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2.1: the Scientific Revolution: Natural Philosophers Become Scientists, and Religion & Science Break Up (and Agree to Disagree?)

What is “science”? Like “History,” the word comes from the Greek for any intellectual knowledge or investigation. What we call “science” is actually very new, and especially the idea that “science” could be divided into different specialties like Chemistry, Biology, and Physics.

Before the Scientific Revolution (the creation of modern-day science and scientists), all of what we call “science” had another name: “natural philosophy.”

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“Natural philosophers” attempted to understand why the world of nature works the way it does. If you remember the medieval educational system, though, you’ll note the close connection between any literate philosophy and the Church. In the Dark Ages, all “scientists” were priests, and they saw Nature as being only one half of God’s “Book”—the Book of Nature would not make sense without the Book of God (the Bible) to correctly interpret it.

“Science” as we know it in the Western world was begun in classical Greece and Rome. Some of the ancient Greeks’ and Romans’ ideas about science did live on throughout the Middle Ages. However, their ideas became molded into a Christian formula in order to fit in with Christianity and be approved by the Church. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) was the ancient “scientist” most successfully incorporated with the ideas of the Church. This was so much the case that some natural philosophers called him “Father Aristotle” and declared that, with him and “Mother Church,” you’d have all the “parental” knowledge that you needed.

Aristotle’s ideas about how the universe functions were adapted from an older Greek thinker, Pythagoras (d. 495 B.C.E.). Nonetheless, Aristotle’s convincing reasoning caused the geocentric system to be called “Aristotelian.” The system was this: the Earth is the center of the universe, and all other objects (planets, moons, stars, and the sun) revolve around it.

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Although it seems nonsensical to us today, if you consider it from the past’s point of view, our views are ridiculous. If the Earth is indeed moving, why can we not directly observe its motion when we are living on it? We all know what it feels like to run, to ride in a car, to travel in a plane—if the Earth were indeed moving 67,000 miles per hour (at least), shouldn’t we be able to feel that, or at least observe it somehow without needing a telescope?

Aristotle’s views not only made common sense, but made artistic sense: his system was composed of perfect spheres, with Earth in the exact center. It was “pretty,” rather than the more accurate view today that planets travel in ellipses (or “imperfect circles”), and that the planets, including Earth, are imperfect.

The end of any argument for most Western thinkers before the Enlightenment was the Bible, the “Word of the Lord.” The Bible has this to say about the movement of the Earth and the Sun:

“‘Sun, stand still at Gibeon…’ and the sun stood still, and the moon stopped… The sun stopped in mid-heaven, and did not hurry to set about for a whole day” (Joshua 10:12-13).

Joshua had God’s help in commanding the sun to stand still; therefore, God controls the motions of the sun and the planets; therefore, to question this set-up was seen as the equivalent of questioning God. End of argument.

Note that, even with our heliocentric views today, we do not call it “earthrise”—which would be more accurate—we call it “sunset.”

All these reasons—observational, religious, and common sense—made geocentrism very convincing, so much so that no one wanted to switch, even when the data became a little bit “off.” When planetary motion was observed not to match a perfect sphere, spheres on spheres were added to the Aristotelian universe. Eventually, by the time of the Renaissance, spheres on spheres on spheres were needed to account for all the “odd” observations.

How did geocentrism stay around for so long, despite contradicting evidence? The answer lies in the self-esteem of humanity: geocentrism reinforced the belief that God placed his best creation (humanity) in “center stage.” The biggest problem with heliocentric theory was theological: Why would God choose to place us not on center stage but in the “wings,” revolving around the sun, which itself is revolving around the galaxy, which itself is revolving in an ever-expanding universe? For us today, reconciling a belief in God with a belief in a moving Earth is not that difficult. However, to switch from a geocentric to a heliocentric view would cause people to question not only the Church’s view on the sun and the Earth. People might start to question everything, including social structures, gender roles, and the afterlife. The Church and the traditional powers were therefore very interested in keeping this type of “science” from being pursued.

However, with the culture of the Renaissance and Reformation era now in place, individual pursuit of knowledge and critical questioning of old traditions were encouraged. The stage was set to break down “natural philosophy” into the “Sciences.” The story of geocentrism to heliocentrism is an excellent case study for how all aspects of knowledge became more “scientific” during this era.