Every once in a while I’ll get a question from class that is really great and gets me thinking. Here is one such question and a rather general response. I hope it gets you thinking a bit.
What was the contribution of the Scientific Revolution to the later Enlightenment?
The contributions were many in that the Scientific Revolution ushered in an entirely new way of thinking during the 16th Century. The development of deductive reasoning, positive impact of the print media for the dissemination of ideas, and the rise of mathematics as a tool for scientific advancement were some of the most important.
First and foremost, the very idea that one would formulate an experiment to test an idea(deductive reasoning) rather than accept what one saw or deduced through observation (inductive reasoning) was paramount. This becomes the basis for all science to follow. Aristotelian science, which was based on the inductive formula, was found to be fundamentally flawed by those of the Scientific Revolution. Where once it was thought that the sun moved across the sky, empirical science, such as that practiced by Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, and Johannes Kepler (among others), was able to discern that those observations were incorrect through the use of the aforementioned empirical method. It was no longer acceptable to simply observe something and arrive at a conclusion, but rather one had to prove one’s ideas through experimentation. These ideas and “findings” would later be disseminated through the publication of literature that would outline and explain the findings. The Starry Messenger by Galileo, On The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Copernicus, and even the Valerius Terminus by Sir Francis Bacon are excellent examples of works that would usher in a new age of thinking and science.
The importance of the print media cannot be overestimated as this was the engine that fueled this revolution in thought, creating an entire generation of skeptics of which Michele Montaigne, among others was a member. Print media would also have rather important ramifications for the Church, as the rise of the Scientific Revolution and its accompanying thought would come to contradict many of the teachings of the Church which had as its foundation to prove the scriptures Aristotelian science. This would lead to a questioning of not only the accepted practices of the Church, but of religion itself. This new science of reasoning brought forth new thoughts on the divine nature of God and while also questioning the doctrines of the Catholic Church, also fostered new religious ideas such as Lutheranism and Calvinism. It is interesting to note that Jacob mentions Bacon felt that “science itself, if done properly, is a profoundly Christian adventure.”1
All of this, as well as the accompanying rise of mathematics, was to have a rather profound influence on the philosophes of the Enlightenment. They would not only question the existing order of things, but confront them, especially in the arena of religion. By the 18th Century, it was no longer acceptable to take at face value the teachings of the Church as it was not rooted in fact, but rather the word of the Church based on flawed science which had by that time been found to be inaccurate. This, then, called into question the very nature of religion, and even the existence of God himself. It should be noted that Peter Gay talks about the fact that the philosophes were rather instrumental in the “skillful popularization of discoveries like Newton’s” which would again prove that not only did the Scientific Revolution have influence, but it actually shaped the coming period of the Enlightenment.2
1 James R. Jacob, The scientific revolution: aspirations and achievements, 1500-1700 (Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 1998), 59
2 Peter Gay, The Enlightenment, an Interpretation; the Rise of Modern Paganism. (New York: Knopf, 1966), 14