The Seventeenth Century - Part two - People (ESS20)|
A brief overview covering some of the main players
"Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."
- Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Pensee #895
In the previous piece about the 17th Century we had a brief look at some of the historical events of the period. The idea was to get some sense of the kind of world, in which people like Galileo, Kepler, Blaise Pascal and Isaac Newton practised their science. From the point of view of science history in Europe, this was a very productive time.
The Idols of Francis Bacon
A lot can be and has been written about Francis Bacon (1561-1626); his rollercoaster relationship with the rulers of his native England; his various financial difficulties; his relationship with his patron the Earl of Essex who he eventually helped convict; his own conviction for accepting a bribe while in high office; etc. Like most of history's heroes Bacon too, had feet of clay.
In spite of this he made a significant contribution to science. Very early on he tried to formulate outlines for a new system of the sciences, emphasizing empirical methods and laying the foundation for an applied science. However his need for money and for currying favor with the rich and powerful, led to a lot of adventure and misadventure and kept him from expanding on his ideas until later. His important work, Novum Organum, didn't appear until 1620, six years before his death.
In it he deals with the deficiencies of Aristotle's cosmology and his theory of science, which in Bacon's opinion had become obsolete as had many of the medieval thinkers who followed his lead. He didn't write Aristotle off completely, but he opposed the interpretations that emphasized syllogism and dialectics. Syllogism is an expensive word to describe the logic of: "all nuts are brown; this is a nut; therefore it is brown".
Dialectics is the concept of arriving at a synthesis based on a previous thesis being challenged by an antithesis. In modern philosophy it is a concept attributed to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) although it was already used by Plato and especially Aristotle in ancient Greece. Crudely put, it goes like this: "I'm right" (the thesis); "You're wrong" (the antithesis); "Maybe we're both right" (the synthesis). You will no doubt recognize this as the basis for modern debate as well as for the "art" of negotiation. It's called building a consensus.
Now this may be a perfectly acceptable way to arrive at some sort of conclusion in matters where there are no hard and fast truths, it is obviously no way to practice science. As such, Bacon's views can be seen as making a major contribution to the so-called scientific method. Science is not about building a consensus; it's about arriving at the truth. For Bacon, finding the essence of a thing was a simple process of reduction. One must list all the things which cause the object in question, and then dismiss each one as the primary cause until only one is left.
To help in the process he singled out four fallacies that must be avoided. He called them "Idols". These were: Idols of the Tribe; Idols of the Cave; Idols of the Marketplace; and Idols of the Theatre. Understanding what he meant is a bit of a tough nut to crack partly because he wrote all his stuff in Latin. However, let's give it a try.
Idols of the Tribe are the tendency we all have to assign attributes we are familliar with, to other things where they may not apply. An example is those fuzzy Walt Disney cartoon animals being portrayed as thinking, talking and acting like us when in fact animals do nothing of the sort, at least as far as we know. In science that could mean, attributing superstitious explanations to natural events like a big god pushing along the heavenly bodies with his "hands".
Idols of the Cave or idols of the den are the tendencies for people to project their individual prejudices, feelings or beliefs onto groups, concepts, societies or structures where they may not fit or apply. For example we might have a poetic mindset and therefore see all events as imagery or grand drama. We may have a fearless temperament and be unable to comprehend fear in others. It's not too much of a stretch to see how this can derail scientific theory building.
Idols of the Marketplace is society and its use of language to convey thoughts or as a substiute for thought. Language, according to Bacon, while useful in conveying ideas, can also get in the way of those ideas. A good example is a debate or discussion where the skillfull use of words and jargon can cover up the fact that there's little or no real substance. Just because we give something a name, for example "soul", doesn't mean such a thing exists.
Idols of the Theater are an artificial imitation of truth, as in drama or fiction. Think of philosophical systems constructed mainly out of abstract argument and speculation. Many theological arguments tend to fall into this category. Another example is the tendency to expand known principles into areas where they may not apply. "Magnets and magnetism are real, therefore a magnet under your pillow will make you healthy."
These ideas were put forward in Bacon's book Novum Organum, which means New Organ, and was supposed to replace the methods put forward in Aristotle's original Organum. In fact Bacon was no big fan of Aristotle and much of his philosophical writing was aimed at what he felt were the major errors in Aristotle's thinking. By extension he also took aim at the scholastic movement which had embraced much of Aristotle's work and belief system. He also showed little enthusiasm for the theological nonsense of his day.
Francis Bacon is for good reason held up as a pivotal figure in the Scientific Revolution and there is a lot more to tell. One place to look is this website which provides a great deal more on the man. One final note, before we move on. Over the years there has been a persistent rumor that most of the works attributed to William Shakespeare were in fact written by none other than Francis Bacon. Who knows?
Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662)
There is no denying that French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal was an odd duck. He was born at Clermont-Ferrand on June 19, 1623. His mother died shortly after he was born which left the rearing of young Blaise to his father, Etienne. Etienne Pascal was by all accounts a successful and brilliant man in his own right so it comes as no surprise that the younger Pascal was a child prodigy and savant who excelled in the disciplines of mathematics and physics. At age sixteen he wrote a treatise on conic sections (that is the circles, ellipses, and parabolas which are formed when a cone is intersected by a plane).
Sometime later young Blaise invented probably one of the world's first calculating machines or "computer" which is the reason the Swiss mathematician and computer scientist Dr. Niklaus Wirth named his new programming language PASCAL in 1971. There is no doubt that the young Pascal was a brilliant mathematician who probed the essence of reality more profoundly than most of his peers.
Thanks to the foundations he laid for the infinitesimal calculus, integral calculus, and the calculus of probabilities, both Newton and Leibniz, (we won't get into the argument here of who was first) were able to develop differential calculus to where it is today. His experiments with mercury barometers led him to conclude that a vacuum in nature was definitely possible, something denied by Rene Descartes for example. It also led him to formulate what became Pascal's Law of fluids.
This law states that pressure applied to a confined fluid at any point is transmitted undiminished throughout the fluid in all directions and acts upon every part of the confining vessel at right angles to its interior surfaces and equally upon equal areas. Thanks to that bit of insight we now have all sorts of hydraulically operated equipment ranging from aircraft control to huge earth-moving machines.
If you look at the dates behind his name above you will be struck by the fact that he lived but a short time, thirty nine years in fact. Right from birth he was inclined to be sickly. This was no doubt the reason he was pre-occupied with mortality in general and his own in particular. Much of his thoughts on this and others subjects are covered in his Pensees, Thoughts. He had contact with many prominent thinkers of his day and he wrote powerfully in defense of the scientific method. A mystical experience in late 1654 caused him to abandon much of his scientific work and turn his attention to religion. For more insight you can look at websites such as this one.
The Rest of the Gang
The arts received a shot in the arm in the 17th century. We've already mentioned William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) who may (or may not) have single-handedly shaped the modern English language with his prolific output of plays and sonnets. There was Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 - 1669) arguably one of the greatest painters in the history of European art. From the perspective of science we have made reference to Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630), Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642), Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727), and Gottfried Leibnitz (1646 - 1716). Of these, Kepler and Leibnitz deserve a more detailed look in a future essay.
Along with Kepler we'll also take a look a that eccentric Dane, Tycho Brahe. Also making their contribution to the scientific revolution were such luminaries as Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679), John Locke (1632 - 1704) and Christiaan Huygens (1629 - 1695). Huygens is an interesting case because he had some pretty original ideas. Elsewhere we have made reference to the fact that Newton's ideas on optics were disputed by Robert Hooke. Newton was also at odds with Christiaan Huygens on the same issue.
Newton postulated that light was a stream of particles; Huygens felt light was a wave. Although Albert Einstein demonstrated that it was, in fact, both, it is generally agreed that Christiaan Huygens was closer to the mark. It was only Newton's stature, not to mention petulence, that caused the particle theory to be favored for many years to come. Huygens was a brilliant scientific mind in his own right which only in recent times is becoming better appreciated.
I mention this because of a rather curious notion he advanced later in life, that of the possibility of life-forms existing in worlds beyond the earth. In his work, Cosmotheoros, or New Conjectures Concerning the Planetary Worlds, Their Inhabitants and Productions, which was discovered after his death, he states among other things:
"Why then shall we not ... conclude that our Star has no better attendance than the others? So that what we allow'd the Planets, upon the account of our enjoying it, we must likewise grant to all those Planets that surround that prodigious number of Suns. They must have their plants and animals, nay and their rational creatures too, and those as great admirers, and as diligent observers of the heavens as ourselves ..."
That this idea did not originate with Huygens we can see here. Huygens, however, had the benefit of a keener insight into the real structure of the universe than had been available before.
With this we have barely begun to cover what is a fascinating and important period in the history of science. We've glossed over many of the contributions made and the people who made them. Hopefully we've conveyed a "flavor".
As we end this piece about the growth of Science in the 17th century, we have to marvel at the insight and courage of these pioneers. Without the benefit of our modern instruments and often facing the censure of the establishment of the day, they brought us a remarkable new look into the functioning of our universe. It cannot be emphasized enough that these folks labored in an atmosphere that as often as not could expose them to real physical harm. Religion was a powerful force that was often prepared to silence heretics with torture and death.
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