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Scientific Revolution, drastic change in scientific thought that took place during the 16th and 17th centuries. A new view of nature emerged during the Scientific Revolution, replacing the Greek view that had dominated science for almost 2,000 years. Science became an autonomous discipline, distinct from both philosophy and technology, and it came to be regarded as having utilitarian goals.
By the end of this period, it may not be too much to say that science had replaced Christianity as the focal point of European civilization. Out of the ferment of the Renaissance and Reformation there arose a new view of science, bringing about the following transformations: the reeducation of common sense in favour of abstract reasoning; the substitution of a quantitative for a qualitative view of nature; the view of nature as a machine rather than as an organism; the development of an experimental, scientific method that sought definite answers to certain limited questions couched in the framework of specific theories; and the acceptance of new criteria for explanation, stressing the “how” rather than the “why” that had characterized the Aristotelian search for final causes.
The growing flood of information that resulted from the Scientific Revolution put heavy strains upon old institutions and practices. It was no longer sufficient to publish scientific results in an expensive book that few could buy; information had to be spread widely and rapidly. New means were created to accomplish these ends.
Scientific societies sprang up, beginning in Italy in the early years of the 17th old century and culminating in the two great national scientific societies that mark the zenith of the Scientific Revolution: the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, created by royal charter in 1662, and the Académie des Sciences of Paris, formed in 1666.
The Scientific Revolution began in astronomy. Although there had been earlier discussions of the possibility of Earth’s motion, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus was the first to propound a comprehensive heliocentric theory equal in scope and predictive capability to Ptolemy’s geocentric system.
Motivated by the desire to satisfy Plato’s dictum, Copernicus was led to overthrow traditional astronomy because of its alleged violation of the principle of uniform circular motion and its lack of unity and harmony as a system of the world. Relying on virtually the same data as Ptolemy had possessed, Copernicus turned the world inside out, putting the Sun at the centre and setting Earth into motion around it.
Copernicus’s theory, published in 1543, possessed a qualitative simplicity that Ptolemaic astronomy appeared to lack. To achieve comparable levels of quantitative precision, however, the new system became just as complex as the old. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of Copernican astronomy lay in Copernicus’s attitude toward the reality of his theory.
The Middle Ages were long centuries of stability in the intellectual world. All scientific and philosophical expression was monitored extensively by, and most often produced from within, the Church. These alleged truths were produced by Biblical study and the widely accepted Aristotelian system, which became official Church doctrine.
The Aristotelian system defined the laws of physics erroneously in many cases. It claimed that the rate of fall of an object was determined by its weight, held that matter was constructed out of four possible elements, with different matter containing different combinations of these four, and described the universe as the Greek astronomer Ptolemy had described it, as a static and finite thing in which the Earth occupied the central position, with the sun and planets in revolution and the distant stars inhabiting its farthest edges.
The physicians of the period considered that the human body contained four different kinds of liquid and that illness was caused by the imbalance of these ‘humors.’ These truths went generally unquestioned for years, backed up by the teachings of the Church and the common teaching of the educational institutions of the era.
How did the Scientific Revolution lead to the Enlightenment?
The Scientific Revolution led to the Enlightenment by showing that it was possible to know more about the world through empirical research and investigation. Prior to the Scientific Revolution, the world appeared shrouded in mystery. Yet developments in natural science revealed a whole new world for us to understand. The thinkers of the Enlightenment were deeply impressed by the methods of natural science, seeing them as the best means of achieving knowledge about ourselves and the world.
What Is the Enlightenment and How Did It Transform Politics?
Explore how calls for liberty, equality, and individual rights sparked revolutions around the world.
In 1627, officials in Cologne, Germany, accused Katharina Henot—a local postmaster and influential socialite—of witchcraft. They claimed she wielded magic, worked with the devil, and had infested a local nunnery with a plague of caterpillars. For these alleged crimes, she was repeatedly tortured and publicly executed.
While extraordinary by today’s standards, Henot’s case was alarmingly common for the time. Between 1520 and 1700, Europe executed tens of thousands of people—mostly women—on charges of witchcraft.
What events set the stage for the Enlightenment?
Prior to the Enlightenment, the Catholic Church reigned supreme as Europe’s preeminent religious and intellectual leader. But during the 1500s and 1600s, several events began to challenge its hold on power.
Let’s explore three of the most important developments:
Religious Reformation: In the year 1517, a German monk and professor of theology named Martin Luther pinned a list of ninety-five arguments, or theses, to the doors of a cathedral. Those theses accused the Catholic Church of corruption and abuse of power. Luther claimed that every individual possessed a connection with God and that the Church did not monopolize the path to salvation.
Luther’s action produced a split within the Catholic Church and encouraged individuals to challenge the institution’s previously unquestionable authority. Thanks to rising literacy rates and the invention of the printing press just decades prior, Luther’s message reached a wide audience. The Bible was now being printed in the vernacular, and people began reading it for themselves rather than having priests explain it to them.
Political Upheaval: Europe reached a state of near-constant conflict in the 1500s, as leaders fought over land, resources, and competing interpretations of Christianity. An entire century of religious wars culminated in one of history’s deadliest conflicts: The Thirty Years’ War (1618–48).
Two major consequences emerged from that conflict. First, the resulting peace helped establish the bedrock principle of international relations known as sovereignty—the concept that guarantees countries get to control what happens within their borders and prohibits meddling in another country’s domestic affairs. Second, it produced further criticism of the continent’s political and religious leaders after decades of combat had claimed millions of lives.
Scientific Revolution: In the early 1600s, English philosopher Francis Bacon revolutionized intellectual thought by demonstrating that scientific discovery could not be achieved through faith and religion but rather rigorous research and observation. His scientific method set the gold standard for future research. It also coincided with a wave of breakthroughs in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, and physics by scientists such as Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton.
The battle for Copernicanism was fought in the realm of mechanics as well as astronomy. The Ptolemaic–Aristotelian system stood or fell as a monolith, and it rested on the idea of Earth’s fixity at the centre of the cosmos. Removing Earth from the centre destroyed the doctrine of natural motion and place, and circular motion of Earth was incompatible with Aristotelian physics.
Galileo’s contributions to the science of mechanics were related directly to his defense of Copernicanism. Although in his youth he adhered to the traditional impetus physics, his desire to mathematize in the manner of Archimedes led him to abandon the traditional approach and develop the foundations for a new physics that was both highly mathematizable and directly related to the problems facing the new cosmology.