Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Scientific Revolution (Q&A and Quiz)

1. It seems from the "Invisible College" article, that new sciences and philosophies were being studied somewhat publicly. Why then, would they call their Oxford club the invisible college?

One of the important things to consider in the rise of modern science is the creation of an international scientific culture. The invention of the printing press plays a major role in making this possible. This new scientific culture is a new power structure and, while there is nothing secret about it, it is not what most people would think of as a society and would therefore not see it as such. I would recommend Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe if you wish to pursue this topic.
As a way of modern analogy. Think of how the internet with its chat rooms, blogs, and instant messaging has changed how societies are constructed. People, for better or for worse, now find themselves forming relationships with people completely online without ever meeting them in person. So now society is no longer bounded by the people you live near and interact with in your day to day lie.
This new scientific culture is crucial because part of the scientific method is that an experiment has to be able to be duplicated by people in other places and times. We are moving from a model in which knowledge is a secret to be hoarded and guarded by a select few to one where transparency comes to be of ultimate value.

2. I was just wondering what would be the definition of modern sciencewould be with regards to this week’s readings. Is it science as what we would think of today?

The science of the early modern period included things like magic, demonology, alchemy and astrology. This does not mean that these people were bad scientists or irrational or superstitious. These things are better viewed not as counters to science but as failed sciences. To give the example of astrology, technically speaking astrology is true. A heavenly object, the sun, does have a tremendous impact on life on earth. Other objects affect the earth in more subtle ways. The moon’s gravitational pull affects tides. In fact Galileo rejected the theory that the moon affected tide because it sounded too much like astrology to him. Now, considering all this, it is not such a big jump to theorize that Saturn might cause depression. We have failed to find evidence for this so this theory has fallen through. This does not mean, though, that it was a bad theory. One of the flaws in how the history of science is usually taught is that focuses on successes. A major part of science is putting out theories that fail. How many light bulbs did Thomas Edison make before he got one that worked?

3. I wondered, as I read the invisible college, when the average person began to be in any way involved in science, whether it is a product of our public school system, or sometime earlier. I mean by this, science properly called science, because people obviously always practice science, even as we work out problems through trial and error. I mean to ask when people began to learn and participate in experimental science.

To a large extent science is the province of a narrow elite even today. Certainly during the Scientific Revolution experimental science is limited to very few people. That being said a major part of the success of this new scientific culture is its ability to attract popular attention and create a lay scientific culture. We will talk more about this once we come to the Enlightenment.

4. In the Invisible College reading, it says that many of the natural philosophers believed in "faith-ism", meaning what they couldn't explain with science, they explained with faith in religion. Is this thinking the predecessor to the Church of Scientology by chance?

Scientology is a religion created by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the twentieth century. To the best of my knowledge it has not been influenced by any of our early modern scientists/religious thinkers.

5. Can you further explain this concept of Fideism ("faith-ism")? It sounds pretty interesting and seems to be a unique way of combining two ways of thinking, science and religion, that one typically doesn't think of as meshing.

Anyone interested in the subject should look at Richard Popkin’s History of Scepticism from Savonarola to Bayle. You might think that a book about skepticism would be about people coming to challenge religious dogma. As Popkin reveals, though, much of the revival of radical skepticism in the early modern period is strongly fideistic. One has all these doubts about the ability of the flawed human mind to comprehend any truth, whether in regards to the natural world or in logic. The solution is to make a leap of faith and accept Jesus as your personal savior. This allows you to in turn have faith that, because you have been made open to these divine truths, you can hope to comprehend, through the aid of the Holy Spirit, the truths of science and logic.
In my experience in dealing with religious fundamentalists (some of whom happen to be relatives of mine) I have found that their religious convictions stem not from naïve incredulousness or lack of skepticism but from radical skepticism. These people are skeptical about the validity of the scientific method, the historical method or even logic. From this perspective the bar to believing in a literal interpretation of scripture is quite low. So your science textbook says that life evolved through evolution over millions of years. This other book, the Bible, says that life was created by God in six days. Why should you accept the former book over the later? The later has the endorsement of hundreds of generations of tradition. (Freelance Kiruv Maniac is a good example of this sort of reasoning.) The difference between these fundamentalists and me is that I have a tremendous amount of faith in the scientific and historical methods. As such I take any claim that results from these methods, such as the world being much older than six thousand years, very seriously. It becomes an intellectual non option to simply go against these claims.

6. I'm confused about the events that led to Galileo's Inquisition trial and shown by the video. At first, Galileo had a supporter in the Pope who allowed him to write about his ideas, given certain stipulations. What was it exactly that turned the Pope against Galileo?

You have hit the nail on the head. Pope Urban VIII was not some anti science zealot as he is commonly portrayed. Galileo was not twice put in front of the Inquisition because of heliocentrism. The Dialogues did not directly support heliocentrism and initially even passed censorship. Galileo was, for decades, the best known supporter of heliocentrism in Europe. If the Church had really been interested in stamping out heliocentrism they would have gone after Galileo decades before they did. Galileo made some really bad political decisions. He made fun of a stance taken by the Pope.
Keep in mind that the Thirty Years War is going on in Europe. At stake here is not science but Protestantism and the authority to interpret scripture. Galileo attempted to defend heliocentrism in terms of scripture and as such offered an interpretation of the book of Joshua that was contrary to that of the Catholic Church. From the perspective of the Church this makes Galileo a bit like the Protestants that they are in middle of fighting a war with.

I gave my students their first class quiz. It consisted of the following questions:

1. What faith do Magdalena and Balthasar belong to? What role does God play in their lives? (2 points)

2. List two of Luther’s “predecessors?” (2 points)

3. List three examples of religion wars in the sixteenth century? What was the resolution to these conflicts? (3 points)

4. Name two people involved with the Scientific Revolution and explain why they are important.

5. What was the common word for scientist before the nineteenth century? (1 point)

Bonus: Who was Mennochio the Miller and why do historians find him to be so fascinating?

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