Baroque Philosophical Roots

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Baroque Philosophical Roots

Protestant vs. Catholic Science.

During the twentieth century historians often debated the question of the relationship between religion and the rise of science. Following the lead of the sociologist Max Weber, who had argued that there was a positive connection between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism in Europe, one group of historians made the case that Protestant culture was far more encouraging of scientific research than was Catholic culture. The problem with their case was that while England and Holland—the two examples most often cited in support of the argument—were Protestant, these were also states where the power of the state church was seriously constrained by the government. In Protestant states where the church and government shared the same cultural and religious agenda, such as the German Protestant states of the Central European Holy Roman Empire, scientific research was as absent as it was in Catholic states. An inability on the part of the state church to repress scientific research appears to have been more important than any positive encouragement given to science by Protestant churchmen.

The Crime of Galileo.

The story of Galileo has often been used to suggest that Catholicism was more hostile to science than Protestantism was. Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), known as the great Italian "natural philosopher," was a scientist who was forced by the Roman Inquisition to recant his arguments in support of the Copernican thesis that the earth revolves around the sun. Yet as Catholic apologists for the Inquisition have pointed out, Galileo was arguing for more than just the Copernican thesis, the notion that the sun rather than the earth was the center of the universe. His work presented a challenge to the church because he was promoting the notion that scientific pursuits should be free from moral and religious scrutiny. No seventeenth-century Christian church was, in fact, willing to grant that science should have such independence. Galileo's case for the autonomy of science, though, has long made him the starting point for any discussion of philosophy in the age of the Baroque. Galileo followed a string of Renaissance humanists who saw the "book of Nature" as an alternative to the teachings of medieval scholasticism. Tommaso Campanella (1568–1639), one of Galileo's contemporaries, went so far as to contrast the arid emptiness of traditional medieval scholasticism with its Aristotelian science, with nature as the true "living book of God." Galileo, though, was the first scientist to lend the weight of his achievements and observation to his argument. Although he was already well known for his discoveries of the physical properties of motion, Galileo had begun in 1609 to channel his considerable research talents into proving that the Copernican thesis was correct. After lifelong study, Nicolaus Copernicus published his heliocentric theory in 1543, the same year in which he died. Like most Renaissance astronomers, his work was not based upon scientific observation or experimentation, but on his knowledge of texts, combined with his own subtle theorizing. Although his theory had circulated relatively freely in the sixteenth century, it did not become controversial until Galileo decided to confirm its observations with the use of a telescope. Galileo had read about this new invention, and he figured out how to build one himself. Then he wrote The Starry Messenger (1610) based upon the observations he made with it. Churchmen were fascinated with Galileo's new instrument; however, they did not follow him in his conclusion that the evidence it revealed refuted the Ptolemaic thesis that the sun revolved around the earth. In 1616, Galileo was called before the Inquisition and told to stop teaching that the Copernican thesis was true. He agreed, but then continued to try to convince churchmen and other intellectuals of the error of their ways. In 1623 he published another book, The Assayer, ostensibly a report of his observations on comets, but in fact an attack on the Ptolemaic thesis. Finally in 1632 he published his masterpiece, Dialogue on the Two World Systems, in which—in the context of a hypothetical debate between three learned men—he ridiculed the Ptolemaic thesis. It was the arguments in this Dialogue that the Inquisition forced Galileo to recant one year later.

Galileo 's Philosophy of Science.

Galileo was the first thinker to insist that at the heart of the opposition between science and traditional scholastic Aristotelianism was a distinction between numbers and words. As Galileo observed in the Assayer, Philosophy (science) is written in "mathematical language and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures." Galileo rejected the insistence by Scholastics that science involved the constant reinterpretation of every newly discovered attribute of the physical world according to the explanations first offered by the ancient Greeks. For him, it had to be accepted that these new things could not be explained by the old teachings. In the Assayer he related the story of one of his Aristotelian colleagues who refused to look through his telescope for fear of seeing things he could not reconcile with his ideas, Galileo's point being that it was only through such ignorance that old beliefs might be maintained. Yet Galileo did not propose to replace the old speculations with new ones. For him, science was not about what might be speculated and then justified; it was about what could be seen and then demonstrated. Like Francis Bacon, Galileo argued for an inductive method of investigation that built from observation to theory and then through experiment to validation of theory. But in a way that was different from Bacon, Galileo's method required that those rationalizations be expressed in mathematics. If a scientific theory is true, he reasoned, it can be demonstrated mathematically; if it cannot be demonstrated mathematically, it is not true. It is from this perspective that Galileo sought to free science from the oversight of religious authorities. Science, he argued, was about the physical world and, as such, its proofs had nothing to do with religion. In a letter addressed to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, Galileo argued that it is wrong to use the Bible as a guide to the natural world. In seeking to condemn the Copernican thesis, he complained, his enemies cited passages in the Bible where it states that the sun moves, and the earth stands still. But it is wrong to take the Bible literally, he argued, because the words of the Bible have layers of meaning, and the literal, obvious layer is there essentially to keep the common people, who are "rude and unlearned" happy. According to Galileo, the Bible and Nature, "proceed alike from the Divine Word, the former as the dictate of the Holy Spirit, the latter as the obedient executrix of God's commands." God's commands are the physical laws of the universe. Science, which could be defined as the effort to discover those laws, was thus only another form of Christian worship. Galileo argued, then, that the Copernican thesis was no challenge to the Bible's authority because it reflected a truer understanding of God's laws than did the traditional geocentric, or "earth-centered" theory. Its embrace signaled true Christian piety. But churchmen remained unmoved by Galileo's arguments. Defenders of the Catholic Church have long pointed out that, at the time Galileo was writing, there was no definitive proof of the validity of the Copernican thesis, and that the experiments that Galileo thought granted such proof have since been proven faulty. The issue in Galileo's censure, though, was not the quality of his science. The issue was whether or not an agency claiming moral authority, such as the Catholic Church, had the right to declare scientific investigation immoral. Galileo argued that it did not, but because he was a devout Catholic, he eventually acquiesced and submitted to the church's condemnation of his argument. Those who followed him, however, saw him as a martyr for the truth.

Francis Bacon and the Rise of Experimental Science in England.

Galileo's fate actually compared favorably with that of the other individual responsible for making the case for science to early seventeenth-century audiences. After a life in its own way as illustrious as Galileo's, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) found himself equally humiliated and condemned. Under James I of England, Bacon had a political career that saw him rise to the office of Lord Chancellor of England with a seat in the English House of Lords, only to lose it all after a conviction for taking bribes. Exiled from any association with the royal court in 1621, Bacon spent the last five years of his life studying science and philosophy and initiating vast writing projects he never completed. Bacon's assault on scholastic Aristotelianism came from a different direction than that of Galileo. Both Bacon and Galileo followed the Italian philosopher Bernardino Telesio (1508–1588) in emphasizing that knowledge of nature, and therefore science, comes via sensory acquisition. Yet, while the five senses provided comparatively surer guides to the truth than the methods of intellectual conjecture preferred by the Scholastics, the senses are still prone to error. For Galileo, mathematical demonstration was the only fail-proof guide to the truth. For Bacon it was experimental demonstration. Bacon rejected an idea that would become the basis for the cognitive theories of his later countryman John Locke—the idea that the human mind is a "tabula rasa," a blank page waiting to be filled with knowledge via sensory experience—and postulated that the human mind was prone toward four sorts of problems in its reception of data. Bacon labeled these sorts of problems "idols" to suggest, following the ancient Epicurean meaning of that term, factors that promote deception.


introduction: Francis Bacon's Novum Organum has often been called the "manifesto" for the Scientific Revolution. In truth, that movement's origins were far more complex. But in his preface to the work, Bacon outlined his method. His emphasis on looking past received wisdom and setting natural inquiry on a firm footing of observation seem as modern today as they were refreshing to scientific minds in the seventeenth century.

Those who have taken upon them to lay down the law of nature as a thing already searched out and understood, whether they have spoken in simple assurance or professional affectation, have therein done philosophy and the sciences great injury. For as they have been successful in inducing belief, so they have been effective in quenching and stopping inquiry; and have done more harm by spoiling and putting an end to other men's efforts than good by their own. Those on the other hand who have taken a contrary course, and asserted that absolutely nothing can be known—whether it were from hatred of the ancient sophists, or from uncertainty and fluctuation of mind, or even from a kind of fullness of learning, that they fell upon this opinion,—have certainly advanced reasons for it that are not to be despised; but yet they have neither started from true principles nor rested in the just conclusion, zeal and affectation having carried them much too far. The more ancient of the Greeks (whose writings are lost) took up with better judgment a position between these two extremes,—between the presumption of pronouncing on everything, and the despair of comprehending anything; and though frequently and bitterly complaining of the difficulty of inquiry and the obscurity of things, and like impatient horses champing at the bit, they did not the less follow up their object and engage with Nature, thinking (it seems) that this very question,—viz., whether or not anything can be known,—was to be settled not by arguing, but by trying. And yet they too, trusting entirely to the force of their understanding, applied no rule, but made everything turn upon hard thinking and perpetual working and exercise of the mind.

Now my method, though hard to practice, is easy to explain; and it is this. I propose to establish progressive stages of certainty. The evidence of the sense, helped and guarded by a certain process of correction, I retain. But the mental operation which follows the act of sense I for the most part reject; and instead of it I open and lay out a new and certain path for the mind to proceed in, starting directly from the simple sensuous perception. The necessity of this was felt, no doubt, by those who attributed so much importance to logic, showing thereby that they were in search of helps for the understanding, and had no confidence in the native and spontaneous process of the mind. But this remedy comes too late to do any good, when the mind is already, through the daily intercourse and conversation of life, occupied with unsound doctrines and beset on all sides by vain imaginations. And therefore that art of Logic, coming (as I said) too late to the rescue, and no way able to set matters right again, has had the effect of fixing errors rather than disclosing truth. There remains but one course for the recovery of a sound and healthy condition,—namely, that the entire work of the understanding be commenced afresh, and the mind itself be from the very outset not left to take its own course, but guided at every step; and the business be done as if by machinery.

source: Francis Bacon, Preface to Novum Organum, in The Works of Francis Bacon. Vol. 4. Eds. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath (London: Longmans, 1875): 39–40.

As Bacon put it, these idols created "enchanted" or "crooked" mirrors that change and pervert reality. The first of these, "Idols of the Tribe," arose from features of human nature that clouded measured assessment of data, such as faulty or impaired senses or an instinct toward lumping versus one toward splitting. "Idols of the Cave" were the prejudices of individuals that obscured reasoned evaluation, such as a preference for one idea over another. "Idols of the Marketplace" had to do with the obstacles language places in the way of understanding. Here Bacon had in mind the fact that many of the qualitative terms that human beings use to describe phenomena in the physical world are, in fact, inadequate, incomplete, or overly general. Bacon cautioned against terms such as "moist" and "dry"—which were frequently used by natural philosophers of the period—for they lacked a precise character and therefore could not further scientific investigation. Bacon labeled the last sort of idols "Idols of the Theater" to denote the constructed, fictionalized character of intellectual theories. The pursuit of evidence to support theories, he argued, corrupted the evaluation of the results of experiments. Bacon advanced these arguments in his Novum Organum (New Organon; 1620), a work that has sometimes been called a "manifesto for the Scientific Revolution." It set out his new method of inductive investigation as a way to minimize the impact of the idols he identified. As Bacon saw it, the old deductive method used by Aristotelian scholasticism throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance jumped from the identification of particulars to the formation of general principles, and only then built up the theories that linked the particular to the general. It completed all these steps without any empirical validation. The absence of independent verification meant that the idols he had identified literally shaped what was accepted as true. His new method insisted upon a slow ascent from particulars through theories that were independently validated through observation to general principles. Key to his method is the idea that knowledge is derived via trial and error; experiments that fail to produce or generate an independent theory, he argued, should be discarded. Theories that could not be proven false had to be accepted as true.

Bacon 's Idea of Progress.

For most of the twentieth century, historians emphasized the degree to which Bacon's inductive method had little to do with how scientists actually think. William Harvey, a contemporary of Bacon and the discoverer of the circulation of the blood, once quipped that Bacon pursued scientific research "like a Lord Chancellor," meaning that like a government official Bacon sought to mandate scientific discoveries as opposed to accepting the leaps of imagination and deduction that so often lie behind scientific breakthroughs. Historians have built on this criticism, pointing out that a researcher following Bacon's method would discover him/herself in an endless loop of validating only minutely different experiments, and more importantly that Bacon's neglect of mathematics was a fatal flaw from which his method could not recover. More recent studies have sought to rehabilitate Bacon as a scientific forerunner, pointing out the inspiration, if not insight, he provided to many of the men who did participate in the Scientific Revolution. There is now also some appreciation of Bacon's role in the creation of the empirical methods favored by social scientists, especially his arguments that experiments should be designed to disprove rather than prove a theory. While Bacon's role in the actual production of science is the subject of debate and revision, his legacy as the first great advocate of science has always been acknowledged. It was Bacon who first made the case that knowledge is power and that the acquisition of knowledge enables states to become great. Significantly, what Bacon had in mind when he used the term "knowledge" was not "meta-physics," that is, ideas that explain the hidden or unseen sources of life and the universe. It was instead "physics," by which he had in mind a modern notion of nature and the technologies that can be used to exploit it. Bacon has also been correctly identified as the father of the "idea of progress," the idea that life on earth can be made better through advancements in technology.

The Great Instauration.

The literary character of Bacon's writings allowed them to serve the scientific cause far more effectively than any piece of scientific research he did. In 1620 Bacon announced his plans to write a "Great Instauration," a six-part proposal for the effective establishment of civilization on a scientific footing. Bacon only completed the first two parts of his proposal: The Advancement of Learning (1623) and the New Organon (1620). After Bacon's untimely death in 1626, two of his other works were published together: the Sylva Sylvarum and the New Atlantis (1627). In the two parts of the Great Instauration he completed, Bacon presented his argument via a series of aphorisms, that is, pithy, witty, three-or four-sentence observations. The Sylva Sylvarum contained 100 "experiments," actually conjectural explanations of various natural phenomena such as the cause of hiccups. The New Atlantis, perhaps the first piece of science fiction ever published, offered a utopian vision of a perfect society where, under the protective gaze of a wise ruler, a research institute called Solomon House continuously churned out inventions to make the lives of its citizens better. These four works were the most widely read of Bacon's works. None of them provided any scientific information of merit, yet the absence of scientific content is what allowed them to be appropriated by generations of intellectuals seeking justification for programs of cultural reform. Thus in the 1660s the founders of the Royal Academy of Science in England saw themselves as realizing the ideas Bacon put forth in his New Atlantis, while in the eighteenth century, the editors of the French Enlightenment Encyclopédie signaled their identification with Bacon's Great Instauration by placing his name on the first page of the first volume of their great work.


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