Science. We all know science. Stephen Hawking’s theories of the cosmos. The laws of gravity. Photosynthesis. Those really boring lessons at school where you had to burn a peanut over the bunsen burner as the boys tested the laws of aeronautics by throwing paper planes at the teacher’s head. We all remember science. Science aims to observe, to find empirical evidence, to connect causes and effects, to replicate nature in a controlled environment. Mainstream science does not involve religion, or philosophical debate as to how or why or if. Science seeks facts and tests predictions to be either true or false. And if the predictions are proven to be false, so what? Yes, you know where you are with science. Yet it has not always been this way. The modern scientific approach is easily distinguished from other disciplines such as philosophy, theology and metaphysics. However, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at the dawn of modern science, those seeking knowledge of the workings of the natural world were not called scientists, but ‘natural philosophers’. Natural philosophers sought to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Cosmology, astrology, mathematics, alchemy and creation myths were all possible sources of information. Natural philosophers paved the way for the modern scientific methods that we are familiar with today.
The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the era of the Scientific Revolution. There was a rebellion against old school scholastic philosophy and Aristotelian concepts of how nature works. To be fair, the scholastic philosopher’s matter-form model was pretty simplistic and vague in its explanations of the natural world. Aquinas (1225-1274) looked at the chrysalis turning into a butterfly and deduced that matter was changing from one substantial form to another. As wood burnt to ashes, substantial change had occurred to the wood, changing the matter to, ta da, ashes. Suarez (1548-1617) later spiced things up with a bit of metaphysics, adding that each body of a living being had a soul. Later, Descartes (1596-1650) argued that the body was not just a lava or a lump of wood with no actual explanation for it, but, actually, a bunch of particles interacting to somehow become a body through a set of constant laws. These uniform laws were operated by the big man himself, God. This corpuscularian approach, whereby bodies were composed of tiny particles of matter, was employed by other natural philosophers such as Boyle and Newton.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was a natural philosopher who criticised Aristotle (as well as lots of other people) yet did not dismiss him completely. Observation using the senses was still recognised as an important, yet not the most reliable way, to acquire scientific knowledge. Experiments were the way forward, thought Bacon, as he noted the expansion and shrinking of bladders in the snow. Experiments could prompt further exploration. Experiments could be preceded by a hypothesis or to test a theory. Nature could be monitored in an artificial environment. Importantly, experiments could be reproduced- a systematic approach which is recognisable in the science we know today. Instruments were introduced to enhance the senses. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) used a telescope to observe the heavens where he discovered there were craters on the moon, that were indeed, not made of cheese. He was also able to expound his heliocentric theory of the solar system, which got him into a spot of bother with the Inquisition.
During the Scientific Revolution, experiments began to be more widely shared for other budding future Galileos, to provide education and for the progression of society. Descartes disagreed that natural philosophy should be only the domain of university-educated Aristotelians and stated, in French rather than Latin, “I expect that those who make use of their unprejudiced natural Reason will be better judges of my opinions than those who give heed to the writings of the ancients only” (Discourse on Method, The Harvard Classics, 1909-1914) . Although Bacon wrote about ethics, law, society and religion, he recognised that there should be a general principle of science, therefore revealing the beginnings of a separation between science and other areas of knowledge. Hobbes also pondered in 1642, that if only “the nature of humane Actions” were, “as distinctly knowne, as the nature of Quantity in Geometricall Figures.” ( Hobbes, On the Citizen, 1642) ( His spelling, not mine). His viewpoint shows a broadening distinction within natural philosophy between empirical fact and philosophical debate, or even perhaps early psychology.
Science back in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was often entangled with philosophical and theological questions. Today’s scientific approach, Alina Bradford says “focuses only on the natural world”. Any questions relating to a divine power, angels, or whether morning frost is actually pixie dust are not part of the modern scientific approach as "Anything that is considered supernatural does not fit into the definition of science.” (‘What is Science?’, , 2017). Yet, what about Santa Claus???
Koyre, a historian of science, wrote of how in the eighteenth century, the role of God gradually diminished as natural philosophy evolved towards secularism. He wrote, “Laplace who, a hundred years after Newton, brought the New Cosmology to its final perfection, told Napoleon, who asked him about the role of God in his System of the world: ‘Sire, I didn’t need this hypothesis.’ But it was not Laplace’s System, it was the world described in it that no longer needed the hypothesis of God.” (Koyre, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, 1957) Stephen Hawking echoed these sentiments when he argued, “One can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, but science makes God unnecessary.” (Nick Watt, ’Stephen Hawking: Science Makes God Unnecessary’, ABC News, 2010)
Natural philosophy gradually evolved to bring us the science that we know today. From the Scientific Revolution, science grew wings and became a species of its own. There are still questions on whether the universe would exist without sentient life as observer. That is the anthropic principle- so keep that for your philosophical and metaphysical debates, thank you. There are still arguments as to whether final causes and teleological explanations are necessary in science but write an essay on it, mate. There are still conflicts of views between scientists and theologians and about anomalous events that science cannot yet explain- but step outside, please, outside the methodology of science and then you can try to sort it out. Our modern scientific method, with its reassuring set of universal natural laws, is not about whether God made the earth or if astrological shifts are ruling our actions or whether you believe the earth is flat, actually. The evidence speaks for itself. As our science teacher said, as he took one curious pupil aside at the end of the lesson for repeatedly asking “Why?”: the answer does not need to be discussed, “It just is, ok?”