A Handbook on the History of Modern Science
Section One: Science and Society in Europe, 1660 to 1859
In any discussion of 17th, 18th, and early 19th century natural philosophy (science), it is vitally important to remember that the pursuit of scientific inquiries was by no means always a well-coordinated, disciplined activity, with a clear and shared sense of method or centralized authorities who could judge the adequacy of theory and methods. What we now call science was still sorting out what the activity really involved, and there were many competing methods, theories, and systems in almost all areas. In 1764, for example, de Pauw listed forty-nine theories of the formation of the earth, and in 1797 de la Mettrie counted thirty-five different accounts of the earth, before discussing his own.
At the start of the 18th century, natural philosophy had not yet separated itself entirely from alchemy, folk tales, or magic, and there was no clear separation between science and religion, as the career of Newton confirms (1). Nor was there any clear demarcation between philosophy and science. Whether the new direction in natural philosophy should base itself, following Descartes, on the Continental tradition of rationalism (deductive systems) with mathematics at the center of the inquiry or, following Bacon, on empiricism (experiment and observation) or on some appropriate combination of the two was a constant and disputatious concern. Thus, there was no consensus on how the scores of scientific theories should be evaluated, no prevailing "correct" scientific procedure.
However, those promoting new ways of thinking in science, for all their differences, had one important similarity: they were reacting against a long tradition in natural philosophy, seeking to discover a different way of understanding the natural world. This old tradition originated with the Ancient Greeks and had been appropriated with important modifications by Christian thinkers in the Middle Ages. The break with this established way of understanding the world marks the beginning of what this handbook calls the new science or modern science.
The Four Causes
To understand the nature of this significant shift from the old to the new science, we need to focus briefly on one of the most famous scientific statements from that older tradition, Aristotle's idea of the four causes for every natural event. If scientific speculation is, in very large part, a search for rational explanations of cause (i.e., for an answer to this question "What exactly causes this particular phenomenon?"), then, according to Aristotle, there were four possible ways of accounting for that cause: the Material Cause, the Efficient Cause, the Formal Cause, and the Final Cause.
The material cause explains the phenomenon in terms of the material out of which it is made; the efficient cause explains the phenomenon in terms of the process which puts the materials together; the formal cause explains the phenomenon in terms of the plan or design or arrangement of the materials; and the final cause explains the phenomenon in terms of its purpose (especially its moral purpose).
So, for example, if we wanted to account for the existence of, say, a house, the material cause would be the wood, nails, glass, concrete, and so on which make up the house; the efficient cause would be the actions of the various workers who constructed it (carpenters, roofers, carpet layers, and so on); the formal cause would be the architectural design and drawings; the final cause would be a moral reason why the house ought to be built at all and why it should look the way it does in the wider context of the community and the world.
The explanations sought by classical and medieval science were concerned above all with the final cause, that is, with an account of whatever one was speculating about which placed it in the overall moral scheme of the universe, linking that object or institution with a sense of moral purposiveness and hence with the divine structure of the universe (what Plato and Aristotle call the Good and the Christian tradition identified with God). This was the central purpose in almost all the most important speculations of Greek and Medieval philosophy about the natural world, simply because for these thinkers the most challenging fact of life was an ethical and religious concern: knowledge about the world only mattered if it helped people to understand how they ought to behave (i.e., gave them insight into the ultimate standards of morality and justice). Such thinking is called teleological (from the Greek word telos meaning goal), because it seeks explanations for things in terms of their final purposes.
In addition to this orientation in their scientific inquiries, the Greeks saw nature as divine living presences, and the medieval thinkers viewed nature as a manifestation of God's wonderfully creative powers. Given this emphasis neither Greek nor medieval thinkers had much interest in using their speculations about nature to gain control over it or to change the given natural order. Nature was something to contemplate as a manifestation of a higher moral and spiritual meaning, not something to alter or manipulate for human benefit. The Hellenistic Greeks, for example, had discovered everything needed to make a steam engine. It never occurred to them to make one because it might be useful against nature. Medieval Christian thinkers frequently opposed any idea that human beings ought to interfere with nature, which was God's creation. So, for example, using lenses to correct failing eyesight or draining marshes to provide arable land raised moral objections.
If we find this orientation rather odd, we should realize that we think in exactly the same way now whenever we object to scientific developments which alter our genes or put more and more parts of nature and human life under the control of science, on the ground that there are some important things which science should leave alone.
Bacon and Descartes
Many thinkers reacted against this traditional preoccupation with final causes because, they alleged, the explanations it provided were of no practical use. By concentrating all the time on questions of ultimate moral purpose, the old accounts, however spiritually uplifting, offered nothing in the way of a practical understanding of how something in nature actually worked (an understanding that might enable one to exercise some control over that natural process).
Two of the most prominent thinkers making the case for a new approach to natural philosophy were Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Both emphasized repeatedly the need for a new science which, by concentrating on efficient causes (or secondary causes) would provide knowledge of direct practical use (especially in medicine). Such a science could not develop unless people abandoned their primary concern for first causes.
Bacon and Descartes developed different approaches to the new science (the former stressing experiment and observation, the latter mathematical deduction). However, it is a mistake to emphasize the differences excessively, since Descartes did not entirely dismiss experimentation and Bacon called attention repeatedly to the imperfections of the senses as a great impediment in science (2). Moreover, for all the different emphasis in their methodologies, their challenges to the traditional science had important similarities:
1. Both thinkers were optimistic, affirming that reason or sense (or both) would discover truth about nature and was, in fact, the surest guide to understanding the natural world (certainly a better guide than the learning passed on by the older tradition).
2. The methodologies of both men were individualistic and egalitarian, for every human being had all the necessary requirement (reason or sense) to pursue scientific knowledge on his or her own.
3. Both methods were strongly anti-traditionalist and thus required one to discard inherited systems of belief; hence, good scientific thinking no longer required the constant appeal to classical sources (especially to Aristotle).
4. Both views held that ignorance came from error. Better thinking and better experiments would correct mistakes, and the natural scientist did not have to surrender to the narrow limitations of a fallen creature, always mired in error. Hence, traditionally conservative Christians, like Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, well versed in the doctrine of original sin, were critical of both new approaches to nature.
5. As mentioned above, both philosophers stressed the primary importance of shifting attention away from final causes onto efficient (secondary causes). And the search for these must be based on an understanding of the world as analogous to a machine (3).
Natural philosophers in these early years were by no means all professional scientists. Many of them were in their scientific inquiries passionate amateurs, whose professions included engineering, the Church, business, academic philosophy, manufacturing, and a host of other occupations. Some were notoriously eccentric, none more so than England's great physicist Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), who lived alone in a stone hut, ate nothing but mutton, discovered many fundamental properties of electricity by using his own body as a remarkably accurate device for measuring electric current, and kept his discoveries almost entirely to himself. Initially, few natural philosophers had any intimate connections with the universities (the number increased steadily throughout the 19th century) (4).
And so the motives for pursuing the new natural philosophy varied. For many devout Christians, the new science as a vital weapon in the war against atheism, for radical critics of the traditional Church and state (particularly in France), science provided constant opportunities for ridiculing dogma and authority, for ambitious capitalists science was the key to profitable invention, increased production, and more efficient trade, and for speculative imaginations science was a daily introduction into the dazzling wonders of the new knowledge.
Thus, it is unwise to make any too sweeping generalization about what went on throughout this period in the name of the new science. The activity took many forms, produced many arguments, and passed onto its successors an amazing achievement, not least of which was a large number of urgent and pertinent questions.
One should, above all, be very careful about revisionist Whiggery, that is, reinterpreting the history of science during such a rich period of growth in order to construct a clear history of progress with "winners" (those who anticipated the theories which were ultimately to prevail, like evolution) and "losers" (those who advocated hypotheses which we no longer maintain, like "fixity of species").
It is, for example, tempting to write the history of biology as a series of anticipations of Darwin--to celebrate those who apparently stumbled across some ideas Darwin advanced and to denigrate those who did not or who challenged such ideas. This interpretative procedure is a serious error. It leads to a false sense of what many thinkers were really saying, and it tends to ignore the fact that many of those who turned out to be "wrong" carried out inquiries which were enormously important (e.g., the observations of the catastrophic geologists). Finally, such an attitude tends to simplify the complexity of the past and often misses the vitally creative role played by arguments in the scientific community (5).
Working out questions of intellectual influence is a difficult process. Obviously, in any quick review of the history of science in this period, the interest in Darwin is central, and we are naturally drawn to emphasize anything that seems to bear directly upon his work. However, simple anticipations are not necessarily the only or even the most important influences, particularly in the case of a scientist like Darwin, who had such a rich and complex (even contradictory) intellectual and educational background and who matured at a time when viciously partisan scientific and political disputes were a daily (and for him very distasteful) ingredient in the press (6)
A Note on Science, Politics, and Religion from the 17th to the 19th Centuries
In tracing the early narrative of the development of modern science, however cursorily, one must also be very careful about too easily falling into a habitual science-versus-religion metaphor. As we shall see, religion was by no means automatically antagonistic to science. What tended to be much more important in the relationship between religion and science was the particular scientific theory advanced and especially its latent political message, rather than scientific inquiry per se.
In addition, one must remember that religious questions throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were always intimately bound up with political questions. This point applies also in Britain, where, for all the toleration so admired by Continental observers, there was an established government-sponsored national religious institution, the Anglican Church, which had been created (by Queen Elizabeth I) and was maintained (and largely controlled) by the government to answer urgent political problems, especially the revolutionary threat of radical Protestantism. Those who did not belong to the state church, whether dissenters (non-conforming Protestants), atheists, Unitarians, Jews, or Catholics could suffer grave economic, political, and social discrimination.
For example, only orthodox Anglicans could, among other things, attend Oxford and Cambridge, be eligible for much of the extensive system of patronage frequently necessary to survive as a professional, or, in many cases, get a proper hearing for their expertise (something which might enable them to earn a decent living). For a long time there were severe restrictions on marriage celebrated outside the Anglican faith. One's religious views and the religious-political implications of one's scientific work thus could have immediate personal and social repercussions.
The pressure to disestablish the Anglican Church (i.e., to do away with it as the official religion of the country) was strong throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and scientific theories which undercut traditional ideologies were thus especially popular with dissenting and radical groups and unpopular with the establishment.
And inevitably, given the close connections between religion and the class structure, developments in science were inextricably tied into a whole range of political questions, and different political viewpoints promoted different scientific theories as part of a total political agenda. When we consider the history of science in these centuries, it is often impossible to disentangle scientific disputes from political issues, mainly because during this period there was little attempt to do so (7).
Broadly speaking, in England the political spectrum during the 18th and early 19th centuries ranged all the way from the ultra-Tories (conservatives), who saw drastic social revolution in any idea which did not endorse an unchanging traditional hierarchy ordained by God, to ultra-radicals, who promoted atomistic, often atheistic, materialistic, evolutionary science (with dramatic transformations occurring from below) in the name of the social revolution which they (with one eye on France) demanded.
The ultra-Tories by and large contributed little directly to scientific thinking, but they exerted a disproportionate influence on science by their control of Oxford and Cambridge, the Royal College of Surgeons, patronage, the scientific societies (and their publications), and, for much of the time, the government (8). They saw to it that university appointments, pensions, surgeon's qualifications, access to collections and new specimens, and even a proper supply of corpses for lectures on anatomy went primarily to those who held the correct religious views (9).
In between these two extremes were the moderate Anglican Tories, willing to revise scriptural readings in the name of science, so long as they had no latent socially revolutionary doctrine, Whigs who saw in science the best hope for gradual and peaceful but necessary reform (and a better economy for business interests), freethinkers who rejected revealed religion and welcomed the concept of universal natural laws (on Newton's model), and dissenters pressing for immediate reforms which would give them access to the professions, especially medicine and university teaching. The growth of utilitarian philosophy at the end of the 18th century added yet another reform position to an already complicated scene.
One also should keep in mind the frequently turbulent political history of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries in England. Throughout much of this time, the worry about revolution was very real. Following the expulsion of James II (in 1688) on the ground of his Roman Catholicism, the threat of a revolution led by the exiled Stuarts was constantly alive (as Bonnie Prince Charlie demonstrated in 1745).
Once that threat eased, there was during the mid-18th century a period of gradual reform to meet the pressing demands of a rapidly increasing urban population and an impoverished agricultural working class, and radical opinions were not uncommon in polite society (agitation against the slave trade, spearheaded by the dissenters, was particularly common in respectable circles, Tory and Whig). In this climate, both in England (and throughout Europe) bold new ideas in science with considerable revolutionary potential flourished.
But the French Revolution (which broke out in 1789) set back the cause of reform by at least two generations, for it launched a massive and sustained counter-revolution, a movement which in England effectively stalled reform action. The opening decades of the 19th century were thus in England a time far more repressive than in the 1780's, and promoting certain materialistic theories, especially those associated with France, could be physically dangerous and certainly disastrous for a professional career.
It's probably fair to conclude that had Charles Darwin developed his theory in the 1780's (rather than in the 1830's and 40's), he would not have had to wait so many years before finding the political climate favourable enough to publish such a materialistic thesis. But by 1859 (the date of the publication of The Origin of Species), a series of reforms had taken much of the momentum and almost all of the extreme revolutionary political threat out of the radical movements in England.
It is worth remembering that the 1820's and 1830's marked some of the bitterest and most dangerous political fighting in English history, and that the possibility of a revolution launched by the disenfranchised, rapidly expanding, and chronically abused urban poor was always present. Debates about science (particularly about biology and medicine) were right at the centre of these disputes (see Section Three of this handbook for a discussion of this matter) (10).
The point is that one should be careful not to see the developments in science during this period in isolation or simply as a case of secular reasoning gradually overcoming traditional dogma. Superficially the picture might look like that, especially if one examines only a few popular speeches of the orthodox promoters of one side or the other. But, in fact, the issues in science were inherently linked to the often tense and shifting political questions, which tended in public often to express themselves in religious terms (for obvious rhetorical reasons).
Seventeenth-Century English Science
A major concern in the development of science in the 17th century, prominent in the work of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), was the question of the method most appropriate to the new direction for science, something that would make it disciplined, persuasive, and useful. On the Continent, the most famous and influential figure dealing with this issue was Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who sought to ground scientific inquiry on deduction, to make the case that true physics was essentially a branch of mathematics. His work was a major influence in shaping a strong Continental tradition of deduction (with mathematics at the core) as the most appropriate method.
In England, by contrast, the emphasis was placed more firmly on an empirical method, based on experiment and observation. Here the contribution of Francis Bacon (1561-1639) was extraordinarily influential. Bacon was not himself a practicing scientist and at times criticized some of the most famous scientists of his age (Copernicus, Galileo, Gilbert); he regarded the use of the telescope in science "with suspicion." But his writings on the method, purposes, and philosophy of science, especially in his Novum Organum (1620), were enormously important in guiding the work of later scientists.
One of Bacon's chief targets, as already mentioned, was the traditional preoccupation of medieval science with final causes and the authority of Aristotle.
This kind of degenerate learning did chiefly reign among the schoolmen [medieval philosophers], who having sharp and strong wits and abundance of leisure and small variety of reading, but their wits being shut up in the cells of a few authors (chiefly Aristotle their dictator) as their persons were shut up in the cells of monasteries and colleges, and knowing little history, either of nature or of time, did out of no great quantity of matter and infinite agitation of wit spin out unto us those laborious webs of learning which are extant in their books. For the wit and mind of man, if it work upon matter, which is the contemplation of the creatures of God, worketh according to the stuff, and is limited thereby, but if it work upon itself, as the spider worketh his web, then it is endless and brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the fineness of thread and work but of no substance or profit.
Such speculations, in Bacon's view, were fruitless, impeding the proper business of natural philosophy, the exploration of secondary (efficient) causes. He recognized that such a process might encourage scientists to leave moral considerations out of their work:
. . . in the entrance of philosophy, when the second causes [secondary causes], which are next unto the senses, do offer themselves to the mind of man, if it dwell and stay there, it may induce some oblivion of the highest cause [final cause].
But with a confidence that was to be characteristic of many English scientists, Bacon insisted that the danger of losing sight of moral and religious questions in scientific inquiry was not so serious as it might appear.
. . . when a man passeth on further, and seeth the dependence of causes, and the works of Providence, then, according to the allegory of the poets, he will easily believe that the highest link of nature's chain must needs be tied to the foot of Jupiter's chair.
Bacon also led an attack on deductive inquiry, which he claimed was sterile because it could not discover new knowledge, and on the older traditions of induction, which, Bacon maintained, placed insufficient value on a wide range of observations and on experiments.
There are and can be only two ways of search into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immovable, proceeds to judgement and to the discovery of middle axioms. And this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried.
In Bacon's new method, one paid attention to all the facts, or as many of them as one could observe (the more the better), staying as close to the phenomena of experience and experimentation as possible. Bacon also stressed the importance of negative results in experimental testing.
Thus, the Baconian method devalued hypotheses, emphasizing instead the collection of observations. In so doing, the method, as many have pointed out, suffered from limitations in its understanding of scientific judgments, of the role of the creative hypothesis, and of the central role of mathematics in science. But it gave an enormous boost, especially in England, to the importance of key experiments in the development of any new theory. While few later English scientists followed Bacon's recommended procedures exactly, they all did give experimentation of some sort a central place in their work (11).
Bacon also argued persuasively for the importance of science as a source of power:
The true and lawful goal of the sciences is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers.
Such a view found support, understandably enough, among the emerging business class and governments with increasingly imperialist ambitions. Thus, it is not unfitting that the growth of secular and practically minded scientific societies (based above all on fact-gathering, fact-sharing, and scientific resolutions of immediate practical problems) should be listed among Bacon's important contributions to the new science.
Associated with Bacon's new method was the pioneering work in physiology by William Harvey (1578-1657), an Englishman educated at Cambridge and Padua and court physician to James I. His Anatomical Dissertation Concerning the Motion of the Heart and Blood (1628), a quarto book of 72 pages, marked a decisive moment in the development of modern science (it doesn't always take huge books to announce major discoveries).
On the basis of a large number of experiments with many different species, Harvey proposed a revolutionary view of animal circulation as a closed system, with the heart as a pump and the blood going in one direction only around the blood vessels. In addition to this work on circulation, Harvey also conducted very significant experimental studies of animal embryos.
It is important to note, however, that Harvey saw himself as a follower of Aristotle. He believed in final causes and in the notion that, in addition to the four elements (earth, air, fire, water), blood contained a vital spirit. For these reasons, Harvey is often considered a transitional figure, a new experimenter (on the Baconian model) who saw his work as a continuation of Aristotelian science. In spite of its traditional vocabulary, however, Harvey's work exerted a major revolutionary influence, especially his emphasis that theoretical medicine should have a physiological basis, with experimentation and direct observation at the centre of the study. Inductive and quantitative methods of reasoning were, for Harvey, the key to understanding living processes (12).
A third major figure in 17th century English science was Robert Boyle (1627-1691), a practicing physician, who applied the experimental method to the study of gases (and who is celebrated as one of the chief founders of modern chemistry) (13). Boyle grasped the importance of Bacon's new emphasis on experimentation, but he wished to push his science beyond mere description of experimental observations. Thus, in contrast to Bacon, Boyle stressed the additional importance of hypotheses and set out criteria for evaluating any particular hypothesis: internal consistency, explanatory power which does not contradict other phenomena or "manifest physical truth," simplicity (not forced), power to generate other testable predictions, and "the only hypothesis that can explicate the phenomena or at least that does explicate them so well."
In so doing, Boyle effected a very useful working synthesis between deduction and induction as a blueprint for the new science. Boyle himself did not produce any remarkable hypotheses to explain his inductive findings in chemistry, but the method he recommended exerted an important influence, not least on Isaac Newton. Boyle was particularly important also for his writings on the purpose of science and its relationship to religion and for his vital work as a founder of the Royal Society (see below).
English 17th century science culminated in the work of Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who was quickly perceived as the presiding genius of a new age:
Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light. (Alexander Pope)
In any study of 17th and 18th century thought, one cannot overestimate Newton's importance. For the publication of Newton's Principia (1687) seemed to have announced the final answer to the centuries-old problems of celestial motion and thus to have resolved the very riddle of the cosmos. It is important, moreover, to stress that Newton's achievement was not merely confined to physics and astronomy or to scientific thinking generally; his influence on all eighteenth-century culture was pervasive (14).
Newton's scientific achievement is often described as a synthesis which brought together into an ordered system the ideas of many predecessors (prominent among them Galileo, Kepler, and Descartes) and which developed a proper sense of scientific method (a more contested question). Newton integrated the work of his predecessors and provided a convincing mathematical rationale for the mechanistic philosophy most of them had, in various ways, practiced.
In addition, Newton's work demonstrated (with the theory of universal gravitation) the falsity of the ancient doctrine that the laws governing heavenly bodies were different from the laws governing terrestrial phenomena. His system emphasized the unity of the cosmos, in where there were no qualitatively different places, so that the physical laws of nature were universally valid.
Parenthetically, it is interesting to observe that one of the greatest public triumphs of Newtonian physics came in 1845-6. Independent mathematical calculations on Newton's model computed the position of a hypothetical planet which might be the cause of unexplained variations in the position of the planet Uranus (discovered in 1781). In 1846 Galle, of the Berlin Observatory, using these predictions, viewed the new planet (Neptune) distant less than one degree from the predicted place (15)
Mechanical Natural Philosophy
What Newton appeared to have achieved (not just with his cosmological theories, but also with his study of light and his work in mechanics) was a triumphant justification of the new tradition of mechanical natural philosophy. This is a complex term, but, briefly summarized, in the 17th and 18th centuries it referred to at least three related ideas:
1. a new concept of causality (i.e., how natural events took place), according to which changes in the natural world must be explained in the terms of the mechanical impact of two or more physical bodies, without action at a distance, occult causes (like mysterious vital or spiritual forces), or divine interventions (obviously for strict mechanists, Newton's concept of gravitation was a contravention of this principle, and many Continental natural philosophers were not slow to criticize this aspect of Newton's theory);
2. a new vision of matter as displaying its particular properties because of the arrangement and motion of its constituent materials;
3. a new method in science, according to which the natural philosopher must explain phenomena by reference to mechanical models or analogies (i.e., one starts by looking upon all parts of nature as complex machines).
Newtonian science also seemed to endorse strongly a particular method for the practice of science. Given the authority of Newton in England, this method acquired a special importance in that country, especially in contrast to the deductive mechanical philosophy defended by Descartes and his followers on the Continent. Loosely called (in England) Baconianism, this method has recently been re-described with the more forbidding but technically accurate label experimentally-oriented corpuscular-mechanical natural philosophy:
The method . . . dictated that any particular class of phenomena was to be explained by first devising a specific corpuscular-mechanical model, consistent with, but not deducible from, the deep ontology of "matter in motion" and the fundamental laws of collision and motion, and then deducing from the model the phenomena in question. Considerations of the range of phenomena explained, the accuracy of the explanations and the absence of any obvious counter-instance, all served as criteria of the heightened probability of the model and explanation. Beyond this, the method stressed, in the manner of Bacon, "experience" as the outcome of experimentation grounded in the use of instruments, a robust approach to nature promising deeper and more accurate indications of what there was and how it worked, a form of knowledge convertible to power over nature as its test and fruit. (Schuster 239) (16)
The requirement to envisage natural processes as mechanical raised some immediate philosophical issues. First, what about the spiritual life? In an attempt to deal with this issue, Descartes divided the world into two separate components: the mechanical natural world (including animals and human bodies) and the non-mechanical world of the mind, leaving no satisfactory explanation for how these two spheres might interact with each other.
In addition, the mechanical philosophy, which claimed that the world was, in fact, made up of complex interacting machines, moving by collisions, had to make a number of basic assumptions about the real nature of matter (that is, about the fundamental basic elements, as opposed to the less real properties which observers perceived).
. . . the philosophical problems raised by the mechanical approach to nature were complex and intractable. One could only resolve them by making assumptions which were themselves contentious. It is not surprising, then, that mechanical philosophers differed among themselves on such basic issues as the ultimate explanatory variables. To Descartes' extension and motion, Boyle added texture, and Newton . . . added hardness and impenetrability . . . . Until Newton formulated the basic laws of mechanics one had good reason to be skeptical about the hypotheses invented by the mechanists. (Goodman 68)
The growing success of mechanical natural philosophy at the end of the 17th century owed a great deal also to factors other than the genius of Isaac Newton and his predecessors. At this time increasingly sophisticated machines (especially clocks, pumps, looms, and waterworks) were becoming a more common element in daily life. The growing scientific use of the microscope (from 1660-1685) and the development by Robert Hook (1635 to 1703) of the first piece of modern physical apparatus for experiments, the air pump, gave an enormous boost to the explanatory power of mechanical principles (17).
A strong driving force behind this growing mechanization of daily life were the dissenters or nonconformists (those Protestants who refused to join the Church of England and who were thus barred from the universities and from positions patronized by the establishment). The dissenters, many of whom were energetic and successful businessmen, organized special academies (starting in 1662) to teach the new science in order to promote useful technical ideas (i.e., natural philosophy with a strongly utilitarian emphasis). One of the most famous scientists to emerge from this tradition was Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), the co-discoverer of oxygen and the author of a historical account of the understanding of electricity (18).
Beyond these direct factors, however, and certainly far more important, was the strong desire to build a new foundation for society. After a century and half of enormously destructive religious warfare, culminating in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) and the English Civil War (1641-1646), politicians, writers, businessmen, and many Church leaders were anxious to put behind them the contumacious disputes about revealed religion and Church authority and to set civil and religious life on a more reasonable basis. Now that there was no longer any firm agreement among Christians on the one true faith, society had to find something other than religious belief to serve as a common foundation about which people could agree.
The importance given to natural philosophy in this new enterprise is indicated well by the formation of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge in London (1662) and of the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris (1666). Both organizations acknowledged their debt to Francis Bacon. At the same time began a number of scientific journals: the Journal des Scavans (1665) and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1665). From this point on, public arguments about science in journals and increasingly in the daily or weekly press became a marked feature of the intellectual scene.
In his famous historical account of the Royal Society, Thomas Sprat summed up the new spirit of the decades immediately after the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660:
But now since the King's return, the blindness of the former ages, and the miseries of this last, have vanished away; now men are generally weary of the relics of antiquity, and satiated with Religious Disputes; now not only the eyes of men, but their hands are open, and prepared to labour; now there is a universal desire, and appetite after knowledge, after the peaceable, the fruitful, the nourishing knowledge; and not after that of ancient Sects, which only yielded hard indigestible arguments, or sharp contentions instead of food. (1667)
One of the most famous (or, in its time, notorious) early results of this new spirit in England was Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651), which proposed to establish the state entirely on mechanical principles and to subordinate religion and tradition to the needs of the artificially created commonwealth. His motive for such a radical proposal is clear throughout: such a rational reconstitution of society is essential to avoid a repetition of civil war, especially one arising out of religious differences. Hobbes's treatment of traditional religion earned the book a very hostile reception, and Hobbes acquired a notorious reputation (which led, among other things, to his being accused of causing the attack of the plague in the 1660's).
John Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) and John Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) were two popular and influential books seeking, in a manner different from Hobbes, to reconcile traditional religious faith with a new reliance on reason, while at the same time trying to counter the pure atheism which, many alleged, Hobbes preached and which was the central theme of Lucretius's classic Latin poem celebrating nature as a product of materialistic chance, On the Nature of the Universe, which enjoyed a wide popularity throughout the century (19).
Such an interest in the new science accorded well, too, with the new commercial and imperial enterprises, the rising energies of capitalism, which required clear and secular principles to govern the economy and new inventions to power industry and, later, to deal with labour problems. Indeed, some of the first and most urgent problems which the Royal Society addressed had to do with improving shipping to make overseas trade more profitable (20).
Mechanical philosophy, although dominant in British science by the end of the 17th century, in many quarters generated opposition on the ground that it led too quickly to a reductive materialism and removed God's presence from human beings and nature. In the words of Richard Baxter (1615-1691), a prominent dissenting Puritan minister and writer, the mechanical philosophers
. . . give so much more to meere matter and motion, than is truly due, and know or say so much too little of spirits, active natures, vital powers, which are the true principles of motion, that they differ as much from true philosophers, as a carcas or a clock from a living man.
In support of objections like this, Ralph Cudworth (in The True Intellectual System of the Universe, 1678) proposed a "plastic nature," an active principle mediating between God and His creation:
Nature is art as it were incorporated and embodied in matter, which doth not act upon it from without mechanically but from within vitally and magically.
This viewpoint, which strove to defend a non-mechanical, spiritual presence in natural processes against what its proponents perceived as the reductive and irreligious potential of the new mechanical science, became associated with a group called the Cambridge Platonists, and their work remained throughout the 18th century a rallying point for those who found Newtonian science too mechanical. As such, the Cambridge Platonists, some have argued, exerted a decisive influence in shaping an anti-mechanical philosophy which was to lead directly to the Romantic movement in England at the end of the century.
And the vitalist interpretation of nature, the idea that there were irreducible non-mechanical forces within living things, persisted well into the 19th century, particularly in Germany, where the Naturphilosophen, with Goethe in the lead, mounted a vigorous opposition to Newtonian science, especially in biology (21).
A further source of opposition to the new mechanical philosophy was the conservative wing of Christianity, particularly among the great Tory satirists in England in the first half of the 18th century. These writers often saw in the new science a dangerous reassertion of human pride and the creation of illusory hopes. Like Socrates in the Phaedo, they objected to the increasing emphasis on efficient causes at the expense of traditional moral concerns. Out of this tradition came the most famous satire on the entire scientific enterprise, Book III of Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift (22).
Mechanical Philosophy and Christianity
Many of those 17th century scientists most prominent in espousing the new mechanical philosophy were devout Christians, and an important part of their scientific project was to reconcile the new mechanical philosophy of nature with traditional religious beliefs. This urge is understandable, given the atheism latent in any model of nature as thoroughly mechanical (an element reinforced by the well-known historical fact that atomism was an ancient pagan doctrine). If nature is merely matter in motion and if we understand the eternal laws by which the mechanism operates, what need to we have to believe in God's Providence? Are human beings also machines? If so, what happens to the spiritual life or to the freedom to choose upon which Christian morality rests? To a thorough atheist, of course, the answers to such questions were often easy enough. However, to a devout Christian like Boyle, Descartes, or Newton, a reconciliation was essential (23).
There were several avenues open to such a synthesis between mechanical philosophy and a faith in God's providence. For example, once could, like Boyle, use the traditional first-cause argument. Any chain of mechanical causes, no matter how long, had to start somewhere with an uncaused First Cause, and this could only be divine in origin. Alternatively, one could limit the scope of mechanical philosophy to certain phenomena only and insist upon the spiritual nature of other phenomena. Thus, most famously, Descartes separated the human mind from the mechanical world and made room in the mind for the soul and for religious faith. In so doing, of course, he introduced the complex problems of dualism: How could the spiritual mind be effectively linked with the mechanical body? Obviously, there had to be a link, but logically how was that possible? In addition, Descartes's division insisted upon the entirely mechanical nature of non-human animals.
A third method of reconciling the new mechanical science and religion was to insist, like Newton, that the various natural machines required the presence of God to continue working. They were not, in other words, autonomous.
by far the most important way of yoking the new science and religion
harmoniously together was to claim that the very existence and the regular
working of the machines of nature were proofs of God's providence. Whether one
looked to the arrangement of the heavens or contemplated the existence of atoms
or the design of an eye, it could be argued that such structures could never
have been created by chance.
They must therefore owe their existence to a divine designer, some higher intelligence. And given that the construction of the machine was well fitted to human purposes, one could also from this argument infer the goodness and benevolence of God.
This important argument is called the Argument from Design or the Design Argument (more about that later).
Finally, one could reinterpret scripture to find there the origins of mechanical philosophy (seeing, for example, with Commenius, in the "dust" of Genesis 3:14 a reference to atoms). Alternatively, one could develop methods of scriptural reading which did not insist upon the literal truth of the text (a method which grew in popularity under the influence of the new historical criticism, especially in Germany in the early 19th century).
In retrospect, given the extent to which mechanical philosophy eventually did so much to undermine orthodox faith, it is a curious irony that such attempts to reconcile mechanical philosophy with religion were a great spur to scientific inquiry as a support for religion. A proper understanding of nature, argued Boyle and Newton, would help to counter the heresies, atheism, and religious strife of the time (an important concern in the hedonistic, cynical world of Restoration London or Paris of the Ancien Regime).
of course, on this issue is something of special case. He could provide no
mechanical explanation for universal gravitation and appealed to "active
principles" and "invisible agents." Moreover, he had nothing to
offer in the way of a mechanical explanation for the development of physical
In a letter to Bentley, Newton made his views on this issue clear: "The growth of new systems out of old ones, without the mediation of a divine Power, seems to me apparently absurd."
This element in Newton's thought made his work all the more attractive for those seeking to graft onto mechanical philosophy a theistic interpretation of nature (i.e., to use science to defend religion). Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries Newton was constantly invoked by those seeking to establish reasonable grounds for belief in the continuing existence of God's providence.
From the foregoing system [Newton's astronomy] we learn, that God, the Creator of the world, does also exercise a continual Providence over it, and does interpose his general, immechanical, immediate Power, which we call the Power of Gravity, as also his particular immechanical Powers of Refraction, of Attraction, and Repulsion, etc., in the several particular cases of the phenomena of the world; and without which all this beautiful system would fall to pieces, and dissolve into atoms. (William Whiston, Astronomical Principles of Religion, Natural and Revealed, 1717)
this desire to link the emerging new science with orthodox religion, by the end
of the 17th century a decisive shift had started to take place in the
traditional tensions within Christian thought between reason and revelation (or
between rational logic and the literal text of the Bible).
The rise of what has come to be called Natural Theology made increasingly popular the view that the faith of a Christian should be based on what can be rationally demonstrated. In this view, human reason applied to the study of nature should reveal the intelligence, benevolence, and power of God; it should thus demonstrate the illogic and foolishness of atheism and, in some cases, of irrational Christian sects (especially those dissenting sects which relied upon excessively emotional preaching with lots of hellfire and damnation rhetoric).
An especially popular text in promoting this natural theology (the best selling topic for booksellers in the 18th century) was written by England's most famous botanist, John Ray. His Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation (1691) had gone through ten editions by 1735. Ray's optimistic vision of the natural order and of the role of science indicates an important shift towards a more optimistic rational Christian doctrine:
Nature is now to be contemplated as the finished and unimproved product of divine wisdom, omnipotence and benevolence. . . . God has placed man in a 'spacious and well-furnished world', and it is man's duty as well as privilege to exploit and improve it as much as he can. . . . The world we are to exploit is no ruin, blasted by God's vengeance for mortal sin. It is the brave new world of science which lies before us.
development of this new natural theology was gradual and complex, and very
closely associated with the development of natural philosophy throughout the
17th and 18th centuries. Some of the more obvious reasons for its growing
popularity, as we have seen earlier, were the following: (a) a desire to
establish principles of religion which could appeal to all reasonable people (so
as to achieve a measure of religious tolerance and agreement); (b) the need to
reconcile the new science with scripture and the new scientific methods with a
traditional religious life; (c) the urge to counter the growing atheism and
skepticism; (d) the wish to link religion and science in promoting gradual
political reform; and (e) the countervailing desire to use the new science as a
defense against the increasing demands for radical political and religious
Many of these points are mentioned in the following remarks by Thomas Sprat in his History of the Royal Society (1667):
A mischief by which the greatness of the English is suppress'd, is a want of union of Interests, and Affections . . . heighten'd by our Civil differences, and Religious distractions.
For the sweetning of such dissentions, it is not best at first to meet, and convers about affairs of state, or spiritual controversies. For those did first occasion our animosities, and the more they are rubb'd, the rawer they will prove. But the most effectual remedy to be us'd, is, first to assemble about some calm, and indifferent things, especially Experiments.
In them there can be no cause of mutual Exasperations: In them they may agree, or dissent without faction, or fierceness: and so from induring each others company, they may rise to a bearing of each others opinions. . . . Till at last by such a Gentle, and easy Method, our several Interests and Sects may come to suffer one another, with the same peaceableness as men of different Trades live one by another in the same Street. . . . [S]o the greatness of the Divine Majesty is best to be worshipp'd, by the due honouring, and observing of nature, which is his immediate servant, and the universal minister of his pleasure. (24)
One of the most prominent natural philosophers motivated to see in science a possible remedy for the moral ills of his time was Robert Boyle. He used the argument from design again and again to insist upon the wisdom and intelligence of God. In making his argument, Boyle placed particular stress on the evidence for design provided by complex anatomy: "I think I see more of admirable contrivance in the muscles of a human body, than in what we yet know of the astronomical world. . . ."
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Boyle believed very strongly that mechanical philosophy, particularly the analogy of the universe to a clock, brought back into the world a sense of final causes (since a machine had a purpose built into it by its creator). This purpose, in turn, provided a great incentive for further study of nature. The "studious search" for secondary causes (efficient causes), Boyle insisted, "will not prejudice the contemplation of final causes" (25).
In marked contrast to Descartes, for example, who claimed that it was pretentious of human beings to seek for divine purposes in nature, Boyle urged that it was the natural philosopher's duty to do so. Thus, for Boyle, as for many of his contemporaries, the pursuit of science was, first and foremost, a religious activity (26).
Natural Theology and Deism
Not all believers in a natural theology were orthodox Christians, since there was a variety of positions concerning the relationship between reason and revealed religious truth. Deism began in the late 17th century as a term designating a faith in the reasonableness of Christianity, but it quickly grew to refer primarily to a rejection of those revealed truths which were not rationally explicable (especially belief in Divine Providence, in rewards and punishments in the after life, and in divine intervention).
The central tenet of Deism was faith in a Creator who made the world and who then, because He was omniscient and unchangeable, had no further need to intervene. He was thus radically separated from all His creatures. The natural world operated by His laws (set at the time of creation) and not by His interventions.
As such, deism was generally not compatible with orthodox Christianity (many extreme deists called themselves "freethinkers"). John Toland's book, Christianity Not Mysterious, an early (1696) statement of deism, outraged orthodox opinion in England, and the authorities ordered it destroyed by the public hangman. In his Dictionary (1755) Dr Johnson defined deistical as belong to a "heresy."
While deists constantly attacked atheism (especially extreme materialistic science), they did not support traditional interpretations of scripture and were by and large hostile to any scientific theories which required the intervention of God in any manner contrary to natural laws. Many deists, especially in France, were passionately anti-Christian and hostile to the established church, most notably Voltaire (27).
Deism had a great influence on the Continent, where Voltaire (who encountered deism on his visit to England in the 1720's and who was most responsible for popularizing Newton's ideas in the 18th century France), Rousseau, Diderot, and the Encyclopedists (members of an intellectual reform movement called the philosophes) were active proselytizers. In response to a magnificent sunrise, Voltaire is said to have remarked: "I believe! I believe in you! Powerful God, I believe!. As for Monsieur the Son and Madam his Mother, that's a different story" (28).
In assessing the political-social climate of 18th century France this deistic stance of the philosophes is important, for their political and scientific views, however hostile to the establishment, did not extend to atheistic revolution. Their spirit of critical reform did not envisage anything that would create a world all that different from the one in which they, in general (and especially Voltaire), were famous and well off (D'Alembert collected five pensions) (29). Hence, deistic science in France set itself against extreme materialism and was one of the most outspoken critics of such tendencies in science (30). The best known centre of deism in Britain was Edinburgh, which remained receptive to French ideas in science well into the 19th century.
Deism remained popular in intellectual circles in France and Germany until near the end of the 18th century when, according to Heine, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason became "the sword with which deism was executed."
Nevertheless, for all the attempts to reconcile scientific and religious views, as the 18th century progressed certain natural philosophers, following Newton's methods, pressed the case of materialism, the most extreme form of scientific atheism, since it denied reality to non-material phenomena. In 1747, Julien Offray de la Mettrie (1709-1751) published (anonymously) L'Homme Machine, a work which stated that human beings were nothing more than machines, without a spiritual essence. The book was banned, and La Mettrie had to leave the Netherlands for refuge in Prussia.
The most prominent of the 18th century materialists was Baron d'Holbach (1723-1789), a German-born philosophe who lived in Paris. His Système de la Nature (1770), widely known as the "bible of the atheists," insisted that appeals to anything other than natural material causes were mere superstition, and he denied the truth of the Biblical account of Creation, since "nothing can be made of nothing." Although he did not quite deny the existence of God, in so emphatically removing God from nature, d'Holbach was pushing natural philosophy to an extreme furthermost removed from the ideas of Boyle and Newton and even of radical critics of religious orthodoxy, like Voltaire.
D'Holbach made no secret of the connection between his materialistic science and a radical political agenda. Believing that the environment shaped human beings, he, like other philosophes, called for a series of reforms to remove the religious and political impediments to progress, summoning all rational persons to "make one pious, simultaneous, mighty effort, and overthrow the altars of Moloch and his priests." It is no accident that, with language like this, D'Holbach remained well into the 19th century popular among radical groups and anathema to the establishment.
An important contribution to materialism was the discovery in the 1740's by Abraham Trembley of the ability of the hydra, a polyp, when cut into pieces, to grow a fresh organism from each fragment. To some this incredible result indicate that matter possessed the power of developing itself independently of God. John Needham's microscopic observations of organic matter in the same decade led him also to conclude that spontaneous generation of life (i.e., the development of living things from non-living material) was possible. The result was that Voltaire, the ardent anti-Christian, denounced Needham, a Catholic priest, as an atheist, a reminder that simple assumptions about religion and science in the 18th century are often difficult to make.
Materialism and materialistic determinism (the hypothesis that all events are the inevitable product of a set of prior material circumstances, with no need for God as a causative factor in natural events) tended in the 18th and early 19th centuries, in spite of the deism of the philosophes, to be associated with revolutionary France. The most extreme form of the doctrine was central to the work of the great French mathematician, the Marquis de Laplace (1749-1827), the "perfector of Newtonian cosmology":
We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its previous state and as the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant a mind which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it--a mind sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis--it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes.
In England the atheistic tendencies of a good deal of radical materialistic science from the Continent were linked, naturally enough, to the politically revolutionary spirit in France and, as such, in orthodox circles materialistic thinking after 1789 (the opening of the French Revolution) met a generally hostile reception in England at a time when the major political concern was controlling the restless poorer classes. Not surprisingly, however, the radical movement in England (especially in the turbulent first third of the 19th century) found much French atheistic science very congenial (31).
The Argument from Design
The argument from design, the natural theologians' central plank in their argument for the existence of God and the major defense against the atheistic implications of mechanical philosophy, in the 18th and 19th centuries involved at least four different principles:
1. arguing from the appearance of design in the functioning and adaptation of living things;
2. arguing from the appearance of design in the mathematical laws governing many natural phenomena;
3. arguing from what was inexplicable without recourse to divine intervention;
4. arguing from the inconsistencies of those who opposed the concept of divine design.
The second principle above obviously relied considerably upon Newton's mathematical system of divine cosmic order in the arrangement of the heavens:
The Universe appears thereby to be evidently One Universe; govern'd by One Law of Gravity through the whole; and observing the same Laws of Motion every where. . . . So that this Unity of God, is now for ever established by that more certain Knowledge we have of the Universe. (William Whiston, Astronomical Principles of Religion, 1717)
This common stance committed many natural theologians to an essentially circular argument, since Newton had claimed universality for his laws in part by an appeal to the existence of God. Newton's laws were everywhere valid because all of space is "the sensorium of a thinking being who by immediate presence perceives all things in it."
Not all adherents to Natural Theology and design based their case on Newtonian science. On the Continent, the philosopher Leibniz opposed a good deal of Newton's system in favour of his own (which featured a rigorously deductive structure). He argued that the concept of gravity was unintelligible (in effect, that it introduced into mechanistic science an occult cause) and that instead of relying on the structure of the cosmos as evidence of God's providence, one should have faith in the principle of sufficient reason: God's choice, although always perfectly free, is directed by the rational principle that He must act in the best possible way (32).
The argument from design rested on a number of important (but to many self-evident) assumptions, among which the most important were the following:
1. Since any work of art or any complex machine necessarily required a creator, the works of nature, so marvelous and well ordered, were reasonable grounds for inferring the existence of an intelligent divine creator (i.e., there was a direct analogy between human and divine creativity).
2. Divine design had created the universe in a static fixed pattern. Animals were pre-adapted to their conditions set at the time of Creation. Hence, the design was non-developmental and certainly not progressive.
3. A major article of faith was the Principle of Sufficient Reason (mentioned above) which stated, in the medieval formulation of Abelard: "God neither does nor omits to do anything except for some rational and supremely good reason, even though it be hidden from us." Thus, all life and matter had a divinely ordered structure and purpose. Since many natural theologians were quick to omit the final clause from Abelard's definition, this principle often gave a great stimulus to the idea that scientific inquiry could discover the entire truth about the universal divine plan.
On the basis of these assumptions, the argument from design allowed natural theologians to offer a reasonable and optimistic religious view of life, one in which science and religion worked together to reveal the constantly reassuring evidence for the existence of an intelligent and benevolent God. The vexations and calamities of life were no evidence to the contrary; they, too, were part of a reasonable and optimistic divine order.
A standard text on the subject throughout the 19th century was William Paley's Natural Theology (1802). Paley had this to say about the evils of human sickness:
Of mortal diseases, the great use is to reconcile us to death. The horror of death proves the value of life. But it is in the power of disease to abate or even extinguish this horror, which it does in a wonderful manner and oftentimes by a mild and imperceptible gradation. I am far from being sure that a man is not a gainer by suffering a moderate interruption of bodily ease for a couple of hours out the four and twenty. (33)
During the 18th century a number of events and discoveries arose to challenge these assumptions. The best known is the great earthquake in Lisbon (1747), in which 50,000 people died, a catastrophe which prompted Voltaire to pen the most famous attack on such cosmic rational optimism, Candide (34).
David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (published posthumously in 1779) delivered a philosophical onslaught against all natural theology, arguing among other things, that the imperfections and evils of the world were not compatible with the idea of a benevolent Creator, that one could not infer infinite attributes from finite evidence, and that all arguments about the creation of the world or first causes were no proof of the existence of a divinity.
Beyond these specific objections, Hume's other writings cast important doubts on the scientific enterprise itself, for he was not prepared to accept the notion of a given order in the natural world, and he rejected the metaphysical assumptions essential to a faith in cause and effect (but that is another matter).
The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) initially endorsed the design argument, but later in The Critique of Pure Reason (1781) he analyzed it in detail (calling it the Physico-Theological argument). Kant had much sympathy with the argument from design ("It enlivens the study of nature. . . . It suggests ends and purposes . . . and extends our knowledge of nature by means of the guiding concept of a special unity, the principle of which is outside Nature"), but he shattered the very basis of it as a logically reliable scientific principle.
Now I say that no matter how far physico-theology may be pushed it can never disclose to us anything about a final end of creation; for it never even begins to look for a final end.
In addition to these (in England largely unread) philosophical objections, there was growing scientific evidence that the assumption about a static and fixed design was problematic. The awareness that some species had become extinct (especially large animals, like mammoths), which suggested that the conditions on the earth had not always been the same or that the creatures had not been well adapted to their condition (i.e., poorly designed), and the continuing problem of fossils (see Section Two below) challenged, although they did not entirely break the widespread faith in the design argument.
Other attacks on the design argument came from radical biologists in the 1820's and 1830's. They ridiculed the idea, citing, among other things, the poor design of vestigial organs, like male nipples, in favour of their own atheistic evolutionary theories. Under this onslaught, conservatives began to move away from organ design as evidence of divine intelligence. Nevertheless, the argument from design constantly adjusted itself to meet the new evidence of a historical record of change and lasted well into the 19th century, when it was a prominent tactic used against Darwin's theory of natural selection.
It is important to recognize that underneath a good deal of the fierce attacks on Darwin's theory of natural selection, as on earlier mechanistic evolution, was the very worried, even desperate, recognition that this concept was a potentially lethal blow against the design argument, which by the mid-19th century was the major (in many quarters the only) remaining means of reconciling mechanical philosophy with Christianity or, in some quarters, of defending the establishment against the radical political implications of godless evolutionary science. In Darwin's theory, one writer has remarked, human beings became the chance result of a process that didn't even have them in mind.
For, as long as the argument from design had some credibility, it was possible to reconcile science with a sense of divine intelligence and purpose. The introduction of the concepts of randomness and chance into the very processes of life itself was an obvious threat to this centuries-old faith in God's original and continuing presence in human life.
Certainly one major effect of Darwin's work (along with many others) was significantly to increase the growing crisis of religious belief in Victorian England (characterized by Thomas Carlyle as "an age destitute of faith, but terrified at skepticism"), to the point where the confidence of the age became qualified by a pervasive mood of spiritual uncertainty and agnosticism, summed up in the famous Victorian prayer, "O God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul."
The argument from design, however, has never entirely disappeared. Darwin's work inspired an evolutionary theology which took "progressive" evolution as evidence of design, and 20th century science has had no lack of advocates for new versions of old design arguments. A recently fashionable resurrection is the Anthropic Principle, which "in each of its various forms attempts to restrict the structure of the Universe by asserting that intelligent life, or at least life in some form, in some way selects out the actual Universe from among the different imaginable universes: the only 'real' universes are those which can contain intelligent life, or at the very least contain some form of life" (35).
Moreover, scientists are still arguing about the extent to which Darwin's theory was "progressive" (i.e., postulating that evolution led to ever more advance forms) or not, and, as in Darwin's day, in such disputes political and ideological questions are inextricably involved.
Notes to Section One
Newton, it should be remember, devoted much of his life to scriptural
interpretation. Robert Boyle, the distinguished natural philosopher and chemist
and strong advocate of the new Baconian philosophy in science, was, in his
professional work as a doctor, a firm believer in some rather odd folk remedies.
In his book Medical Experiments (1692) Boyle recommended as a good cure for sore throat in a child "a drachm of white dog's turd . . . to be very slowly let down the throat"; for eye problems in adults human fecal matter "of good Colour and consistence" should be dried and "blown once, twice, or thrice a day . . . into the patient's Eyes." Such treatments were probably used on Alexander Pope as a child. Perhaps they were effective in stifling complaints. [Back to text]
(2) For a fuller discussion of this point, see McMullin, in Olby and others, 818 ff. [Back to text]
(3) See Larry Briskman, "Rationality, Science and History," in Olby and others, 169 ff. [Back to text]
(4) This common view about the relative unimportance of the universities for the new science (especially early in the period) derives, in part, from the frequent contempt expressed by natural philosophers, particularly Francis Bacon, for what went on in the universities in the name of science. However, the opinion may be seriously inaccurate. John Gascogne points out in a recent study that "something like 87 percent of the European scientists born between 1450 and 1650 thought worthy of inclusion in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography were university educated . . . and a large proportion of this group . . . held career posts in a university: 45 percent for the period 1450-1650 as a whole." See "A reappraisal of the role of the universities in the Scientific Revolution," in Lindberg and Westman, 207-260. [Back to text]
The term Whig first arose to describe the political faction in England which
opposed the succession of James, Duke of York, to the throne, since he was a
Roman Catholic. From 1689 on, the term referred to a political party in England,
the opponents of the Tories. Generally speaking, throughout the 18th century,
the Tories were the party of tradition, defending the crown, the established
church, and the aristocracy against any significant change.
The Whigs, by contrast, were increasingly the party of the reformers (the ancestors of the Liberals), whose representatives were drawn in particular from the growing business class and the non-revolutionary dissenters (non-conforming Protestants). The phrase "Whig interpretation of history" was defined in 1931 in a book by that title (by Herbert Butterfield) as the tendency of many historians to interpret the past as a conflict between progressives (Whigs), those who anticipated the trends which produced the modern world, and reactionaries, those who opposed such trends (or who failed to anticipate them). In brief, this critically illegitimate procedure involves measuring the facts of the past by the values of today, with little or no detailed attention to complex questions of historical context. [Back to text]
There is no room here to go into the details, but Darwin's family had strong
roots in Whig politics, French evolutionary science, Unitarian religion, and
business. Darwin's education included a stint at Edinburgh, where his teacher
was Robert Grant (1793-1874), the best known and most vilified (or praised)
radical materialist biologist in Britain during the first half of the 19th
century. From there Darwin went to Cambridge, right at the opposite end of the
political-scientific spectrum. There is enough evidence to make persuasive the
theory that the lifelong illness which plagued Darwin had its origin in
psychosomatic causes connected, in part, with the conflict between his
scientific work and his social and religious beliefs.
Darwin's reservations about his family's feelings led him to decline Karl Marx's offer to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin. Incidentally, Grant's career is a good case study in the price a gifted and hard-working scientist paid for remaining true to strong anti-establishment principles. See Desmond for a detailed account of Grant's radical causes and the effect on his career. [Back to text]
(7) An instructive and interesting example is the work of Patrick Matthew, a commercial tree grower and fruit farmer in Scotland and one of those whom Darwin mentions as a precursor in the discovery of natural selection. To persuade his readers that the middle class was being unfairly taxed, Matthew argued (in 1831) that society should be like nature, where competition and the selection of the best-adapted individuals constantly transformed life in the most appropriate ways to fit a shifting environment. Matthew's target in this argument was the (to him) increasingly useless aristocracy. [Back to text]
(8) One of the most obvious symbols of the power of the Tories in the early 19th century was the so-called Bridgewater tradition. The Earl of Bridgewater, in atonement for a very irreligious life, in 1829 left 8000 pounds in his will for the publication of a series of books on the wisdom of God deduced from nature. The fund was administered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, and the president of the Royal Society, a selection panel which guaranteed that the authors would toe the Tory line. The funds were used to publish books by well-known orthodox scientists on scriptural geology and anti-evolutionary biology. The radical press was quick to christen the series the Bilgewater Treatises. [Back to text]
In the early 19th century, the shortage of corpses for anatomy lectures was a
serious matter, which made robbing cadavers profitable, as the cut-price and
generally radical private schools of anatomy competed with established medical
colleges and teaching hospitals in training surgeons. In fifteen months in
1830-1831, seven London gangs of "resurrection men" were arrested for
The professional career of the radical lecturer in anatomy Robert Knox (1793-1862), the most popular teacher of the subject in the country, was badly damaged by his association with William Burke and William Hare, sellers of cadavers who, in 1827-8 turned out to be murdering people (about sixteen in all) in order to make money selling the bodies. Knox had purchased some of the victims' cadavers unwittingly, but the Tory press had a field day savaging one of the chief and most cleverly outspoken opponents of the medical establishment. The Anatomy Act (passed in 1832) finally set better regulations for the collection and fair distribution of cadavers. [Back to text]
(10) The British government grew increasingly nervous in the closing years of the 18th century and remained so for the first four decades of the 19th. During the Napoleonic Wars, there were more soldier stationed in Britain to control the poor than assigned to Wellington on the Continent. Even after the defeat of Napoleon, the authorities remained anxious. The Peterloo Massacre in 1819 (where the cavalry killed civilians by charging a large crowd in Manchester gathered to listen to a reform speech), the Cato Street Conspiracy (by revolutionaries who hoped to launch a general uprising in 1820 by assassinating the cabinet), and the Tolpuddle Martyrs (Dorchester labourers transported to Australia in 1834 for union organizing), among many other events, are reminders of just how tense English politics was in the decades before Darwin's book first appeared. [Back to text]
(11) Bacon's most famous analysis of the different methods in science is his parable of the insects. He saw himself as a bee, not as an ant (one of the "men of experiment . . . [who] only collect and use") and not as a spider (the "reasoners . . . [who] make cobwebs out of their own substance"). The bee metaphor suggests that Bacon wanted to promote a science which gathered and transformed, but, as is often pointed out, his own emphasis in general appears to encourage ants rather than bees and to dismiss spiders. [Back to text]
(12) Cohen argues that one can appreciate the importance of Harvey's work on the circulation of blood by comparing it to Galileo's and Copernicus's theory of the heavens: "Harvey created a single circulatory system with a single center (the heart) to replace the multiple systems of Galen. This was a similar achievement to the creation of a single system of the world by Copernicus, and especially by Kepler, to replace the collection of separate systems in Ptolemy's Almagest. Similarly, Harvey's devastating proof of the falsity of the Galenic doctrine may be likened to Galileo's proof that the Ptolemaic system for Venus does not accord with reality" (194). [Back to text]
(13) Boyle's Law, which students still encounter early in their studies of chemistry, establishes a precise mathematical relationship between the pressure of a gas and its volume (the pressure P is inversely proportional to the volume V, or, mathematically expressed, PV = k, where k is a constant). This law, derived from empirical science, is one of the best known results of 17th century English science. Its similarity to the results of Galileo's work on motion is clear. [Back to text]
(14) Given that Newton did not always practice what he preached, there were conflicting interpretations of Newtonian science, so that his influence on questions about the appropriate methodology was by no means simple. See Guerlac, Section 11, "Newton's Science." [Back to text]
(15) It was just this sort of predictive power of Newtonian physics that led to the enormous confidence (or over-confidence) of many 19th century scientists. In 1894, considering the future of physics, A. A. Michelson observed that it would consist of little more than "adding a few decimal places to results already known." In 1903 Michelson similarly observed that "The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplemented in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote." Michelson later acknowledged his regret at making such remarks. The new physics of relativity prompted Sir John Squire to parody Pope's famous tribute to Newton (quoted in the text) with a new tribute: "It did not last: the devil howling 'Ho,/ Let Einstein be,' restored the status quo." [Back to text]
Newton's cosmology, with its complex mathematical basis and the hypothesis about
gravitation might seem to be offering a method not totally compatible with
Bacon's emphasis on induction. But in England, Newton's system was widely
interpreted as a confirmation of Bacon's method and frequently invoked as an
apology for this "English" approach to science. In his Preface to the
second edition of Newton's Principia, Roger Cotes made this point emphatically
in his attack on rational deduction: "From this fountain [Newton's method]
it is that those laws, which we call laws of nature, have flowed, in which there
appear many traces indeed of the most wise contrivance, but not the least shadow
These therefore we must not seek from uncertain conjectures, but learn them from observations and experiments. He who is presumptuous enough to think that he can find the true principles of physics and the laws of natural things by the force alone of his own mind and the internal light of his reason, must either suppose that the world exists by necessity, and by the same necessity follows the laws proposed; or if the order of Nature was established by the will of God, that himself, a miserable reptile, can tell what was fittest to be done.
All sound and true philosophy is founded on the appearance of things; and if these phenomena inevitably draw us, against our wills, to such principles as most clearly manifest to us the most excellent counsel and supreme dominion of the All-wise and Almighty Being, they are not therefore to be laid aside because some men may perhaps dislike them." It is clear, however, that, for all this emphasis on Baconian principles, Newton's methodology marked a significant shift in the conception of the role of experiments, away from Bacon and the Royal Society.
The Newtonian method relied, not on extensive observation and experiments, but rather on the "key" experiment, often a single test, whose role it was to decide between rival hypotheses. For a discussion of this point which includes some useful remarks on Newton's derivation of his concept see Guerlac, Chapter 13, "Newton and the Method of Analysis." [Back to text]
(17) Robert Hooke's Micrographia (1665), which was designed to inform the general public about his work with the microscope, first brought wide attention to the existence and nature of cells. [Back to text]
Priestley was one of England's most famous scientists in the latter half of the
Apart from his experimental discoveries, Priestley was famous for his contributions to the history of science, notably The History and Present State of Electricity (1767), which helped to popularize the notion that the best evidence for the increasing progress in human happiness was the recent development of science. Priestley had a fierce devotion to the idea of progress through science. Robert K. Merton, in a controversial argument (the Merton Thesis), has suggested that there was a direct link between the demands of a Calvinistic religious ethic and the pursuit of science.
For a short discussion of this idea, see "Puritanism, Pietism, and Science" in Barber and Hirsch, 33-66. A useful examination of the whole question occurs in "Nonconformity and the Growth of Technology," in Scientific Progress and Religious Dissent. [Back to text]
(19) John Locke (1632 to 1704), a trained physician and philosopher, had immense authority in England throughout the 18th century (his Essay Concerning Human Understanding was published in 1689-90), especially in giving philosophical speculation a practical and utilitarian emphasis. The spread of Baconian science in England owes as much to Locke as to Newton. [Back to text]
(20) Central to this enterprise were improving navigation by attacking the problem of longitude (a task which required more accurate timekeeping), addressing the problem of tides, and dealing with the depleting timber resources (building ships out of green lumber was becoming a serious problem). The Royal Society encouraged England's best scientists to work on these and other similarly practical and urgent issues in the national and the business interest. [Back to text]
"Naturphilosophie . . . [was] a mystical philosophy of nature paralleling
the romantic reaction against Enlightenment values in the arts. The Naturphilosophen
believed in the unity of nature and hoped to demonstrate this unity in biology
by discovering the underlying ground-plan of which all living species are but
variants. They also saw the growth of the individual organism as a process that
illustrated the purposeful activity of nature in general.
The material world was now seen as merely a projection of deeper spiritual reality" (Bowler 41). German Naturphilosophie was introduced into England in the early 19th century, where it became, with Coleridge's considerable assistance, Platonized and Christianized (i.e., its pagan pantheistic implications were removed) in the service of a biology which could stand its ground in the name of traditional order against the radical implications of materialist evolutionary theory. See Section Three below for a fuller discussion of this issue. [Back to text]
(22) A famous attack on science launched the public career of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788), who in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1750) identified science as a means of oppression, whereby those in authority "fling garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh [the people] down." In keeping with so much of Rousseau's paradoxical writings, this view contrasts markedly with Rousseau's own considerable interest in science and with his eager association with those promoting the new science in France. [Back to text]
(23) Newton's religious views were, as is well known, quite eccentric, and it is doubtful whether his contemporaries would have considered him a Christian. He was certainly not sufficiently orthodox to have passed muster at the bastion of the Anglican establishment at Cambridge, where he was the most eminent professor, had he not been quite shrewd and too illustrious to be dislodged on virtually any pretext. Even in university science, religious orthodoxy tended to be more important than any other qualification. As late as 1764 Richard Watson, an Anglican cleric, could still be appointed professor of chemistry at Cambridge, even though, as he admitted, he "knew nothing at all of chemistry, had never read a syllable on the subject, nor seen a single experiment in it." By all accounts, Watson did apply himself diligently to his new duties and became a competent scientist. [Back to text]
(24) An interesting indication of the growing faith in scientific rationality in the period is the rapid growth in the popularity of Euclid in England. The Elements was first translated into English in 1570. Within two hundred years, there had been seventeen different translations, some of which were enormously successful. One by Dr. John Keill (1708), Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, went through twelve editions, and the one by Robert Simpson (1756) went through twenty-six edition in ninety years. By this time Euclid had become firmly established in the school curriculum. [Back to text]
(25) Newton shared this sense that the new science would foster a better understanding of final causes: ". . .if natural philosophy, in all its parts, by pursuing this method, shall at length be perfected, the bounds of moral philosophy will also be enlarged." [Back to text]
(26) One can hardly emphasize enough the importance of religious faith in the work of many of these scientists. And thus one must be very careful not to ascribe the growing interest in the new science to a turning away from religion. Much of it was, by contrast, thoroughly informed by a devotion to Christianity and inspired by certain Christian traditions. On this point see Klaaren, especially his discussion of Boyle. [Back to text]
(27) The most important and impressive deist publication of the 18th century was the famous French Encyclopedie, published in thirty-five volumes between 1751 and 1780, under the editorship of Diderot and D'Alembert. A major emphasis in the work was science and its application to new techniques and inventions. Generally speaking, the articles upheld a theistic but anti-Christian attitude, with a strong political critique aimed at the government and the Roman Catholic Church. [Back to text]
Voltaire, as a deist, had no sympathy for atheism; on the other hand, he took
great delight in ridiculing traditional Christianity as viciously as he could.
Of the Book of Ezekiel he had this to say: ". . . the Eternal said to him
'Arise, eat a book and then go off.' The Eternal orders him to sleep for three
hundred and ninety days on his left side, and then forty on the right side. The
Eternal ties him up with ropes; certainly this prophet was a man who should have
been tied up--but we are not yet finished. Can I repeat without vomiting what
god commands Ezekiel to do? I must do it.
God commands him to eat barley bread cooked with shit. Is it credible that the filthiest scoundrel of our time could imagine such excremental rubbish? Yes, my brethren, the prophet eats his barley bread with his own excrement: he complains that this breakfast disgusts him a little and God, as a conciliatory gesture, permits him to mix his bread with cow dung instead. Here then is a prototype, a prefiguration of the Church of Jesus Christ. . . .
But when they will know that the Christian sect is actually nothing more than the perversion of natural religion; when reason, freed from its chains, will teach the people that there is only one God, that this God is the universal father of all men, who are brothers; that these brothers must be good and just to one another, and that they must practice all the virtues; that God, being good and just, must reward virtue and punish crimes; surely, my brethren, men will be better for it, and less superstitious." (Sermons of the Fifty). [Back to text]
(29) The term philosophes refers to a widespread international intellectual movement centred in France, which throughout the latter half of the 18th century energetically promoted rational reform of social institutions. The philosophes did not constitute a tightly organized party or promote a unified platform. Generally speaking they constantly argued for reasonable improvements in society, so as to get rid of the abuses of the traditional Church and aristocracy. Prominent writers associated with or very sympathetic to this movement were Voltaire, D'Alembert, Diderot, Rousseau (until he quarreled with Voltaire), Hume, Gibbon, and a number of others. The philosophes carried out their work almost entirely in the works they wrote, rather than in any direct political action. [Back to text]
(30) Voltaire would not allow his guests to discuss reform politics or atheistic science in front of the servants for fear of prompting rebellious ideas in the lower orders. The science of the deists in France is one indication of their lack of an overall political program in their often aggressive and anti-Christian arguments in the name of progressive but cautious reform "We have never pretended," wrote Voltaire, "to enlighten shoemakers and servants; that is the job of the apostles." [Back to text]
(31) Napoleon heard that Laplace had written a book on the heavens without mentioning God. He asked the famous mathematician about the omission. Laplace airily dismissed the question: "I had no need for such a hypothesis." The answer would hardly have pleased Newton. [Back to text]
(32) Leibniz strove to develop a science of nature based on the Aristotelian notion of a teleological (i.e., goal driven) force inherent in all nature. His system proposed a nature that was autonomous but dynamic, driven by immanent laws towards rational goals. See Philip R. Sloan, "Natural History, 1670-1802," in Olby and others, 302 ff. [Back to text]
(33) Similar views were expressed by the well known scriptural geologist William Buckland to explain the destruction of animals. Impressed by the Divine skill in fashioning predators' teeth, Buckland acknowledged that such fine weapons speeded the death of the ill and infirm, increasing the overall happiness and health of the animals preyed upon. Buckland himself must have had fine teeth, to judge by the unusual pleasure he derived from eating exotic food, like potted ostrich or crocodile for breakfast. [Back to text]
In the previous century, Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) had argued firmly in
his Ethics against the notion of design in nature: "nature does not propose
to itself any end in its operation, and . . . all final causes are nothing but
pure fictions of human imagination." And Descartes, as mentioned above,
claimed that, if nature had final causes, human beings had no way of knowing
them: "the capacity of our mind is very mediocre, and not to presume too
much on ourselves, as it seems we would do were we to persuade ourselves that it
is only for our use that God has created all things, or even, indeed, if we
pretended to be able to know by the force of our mind what are the ends for
which he has created them" (Principles of Philosophy).
Defending the Design Argument in the face of natural disasters was an important and popular theme. In England, where secular literature in the 18th century sold well, the best-selling publication of the century was A Letter from the Lord Bishop of London to the Clergy and People of London on the Occasion of the Late Earthquake, of which over a hundred thousand copies were published. [Back to text]
Barrow and Tipler 510. This book contains a useful summary of the history of the
design argument from antiquity to modern times (in Chapter 2). The Anthropic
Principle has a number of different versions. The Weak Anthropic Principle (put
forward by Brandon Carter in 1973) states that the existence of human life may
determine some of the properties of the universe.
The Strong Anthropic Principle states that the universe must be of such a nature as to allow for the existence of life. The Final Anthropic Principle asserts that having come into being, life in the universe will never die out, a claim which suggests that the universe was created for our benefit. A recent addition to the tradition of the design argument is Paul Davies, The Mind of God: Science and the Search for Ultimate Meaning (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1992). [Back to text]
[This handbook, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, for Liberal Studies students, is in the public domain and may be used without charge and without permission by anyone, provided the source is acknowledged. Released May 2000]
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