Initially, when prompted with assignment of defining the scientific revolution, I thought it to be an easy task. The scientific revolution has a practically universal definition: a period marked by discoveries and advancements within the scientific community that shifted the paradigm and laid the foundation for modern day science. However, after reading Shapin’s The Scientific Revolution and gaining insight into the history behind these discoveries, I began to question my own understanding of the topic. A question that persisted throughout my exploration: To what extent was the Scientific Revolution truly scientific?

One of the earliest breakthroughs during the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries was Copernicus’ theory that the sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the universe. Termed the Heliocentric Theory, this challenged traditional religious teachings of the time that the earthly world was separate from the ever-perfect heavenly world. Similarly, Sir Isaac Newton’s publication of the law of universal gravitation also altered the paradigm during the time. Newton used mathematical principles to explain the existence of the force of gravitation, disregarding the widely accepted belief that all forces of nature were controlled by God. Thus, the basis behind these, and many other discoveries, during the time was not science itself. The mathematical principles that Newton used to explain his theory were established years ago. On the other hand, while Copernicus did have some observational evidence, the scope of his experimental evidence was not sufficient to make such large and far-reaching astronomical claims. Instead, it was the philosophical basis and interpretation behind these theories that caught the eye of the scientific community. Newton and Copernicus’ ability to look past the commonly accepted view that all aspects of the natural world have religious implications, is what ultimately allowed them to reach new conclusions. It was a shift in reasoning and thought that allowed them to see the world in unprecedented ways thereby leading to groundbreaking discoveries.  

The purpose and legacy of the scientific revolution, then, is not the groundbreaking discoveries and developments that came out of it, but rather the rhetoric it created for generations to come. As Shapin describes it, the scientific revolution created “optimism about the possible scope of human knowledge” (19). The Scientific Revolution revealed to many scientists how the orthodox interpretations of science as a phenomena was limiting to their work in many ways. As Shapin writes, “Every day new phenomena presented themselves about which the ancient texts were silent” (19). There was much to be explained about the natural world, but the dominance of religious thought during the time forced many scientists to restrict the scope of their conclusions. It was the recognition of these limits followed by a subsequent movement towards a more open-minded and liberal form of thinking that ultimately defined the scientific revolution and shaped the future basis of scientific discoveries. Thus, it can be said that the scientific revolution leaves behind a legacy that represents the conflict between religious thinking and scientific knowledge, a problem that persists even in modern day science.  

SOURCES

Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution. Univ. Of Chicago Press, 2004.