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From Descartes to Newton

Into the 1600s, following Galileo (1564-1642), were others contributing to the attempt of humanity to grasp reality. One them was the Frenchman René Descartes (1596-1650), thirty-two years younger than Galileo. He too believed in science, but it was not the science that Galileo or Francis Bacon believed in — the science of empirical investigation. Descartes was a mathematician. He believed in reasoning his way to truth, that one could deduce his way to knowledge.

His mathematics did not get him into trouble – math being hard to argue with. But his ideas beyond mathematics did. He held that doubt was necessary for advancing ideas, that doubt was a tool (methodological skepticism or doubt as the first step in considering whether something is true.) That was what he thought of as his step toward science. He was as convinced of the mind's ability to grasp Truth with a capital T as any of the Jesuits who had taught him. He started his philosophy with what he could claim beyond doubt: his own existence, his phrase "I think therefore I am." He felt obliged to reason his way to further conclusions and went on to positions others would consider dubious.

Descartes thought his philosophy compatible with the new world of science and with his hanging on the tradition of Christianity. The debate between getting to truth through empiricism or reason was made as if one didn't need both. Descartes had the idea that human consciousness was spirituality completely separate from the material body (although the mind is affected matter such as blood to the brain and chemicals in the blood like alcohol). Descartes was to be known for this dualism.

Descartes believed he was advancing science. He defended Galileo, complaining that followers of the ancient philosopher Aristotle for Galileo's condemnation. Then Descartes works were put on the Church's list of prohibited books.

Robert William Boyle

In England, William Harvey (1578-1657), a devout Anglican, was moving forward with Francis Bacon's empiricism and belief in experimentation — modern experimental science — but a dualism of sorts. Harvey was to be labeled as the first modern chemist, and he demonstrated the function of the heart and circulation of the blood.

Baruch Spinoza

Spinoza (1632-77) was 18 the year that Descartes died. He picked up on Descartes' philosophy and wrote The Principles of Descartes' Philosophy, published when he was thirty-one, in 1663. And like Descartes he was a "rationalist."

As a Jew it was the Hebrew Bible that concerned him most. In 1670 his systematic critique of Judaism was published. He had concluded that the Bible was essentially a compiled text of many different authors with diverse backgrounds. He shocked many of his contemporaries with the view of the Torah as an inadequate conception of God insofar as the prophets attributed to God such emotions as jealousy and anger, love and mercy.

Spinoza clashed with public opinion by defining God in a way that was taken as pantheism or the "God is nature" argument, viewed by many as atheism. (If God is everything He is nothing). Spinoza denied that he was a pantheist. He held to a difference between God and all else, and he saw God as infinite and eternal. He believed that everything that happened was a manifestation of God's nature, and this left out the doings of Satan. Also, he rejected the ancient idea of sin. (A little more than 250 years after Spinoza's death, Albert Einstein told a prominent American rabbi, Herbert S. Goldstein:

I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.

Thomas Hobbes

Like Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes was attacked as an atheist. Ideas that were not in league with biblical doctrine, revelation or traditional religious authority — in short, views that were secular, opened those who possessed them to the displeasures of the great mass of righteous believers.

He was bigger of mind on the question of empiricism and reasoning than Descartes had been. He wanted both. Like Francis Bacon and other scientific thinkers he wanted both empiricism and reasoning. Both, he believed, required discipline. He believed in starting with a definition and being careful to avoid self-contradictory notions. He believed that the ability to reason was something that developed, that it was not innate, that people were not born with it.

Hobbes recognized that people were born into traditions, common misconceptions and primitive impulses. He did not trust the masses, believing that common people did not reason well. He hated the passions of the mob and the upheavals and civil strife of his time. Taking a cue in part from Galileo's description of inertia, Hobbes took up the cause of constraint. He warned that democracy meant anarchy because it lacked constraints. He believed in law, including churches and the Church of England governed by state laws rather than remaining above state laws.

He believed that humanity had once lived in a "state of nature" and that men had joined together and adopted government for the sake of security of life and private property – a view labeled as false by 21st century scholars. But he believed that government was a matter of social contract rather than authority designated by God or mandate from Heaven. He held that if the powers-that-be failed at its job in protecting society then it was the right of people to declare their agreement with that authority null and void.

His book Leviathan appeared while he was in France tutoring the future king of England, Charles II. The Catholic Church did not care for the book, and Hobbes returned to England and settled in London. There he withdrew from controversies, while across Europe his notoriety was such that he was becoming the man whom students were expected to refute.

John Locke

Locke, the son of a Puritan who had fought on the side of Cromwell and Parliament during the civil war, was to become a big mover of humanity into a modern view of itself and what politics should be.

In 1652, at 20, Locke began his studies at Oxford. He found the works of modern philosophers, including Descartes, more interesting than the classical material being presented at the university. He earned a master's degree in 1658 and a bachelor degree in medicine in 1675. Philosophically he was with that minority of people who believed in the empiricism as a part of science, and he recognized the contribution that deduction and mathematics also made to scientific inquiry.

Locke became the personal physician of the 1st Earl of Shaftsbury, who credited him with saving his life regarding surgery to remove a cyst. And Locke became involved in politics when Shaftesbury became Lord Chancellor in 1672. Shaftesbury was one of the founders of the Whig party.

In 1683, Locke fled the turmoil and recriminations that were a part of the final years of the reign of Charles II. He went into hiding in the Dutch Netherlands and returned to England in February 1689, four months after William of Orange but on the same ship as England's returning queen: Mary. Locke by now had some fame. And he added to his fame with the publishing of two treatises on government.

Locke shared Hobbes' dislike for scholasticism, and he disliked Plato's belief that words had an unchanging essence — rather than words being convention agreed to for the sake of communication. Locke saw people as influenced by their environment, as born with minds analogous to a clean sheet of paper upon which their experiences were written. These experiences, according to Locke, were mostly external realities passing through the senses, with some of these experiences influence by reflection — the human mind acting on itself.

Locke believed in God, but he did not include God as a fundamental force within the human psyche, or God as having residence in the human heart. It was humanity's will and way that interested Locke.

Unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that people were social by nature — a force that served as glue, preventing society from atomizing or completely falling apart. Locke had more confidence in the masses than did Hobbes, but he feared the emotionalism of common people. But he believed that prevalent among the masses was the capacity to grasp what was humanly decent and what was not.

Locke favored dispassionate judgment and saw danger in fanaticism, including Bible-thumping preachers who orated not to stimulate reason but to frighten. Locke favored toleration. The bigotry that had contributed to Europe's recent religious wars and atrocities annoyed him.

For a modern society to function well, he believed, it had to be unified not by a single religion, as many believed, but by tolerance. He rejected the authority of any church in matters of philosophy and science. He held that churches should be voluntary societies rather than appendages of higher authority associated with the state, as was the Anglican Church.

Locke wrote in favor of government consisting of a balance of powers. He claimed that an independent judiciary should be a part of government, making decisions based on the nation's constitution. He believed that parliament's duty was to legislate, and the king's duty was to act as chief executive.

There was an element of optimism in Locke's point of view, and optimism that contributed to his belief in education and in people lifting themselves above their circumstances.

Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton gave the world a new mechanistic view of how the universe worked. A contemporary poet, Alexander Pope, wrote of "nature's laws hid by night, God said Let Newton be! and All was light!"

Halfway through his undergraduate years he adopted a mechanistic view of the workings of nature. Newton adopted what was known as the corpuscular theory of matter, a belief that matter was made up of tiny particles – an atomic theory similar to that of Democritus of ancient Greece. He applied mathematics to his study of light, working on this from around 1666 and countered Descartes' theory on the subject.

Newton built on Copernicus's work, on observations by Tycho Brahe and on Johannes Kepler's laws of planetary motion. Newton's explained why the moon does not fly out of orbit. He found a mathematical formula that kept in balance two forces: (1)the gravitational pull of the moon toward the earth and (2) inertia. Newton concluded that the force of gravity between two bodies was relative to the differences in mass of those bodies reduced by the square of the distance between those two bodies.

Like Descartes, Newton had a dualistic view of reality. Joining Boyle and Hobbes, he denied that divine magic moved things — as in "God willing." But separate from his view of a physical world working mechanistically was his belief in Christianity's spiritual world. Leaving the physical for the human, the Bible was Newton's source of human history, and biblical chronology was a focus of that study. Like some other Protestants he was looking for a pure Christianity, and his effort was welcomed by other biblical scholars, who hoped that he would create a breakthrough with his Bible study as he had with the mechanics of the universe. Newton pondered Hebrew chronology from Adam to Noah and beyond, adding up all the begetting. He studied biblical prophecies, Greek and Roman historians and what little was known of the Assyrians and Egyptians. He held to the traditional view that the ancient Hebrews were the first actors in the human drama, and he held to the standard Protestant view that every sentence in the Bible was literally true. He concluded that writing was invented by the Ishmaelites around the time of Moses and that The Creation had taken place somewhere around 4,000 years before Christ. And he hoped to be able to predict the future and the date of the Second Coming.


CONTINUE READING: China, Prosperous and Strong, to 1796

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