FREEDOM FOR SCIENTIFIC INVESTIGATION is by no means the same thing as freedom for artistic, philosophical, political, or moral experimentation. No doubt scientists need some kinds of freedom, but most of all they need freedom from the dead weight of custom and authority in their own fields.

When a scientist announces a discovery that upsets widely and deeply held beliefs, it is not surprising that he meets resistance and has to struggle to be heard. The interesting part about the record in Western society is that he does get heard, that the censorship that would shut him up is an ineffective and sloppy censorship, that somehow or other such censorship seems rather a stimulus than a hindrance. Even in the most famous case of scientific martyrdom, that of Galileo,     the censorship did ultimately no more than dramatize Galileo’s work. This Italian scientist himself built on the work of still earlier scientists, going back indeed to the late Middle Ages, but especially on that of the Polish astronomer Copernicus. The issue is familiar to all. Galileo’s newly invented telescope enabled him to register additional facts, such as the existence of satellites of Jupiter, suggesting a model for the solar system, and the existence of dark spots on the surface of the sun which by their apparent foreshortening seemed to indicate that the sun was revolving.

 These and many other observations bolstered up the Copernican (and, as we have seen, Aristarchian) theory that the earth revolves in an orbit around a sun that is also revolving. Christian belief had thoroughly committed itself to the other theory, that the earth is stationary and that the sun revolves around it . Sentiments of great strength held many intelligent men to the belief that our planet, the place of Christ’s sacrifice, must be the center of all things. The interests against Galileo were in fact a coalition, and by no means a united Catholic Church that simply refused to help cultivate astronomy. One of the strongest interests against him was a group of Jesuits whom he had offended by seeming to neglect prior Jesuit investigations. In fact, the coalition against Galileo is a fascinating mixture of old and new, of great academic rivalry (no new thing, surely), of vested interests, of plain neophobia, perhaps even of a kind of metaphysical anxiety, for the prospect of an infinity , or at least a plurality, of worlds opened up by the telescope horrified many. Ul timately Galileo was brought to trial before the Inquisition and chose to recant rather than be judged guilty. But nothing could undo and unprint Galileo’s writings, and no power in seventeenth-century Europe was strong enough to suppress such ideas as Galileo had set circulating. The triumph of the heliocentric theory was assured.

The man who came closest to systematizing in general terms what this new “natural philosophy” was about was the Englishman Francis Bacon, later Lord Verulam. Bacon has had a had press. He was not a good man, not a kindly man. He was ambitious for power and wealth; his political career, which culminated in the Lord Chancellorship, was marked by time-serving and lack of scruple; he was finally impeached. Later scientists have rarely been able to pardon him for being such a bad scientist, such a poor practitioncr of what he preached. Yet he was a good, if almost posthumous, child of the humanist Renaissance, immensely learned, very versatile, energetic, eager to push forward in all directions. His admirers in later generations have even advanced one of the most remarkable ideas in all intellectual history, the notion that Bacon wrote the works commonly attributed to Shakespeare.

Bacon planned, and in part carried out, a great work called the Instauratio Magna or Novum Organ urn (1620), one of the last of the great seminal works of our culture to be written in Latin. Many of his ideas, however, come out as well in the English Advancement of Learning of 1605. It would be misleading to say that this great opus was planned as a sort of counter-sum ma against Aristotle and the Schoolmen. It was rather an ambitious classification of and program for the new scientific studies by which Bacon hoped that men would secure new mastery over their environment. It is full of attacks on Aristotle and his medieval disciples, on deductive reasoning, full of appeals to go to the evidences of sense perception, to appeal to facts, to employ induction. Here are some of the key passages from the Instauratio Magna:

The subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding; so that all those specious meditations, speculations, and glosses in which men indulge are quite from the purpose, only there is no one by to observe it.

The syllogism is not applied to the first principles of sciences, and is applied in vain to intermediate axioms; being no match for the subtlety of nature. It commands assent therefore to the proposition but does not take hold of the thing.

The syllogism consists of propositions, propositions consist of words, words are symbols of notions. Therefore if the notions themselves (which is the root of the matter) are confused and over-hastily abstracted from the facts, there can be no firmness in the superstructure. Our only hope therefore lies in a true induction.

There is no soundness in our notions whether logical or physical. Substance, Quality, Action, Passion, Essence itself, are not sound notions: much less are Heavy, Light, Dense, Rare, Moist, Dry, Generation, Corruption, Attraction, Repulsion, Element, Matter, Form, and the like; but all are fantastical and ill defined.

There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses 4.and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immovable, proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of middle axioms. And this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried.

Historians of philosophy and of science have written a great deal about Bacon’s idea of induction. Perhaps he has, from our point of view, a naive notion of induction, a belief that if the scientist will only observe enough facts he will somehow find these facts arranging themselves in an order that will be true knowledge . Certainly in polemic against the Schoolmen he often seems to imply that the process we call thinking has no part in the work of the scientist; but this is surely because he identifies the syllogism, which he scorns, with mental activity pure and simple. A close reading of Bacon should convince a fair critic that, although he by no means understood even as well as we do (and that isn’t very well) what goes on in the mind of the great creative scientist, he did not really hold that the scientist merely hunts out and records facts. Far from it. What has misled critics of Bacon is at bottom what ties him to the Schoolmen he so bitterly fought, and to the generation of Renaissance humanists to which he belongs. Bacon was out after answers to the Big Questions; he thought he had found a way to certainty, and therefore to agreement, in those matters men had so long been debating without achieving agreement. As we shall see, the modern scientist does not aim at theories that will be absolutely, unchangingly true . Bacon does so aim. He is by temperament a nominalist in almost the medieval sense; he starts with the reality of the “objects” he apprehends with his senses. But he is hunting for a way to get at the kind of permanent form amid the flux of sense knowledge the medieval realist declares he knows offhand, just by thinking or believing. Bacon, to oversimplify greatly, wants to start with nominalist notions and end up with realist ones.

He will achieve that by a long patient series of observations and recordings in which gradually--—to use scholastic terms that would have infuriated Bacon himself —the substance emerges out of the accidents, the permanent out of the fleeting. Bacon himself, in spite of his dislike for the old terms of philosophy, finds himself forced to use the word form. Here is a passage of major importance:

For since the Form of a thing is the very thing itself, and the thing differs from the form no otherwise than as the apparent differs from the real, or the external from the internal, or the thing in reference to man from the thing in reference to the universe; it necessarily follows that no nature can be taken as the true form, unless it always decrease when the nature in question decreases, and in like manner always increase when the nature in question increases.

To attempt to go much further would be to trespass on the fields of the professional philosopher. It may be that Bacon was no more than foreshadowing in terms like apparent and real what Locke was to call secondary and primary qualities — that is, for example, color, a secondary quality about which our sense impressions differ, and mass, a primary quality objectively measurable by scientific methods. Bacon’s forms are perhaps no more than what later scientists meant by laws or uniformities; but for Bacon these forms are ultimately knowable, are in fact absolutes.

The role of the separate sciences now begins to be so crowded with names and discoveries that the historian of science needs at least as much space as the conventional historian of politics and war used to take up. We can here but summarize briefly. Mathematics continued the progress it had made since the high Middle Ages and reached a point at which it was able to cope with the new problems the astronomers and physicists were presenting. Decimals, no more than a device, but like zero an indispensable device, were invented by the Fleming Simon Stevin in the late sixteenth century. The Scottish mathematician John Napier invented logarithms at about the same time, and in the next century Descartes, about whom we shall hear more, developed the useful device now known as the Cartesian coordinates from which stemmed those graphs which even the man in the street now understands. Pascal, chiefly known to us as a man of letters, made important advances in geometry and in the theory of probability.

In astronomy there is a famous sequence—Copernicus, Tycho, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo—out of which the heliocentric conception of our own solar system emerged clearly, together with the beginnings of knowledge of the great universe outside our planetary system. We have already noted how Galileo’s summing up and confirmation of all this brought about his trial—and good publicity for his ideas. Taken together with the work of Kepler, that of Galileo set up the conception of a universe that ran in accordance with mathematical laws, but that definitely moved, unlike the fixed and unchanging heavens of Aristotelian tradition. Kepler’s first law, for instance, noted that the planets do not move around the sun in perfect circles (if they had moved in Aristotelian tradition, they would, of course, have moved in very perfect circles, and no one would have made the fine observations and complicated calculations necessary to prove that they did not so move) but that they do move in ellipses of which the sun is one of the foci. The Greeks knew the ellipse from the study of conic seclions, but they had never applied it to an attempt to ascertain any “law of nature.” Kepler was a German Protestant, full of visions and enthusiasms. He seems to have taken astrology seriously, as did all but the most skeptical, or the most Christian, of his time . In his younger days he worked out an elaborate scheme, the Mysterium Cosmograpliicum, which attempts to discern mathe-matical relations among the planets and the sun such that they confirm a long- standing and purely abstract sequence of relations worked out long long ago by the Pythagoreans of early Greece—the five perfect o r “Platonic” bodies, pyramid, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, icosahedron. But when Kepler found he had made a mistake in his data—he had wrongly estimated the distance of some of the planets from the sun—he gave up his theory. Perhaps we can get no better capsule summary of the significance of scientific method than this. Kepler was looking for a cosmology, a set of truths about the real nature of the universe, just as Plato or Aquinas had looked; but, since he had been trained as a scientist, a corrected observation—a measurement—made it necessary for him to scrap his system and start all over again. Factual data do not so obviously get in the way of the philosopher.

Physics, and especially two of its branches, mechanics and optics, came fully into its own in these centuries. Here too Galileo is of real great importance. His experiment with falling objects from the leaning tower of Pisa is one of the most familiar in the history of science. Aristotle had said that bodies fall with velocities proportional to their weights, a heavy body falling faster than a lighter one. Galileo let two such weights fall from the leaning tower of Pisa, and noted that they did not behave as Aristotle said they should. From these observations by much more elaborate experiments and mathematics he developed our modern notions of acceleration and of compounded motion. Again, the Aristotelian notion is that of something “perfect”— circles instead of ellipses, straightforward motion determined by the nature of what is moving; the modern scientific notion is much more complex, takes more complicated mathematics to express, and must be constantly checked against observation to see if the motions it postulates (or predicts) really do take place.

Another Italian, Torricelli, invented the barometer, a German, Von Guericke, the air pump, and many obscure workers helped in the steady improvement of lenses and other instruments that made more refined measurement and observation possible. Boyle and his helper Hooke studied the air and other gases, and began the century-long process that ended in the discovery of oxygen and the founding of modern chemistry.

All these investigations pointed toward some great underlying mechanical principle in nature, a set of very elaborate rules that could he put only in terms of higher mathematics, but still rules suggesting that all nature was a machine. Inevitably this notion inspired researchers in the field we now call biology, and the great seventeenth-century discovery in physiology is an attempt to follow some of the leads given by physicists. Harvey in 1628 published his demonstration that the human heart is in fact a pump, and that the human blood is driven by the heart along a system of circulation. Borelli showed that the human arm is a lever, and that the muscles do mechanical “work.” Finally, the microscope as well as the telescope came into use, and scored its first triumphs in the discovery of microorganisms. The Dutchman Van Leeuwenhoek is perhaps best known among these early microscopists, but as has constantly been true in the growth of science, many lesser and now forgotten workers helped in the patient accumulation of data and in limited interpretations of their meaning.

Someone, finally, comes to bring together all this work into a major scientific generalization, a law or uniformity that--—still within the limits of natural science—simplifies and explains, co-ordinates many separate laws or uniformities into one general law that sums up millions of man-hours of intense investigation. The new law is not (still within the limits of science) a final, unalterable, perfect law. It will almost certainly be modified or even, conceivably, shown to be in some sense wrong, given time and long further investigation. But still it is relatively permanent, a plateau, a temporary resting place. Galileo almost made this achievement, and a dozen other major figures such as Kepler made essential contributions to the big generalization . It was Newton, however, who drew everything together into that grand mechanical conception which has been called the “Newtonian world-machine.” To Newton we shall return in our chapter on the century that revered him, the eighteenth.

Now any such big generalization as that achieved by Newton seems inevitably to influence human thought in many ways, to have its repercussions in fields outside science, in philosophy, in theology, in morals, even in art and literature. Science, we must repeat, does not as science provide a cosmology. But new scientific achievements, at least in the modern world, have been translated into metaphysics. The scientists of these two centuries were a most varied lot, with varied religions and varied Weltanschauungen. Some could not resist the temptation—indeed they could hardly have thought a temptation was involved—to see God as the master mechanic, or to hold that their mathematics were a clue to all life and death, or to hunt in the laboratory for some kind of absolute truth. Some, indeed, like the pious Robert Boyle, kept their science and their religion pretty well in separate compartments, an achievement many scientists can bring off happily even today.

The increasing body of scientific knowledge was chiefly, however, translated into the attitude toward the universe we have here called rationalism. The scientists of the early modern world had shown how great a degree of orderliness underlay many different physical phenomena, how notions natural enough to common sense, like that of the rising and the setting of the sun, were not accurate descriptions of what really went on. Appearance and reality were in their work sharply contrasted. Indeed, their work suggested that the great order of the universe was not altogether what Aristotle and the Christian Fathers had said it was, that this order could not be apprehended by faith, or by reasoning according to a received word, but could he apprehendcd by rigorous re-examination of everything in the human cultural tradition—a re-examination to be conducted by that deceptive and well-known faculty, reason.


Francis Bacon might well lead off this section, for he was rather a philosopher than a scientist, and we have already noted that he was searching for absolute truth and an infallible way to arrive at it. But Bacon’s position in intellectual history, and perhaps his major influence on Western thought, has been as the enemy of the theory of deduction and the champion of induction, and though many of his aphorisms have been of great use to the kind of people we call rationalists, his work has on the whole been that of a prophet of natural science. So too was in his own time at least the work of the man who represents with unusual completeness the full philosophic development of seventeenth-century rationalism, the Frenchman René Descartes, whose name we have noted briefly as a mathematician. Descartes is, like so many of the figures we have glanced at in these years of the Renaissance, a polymath, a man of very wide scholarly and scientific interests.

Though Descartes broke with both medieval Scholasticism and with the vague, watered-down Platonism that was about all the high Renaissance produced in formal philosophy, he talked the language of philosophy, cast his thought, revolutionary though in a sense it undoubtedly was, in what anyone would recognize as a philosophic mold. Like all great philosophers, he was by no means a simple thinker; commentators can still find something in him no one else has quite found at any rate, doctoral theses can still be written about him. For our purposes, however, he can be simplified. Here, as throughout, we are interested in what ordinary educated men made of the work of a great thinker. Descartes, it must he admitted, can hardly be said to have filtered down to the uneducated, save in the most general and vaguest way as one of the men who prepared for the Enlightenment. He presents to the layman unused to the rigors of formal philosophy the kind of difficulties that most of the great philosophers present. Yet he wrote a clear if dry French, and even in translation his work is as readable as can be expected. The background of his most important philosophic ideas is in the Discourse of Method (t637).

Descartes grew up in a learned world full of conflicting groups and ideas, a learned world clearly in transition from persisting Scholasticism to some new synthesis. He early decided that his contemporaries and teachers were in a muddled state of mind about the universe, and that he was born to set it right. He has himself described the steps he went through in his progress from repudiation of all authority to his discovery of what he thought was a solid, absolutely certain, rock-bottom truth on which he could build:

I thought .... . . that I ought to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that was wholly indubitable. Accordingly, seeing that our senses sometimes deceive us, I was willing to suppose that there existed nothing really such as they presented to us; and because some men err in reasoning, and fall into paralogisms, even on the simplest matters of Geometry, I, convinced that I was as open to error as any other, rejected as false all the reasonings I had hitherto taken for demonstrations; and finally, when I considered that the very same thoughts (presentations) which vie experience when awake may alsobe experienced when we are asleep, while there is at that time not one of them true, I supposed that all the objects (presentations) that had ever entered into my mind when awake, had in them no more truth than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately upon this I observed that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and is I observed that this truth, I think, hence I am, was so certain and of such evidence, that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the skeptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the Philosophy of which I was in search.

It should be clear that however brazen Descartes’s defiance of tradition, this is the language of high philosophy. A true skeptic, an unpleasant skeptic, might ask, Why not “I sweat, therefore I am”? But from this famous “I think, therefore I am” Descartes went ahead to build a system of philosophy that went right on up to God. It was a somewhat remote and impersonal God--—indeed Descartes once let slip the remark that “You can substitute ‘the mathematical order of nature for ‘God’ whenever I use the latter term.” We need hardly be surprised that the Catholic Church did not feel that the philosopher had redeemed himself from his early doubt, and that the Church has ever since regarded him as belonging to the ranks of its enemies.



* The Story of Western Thought

          by: Crane Brinton (pgs. 341-350)

          Copyright , 1950, by:

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