English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Ramifications of the victory of the new picture of the cosmos

As we have seen, the "Copernican Revolution" was the work of many more individuals than Copernicus, took place over the course of around a century and a half, involved not only astronomy but physics, and entailed profound changes in the understanding of what sorts of evidence and arguments were even relevant in the domain of "natural philosophy."  There are several distinct aspects of this achievement that, although intimately interrelated, are worth recognizing independently. We can conveniently divide them into matters concerning the findings of science, and matters concerning the method of science.

I. As to what was discovered in in the course of the "Copernican Revolution:  the picture of the structure and nature of the cosmos was radically transformed. 

A. The extent of the cosmos was greatly expanded. The conception of the universe as cozily closed - enveloped within the final sphere of the Primum Mobile - gives way to a conception of space as indefinitely vast. In fact, it became possible to conceive it as possibly infinite.

B. The cosmos is conceived as governed by a universal set of physical laws - that is a single body of law penetrates the whole cosmos, through and through.

1.  Instead of a world divided into two distinct realms ("celestial" [superlunary] and "terrestrial" [sublunary]),

in the new conception of things


2. This fundamental change had profound consequences in turn.

Traditional teachings regarding Original Sin came into question. Since the same laws govern projectiles (and clouds) on earth as govern the orbits of planets (both the earth itself and the bodies at great distance from it), we are led to ask whether (a) all of created nature has been infected by the sin of the first parents, or whether (b) none of nature - including the region enclosed within the orbit of the moon - has been infected by it, despite the traditional interpretation.

C. The cosmos itself was understood to be under the thorough-going governance of law.

It is important to keep in mind that this was not (and is not today) something demonstrably achieved.

And this faith or this enabling premise -- whichever way we choose to characterize it -- has subsequently borne spectacular fruit, as more and more of nature has yielded to explanation in terms of stable relations of cause and effect -- that is, of natural law.  Already in Newton's day, Sir Robert Boyle had expressed in rigorous mathematical terms the mutual relations of volume, temperature, and pressure of gasses.  By 1700 (say) Newton's Principia had inspired this confidence in many educated people.  It would be just over another century that John Dalton's New System of Chemical Philsophy (Part I, 1908; Part II, 1910) would put chemistry on its modern footing of the atomic hypothesis. Electric fields and subatomic particles in physics, the cell hypothesis, bacteria and viruses, genetic theory - all these would enter only later.  But enter they did, and they did so only because the investigators who discovered them worked upon the assumption, re-validated by their success, that the particular domain of the universe which they were exploring was law-governed, and that these laws were susceptible to illumination by human inquiry.  (To drive this home, you have only to think of the variety of topics covered today in any introductory college course in chemistry or physics or biology.)

1. Acceptance of a thoroughly lawful Nature amounted to discarding the picture according to which Nature was a domain of arbitrary forces to be appealed to by magic. Some of the conditions that were necessary for this to come about, as well as some of the profound effects of this "disenchantment of the world," are the focus of the essay by Lawrence Stone.  [We are not reading this essay in this semester's edition of the course, but any student interested in taking a look at it should let me know and I'll see that you get a copy.]

2. But the picture of Nature as saturated by Law also laid the ground for a rejection of any kind of supernatural intervention ("advent") in the course nature (the chain of "events"), which (except for it origins) could now be thought of as a closed system. The consequences of this change in the framework of perspective were to be enormous.

"Deism" is the name often given to the view that God fashioned the world at the beginning of time - both the matter of which it is made and the laws which govern the behavior of that matter - and set it in (initial) motion, thereafter not needing to intervene by way of "tinkering" to "correct" any "errors," and therefore (not being the sort of Being to do anything superfluously) standing apart strictly as an observer of the cosmic scene.

This amounts to a rejection of central tenets of the traditional Christian picture of history. On this view, miracles are ruled out. (Scripture will have therefore to be either rejected or reinterpreted.) But another consequence is that prayer cannot be seen to be answered: if petitions to the divine author are regarded as "effective" at all, it must be so only in some psychological sense by which the petitioner's mind is altered in some arguably healthy way by the practice itself. (Again, traditional religious understanding of this practice must be seriously modified or abandoned altogether.) Finally, even the Incarnation itself comes into question as in principle inconsistent with the seamlessness of the natural realm.

3. Paradoxically, while from one perspective the spectacle of Nature as completely and intrinsically obedient to law enhanced many people's confidence in the power of human activity to affect human destiny, from another, for many, it seemed to undermine in principle any possibility for free human action. [4] Man himself might be only a special sort of mechanism, subject to "mechanical" laws--more complex, perhaps than those governing falling bodies and planets, but just as inexorable. On this view, "voluntary action" is an illusion, and the behavior of humans (like any other aspect of the Great System) is the "passive result" of a chain of circumstances itself simply an expression of the Laws of Nature.

D. The Earth was re-situated.  From the center of the cosmos, it was displaced to the rank of one planet among several.

Consequences:  For some, this was to raise questions about the centrality of Man within the attentions of the Creator Himself.  Is man the "end" (purpose) of creation?  Is humankind the focus of divine concern? 

As the prospect arose that there might be more than one life-supporting solar system in the universe, this question would take on renewed emphasis.

(It would still be over a century before the question would be urgently raised as to whether there was a Divine Providence at work over the creation as a whole, or even whether it makes sense to imagine the cosmos as a creation in the first place.  But, with the advantage of hindsight, it is clear that, within Western European culture, the initial step towards the consideration of such radical questions was the blow to "species narcissism" associated with the Copernican Revolution.)

II.  As to how the discoveries were made:  the prestige of "reason" operating upon the testimony of the senses was vastly advanced.

A. The claims of theologians to interpret Holy Scripture with a special competence on questions of natural science were spectacularly defeated.[6] 

1.  If the Bible is not to be rejected as false, then the interpretation of those passages that deal with the phenomena of nature must wait upon prior clarification of the state of affairs as determined by science.  In respect of these passages, at least, not only may theologians not tell scientists what it is permissible to believe God's is to be taken to be, but theologians themselves must defer to scientists in making sense of them. 

2.  Moreover, the knowledge offered by science is not certain but always subject to correction in the light of further investigation.  It can, that is, only be provisional.  In other words, it is in principle fallible.  Now the content of the faith a person puts in any given proposition depends on how that proposition is understood.  Hence the faith that human beings can put in these particular passages of Holy Scripture can never be certain, because their meaning is dependent upon science, and science does not pretend to certainty.

3.  But the case is worse yet.  It is important to appreciate that, in the light of Newton's vindication of Kepler's version of Copernicus' hypothesis, Pope Urban VIII was revealed to have been mistaken not merely on certain questions of astronomy (whether the sun was at the center of the universe and stationary and whether the earth was not at the center of the universe and moved around the sun and upon its own axis) but on certain basic tenets of theology.  Either the Pope was mistaken in his belief that (tenet one) the passage in the Book of Joshua telling of the miracle God worked for his Chosen People was indeed the infallible Word of God.  Or he was mistaken in believing that (tenet two) the passage meant that the sun and moon do move through physical space around a stationary earth.

a.  Hence one result of the triumph of the new picture was to call in question the entire edifice of belief that had been transmitted by tradition on the basis of faith in institutionalized authority.  Put another way, the faith in institutional authority itself was called into question:  if these learned gentlemen could be so wrong on positions about which they were so adamant, and on the basis of which they had confidently inflicted such suffering on others, what else among their preachments might be unworthy of our respect?  Perhaps only a critical inquiry conducted at the bar of reason was competent to say. 

b. But another was to stimulate theological thinking to develop new strategies of interpretation, capable of both preserving a faith in the truth of Holy Scripture (though the truth in question would of necessity have to be somewhat different than it had been thought to be before) and of acknowledging the demonstrations of natural science.

4.  Neither the specific conclusions [7] of the new science nor the enhanced prestige of natural reason necessarily impeaches the authority of Scripture (whether the Bible or the Q'uran) on questions outside the domain of natural science. But it does require that henceforth people are forced to make a choice:  either the jurisdictional lines between theology and natural science have to be redrawn from what they had formerly been understood to be (so that theology is confined to matters of, for example, "faith and morals," and forced to defer to science on the latter's turf) or one or the other must be rejected. It has been a fact of subsequent history that, when forced to choose between the authority of science and that authority of theologians or of Holy Scripture, the authority of science (at least in the modern West) has won out within the community of educated persons.  And that has meant, in turn, that the preferred alternative has been to so arrange the jurisdictional boundaries between theology and natural science that one is not forced to choose.

B. The power of (unaided) human reason proceeding upon observations made by humans through their sensory equipment was triumphantly demonstrated.

1. But the physical senses are limited to acquainting us only with knowledge of this world (i.e., of conditions of our earthly existence).

Reliance exclusively on the new authority of Natural Reason plus the Senses implicitly entails a redirection of focus of human concerns, from the heavenly to the earthly, from the other-worldly (God, His Providence, the afterlife) to the this-worldly (Man, secular history, natural science, and the technological improvement of the human situation). The prestige of this new authority, in other words, is connected with another trend characteristic (for better or worse) of modernity: secularization.

2. At the same time, insofar as both reason and the physical senses are given to all human beings (with the exception only of rare unfortunates), the ground is laid for undercutting the belief that some individuals are naturally (or divinely) ordained to rule over others in virtue of some supposed "innate superiority" (some "inborn nobility") expressed in aristocratic genealogy. [8]   That is, a basis is established for legitimizing democracy in social and political relations - though it will not be until much later that this potential will be pushed to fulfillment by thinkers who, even then at first, were regarded by their contemporaries (and by many perhaps even now) as dangerous fantasists.

3. Finally, we should note that to the degree that one's confidence increases in the power of the unaided human faculties of reason and physical observation, to that degree one is logically forced to detach oneself from at least the more radical versions of the doctrine of Original Sin, according to which one of the effects of the disobedience of the First Parents is the impairment and dethroning of the faculty of reason in their progeny.


1.  Pelagius was a monk and theologian, probably from Britain, who, between 380 and 418, taught in Rome, North Africa, and Palestine. He and his followers were rigorous ascetics, who blamed the moral laxity of the (by then officially Christian) Roman Empire on the doctrine of divine grace derived from Augustine, whose prayer for continence (in his Confessions) asked God for whatever grace the divine will determined. Pelagius viewed this teaching as a threat to the entire moral law: what is there to restrain a man from behaving sinfully if he is not responsible for his good and evil deeds? Pelagius insisted on man's basically good moral nature as the condition for his ability, and hence responsibility, for voluntarily choosing the life of spiritual advancement demanded by God's will (which he, in agreement with Augustine, identified with asceticism). His position, in contrast to Augustine's, emphasized the primacy of human effort in spiritual salvation. It thus entailed a very different interpretation from Augustine's of the effects of Original Sin and of the role of divine grace in salvation. Pelagius held that divine grace is necessary for salvation, but that it is freely extended by God in sufficient degree to every individual; complementarily, each person's freedom of will includes the unassisted initiating power to move toward salvation and to appropriate the divine grace necessary for salvation to be accomplished. Augustine insisted that the Fall had left each person's will incapable of commanding that part of human nature that must be reduced to submission if salvation is to be accomplished, and that it is only divine grace that, extended by God to those whom he chooses to favor, enables them to comply with the divine will. Augustine and his adherents, with the help of Jerome, managed to convince the Pope to declare these teaching heretical and to invoke the secular authority (that is, the state, in the person of the Roman Emperor) to suppress it by force - a decision that has had incalculable effects on the history of Western Christendom. Return.

2.  Beyond this: in either case, traditional authority (whether Scripture itself or the interpretation of it held in common among Roman Catholicism and the chief Protestant denominations [Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism]) was called into question. But on what credentials does the new picture itself depend? In what does its authority consist? This is the topic of Section II, below. Return.

3.  This language can be challenged as sexist. A modern deist would prefer the term "human beings" or "men and women." But the period we are examining was indeed sexist. Although there were certainly feminist deists in the eighteenth century, the overwhelming majority of writers, deists and their intellectual opponents, were male, and (also) sexist in regarding males as by nature the central agents in human history. Return.

4.  The modern controversy over "freedom of the will" is both similar and different from the classic theological controversy, over whether the freedom of human choice is consistent with the hypothesis of Divine Omniscience. (See St. Augustine's treatise On the Freedom of the Will, as translated, for instance, by Anna Benjamin; [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill]. An interesting related paradox, apparently emerging from the logical preconditions of the logic of predictive statements in general, is discussed in Chapter 1 ("It Was to Be") of Gilbert Ryle's Dilemmas.) The modern controversy will almost certainly be a topic taken up in any course on "Philosophy of Mind." The concerns at stake in the controversy between Augustine and Pelagius over the effects of Original Sin are also logically distinct, though they also impinge on the question of freedom of the will. (See Section I.B.2., above.) Return.

5.  This is the view expressed by the Turkish Dervish near the end of Voltaire's Candide. Return.

6.  We can see this as an extension of the crisis of interpretation of Holy Scripture, and of challenge to the competence of historical institutions or unaided individuals to interpret it, that entered the scene with the Protestant Reformation. Return.

the passage in the Book of Joshua telling of the miracle God wrought on behalf of his Chosen People:  The relevant verses (Joshua 10:12-14) are these.  (The translation here is that of the King James Version.)

    12  Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand though still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.
   13  And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.
   14  And there was no day like that before it or after it, that the Lord hearkened unto the voice of a man:  for the Lord fought for Israel.

7.  Note the restriction of this claim to the "specific conclusions of the new science." The larger possibility that earthly affairs (natural and human) are to be understood strictly as events is something altogether different. For affirming the latter is to deny that Scripture itself has a supernatural origin (which would amount to a case of advent). (Cf. Section I.C.2., above.) Return.

8.  Here we should call to mind Ulysses' speech on degree, from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (1603/05?). Return.

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      This page last updated 12 April 2000.