What mechanisms allowed us to overthrow longstanding beliefs that governed the natural world prior the Scientific Revolution (1550-1700), creating space for new ideas and explanations about nature to spread through society? We went from religious doctrine to Aristotelianism to scientific method as guidebooks to seek knowledge about the world around us. These shifts in thinking did not occur over night, and they did not occur without any resistance. When looking at the Scientific Revolution, it is important to understand that the discoveries themselves did not advance science, but instead, it was the social atmospheres during the time of the discoveries that enabled the revolution to progress. In short, society gave scientists and philosophers the authority to influence public thought with the knowledge that was unearthed.
At the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, people like Galileo Galilei, challenged orthodox thinking about the universe. Galileo observed sunspots on the sun, which opposed the accepted reasoning that the sun is heavenly and therefore must be pristine and unblemished. His findings even supported Copernicus’s heliocentric model, which would overthrow the notion that the Earth is at the center of the universe, making Earth less exceptional and dominant in the grand scheme of things than religious doctrine made it out to be. Galileo professed that religious doctrines and Aristotelian natural philosophy should not overshadow the findings that come from observation and mathematical reasoning. His new method of looking at the natural world through observation rather than relying on ancient writings was a novel approach to scientific discovery. However, Galileo himself was not able to change the way society looked at nature. Alongside Galileo, there were many other natural philosophers and scientist who challenged the authority of ancient texts; one of the many scientists of the seventeenth century who played a pivotal role in the Scientific Revolution was Francis Bacon. Francis Bacon voiced that we must go outside and explore the world ourselves to find knowledge instead of just reading ancient texts. He did not believe in allowing the standards of the past to limit knowledge.
In addition to scientists challenging the authority of texts, there were important social events that were going on at the time that pulled the public away from the power of ancient texts. One of these events is the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation took authority away from clerics and gave the people the authority to interpret the ways of the world and analyze nature themselves. This newfound power to investigate the world for oneself and to make up one’s own mind propelled the scientific revolution by shifting the social atmosphere, for people no longer depended as heavily on texts for guidance to knowledge.
Another important factor during the time of the Scientific Revolution that opened the path to new views on discovery and knowledge is the allure of power. Power and knowledge have a very close relationship, and this is especially evident in the 1600s. Francis Bacon worked closely with Queen Elizabeth, and he put forth that science is an omnipotent tool. Bacon once said, “Human power and human knowledge meet in one.” By saying this, he voiced that scientific discovery can have practical uses like advancing navigation which would help the English monarchy establish long-distance political control or developing gunpowder which would give European states even more power. Then in 1660, the Royal Society was established in England by King Charles II, which promoted scientific discovery to benefit England militarily and economically. The attractive forces of power helped pull society over the bump of defaulting to traditional beliefs about nature.
Ancient texts controlled the realm of knowledge and discovery for hundreds of years. It took over a thousand years for a person – Galileo – to publicly challenge Aristotelian philosophy and have his voice make a ripple not only in the scientific community but also in society as a whole. Why did it take so long? Society first needed to change its principles about knowledge and which mechanisms have the authority to justify knowledge. There were multiple shifts within society outside of the scientific realm, like the Protestant Reformation and the hunger of power, which allowed for new ways of looking at the world to gain validity. Your voice was only heard in the Scientific Revolution if society warranted you with the authority to do so. It would be interesting to see which mechanisms today control the development of knowledge.
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