was physically structured differently (earth at the center, everything orbited earth, the cosmos were smaller), time was not as prevalent of a concept as it is today, and the human experiences was centered around quality, rather than quantity. Man, his meaning, his experience and relation to the cosmos, to nature, to himself, to God was known and explained for.
Fast forward to the 16th century to find Nicolaus Copernicus.
Here, we are at the doorsteps of the scientific revolution. The stage is set. Europeans are sailing the world, learning that there is more out there than previously imagined. Knowledge, consciousness and experience is expanding. Thoughts are becoming more open. Religion is coming to question, and two things that are perceived as known with certainty, mathematics and geometry, are becoming topics of study more and more.
At that time the model of the universe was that of geocentrism. Here, again, the earth was center of the universe. Now, over the years since Aristotle, his conception of the cosmos and the orbits of the sun, moon and planets were not always accurate. A newer model which involved slight variations known as epicycles were introduced. This was known as Ptolemy. An epicycle can be thought of as such: imagine Mars orbits the earth in a circle. Now, imagine that as it travels along that circle it isn’t doing so statically, but rather, is doing so while itself undergoing smaller cycles. Hard to explain, so see the pic:
Now, what is of key importance to note here is that Ptolemy and this model of how the cosmos functioned was ACCURATE. It was, however, complicated and messy. You had planets moving on epicycles, and epicycles with epicycles, etc. It was ugly. Which is to say, it was not aesthetically appealing. But it explained the phenomena perceived. It accounted for the motion of the planets. At this point in history, nature was described. The concept that nature should be explained in terms of more or less preferred aesthetics was not really in discussion. THIS was Copernicus’ motivation. This was his driving force. Copernicus, who is often associated with ushering man into the age of science was not motivated for finding “objective truth” of “the way things were”, rather, he believed that nature was simple, and sought to find a model that, give the empirical data, was simpler than Ptolemy.
This is of key importance, and is not to be under-appreciated. Science is generally not conceived to be addressing aesthetics and preferences, or based on belief. Rather, it is commonly held to be getting to “the truth” of things, and how nature/reality/the universe “actually is”, that is to say, objectively.
Step back and conceptualize this for a moment. Here, you have humans that have a structure of the universe: Ptolemy. It is accurate, predicts the motions of the planets, predicts the moon, eclipses, etc. It worked. But Copernicus had a belief that nature was simpler. He had a belief on what the aesthetics of reality, the aesthetics of the universe and the structure in which we come to understand it should be like. He had a belief related to aesthetics, which is to say, a preference. And with that he took the data available to him and formulated a new model. This new model placed the sun at the center of the universe. Now, earth and man were no longer at the center of the universe, rather just like any other planet, and orbited the sun. It cannot be overstated what sort of blow this had to Aristotelian/scholastic world view of meaning, man’s place in nature, man’s meaning and connection to purpose/God.
The interesting thing was Copernicus’s model of heliocentrism was no more accurate than Ptolemy. It is often framed that Copernicus’s model met resistance from the Catholic church. This is true, but it is not the whole truth. It was met by almost all people! Imagine if somebody tomorrow proposed a model for the structure of the universe that was COMPLETELY DIFFERENT than the way you currently structure the universe now, today, and have structured for your entire life. And when you ask why you should accept this new model, and ask if it is more accurate than the one you currently hold, the response you receive is “no, it isn’t more accurate, it is just simpler”. Imagine. Just imagine!
I cannot speak for anyone else, but Copernicus and heliocentrism was always framed to me in school as a battle between Copernicus and the Catholic church stubbornly holding on to what everybody knew to be true. That is far from true and is an erroneous way of looking at history. It was a very hard sell for Copernicus, not just for a church to accept, but for every common man. A new model of the structure of the universe, based on aesthetics, which is based on a belief and assumption that, a priori, nature operates in one way over another (simpler); on what grounds is that assumption/belief to be held besides an aesthetic preference?
A half century after Copernicus very few people were willing to hold heliocentrism to be true. It wasn’t until a young mathematician and deeply religious man, Johannes Kepler, around the turn of the 17th century, came onto the scene. Now Kepler was young and did not grow up in a universe where there was only one single model for how the universe was structured. He was not conditioned as everyone else was with solely Aristotelian world views. He had different concepts available to him. He was quite religious and quite taken with mathematics. He believes that there were mathematical relations in all things in nature, and that if you looked enough at the data a mathematical relation could be found to explain the relations. This is also of key importance in generating a change in perspective, a change in conceptualization, a change in how man relates, structures and perceives the universe and his place in it.
Of course, Kepler found those relations in the astronomical data, and was able to improve upon Copernicus’s model. Filled with joy that his belief that mathematical relations were in nature just waiting to be discovered was validated, Kepler postulated that surely there were more. This is also of key importance. It is a point of demarcation where man had his answers in one world view, and in coming to a realization that one of the things he always held to be true was no longer accepted as true. That brought into question ‘what else am I wrong about? what else is there out there I can discover?’.
Kepler is interesting as well. Again, another key figure in the history of science. Yet, just like Copernicus, he was not doing science. What he was doing was acting on a belief and on an aesthetic conception of the universe. He acted on those conceptual aesthetic beliefs, and found a mathematical model that fit the data. Today, if such a process were carried out, whether “correct” or not, would never be considered scientific. It would be considered lucky.
What is of interest here is another key shift. A world that is concerned with quality, explained and given meaning through qualities, is now putting qualities aside for quantity. Mathematical and geometrical relations can be used to explain nature, and Kepler’s belief of the universe, of nature being describable using mathematics and geometry are now on the table. This is a direct blow to the world view of the time. Another important thing to notice is that for Kepler, though his ideas were radical for the time, he didn’t (as far as I know) explicitly say that the universe/nature IS mathematical, rather, that there are mathematical relations that can be observed and used to MODEL it. This is of great importance, as we will see come Newton in the 18th century, the world view will have drastically changed to the point where math is not something that we use to model the qualitative universe, rather, we can only gain knowledge if it is mathematical, since the universe itself is GOVERNED by mathematics. This is a subtle yet key distinction that has vast consequences.
So. Brief recap. For nearly 2000 years the universe is qualitative, filled with meaning, purpose, with man directly a part of nature, in a relationship with God, the center of existence. Copernicus deals a blow to this as he is driven by aesthetics and belief (which is re-framed today under the banner of scientific discovery), Kepler improves on this aesthetic model of the universe, driven by the aesthetic belief that mathematics is in nature to be discovered. He delivers another blow and opens the door for quantity, rather than quality, to be the means of knowledge for man.
Enter Galileo Galilei. He spanned the 16th and 17th century. Galileo did many things. He made many inventions, including some of the first devices to measure time (huge effects), the telescope, and did extensive work on mechanics, which is to say, the study of motion.
Galileo is most famously known for writing A Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. A book filled with errors and inaccurate arguments, but still, essentially making a case for heliocentrism. This led to his inquisition and trial which culminated in him spending the rest of his life under house arrest. He is portrayed as the scientific martyr that stood up to the Catholic church for the sake of truth and knowledge. Perhaps rightly so.
Galileo’s advancement of scientific research was important. Like his predecessors, Galileo maintains the convention that nature is regular and simple. Galileo developed a methodology for his discoveries. He would first reason and use intuition. He would look into the phenomena of interest, reduce the sensible qualities down to only what mattered, and then attempted to describe it mathematically. Finally, he would perform an experiment in order to validate his mathematical explanation. This was a proto-scientific method.
As was quite possibly inevitable to come, Galileo begins what will come to be a pursuit that takes us to the present day, in removing qualities from reality and replacing them with quantities. Galileo believes that the laws of the universe, of nature are immutable and mathematical. God is a mathematician. It is quantity (mathematics and geometry) that make up nature, that govern the universe. It is quality that can deceive us and is illusory. He holds that there are primary and secondary qualities. Primary qualities are real (immutable, like the mathematical laws of nature). Primary qualities are number, shape, magnitude, position and motion. Mathematical and geometric qualities. Other things like color, taste, etc, are subjective and inaccurate secondary qualities. These are not real or meaningful.
This is not to be overstated in terms of importance. Just a century ago it was only quality that mattered. Quality was what made up nature. You knew nature through qualities, described it, understood it, and your existence was given meaning from qualities. Now, qualities are divided between useless and useful, and it is only the qualities that can be mathematized (number, shape, magnitude, position and motion) that have any value or meaning. Now, the universe, nature, the human experience is given meaning and understanding in terms of math and geometry, nothing else. The universe is quantitative. It is regular. It is law like. And the only way to get knowledge of it is to use the only necessarily true form of knowledge known; mathematics and geometry.
Another quite interesting finding of Galileo’s is that projectile motion follows a parabolic path.
Anyone who has studied physics knows this, and for anyone that has thrown a ball or an egg or a pizza or anything at all, can see this. So why is this worthy to mention? This, in fact, was a discovery! For nearly 2000 years, the physics of Aristotle prevailed. Return once again to his elemental qualities of earth, fire, air, water, aether. For Aristotle, objects in the world are self-movers. That is to say, when I let go of a rock from my hand at shoulder height, it is the earth qualities in the rock that force itself to move downwards towards the earth, again, so that it can find its natural place in the universe. Gravity does not exist. It has not been invented yet. That is not a concept that is available.
For Aristotle then, in projectile motion, such as that of throwing a baseball towards a friend, or a cannon firing, there are two motions at work. The first force is the unnatural motion which is imparted on the cannon ball via the cannon. For Aristotle, once that motion extinguishes itself, natural motion takes over, and the cannon ball falls to its natural place, the earth. The path of such a motion would look like this:
Now, today, anyone that has seen any object endure projectile motion would have a hard time to understand how such a model of motion could even be possible. It is quite acceptable that one would ask “Couldn’t people just SEE that Aristotle’s model for projectile motion was wrong? Just go throw a ball!”. This is extremely fair. This model for motion, for physics, for explaining the phenomena that occurs in the world lasted for nearly 2000 years!! 2000 years! How is this possible?!
Though it is not to be covered here, it perhaps will be this month. What I am building up to is gestalt psychology, of perceiving phenomena in a manner that fits into a preconceived structure of reality, of perceiving phenomena as you expect to perceive it. Phenomena and our perception are quite malleable, and the way we structure reality from our senses is not a one way relation (that is to say, we don’t just receive sense data and then perceive it, rather, we receive sense data and the mind creates/structures reality, and in doing so what is created/structured is influenced by our concepts, our expectations, and much more), rather, we impose onto the universe our structure of reality that is created in the mind. There exists a vast abundance of examples of this, and this topic deserves its own discussion. Briefly, one example would be a self-fulfilling prophecy (placebo effect, many others); you perceive person X as a bad person. You are convinced of it. In so doing, the way you perceive person X becomes skewed. Everything is filtered through this “bad person” frame of reference. Anytime ANYTHING can be interpreted as being “bad”, you will make notice, and this will reaffirm and perpetuate your bias and belief. It validates it. The instances that are counter to person X being a bad person are passed over, are not remembered, and not really conceived…. To leave this then,what matters is that people were committed to a world view, to a specific universal structure, and in committing to this paradigm when people, for 2000 years, perceived projectile motion in such a way, they quite literally experienced it as Aristotle described. They didn’t just ‘perceive’ it as such, rather, for those people the universe operated under that structure of unnatural and natural motion, of projectile motion sans-parabolas.
On Galileo’s works on measuring time. Time is quite important man’s conception of self, universe, nature, meaning. It is quite important sociologically, and scientifically in terms of how we relate to nature, our existence, the structure of the universe, etc.
Before I continue, perhaps you should stop and ask yourself two questions. What is time? What is motion?
Aristotle thought that time was the number of motion. There was once a period in history where time was not quantified. It had a quality: summer, winter, the shape of the moon, etc. Time is now a quantity. It is a dimension that moves forward, uniformly, in one direction. Or so it is commonly held. What is time? Where does it exist? Does it exist? How does it exist? What gives it existence?
Perhaps I will touch on this again, perhaps not. I am getting tired, so I will finish up.
Perhaps I will come back to the history of science. Important players such as Bacon, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton and perhaps Einstein and the development of physics today: quantum mechanics would be worth discussing.
The important and meaningful things that stand out to me in the development of scientific thinking is that the world/the universe/nature was perceived to exist in a certain way, and man’s relations to himself, to nature, to existence, to everything, was a certain way. And this all changed completely in so many drastic ways. The two universes are incommensurable. They cannot even be compared and certainly cannot be understood through each other. They are just completely different.
The way the story is presented today in textbooks is that today we now “know” “the truth” of the universe, nature, etc. We look back fondly at our ancestors and how silly they were, the myths they held, the explanations given. If only they knew what we knew! The story is told that modern science began with great scientific minded men (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, etc), who fought tooth and nail with their oppressors, fools and ignorant men for the pursuit of TRUTH (attainable only via science of course). Of course, this isn’t an accurate picture at all, for the reasons mentioned above. It is a re-writing and washing of history (propaganda/bias?) and (as common with science) reduces history to a single context without taking into account a more comprehensive view of what the social/epistemological milieu of the times were. Not just that, but that these great ‘scientific men’ were not doing science, but rather making assumptions based off of aesthetics and beliefs, and over time, each followed in line with the other on these assumptions. Views began to be held in convention, the same way the Aristotelian world view was for 2000 years.
My next post I will talk about paradigm shifts and changes in world views, such as the one that occurred and has never stopped occurring since Copernicus (arguably for the entire length of human existence). I will mention the consequences and significance of changes in paradigm shifts, of changes in world views, and address the question: is there such thing as objective knowledge? Is there such thing as “the single truth” for how the universe is? Is there any meaning in the belief that science operates by “getting closer” to “the truth”? In the sense that if you switched one folk-lore mythology for another, could one be said to be more accurate of the universe than the other? What criteria could one use to measure and make such a statement? One would have to first assume that there WAS an objective single truth as to how the universe operates, and then compare and contrast which myth was CLOSER to it. But what evidence is there that there is an objective single truth to how the universe/reality/nature operates? What are the assumptions and reasons for thinking that? Have you ever asked yourself this? And if you did ask yourself right now, what do you find (besides convention and that was what you were told)?