History of England

Lecture: Science and Enlightenment


Lecture Outline


Natural Philosophy

To discuss science, I want to go way back in human history to the first shamans. In ancient (even pre-historic) times, shamans were the scientists of human communities. Their observations of natural phenomena led them to create theories and be able to predict events. Often these theories and events were explained by supernatural forces, and gods were a manifestation of such forces. But although the infrastructure of this thought process was religious, the activities engaged in by shamans (observing data and creating hypotheses) were by their nature scientific.

In Greek times, and continuing from the 5th century BC in Athens to the decline of the western Roman Empire in AD 5th century, science took on a more rationalistic bent. The ancient Greeks separated natural phenomena from the supernatural, examining the universe using reason. Their own philosophies justified this focus. In much Greek philosophy, there was a dualistic battle between passion and reason. Reason was ultimately presumed more important, and the Greeks prided themselves on objectivity in examining the physical world.

In medieval times, observation of the world was in many ways guided by the spiritual values inherent in the Roman Church. The Bible, or its interpretations by scholastics, was the basis of interpreting the universe. The works of Greek philosopher Aristotle provided a structure for knowledge and, as you have seen, created another conflict, this time of faith versus reason. "Natural philosophers" (scientists) continued to use reason in their examinations, but many were also people of faith. What's Up, Tiger Lily? Dutch translation of "The New Herbal" (1550) including squashes and melons

The 16th and 17th centuries brought a change in thinking which created "modern" science. There were many reasons for this. One may have been the Protestant Reformation. Although many Protestants were dependent on the Bible for truth in all things, Protestantism depends on reading and interpreting the Bible for oneself. I can't say that there would be more Protestant scientists than Catholic, but the issues raised by Protestantism (such as who is the final authority on truth) may well have encouraged science. Another reason for the change was surely the information from the Americas. Since Columbus' journeys across the Atlantic in the 1490s, Europeans had learned that the natural world was far more complex than they had thought. Exotic plants and animals from the New World, and reports of the kinds of people who lived there, inspired curiosity and scientific study, especially in botany. The confidence of the Renaissance also must have played a role, a new confidence which emphasized not only the revival of classical values and knowledge but also the ability of humans to understand and control their world.

Paradigm Shift: Barbara Shapiro's Theory

In 1983, historian of science Barbara Shapiro published her theories about the shift to modern science, and why they solidified in the 17th century. I relay these theories to you because they help explain not only the rise of scientific method, but also the ways in which new scientific thinking could impact all areas of life.

One key to understanding Shapiro's theory is to understand how knowledge was divided before the shift to science. Prior to the "paradigm shift", the subjects of experience (rhetoric, daily life, and theology) were seen as related to each other but unrelated to subjects of thought (science, certainty, and philosophy). New theories of knowledge, new modes of discussion, and new experimental methods emerged which made possible a combining of experience/experimentation and mathematics/certainty. The combination led to modern science. Shapiro uses five areas of life to demonstrate:

  1. Science. Sir Francis BaconIn science itself, empiricism (knowledge obtained through the senses, such as observing) became the rage. small bookFrancis Bacon promoted empiricism through inductive reasoning. First you gather all your data, then you create a hypothesis. So if you were a botanist, first you would observe, touch, smell, etc. all the plants you could. You would list and draw them. Then you would categorize, theorizing, for example, which plants were related to which other plants. In this way you might create a hypothesis that melons, say, are related to squash.  Click here to open document in new window

    The acceptance of empiricism in England put this nation ahead of other countries, where mathematics was considered the only true (i.e. objective or certain) way of knowing things. On the Continent, certainty was the goal of science, and empiricism was seen as sloppy. But in England, empiricism made science less elitist. In a sense, anyone with a butterfly net could become an entymologist in England. This led to more imaginative experiments and wilder hypotheses. The English Scientific Revolution was very creative.
  2. Religion. The conflict between faith and reason got revisited with the Reformations. As in medieval times, it became necessary to argue people into religion, and this time the religion was Anglicanism. Theologians were forced to speculate about the nature of reason and proof. Protestants had to "prove" that things had a scriptural basis, that they were written in the Bible. A good example of the rational arguing about religion would be the "latitudinarians", who emerged in England around 1650. They were a group of Anglican clergy and interested laymen, who emphasized morality and ethics as the foundation of religion. They distinguished between the fundamentals of religion (living a good and repentant life) and the non-fundamentals (ceremony, vestments, special prayers, doctrine). They argued that the fundamentals were based on truth, while the non-fundamentals were based on opinion and passion, which led to contention. The English Civil War (which had ended the year before) was a good example of the kind of thing that a difference in religious opinion could lead to. By rationally arguing religious disputes, these Anglicans and others applied science to faith.
  3. History. In the writing of history, there was a concern for rational arguments, backed up by evidence. For centuries, history had been written to teach moral lessons. Even the objective reporting of ancient Greek and Roman historians had been with a purpose. For example, Herodotus wrote about the customs of the Persians, in order to compare them with Greece and point up areas where the Greeks could do better or in which they could pride themselves. Tacitus reported the immorality and cruelty of the Roman Julio-Claudian emperors, in an effort to warn the Empire that it would crumble if lessons of the past were forgotten. Even in medieval times, the writing of history was seen as a literary pursuit, unrelated to objectivity. But in the 16th and 17th century the idea emerged that history should strive to be objective, and historians should be sure their premises were backed by evidence. Proving historical facts became the norm. Later, in the 18th century, literary merit as an aspect of historical writing will be revived, but history has retained ever since the goal of scientific objectivity.
  4. Law. Here too there was an increasing concern for solid evidence, and the reliability of witnesses. There was also a desire to make sure that judges were impartial and objective. In fact, there was confusion about the role of the judge in the courtroom. Was he supposed to comment on the evidence and testimony? Some said yes and some no, both sides claiming that they wanted the judge to be impartial. But all assumed that the evidence had to be evaluated, and that is scientific. Each fact, each piece of testimony, was not to be given equal weight. Witches of Chelmsford
  5. Witchcraft. Witchcraft was not just a supernatural phenomenon, it was a crime (a statutory crime as of 1542). It was subject to the courts, and thus to rules of evidence. Belief in witchcraft was not the issue. Belief involved many social aspects, such as belief in the Devil, understanding explanations of the physical world, understanding the nature of matter, and proving supernatural activity. On the Continent, where witches were persecuted during the 16th and 17th century, the crime was religious; witchcraft was heresy and was often tried in religious courts. In England, the emphasis was on harm rather than heresy. It had to be proven that the accused "witch" had caused harm, as you can see in the small bookWitches of Huntington document assigned for the Elizabethan era. In 1604 a tough law was passed. It provided for the death penalty for witches, but it also provided that a compact with the Devil had to be proved for a conviction. Evidence that could prove a compact with the Devil included the use of a familiar (like a cat), certain marks on the body (like a third nipple for suckling demons), and confession. But each of these can be easily argued: That's not a familiar; it's the family pet. Those marks have natural causes. That confession was the result of torture. So strong belief in witchcraft did not mean that shoddy evidence was OK. King James I, for example, was a big believer in witchcraft (the witches in Shakespeare's MacBeth are there for James). But he stopped a witchcraft trial once because there was inadequate evidence, and he warned the justices to be careful. There were numerous treatises on identifying a witch, all of them emphasizing the quality of evidence.

By the end of the 17th century, witch trials were on their way out. The new scientific view of the mechanical universe left little room for spirits. The view of early 18th century intellectual Joseph Addison says it all: "I believe in general that there is...such a thing as Witchcraft; but at the same time, can give no Credit to any particular Instance of it." Modern science was here to stay.

Science vs Technology

It's important at this point to make some sort of distinction between science and technology. As we use the word today, "science" means using the "scientific method", which combines empiricism/experimentation with rationalism/deduction. It is possible to use information gained from this method to create machines. But machines of all kinds were created long before there was a scientific method. Harington's Privy

Humans have always used technology. Any tool, such as a bone for clobbering an animal over the head, is technology. So are irrigation ditches, pyramids, cloth, etc. The major example of technology we've dealt with in this course is the medieval fulling mill. The mill was made with some "science" (study in velocity, for example) and lots of trial, error, and skill. Most craftspeople were not scientists, and some inventors weren't even craftspeople. In 1596, Sir John Harington published New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax (Ajax was slang for jakes, which meant privy...you know...necessary house, outhouse...) showing his invention: the water closet. Many inventions were simply practical, trying to solve a particular problem. So in addition to the acceptance of empiricism, the practical bent of technology was another reason that England became less elitist in its brand of science. The Royal Society, founded by Charles II in 1662, admitted craftspeople and empiricists as well as theoretical scientists. This was unusual; most scientific societies on the Continent admitted only university-trained scientists. But in England, someone like Josiah Wedgewood could get in. He was a genius with ceramic materials, and the Society accepted him even though he wasn't formally trained in science.

This is not to say that England's inventiveness created a better standard of living in the 16th or even 17th centuries. Although Harington's WC was popular among elites, it wasn't until Thomas Crapper's (yes, really) reinvention of it in the 19th century that the toilet became commonplace. But by the 18th century, the middle class was on the rise, providing a market for ingenious inventions. And industrialization was occurring through the adoption of various labor-saving machinery, very little of which was created by people with scientific training.

The English Scientific Revolution

Robert Boyle

It is fitting that the English geniuses of science, should create systems which combined the verve of empiricism with rationalism. In many ways, the English Scientific Revolution begins with Sir Francis Bacon, who, as noted above, popularized inductive reasoning and empiricism. Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, was also a philosopher who refined the process of experiment. Professor of geometry Robert Hooke constructed his own microscope, and published drawings of what he viewed. Sir Isaac Newton, working on the motion of planetary bodies, began with mathematics, then used experimentation to prove he was right. In his spare time, he invented differential and integral calculus, and the theory of universal gravity. Sir Isaac Newton

Newton's most important contribution was not any particular scientific theory, but rather the development of a new cosmology, presented in his small bookPrincipia. The Newtonian universe behaved in an orderly fashion which could be studied and understood, and science was the tool in that understanding. The universe was knowable, once the rules were learned. Newton had shown that one could take any area of the physical world, and discover the rules by which it operated. To some, like small bookAlexander Pope, this expanded the holy view of nature.

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Enlightenment Applications of Science

In simple terms, the Enlightenment was the application of scientific rationality to other areas of life. The movement itself began in France with the philosophes. Voltaire, for example, used reason to undermine religious hypocrisy, and also helped publish the Encyclopedia. This multi-volume work had numerous pictures of machinery, and was a testament to the human ability to control nature. It was supposed to be a compilation of all human knowledge. Because it did not have an entry for "God", or any other "unknowable" subjects, it was banned by the Catholic church.

But even before Voltaire, the English were applying scientific rationalism to politics. This would be natural in the 17th century, the era of the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. John Locke, who you'll recall justified the Glorious Revolution in his Second Treatise on Government (1688) is a good example. His "state of nature" argument rests on the idea that the rights of man are "natural" (based on the objective observation of nature), as is the rational rule over human beings. These principles, as you know, carried into the 18th century with Thomas Jefferson.

Scottish philosopher small bookDavid Hume would use the enlightened approach to discuss miracles, and whether or not they could be proved. Ideas like this caused some religious people to claim that science and philosophy led to atheism. But most natural philosophers were not atheists. They were "Deists" who believed that God had created a wonderful, clockwork universe which functions on its own and which humans can discover and analyze.

Social systems were also subject to scientific thought. The idea emerged that society itself could be considered a natural system, and therefore subject to natural law. Science could be applied to solve social problems, such as poverty and disease. By the 19th century, this will be an assumption on which many social programs will be based.

Lastly, science would be connected to the emerging British Empire. The plants and animals brought back from the Americas, and eventually India and the tropics, would be subject to study. Kew Gardens was established in the 18th century, with the purpose of trying to grow exotic plants in England's harsh climate. The idea of zoological gardens also emerged in the 18th century, for the study and breeding of animals from other climates.

Of further interest...

See the site for Anne Finch, Viscountess Conway, philosopher. Her life story ties together 17th century philosophy, women, medicine, and much more.


Check your Knowledge

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1. Which of the following likely did NOT play a role in the scientific advancements of this era?
a) new plants and animals from America
b) a confidence born in the Renaissance
c) issues raised by Protestant critiques
d) discoveries made by religous mystics

2. The Royal Society was unusual because it:
a) was patronized by a monarch
b) admitted craftsmen as well as academic scientists
c) refused to accept the concept of controlled experiments
d) presided over witch trials

3. According to Barbara Shapiro, what made the science of the 16th and 17th centuries revolutionary was:
a) the combination of rational and empirical knowledge
b) the discovery of the solar system
c) Newton's synthesis of knowledge
d) the primacy of law

4. Hume's views on miracles supported the trends of science because he believed that:
a) miracles required scientific proof
b) miracles were created by God and thus not subject to human judgement
c) evidence is not necessary to prove a miracle
d) only those things that happen infrequently are miracles

5. The Encyclopedia was an Enlightenment work because:
a) it taught people how to build things
b) it relied on religion to support its main points
c) it featured reason and things that could be proven
d) it had French authors

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