An Average Joe’s History of Western Europe—The First Modern Generation (1680 to 1715)

[This is the eighth installment of my mini-history—“An Idiot’s History” has become “An Average Joe’s” thanks to my niece, Tina Burbank—two more installments to come]

In the terrible wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War, ending in 1648, Europe was exhausted.  The old social mode was irrevocably broken.  The notion of ultimate Authority had been shattered into many, competing authorities, leaving Europeans confused and at odds.  But the seeds of the modern worldview had been planted by medieval intellectuals and were already sprouting to become the Scientific Revolution.

The First Modern Generation

The generation of readers and authors between 1680 and 1715 was one of the most revolutionary in European history because it was marked by a fundamental change in attitudes toward knowledge and nature.”  Thus summarized Professor Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania in his 24-lecture series, The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries, which is one of the Great Courses of The Teaching Company.  Professor Kors has been my primary guide through this history of intellectual transition.  To share what I have learned, I focus on the perspective of what I call the “first modern generation,” basing much of this presentation on Prof. Kors’s excellent Lecture 13.

This generation lived on the cusp between the medieval and modern worldviews.  Spurred by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation to prepare clerics for intellectual defense of the Catholic faith or the Protestant faith, Christian schools of both persuasions had expanded literacy and the reading public.  Printing and book publishing had expanded access to both ancient and contemporary authors.  Thus, this cusp generation was informed and inspired by Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Locke and Newton and many others who popularized and explained these great writers in an intellectual and social revolt against the Aristotelian scholasticism of the universities.

Aristotelian scholasticism was the system of thought that became predominant in the late Renaissance (1400-1600) and continued to rule the university curricula for centuries after.  As I described in the sixth installment of this mini-history, informed by the recent history of science by James Hannam, the cultural triumph of humanism during the Renaissance was a setback for scientific development.  In their reactionary love affair with antiquity, humanist intellectuals transformed the inventive scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas into near-total deference to the authority of the ancient philosophers, especially Aristotle.  This revised scholasticism established a method of “disputation” in which the starting point for all knowledge was the presumed authority of the past.  Nothing could be true unless it was derived logically from things known by authority of the ancients—deductive reasoning.  Our own experience or observation of nature served only to illustrate rather than to test the truth of ideas derived by deductive reasoning. All intellectual attention was on the perfections of God and Heaven; there was a hierarchy of perfections, and life as we experience it was at the bottom of this hierarchy and hardly worthy of study.  Which is why the only science that was taken seriously was the study of the heavens—astronomy.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) mounted a “momentous assault” (as Prof. Kors calls it) on the static and contemplative worldview of Aristotelian scholasticism, starting with his published works from 1602 to 1608 and culminating in The New Organon in 1620.  Bacon rejected the presumptive authority of the past.  In a true intellectual revolution, he turned on its head the notion that true knowledge comes primarily by logical deduction from the premises of these ancient philosophers.  Instead, Bacon gave priority to discovering laws of nature through inductive reasoning from experience and observation of nature, including experiment to tease apart cause and effect.  This approach opened up acquisition of knowledge to allow exploration of new worlds never envisioned by the ancients, unfettered by the presumptions of those who never set eyes on these new worlds or, in the case of the mundane nature around us, who never bothered to carefully observe how nature actually works.

Quoting from Prof. Kors’s summary of Bacon in Lecture Three:

Instead of the unholy alliance of minds and words, human creations, we needed a marriage of mind and things of God’s creation, and that marriage should be chaste, by which Bacon meant without ornamentation or flights of fancy.  It should be holy, by which Bacon meant with proper reverence and humility and motivated by Christian charity.  And, it must be legal, by which he meant according to rules and proper methods.

Prof. Kors cites four “great themes” in Bacon’s thought.  First, knowledge should be useful.  We should apply knowledge of causes and forces in nature to enhance the human condition and minimize human suffering.  Second, natural philosophy (science) should be separated from theology.  Let theology speak to matters of God and faith, but to learn the nature of God’s creation, we should study that nature and let it speak for itself.  Third, method lies at the heart of human knowledge.  Genius is useful but not necessary as long as we tread the path of proper method—not deduction from received authority but induction from the particulars of nature.  Fourth, science is a dynamic, cooperative and cumulative enterprise.  There is no static knowledge; we will always be learning from nature through observation, experiment and inductive reasoning—adding, correcting and amending. No single mind (not even as brilliant a mind as Aristotle’s) can embrace the whole of nature in a brilliant scheme.  With humility, we need collective effort to compensate for our inherent biases and errors—testing each other’s work, to confirm or correct the conclusions.

Each of these four themes was a radical departure from the dominant intellectual culture of Europe in the early 17th century.  The Scientific Revolution had begun.

Note that Bacon did not reject theological authority; he was a devout churchman, like most of the early natural philosophers we now call scientists.  But he maintained that theological authority should not eclipse the authority of nature as the true guide for acquisition of knowledge about nature.  Nonetheless, Bacon fostered an attitude that theological authority should not intrude where it does not belong.  That attitude continues, and it now fosters an ongoing contraction of what is considered the legitimate domain of theological authority, not just in science but also human society in general.

The New Astronomy

Bacon could have been ignored, but the astronomical observations, calculations and mathematical logic and conclusions of Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei could not.  Aristotelian scholasticism embraced the geocentric astronomy of Claudius Ptolemy (circa 90 – circa 168).  Remember that astronomy was the science worth studying because it described the perfection of the heavens.  In the 2nd century, Ptolemy proposed an elaborate system in which the universe revolves around the planet Earth – geocentrism.  Subsequent interpretations of new astronomical observations were bent to conform to Ptolemy’s system, in part because his system was actually pretty good at predicting the time and place of celestial phenomena, very important for the practice of astrology.  So important, given the movement of the heavens was so consequential for human activity in the Late Middle Ages and into modern times, that there was ongoing effort to make increasingly accurate predictions of those movements by ever more carefully observing and recording the movements of planets and stars.

In the 1500s, Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed a heliocentric system of understanding the heavens, with the Earth revolving around the Sun.  His system initially had little influence, even on Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the Danish nobleman who devoted much of his life to meticulous collection of a huge set of astronomical measurements.  These data became the grist for the remarkable mathematician and astronomer (as well as mystic, fortuneteller and astrologer), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).  Prof. Kors tells the ironic story:

The secret of Kepler’s Herculean labor to fit Tycho’s data to Copernicus’s heliocentrism – the sun at the center of the system – was Kepler’s deep faith.  Long before any of his work allowed him to conclude it, indeed from the outset, that with the sun at the rightful center of the universe, the quantitative and geometrical harmonies and ratios of God’s creation would be disclosed.

So religiously motivated, Kepler persevered through an ordeal of mathematical hard labor, without the benefit of analytical geometry or the calculus, neither of which were invented until later in the century, arriving in 1619 at his three laws of planetary motion that “brought order out of astronomy and Copernicus’s system.”  However, even Kepler’s correspondent and fellow mathematician-astronomer, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), did not accept Kepler’s conclusions, though Galileo had already become an enthusiast for Copernicus’s system.  In fact, it was only later in the century that the work of Isaac Newton confirmed Kepler’s laws.

What Galileo did share with Kepler was a commitment to understanding nature and nature’s God quantitatively rather than in terms of perfections or purposes as the Aristotelians sought to do.  Galileo further contributed to our understanding of mass in motion – physics – but he sought more, nothing less than a restructuring of our understanding of the world.  A brilliant but brash polemicist, Galileo tended to make enemies unnecessarily, especially among the intellectually long-dominant Dominicans in their rivalry with the newly emerged and equally intellectual Jesuits.  At first, he enjoyed the friendship and political support of the Pope himself.  From this relationship evolved the famous conflict between Galileo and the Church over the truth of heliocentrism.  Given the iconic nature of this conflict for those who believe that religion and science are inherently in conflict, it is worth digging into the real, rich history vs. the “urban myth” (soon you will understand the pun!).

The Galileo Affair

Prof. Lawrence Principe devotes two lectures just to explaining the real story of the Galileo Affair in his course “Science and Religion,” another of the Great Courses.  If you care enough, I recommend you read or hear these two lectures to convince yourself that what the general public knows of the Galileo Affair is misleading at best and in important respects just plain wrong.  For those who prefer an executive summary, I offer here a short version of Prof. Principe’s two lectures.

To start off, please remember that while we take for granted that the Earth rotates on its axis once a day, and revolves around the Sun once a year, we cannot see proof of this is our everyday experience.  The Earth seems quite stable and unmoving.  Therefore, Copernicus’s heliocentric system is completely counter-intuitive and requires compelling proof to overcome our common sense.  Religion-centered as the time was, much concern was expressed about the apparent contradiction between the Bible, in particular the story of Joshua and the Sun standing still, and the heliocentric system that Galileo publicly supported through his teaching in Florence.  The mother of the Grand Duke of Florence wanted to know if there was some plausible explanation, and Galileo supplied one in a letter, in which he provided his own reinterpretation of the Joshua passage in light of what he considered the evidence from nature.  In doing so, Galileo was thoroughly consistent with Augustinian principles of biblical interpretation.  The doctrine of “accommodation” holds that Scripture, though inspired by God, was written by people who understood that messages had to be delivered in the language and concepts that audiences of the time would understand and find credible.  And St. Augustine’s “unity of truth” – that the Two Books of scripture and of nature cannot contradict one another, being products of the same Truth from God – requires that scripture be reinterpreted in ways that are consistent with new evidence of the way nature works.

However, Galileo made two crucial errors.  First, he was known for arguing that theologians should stay out of the business of natural philosophy—science.  Yet he took it upon himself to reinterpret Scripture, which was an intrusion by a natural philosopher into the work of theologians.  He was not considered qualified to do such important work.  So a minor Dominican friar sent a letter of complaint to the Inquisition.  Prof. Principe says that upon reading the records of the Inquisition, “most people are struck by the attention to protocol, to due process, and to clarity.  In their usual efficient way, the Inquisition examined the complaint.”  They found no grounds for alarm, so they dismissed the case.  They did not declare heliocentrism to be heretical, but they did refer Copernicus’s book to the Office of the Index (the official church censor—what we would call an editorial board), which decreed that the book should be “corrected.”  Four years later (obviously not a priority), a revised version with ten altered passages was published.  The offending passages either had offered interpretations of scripture, or they very directly had asserted that heliocentrism was absolutely true.

The Inquisition also told Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, a Jesuit and the most powerful churchman of the time, to meet with Galileo to inform him of the decree of the Index and to give him a verbal warning that he should abandon his assertions that Copernicanism was absolutely true.  This meeting took place in February 1616.  Bellarmino, like his Jesuit and Dominican brethren, valued reason as much as faith, and he reasonably demanded of Galileo credible evidence that the Earth does indeed move before the Church committed itself to a reinterpretation of the Bible.  The policy was clear and wise: the Church would not reinterpret scripture to accommodate every hare-brained theory about how the universe works.  To do so would create confusion and dissension among the laity.  This policy was particularly strengthened by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), at which Bellarmino had great influence, to counter the growing tendency within Protestantism to allow, even encourage, personal interpretation of the Bible, often in naïve and strange ways.

Bellarmino was open to the possibility that scripture would have to be reinterpreted, but he held out for a sound proof.  Galileo could not provide it.  Galileo’s main “proof” was his theory of what causes the tides—the rotation of the Earth, he asserted.  Bellarmino was unconvinced, and he was right to be so.  Galileo’s theory ultimately turned out to be flat wrong!  So Bellarmino delivered the warning, and Galileo agreed to abide by it.  That should have been the end of the affair.

Fifteen years passed before Galileo got into trouble again, much worse trouble, with the publication of his book “Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems” in 1632.  The genesis of the book was in his long-time friendship with the man who became Pope Urban VIII (the pun!).  Shortly after becoming Pope, Urban held several meetings with Galileo in 1624, in which it seems Urban gave permission, if not encouragement, to write a book about Copernicanism, as long as Galileo argued that the notion of the Earth’s movement had to be regarded as hypothetical.  The Pope required that Galileo include the argument that, given God is omnipotent, any determination of ultimate causes can never be absolutely certain.

Galileo took years to write the book and ran into various problems with getting it published (any published author is nodding his or her head in recognition just now).  He included the required argument:

God in his infinite power and wisdom could have conferred on the element of water the back-and-forth motion that we see in it by some other means than by making its container move.

But the way he included this argument was his second crucial error.  He wrote the book as a dialogue among three characters: an advocate for Copernicanism (Galileo’s brilliant alter ego), an impartial intermediary, and an advocate for Ptolemaic cosmology (named Simplicio and often coming across as a gibbering idiot).  At the very end of the book, Galileo put the Pope’s argument into the mouth of Simplicio, the fool!  Urban was furious with embarrassment.  He felt betrayed by his friend (the worst kind of betrayal) at the very time he was fighting for his political life in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War.  He was in no mood to protect Galileo from those who had their personal reasons to send him back to the Inquisition.  The Inquisition worked out a face-saving deal with Galileo, but Urban would not accept it.  This time there was a trial, not for heresy so much as for violating the agreement with Bellarmino, who could not counter willful misunderstanding of their agreement, because he had died long before the trial.  With due respect for Galileo himself, the Inquisition banned his book and sentenced him to house arrest at his villa in Florence for the rest of his life.  He lived until 1642, and during his imprisonment he wrote arguably his most important book “Two New Sciences.”

The Galileo Affair would be a minor footnote in the history of science if it had not become a cause célèbre in the intellectual war between Protestants and Roman Catholics, which continued well into the 20th century.  The English-speaking world has been more influenced by the Protestant polemic than the Roman Catholic, especially by the anti-Catholic histories of the 18th century Enlightenment, like Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which exaggerated the “darkness” of the Catholic-dominated Middle Ages.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, the anti-Catholic histories have morphed into anti-Christian revisionism that cites the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition as evidence of the irrationality and cruelty of Christianity, if not religion in general, and the Galileo Affair as evidence of the anti-science nature of Christianity and even religion in general.  My reading of more objective history, summarized in the previous posts of this Average Joe’s History series, reveals how trumped up and agenda-driven are these charges.  Regarding the Galileo Affair, willfully anachronistic misinterpretation persists to this day.

The general understanding of scientific knowledge, even for most scientists, is that it describes reality as it really is.  We accept this notion as such a matter of fact that we are surprised to learn from Prof. Principe that in Galileo’s time a different understanding of knowledge, including what we now call “scientific,” was dominant.  The fundamental cause of Galileo’s conflict with Church authorities was the ancient “knowledge problem,” dating back to Plato and Aristotle.  Prof. Steven L. Goldman of Lehigh University devotes 24 lectures to the history of this conflict within and about science in one of the Great Courses, Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It.  Science is part of this more general “knowledge problem.”  Goldman’s course explores whether the object of scientific inquiry is “reality” (which is universal, necessary and certain) or “experience” (which is contingent, uncertain and particular)?  We can only know reality through our own experience, filtered through our senses and mental processes, which obscure reality, that which is invariant.  Yet reason and reasoning depend on invariants; something has to be constant for us to engage in reasoning, to have an anchor or starting point for reasoning – starting assumptions about reality.  But science is “historical;” it evolves over time in every aspect, including its starting assumptions.

To see this clearly, think how different was the scientific community’s understanding of physics at the levels of both the universe and the atom in 1900, before relativity theory and quantum mechanics were conceived.  Because we can perceive reality only through our own senses, and the scientific instruments and analytic techniques through which we extend the reach of our senses, there is lingering uncertainty about how distorted is our perception of reality, “as through a glass darkly.”  Even our assumptions have to change over time as we “discover” new ways of perceiving and surmising reality.  We cannot assume that our understanding of physics, or anything else for that matter, will not be just as dramatically different in another 100 years.

Goldman suggests that the object of science is not “reality” in all its metaphysical qualities but “actualities” that are related to reality in some scientifically unknowable and even unimportant way, but clearly correlated with experience – justifiable instrumentally, meaning “it works;” it explains, predicts and gives us control. Ironically, this understanding of knowledge is closer to the dominant view in Galileo’s time than to the current popular view of science as offering certainty about the nature of reality.  The Church revealed itself to be an institutional creature of its time by insisting that Galileo not treat heliocentrism as a fact but as a useful theory that could actually make astrological calculations easier to perform.  The Pope reminded his old friend Galileo that there might well be explanations for the data other than the one advanced by Copernicus and Galileo.  As long as that uncertainty lingered, it would be unwise to challenge the authority of the Bible and its legitimate interpreter, the Church, especially at a time when the Protestant challenge had become such an existential threat.  Galileo made the unwise choice.  Given the times he lived in, continued obstinacy could have led to his premature death.  Fortunately, he relented and lived on to do his most important work.

By the way, Prof. Principe says that Galileo did not mutter “and yet it [the Earth] moves” after recanting his heliocentric views before the Inquisition.

Galileo, like Kepler and Isaac Newton and many other scientists to follow, was novel in his belief that his work was offering not just a more accurate and convenient calculation methodology but an actual description of “the way the heavens go.”  He and they believed that mathematics is the language of the universe and, in the tradition of natural philosophers of the Church, that their work could reveal even the mind of God – the major motivation for the development of science within Western Christianity of the Middle Ages.  Heady stuff; remarkably arrogant as well.  However, as Prof. Goldman says, the effort was justifiable instrumentally, meaning it produced new understanding of reality that explained and predicted the phenomena of the natural world and gave humanity increasing control of these phenomena, for both good and ill, but mainly for the good in the long run.  It is no wonder the popular notion of science is that it describes reality as it really is.  Yet the uncertainty lingers; therefore, humility is the wise choice for those communicating the current scientific understanding of the universe.

René Descartes

If you have taken a basic course in philosophy, you probably have detected in this argument for uncertainty, and therefore humility, the seeds of classic Greek skepticism.  The Roman Church of Galileo’s day was skeptical about human ability to know reality, especially divine reality.  It was not in the least skeptical about the reality of the Divine Being.  The Church’s faith was in the reality of divine revelation in scripture and nature and the Church’s ability, with divine inspiration, to interpret that revelation to know the nature and will of God.  But the Reformation challenged that faith in the Roman Church’s role as final arbiter of what we know about God and God’s creation.  There were now two churches, then several, offering conflicting understandings of God’ truth and revelation.  The Reformation thus spawned an epistemological crisis, summed up by Prof. Kors as this question: “What is a criterion of truth that allows one to determine the truth or falsity of mutually exclusive claims?”  For every criterion we might offer, the question becomes “What is a criterion for a criterion of truth?”  In other words, every claim we make depends on accepting one or more assumptions that we take for granted as true.  But how do we know our assumption is itself true?  We are in an infinite regress, culminating in skepticism.

In the post-Reformation 1500s, there was a revival of classic Greek skepticism among intellectuals, whose publications were a big hit with the reading public.  Skepticism is a fun weapon for the young to use in challenging their teachers.  It is also highly corrosive of respect for the presumed authority of past as well as present writers and institutions.  It becomes particularly dangerous to society in general, and religion or even science in particular, when skepticism is taken to the ultimate conclusion that we cannot even be certain that nothing can be known with certainty.  We are left with literally nothing to hang on to, no anchor to which we can attach any logical argument.  We know nothing!  All logical discourse becomes fruitless.

Philosophy was supremely important in late Medieval Europe, much the way science is in modern times, so a philosophical response was needed – desperately.  In providing that response, the French philosopher, mathematician and scientist, René Descartes (1596-1650) became the “most influential Continental philosopher of the 17th century,” according to Prof. Kors.  He generated a series of publications in the period 1637-49, the decade after the second phase of the Galileo Affair.  He challenged both Aristotelian scholasticism and the philosophical skeptics by taking skepticism to its extreme in order to overcome it.  He sought to take us back to the most basic proposition that we can know to be true and from there to build up a logically derived understanding of reality.  Prof. Kors captures the Cartesian approach very well in his Lecture Five:

I can doubt whether two plus two equals four; I can doubt whether I’m sleeping or waking.  I can doubt whether I’m really here or not here. I could doubt whether I exist or don’t exist, that I myself could be a dream to me.  But wait a minute.  If I’m wrong, I must exist to be wrong.  If I’m right, I must exist to be right.  If I doubt, I must exist to doubt.  In short, if I think, I must exist.

Cogito ergo sum.  I think, therefore I am.

It cannot be doubted.

From this self-evident proposition, dependent on no other thing being true, Descartes built a totally logical understanding of reality, including two proofs of the existence of God (through what feels to me like philosophical gamesmanship).  He further concluded (again I quote Prof. Kors) that there are three fundamental entities that constitute reality: God, uncreated, the perfect being, who created two distinct entities.  One, immaterial, not occupying space; you can’t push it; you can’t cut it in half—mind, thought.  Two, body—which is wholly quantitative.  The essence of soul is thought; the essence of body is extension in height, width and depth.

That last point should remind you that Descartes invented the Cartesian coordinates we all know and love (x-axis, y-axis, z-axis).  Like Galileo, he proposed that the physical world is dimension, motion, and the mechanisms of matter touching and communicating force to matter.  In addition to the mind-matter duality of the universe, the powerful Cartesian inspiration for 17th century intellectuals pointed toward a new science tasked with discovering the laws, the mechanisms and the effects of matter in motion.  His philosophical system incorporated the Medieval notion (dating to Abelard of Bath in the 12th century) that material or natural phenomena must be explained by material or natural phenomena.  Theological explanations that invoke immaterial (spiritual) causes may be true, but they don’t tell us how it works in the material world, thereby giving us the ability to predict (science) and even to control through practical application (technology).

Again paraphrasing Prof. Kors, Descartes dismissed the presumptive authority of Aristotle and other ancients and invited intellectuals to begin with absolute doubt, giving human reason an absolute right to seek certainty before belief.  He asserted that our understanding of the natural world must be reconstructed from the evidence found in nature and logical induction from that evidence.  In this sense, Descartes was both a rationalist (focusing on logical deduction from self-evident, universal truths) and an empiricist (focusing on logical induction from the evidence of human experience).  However, Descartes was not nearly as much an empiricist as the next generation’s equally influential English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704).

John Locke

The differences between Descartes and Locke are extensions of the ancient debate about the “problem of knowledge” discussed by Prof. Goldman.  Locke differed from Descartes in a crucial starting assumption.  Descartes asserted that the immaterial human mind is endowed with certain innate ideas, true by virtue of being self-evident to the human mind and independent of anything else being true.  Locke asserted that the newborn human’s mind is a tabula rasa, a clean slate, on which experience, and reflection on that experience, writes ideas.  The mind combines simple units of experience and reflection to build increasingly complex ideas.

Descartes concluded that our innate ideas directly represent the real qualities of the world that are universal, necessary and certain.  By building logically outward from these innate ideas in combination with the evidence of experience, humans can develop a perfect knowledge of ultimate reality.  Not so, concluded Locke.  We can only know what we experience through our senses, and that experience is limited to the world in which we grow up and live our lives.  Our knowledge is contingent, uncertain and particular.  We can only assert that something is probably true; we cannot know something for certain. The more we experience that “something” in diverse ways and situations, the more probable will be our knowledge of it.  But we can never say for certain that the next experience of that “something” will not overturn our current understanding.  For example, a person raised in the tropics without hearing about colder climates will dismiss the possibility that a person can walk across a river without getting wet.  Yet the ultimate reality of water includes freezing solid at cold-enough temperatures.  Humans do not have the capacity to know ultimate reality with certainty, only through the distorting lens of contingent, particular experience that comes to us through our senses.

Prof. Kors focuses on intellectual history, the story of how people in particular times and places think and how they think about thinking—the general concepts and particular ideas that hold sway in their culture and therefore their mental lives.  Whether these concepts and ideas are true or even reasonable is beside the point of intellectual history.  Rather, what is historically important is that these concepts and ideas were held to be true by a great many intellectuals of the time and place.  They were enormously influential in what was taught to the next generation.  Prof. Kors contends that Locke as a philosopher of knowledge, an epistemologist, is not well regarded by philosophers and is barely taught in philosophy courses today.  But he says that Locke is enormously influential on the thinking of the late 1600s and all through the 1700s, which is why he is so important in our intellectual history.

According to Prof. Kors, Locke seems to agree with Descartes that humans are made of two different kinds of stuff: bodies (material) and minds (immaterial).  But we cannot “know” this dualism to be true; we cannot know the real qualities of the world, which underlie what we experience through our senses and through our consciousness of thinking about what we experience.  Prof. Kors, on the question of whether the distinction between body and mind is real, powerfully sums up Locke’s position this way:

But philosophy can’t answer that question.  Human knowledge can’t answer that question.  We must admit our ignorance.  … the problem is not to know what mind is—we are not made for that knowledge—but how in our experience mind behaves.  We need a psychology, not a metaphysics of mind.  The problem is not to know what matter is, but how in our experience the world behaves.  We need a physics and a set of sciences, not a metaphysics of matter.  Such knowledge is based not on logic or innate ideas but on experience, and thus it is always open to correction based on further experience … it is time for philosophy to understand the proper role of intellectual limits and humility.

Very Baconian.  Very supportive of the emerging scientific revolution.  Very appealing to the early modern mind.  Locke demystified knowledge and ideas.  Any reality-based proposition or system of thought can be broken into simpler component ideas, all grounded in experience and testable against new experience. Quoting Prof. Kors again:

[If] you are a Lockean, you have not only the right, but if you think clearly, you have the intellectual obligation to say, “How do you know that?  What experiences support and confirm your view?  What in experience allows one to make that claim about the world?”

Prof. Kors points out the dramatic social implications of Locke’s empiricism.  Our knowledge, including our ethics, is of our experience, of our environment.  Changing that environment, therefore, would change the kind of people we are – our beliefs, our values, our very character.  Think what a radical departure this was from the Aristotelian notion that every human being has a fixed essence or character, determining a fate that can only be played out to the inevitable end.  In the Lockean culture of the 1700s, a whole new storyline emerged for biographies, plays and novels focused on how people became who they are, due to the time, place and circumstances of their childhood and later character development.  This perspective was transformative of the way the early moderns thought about human beings, their education, their society and the possibility of social reform.

There is another profound implication – moral relativism.  If our beliefs, values and character are derived from our experience and our reflections on that experience, then our very notions of what is good and what is evil must vary dramatically from culture to culture, even person to person, in response to different social and physical environments in which people grow to maturity.  Today, we might take this for granted.  But the early moderns were still steeped in a religious worldview; no matter their alienation from institutional religion, almost no intellectuals could accept the radical materialist conclusions of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), a contemporary of Galileo and Descartes.

Hobbes had a strongly negative influence on the thinking of 17th and 18th centuries.  Intellectuals were determined to refute Hobbes as an atheist, a rather rare and dangerous accusation at the time (the last British execution for heresy was much later, in 1697 in Presbyterian Scotland), but as the former tutor to King Charles II, Hobbes was protected.  He started with the same empiricist position as John Locke did decades later, asserting we can know only what we perceive through our senses; only material things can impact our senses, so we can only know the material world.  But Hobbes went further by asserting that any knowledge claims based on immaterial things or causes are very literally “nonsense,” not from the senses.  Not that the immaterial is impossible, but to advance the improvement of the human condition (a goal almost new in the 17th century – remember Bacon’s new purpose for natural philosophy), our philosophy must be constructed as though the immaterial does not exist.  Philosophy must serve our need in this material world for real knowledge of real causes, so it cannot contain any “nonsense,” which would exclude God.

Like Galileo and Descartes, Hobbes believed that the material world is composed of measurable matter in measurable motion conforming to fixed quantitative rules.  Like many contemporaries and later natural philosophers, Hobbes conceived of the material world as mechanistic, but he extended this include to humans.  Quoting Prof. Kors again:

That governing mechanism in human beings, for Hobbes, is pleasure and pain.  That is the mechanism; ego psychology, pleasure, and pain are the cause of human actions.  All organisms seek pleasure and flee pain.  With that mechanism understood, all of human behavior falls into place.  … Hobbes reaches categorically relativistic conclusions about human ethics.  All that we mean by “good” is that which we believe will lead to our happiness.  All that we mean by “evil” is that which we believe will lead to our suffering and pain.  Thus, for Hobbes, there is no goodness or evil in and of themselves, there is only good and evil in relationship to the human condition and the contribution of something to human happiness or human suffering.  … The century hears those arguments and recoils.

Thus, the empiricism of John Locke skated alarmingly close to Thomas Hobbes when asserting that humans acquire all their ideas through experience and reflection on that experience.  That means all ideas of good and evil are also acquired ultimately from experience.  Experiences that lead to our well-being define what we call “good” and, conversely, what we call “evil.”  However, Locke remained committed to the reality of divine providence; God so designed the world that the experiences we have of happiness and pain cause us to define good and evil as they should be in divine sight.  This notion of providential design nudging us in the right direction, without God’s direct, real-time intervention, will become a major theme of the 18th century.  But Prof. Kors says Locke bequeathed us a dramatic question:

How does one demonstrate the truth of religion, if all of our knowledge is probabilistic and acquired by experience?

Ever the empiricist, Locke argued that Christianity is indeed reasonable, because we have the empirical evidence provided by unimpeachable witnesses, the Apostles and others.  They were unimpeachable, because they were willing to endure imprisonment, torture and death as the price of attesting to the truth of what they claimed to have seen.  You can’t ask for more credible witnesses than that!  Therefore, it is reasonable to believe the content of Scripture when it is rationally and reasonably read and understood.  Nonetheless, this empirical defense of Christianity in particular, and religion in general, encouraged some remarkable 18th century minds to question more skeptically whether the miracles really occurred and the prophesies were actually fulfilled.

Isaac Newton

Even as John Locke was writing, another Englishman, a brilliant but still obscure mathematician named Isaac Newton (1643-1727), was sitting for nearly two decades on a manuscript he wrote as a young man in 1666-68 while sheltering at his father’s estate from a plague epidemic that had struck Cambridge University and other urban areas.  During this remarkably fruitful 18 months, Newton had worked out the foundations of the calculus (independently of the co-founder Leibnitz in Germany), he derived the inverse square law for the theory of gravity, he derived the laws of motion and of planetary motion, and he developed the modern theory of light.

In 1684, the great astronomer Sir Edmund Halley (as in Halley’s Comet), in league with the equally great Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, was seeking a mathematical proof  that the inverse square law would account for Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion and be consistent with the laws of motion in general.  Failing to come up with their own proof, they agreed that Halley should consult with Newton, because of his reputation as one of the finest mathematical minds in England.

Prof. Kors reports that Halley asked Newton: “What would be the curve produced in a satellite if there were a force that diminished according to the square of the distance between two bodies?”  Halley was probably expecting a collegial exploration of the possible answers and how they might be derived mathematically.  Instead, Newton already knew the answer: an ellipse.  Halley was stunned that Newton had worked it out years before!  To account for his silence on the matter, Newton admitted that his calculation did not correspond to the actual center of the earth.  He managed to find the old manuscript in a drawer.  Halley read it and immediately saw the error in Newton’s distance to the center of the earth (Newton did not have access to the correct number when he was working at his father’s house).  Once corrected, the whole solar system fell into place.  He could see that Newton had confirmed Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and “had the mathematical proof of the nature and system and forces of the world,” as Prof. Kors put it.

Halley urged and funded Newton to integrate his findings into a coherent work and publish.  It appeared in 1687 as The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (it was actually in Latin and became known as the Principia)Brilliant as this work was, it benefited from its reception by an intellectual community already eager for a systematic, quantitative and mechanistic explanation of how the world and the universe operate.  In the prior half century, self-styled followers of Bacon and the “new philosophy” were already meeting informally outside the universities still dominated by Aristotelian scholasticism.  They shared observations of the natural world and discussed their meaning and implications for general theory.  One of these groups gained royal patronage and became the Royal Society in 1662.  Bacon had offered them inductive method, and Descartes and Galileo had offered them quantitative concepts and tools; they were inspired to seek general laws that explain their observations of the natural world.  Newton’s Principia offered them general laws that seemed to apply universally, describing mechanisms governed by mathematical formulae.  It was a magnificent validation of their Baconian hope for a grand, unifying physics, built up – induced – from observations of heavenly bodies and mundane matter in motion.  The human mind was enabled by work of the human mind to comprehend the universe.  To quote Prof. Kors:

[The Principia] changed a culture and a culture’s way of understanding the world and a culture’s sense of the relationship of the human mind to nature.

The first modern generation was predisposed to find what it needed in Newton’s work.  Ironically, very few could actually understand Newton’s work, but enough were able to both understand and popularize Newton that the Principia became a touchstone for the early moderns, an affirmation of their Baconian optimism in human capacity to understand nature.  The predictions that followed from the Principia were true.  Think how exhilarating that must have been!  They went further still, to claim for humanity the capacity to understand nature’s God.  Like many others, Newton believed that mathematics was the language of the universe.  By using Baconian method to decode that language and reveal the universal laws written in that language, the human mind is capable of understanding God’s design for nature, the very will and wisdom of God made manifest in the natural world.  No wonder that Sir Isaac Newton is buried with royalty in Westminster Abbey.  Alexander Pope wrote his epitaph: Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night.  God said ‘Let Newton be,’ and all was light.

Blaise Pascal and Pierre Bayle

The enthusiasm for Newton and his work was overwhelming.  But there were dissenting voices.  Indeed, dissenters were distinguished and articulate and well known to the reading public.  First were the Cartesians, who could not accept that gravity is a force that affects objects without touching them, like the occult forces of Aristotelian scholastic physics they had worked so hard to banish.  Descartes had asserted that matter has to be in contact with matter for the two to affect one another.  While Newton could not guess the true nature of this gravitational force, he asserted that observation and mathematics show that it must be real, whatever it is.  Some were not satisfied.

Second, two Frenchmen, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) on the Roman Catholic side and Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) on the Calvinist side, both asserted the fideist (as in fides—faith) view that the human mind by reason alone is incapable of knowing God or the true nature of reality; only a mind inspired by faith through the grace of God can know the divine, and it cannot be a rational understanding.  They urged humility in knowledge claims about nature and especially about the will or design of God.  Notice how this call for humility in knowledge claims is similar to John Locke’s view that we can “know” only that which we can sense—the material world—and even foreshadows the current resolution of the “knowledge problem” put forward by Prof. Goldman!  Yet this view was very much against the grain of the first modern generation at the advent of the Age of Reason.

We should not think of this dissenting view as the religious position vs. the scientific position.  Religious thinkers were pioneers of the Age of Reason.  It is more the Augustinian position (from St. Augustine) vs. the Thomist position (from St. Thomas Aquinas); the original Protestants, specifically Luther and Calvin, were intellectual heirs of St. Augustine’s mysterious theology of grace, while the Roman Catholic Church, in its Counter-Reformation, had embraced the rational theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.  The latter views faith as the partner of reason—our faith can be justified by rational argument from first principles (accepted on faith) via logic to conclusions confirmed by experience and Scripture—we can develop philosophical proofs of the rational validity of our faith.  However, both the rationalist and fideist views were found in both Catholicism and the dominant Protestant denominations.  The fideists like Pascal and Bayle were reacting to the ascendance of rational theology in their time, which ascendance was very much encouraged by and encouraging to the scientific revolution in natural philosophy.

Pascal’s story is fascinating.  He was one of the leading figures of the scientific revolution of the 1600s.  Here is Prof. Kors’s summary of his contributions:

He was a child prodigy in mathematics.  He did groundbreaking work on conic sections and cycloid curves.  He is an essential figure in the history of barometrics, fluid dynamics, pneumatics, and the mathematical calculus of probability.  … Pascal even devised a calculating device, based on a binary system of zeros and ones, to make calculations, which is why one of the premier programming languages in the computer age is named in his honor, “Pascal.”

The fact that Pascal … was so deeply involved in the kind of knowledge that could be acquired by inductive empiricism, quantification, and mathematical reasoning lent particular force to his turn toward fideistic philosophy and theology.  Pascal … essentially abandoned his extraordinary scientific career after his encounter with a movement within European Catholicism that is known as Jansenism, named after a Dutch bishop, Jansen, who had written a book on the theology of St. Augustine.  Pascal … became one of the great religious apologists [defenders of the faith] of Jansenism, Catholicism and Christianity.

For Pascal, there could be no rational proof of God.  Given his understanding of probability, which made him a popular figure in his gambling-crazy society, Pascal posed the question of God’s existence as a wager each of us must make—either there is or there is not God.  What is the potential gain or loss you could expect from each of the two bets?  If you bet there is no God, and you are right, then you gain absolutely nothing.  If you are wrong, according to the believer Pascal, you lose infinitely everything.  On the other hand, if you bet there is God, and you are right, then you gain infinitely everything.  And if you are wrong, you lose absolutely nothing.  What rational human being would not see the merit in believing in God?

Notice two very interesting implications of Pascal’s Wager.  First, it is thoroughly modern in its appeal to the rational and secular mind.  It is not a theological or even philosophical argument.  It is consistent with the modern understanding that such a question cannot be answered with direct evidence of God (miracles, witnesses, etc.) or with a test of any theoretical prediction emanating from the existence of God.  Second, the wager is directed to those who might doubt the existence of God, which is a modern doubt, not a medieval one.  The medievals argued over doctrinal differences arising from different understandings of the nature and will of God, not over whether or not God exists.  Atheism was very rare among intellectuals before Thomas Hobbes.  It remained quite rare for generations after, but atheism became prominent enough to worry religious intellectuals into more and more attempts to refute it.

Pierre Bayle is an ironic figure in intellectual history.  For about 150 years, his books were more commonly found in private libraries than any other; he was an intellectual superstar, yet he is virtually unknown today.  Even more ironic and more important is the impact of Bayle on those who owned his books, especially in the 1700s.  Pierre Bayle was at the intellectual center of the French Huguenot community in exile in Holland in the late 1600s, following the royal revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which reversed the long period of tolerance of the Calvinist Huguenots in France.  Much like the Jansenist role in Catholicism, Bayle was outspoken in criticism of his co-religionists, pushing his criticisms and arguments often to the point of seeming irreligious.  He sought to humble reason as the path to knowing God, more or less the same fideist argument against rational, philosophical theology as Pascal made – the  human inability to know God’s nature and will except through faith.  Bayle was particularly incensed by the intolerance of his age, of which he had very direct, cruel experience as a Huguenot in France.  He ascribed religious intolerance to an arrogant confidence in one’s religious belief that could justify killing others with contrary beliefs, even in God’s name (the most heinous of sins).  Such arrogance comes, Bayle argued, from overextension of human claims derived from intellectual theology that abandons simple, tolerant faith.  Bayle values not only faith but humility.

Bayle ruled out reason applied to study of the natural, material world as a way to know that which surpasses all human understanding, God.  His readers were supposed to understand that Bayle was not posing a contradiction of religion and natural philosophy (science) in the quest to understand the material world.  He was criticizing those who sought to apply their rational, philosophical method of understanding the material world to the task of understanding the immaterial, spiritual world, to knowing God.  But many 18th century readers hailed a different (and erroneous) message they took from Bayle—that religion is in conflict with reason and, therefore, with science.  His assertion of the primacy of faith over reason was misunderstood.  Because he had been so hard on his fellow Calvinists, Bayle was ironically hailed by the French Enlightenment as an unbeliever, a religious skeptic, an intellectual father of the Enlightenment.  They saw what they wanted to see.

On the Cusp between Medieval and Modern

Both Pascal and Bayle were swimming against the very strong intellectual currents of the Age of Reason, the Scientific Revolution and the dawn of the Enlightenment.  Their calls for intellectual humility and prudence were swept away by the enthusiasm for natural theology, which proposed that God is revealed by the creation we can observe with our senses and reflect upon with our rational minds.

The cusp generation, the first modern generation, was both excited and unsettled by what they were so avidly reading about the discoveries in the world beyond Europe and in the new understanding of how the world works around them.  They learned of the accomplishments of the “new method of knowledge,” as Prof. Kors calls it:

… the generation from 1685-1715 increasingly associates the awesome accomplishments of 17th-century natural philosophy—science—with induction from nature, ordered by reason into laws as general and as universal as possible, confirmed by rigorous experiment and experience and wherever possible put the use and the benefit of humankind.

This was the New Philosophy that overturned the presumptive authority of the past in favor of learning from experience, through methodical use of the human mind to acquire new knowledge.  There was a sense that the relationship of humans to nature had been altered in our favor.  There was also a sense of optimism about the limitless possibilities that this new vision and method opened up to humanity.  Fideism and skepticism were about to be swept away by the new confidence in natural philosophy.  Confidence in the power of the human mind properly applied led to great optimism and more than a little arrogance about our ability to know enough about nature, and even God’s will, to reshape nature and society for the better.

Enter the ambitious project of the 1700s and beyond – the Enlightenment.              


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Welcome to DarwinWatch

This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!

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