God said Newton be And all was light — Alexander Pope
Blinded by Science
Alexander Pope’s short poem largely summarizes the impact that Isaac Newton’s work had, not just on science, but also on the imaginations of his contemporaries. The 1700s abounded with heightened interest and discoveries in the sciences. Nobles and monarchs pursued different sciences as hobbies as well as funding serious research. In a popular play of the era, a woman even refuses to elope with her lover because she would have to leave her microscope behind. There were serious advances as well.
In astronomy, William Herschel, noticing fluctuations in Saturn’s orbit, surmised they were caused by the gravitational pull of a hitherto unknown planet and discovered Uranus. He also showed the vastness of space by demonstrating the Milky Way is not a cloud of gas but a whole galaxy of stars, and that so-called fixed stars were actually entire distant galaxies. Carl Linnaeus, using his system of binary nomenclature, catalogued the huge numbers of new plants and animals being discovered across the planet. In chemistry, Henry Cavendish isolated hydrogen; Joseph Black discovered carbon dioxide, and Antoine Lavoisier, separated water, supposedly an indivisible element, into oxygen and hydrogen. This destroyed Aristotle’s theory of four elements and opened the way for the emergence of modern chemistry in the 1800s. And in medicine, Edward Jenner created a vaccine against the deadly disease, smallpox, although germ theory would not be developed for another century.
However, not everyone was impressed with the scientific progress of the day. Among them was Jonathon Swift who satirized much of contemporary society, including its obsession with science, in his book, Gulliver’s Travels. In the following selection, Gulliver visits the science academy of the mythical Laputa, a land where everyone is so absorbed in theoretical speculation that they have lost all touch with reality. Supposedly, he based this fictional account on real experiments being conducted at the time.
The first Man I saw was of a meagre Aspect, with sooty Hands and Face, his Hair and Beard long, ragged and singed in several Places, His Clothes, Shirt, and Skin were all of the same Colour. He had been Eight Years upon a Project for extracting Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers, which were to be put into Vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the Air in raw inclement Summers. He told me, he did not doubt in Eight Years more, that he should be able to supply the Governors Gardens with Sun-shine at a reasonable Rate; but he complained that his Stock was low, and entreated me to give him something as an Encouragement to Ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear Season for Cucumbers. I made him a small Present, for my Lord had furnished me with Money on purpose, because he knew their Practice of begging from all who go to see them.
I went into another Chamber, but was ready to hasten back, being almost overcome with a horrible Stink. My Conductor pressed me forward conjuring me in a Whisper to give no Offence, which would be highly resented; and therefore I durst not so much as stop my Nose. The Projector of this Cell was the most ancient Student of the Academy. His Face and Beard were of a pale Yellow; his Hands and Clothes dawbed over with Filth. When I was presented to him he gave me a very close Embrace, (a Compliment I could well have excused). His Employment from his first coming into the Academy, was an Operation to reduce human Excrement to its original Food, by separating the several Parts, removing the Tincture which it receives from the Gall, making the Odour exhale, and skimming off the saliva. He had a weekly Allowance from the Society, of a Vessel filled with human Ordure, about the Bigness of a Bristol Barrel.
There was a most ingenious Architect who had contrived a new Method for building Houses by beginning at the Roof, and working downwards to the Foundations; which he justified to me by the like Practice of those two prudent Insects the Bee and the Spider….
I was complaining of a small Fit of the Cholick; upon which my Conductor led me into a Room, where a great Physician resided, who was famous for curing that Disease by contrary Operations from the same Instrument. He had a large Pair of Bellows with a long slender Muzzle of Ivory. This he conveyed eight Inches up the Anus, and drawing in the Wind, he affirmed he could make the Guts as lank as a dried Bladder. But when the Disease was more stubborn and violent, he let in the Muzzle while the Bellows was full of Wind, which he discharged into the Body of the Patient; then withdrew the Instrument to replenish it, clapping his Thumb strongly against the Orifice of the Fundament; and this being repeated three or four Times, the adventitious Wind would rush out, bringing the noxious along with it (like Water put into a Pump) and the patient recovers. I saw him try both Experiments upon a Dog, but could not discern any Effect from the former. After the latter, the Animal was ready to burst, and made so violent a Discharge, as was very offensive to me and my companions. The Dog died on the Spot, and we left the Doctor endeavouring to recover him by the same Operation…
The Enlightenment saw more than new advances in the sciences. In fact the very revolutionary nature of those scientific discoveries ensured that no field of thought would remain untouched. This was especially true of religion and philosophy, which had been so closely intertwined with the old scientific theories.
Starting with the rise of towns in the High Middle Ages, several historical forces converged to produce a revolution in European religion and philosophy. First of all, there was the Protestant Reformation. As we have seen, the Reformation led to a series of religious wars that ravaged Europe for nearly a century (c.1550-1650). One result of those religious wars was that many people grew tired of religion and looked for less restrictive modes of thought. Second, the Renaissance, with its interest in ancient Greek philosophies, gave rise to secular ideas that helped spawn the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment as well as. This helped discredit the Church’s old ideas on the universe and raise the status of humanity and its ability to reason on its own. Finally, the rise of towns led to resurgence of feudal monarchies into nation states. We have seen how they started challenging the Church’s power during the turmoil of the Later Middle Ages. By the sixteenth century, they were using the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings to undercut the Church’s authority in order to elevate their own.
All of these factors converged to undermine the role of blind faith in the Church’s authority. While faith was still of prime importance, human reason was also an important element, especially in recognizing and avoiding the pitfalls of religious fanaticism and intolerance. After all, if God gave us the power to reason, should we not use it? As time went on the role of reason in religion increased while the role of faith declined correspondingly. Finally, reason completely replaced faith in a philosophy known as Deism. This was based largely on a Greek philosophy, Epicureanism, which saw God as detached from worldly affairs. Our main purpose in life was to avoid pain, not through sensual self-indulgence, which ultimately brings pain, but through a reasonable and moderate way of life.
While Deism incorporated the Epicurean ideas and added its own twists, it was not an organized religion with a central dogma and places of worship. However, despite differences on various points, their beliefs can be summarized as follows:
- God exists, but is detached from the affairs of this world. Drawing upon the mechanistic views of Newtonian science, they saw the universe as a giant clocklike machine that God had set in motion and then left to run on its own.
- Religious truth can only be found through reason, not divine inspiration or clerical authority.
- Miracles do not exist, only natural phenomena for which we have not yet found reasons.
- Universal moral laws exist and can be found in all cultures around the globe, not just in Christian Europe. This reflected the exposure of Europe to other cultures in the Age of Exploration.
Keep in mind that Deism was a philosophy mainly of an upper crust of intellectuals (known then as philosophes). Most people in the Enlightenment stayed devout church members totally untouched by Deistic ideas. However, although Deism was confined to such a narrow upper class, including Thomas Jefferson in the United States, its influence was profound, since it was the ideas of these intellectuals who inspired the revolutionary ideas of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Deism also downplayed the role God plays in this world. This thrust more power and responsibility upon humanity to solve its own social, political, and economic problems, giving rise to remarkable new ideas in those areas as well.