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.”


“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. 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.


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.

17 thoughts on “2.1”

  1. It’s weird to think that if the culture of the Renaissance and Reformation era had never happened, we would not be nearly as knowledgable or advanced. We would not even know that the earth with other planets revolve around the sun.

  2. It’s very strange to think that in a sense, human arrogance kept science from evolving, as people kept their geocentric beliefs for so long because people could not wrap their heads around the fact that God may not have placed them in the “center stage” of the universe. It’s also crazy to think of how if people were to switch from a geocentric view to a heliocentric view at the time, their perception of reality would be shattered, as they would then have to question certain aspects of civilization itself including gender roles and social structures.

  3. It is crazy how the Church wouldn’t let people pursue science. People back then should have noticed what was going on and tried to stand up to them. The Church controlling everything is crazy to me and I don’t understand why some of these people just let it happen.

  4. It was fascinating how back in the Dark Ages, science, with its theories and ideas, was molded into a Christian formula to fit in with the religion to be approved by the Church. For instance, Western thinkers believed in the Bible instead of the actual science behind the theory, with Aristotle’s ideas about how the universe functions. This was because the “scientists” were only priests. Were only priests allowed to be scientists at the time because they were the only ones who were literate? Or is there a different reason? Another question I had was why would the Church hide the concept of heliocentric views and force people to believe in the geocentric views? I know one of the reasons was to make sure people didn’t start questioning things in their life but wouldn’t that help them discover who they really were as human beings and the reality behind life?

  5. Were some of the ancient Greeks’ and Romans’ ideas about science “molded into a Christian formula” because their ideas disagreed with what the Church was currently teaching the people?
    Also, could the theory about how the Sun and the planets were arranged, evolved faster if questioning the set-up wasn’t equivalent to questioning God himself?

  6. Did Aristotle believe in a geocentric system to appease the Church or did he really believe in a geocentric system? Did the Church try its best to instill fear into people in order for them the stop pursuing science? Were these early “scientists” seen as complete aliens to society or did they gain followers?

  7. I find it very interesting that the switch from geocentric to heliocentric views would cause questioning in so much beyond theological and astronomical ideas. Since this would occur due to essentially questioning the Church, it made me wonder why priests didn’t acknowledge the data that was “off” in order to be honest with Christians. Overall this shows me that the Church was very strict on other people’s scientific views. I wonder how different education and daily life would be today if the Renaissance did not bring change to science as a whole and how we label it today.

  8. As we can see, during this time, religion and science were used together to come up with valid reasoning about the Earth and the solar system. However, during our time right now, religion and science don’t go together anymore because religion is concerned with the supernatural realm and how it relates to the natural world, whereas science is concerned with the natural world. Based on that, my question is if religion and science will ever be used together again, or will they always be separate?

  9. I wonder what initially sparked the interest in science in the middle ages. I wonder if they didn’t speak out back then and express their theories on how the world worked if we would be where we are today with technology. I also wonder what caused the separation between the Church and science. If they were once pursued together, what change made them two completely different fields?

  10. In my opinion, it is weird to think that things we know and can prove today would have been ridiculous to the people at this time. They had no knowledge of how the world worked except for what the Bible told them. People could only believe what the Church and religion allowed them to. I could not imagine basing my life off of information that wasn’t proven, but just written in a book that was written years and years before.

  11. I think it is interesting how there used to be such a connection between Church and science. Today, they are not as closely related, but in the time of The Scientific Revolution, they were so connected that there was considered to be a “Book of Nature” and “Book of God” and that was all you needed to understand life.

  12. Do priests and the Church still, to this day, play a role in how people see the world and science? Did the Church hold people back from learning and exploring more of how science was or more about the universe?

  13. I find it interesting how the Church was able to have that big of an impact on the science world, because of the quotes in the Bible. It really shows the difference between today’s society and back then, since today we are able to have two completely contradicting statements, one from the Church and one from science, and we are still able to believe parts of both.

  14. I wonder if science and religion will ever connect one day in the future. Like if science is “right” will people try to rebel against scientists? I wonder what would happen if something like that will happen in our modern world today.

  15. It’s weird how much influence the church and its theology did have on fields of study you’d think would (or should) have nothing to do with the church. This also reveals that the church back then wouldn’t have wanted the advancement of heliocentric views no matter how true they were. This is because these new findings caused people to question the church and ultimately took away some of its authority.

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