Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon




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Commencement of Modern Science.

On the first dawn of what is commonly called the revival of letters, after the retrograde period of the dark ages, but which may be more properly designated as the first commencement of civilisation in, at least, northern and western Europe, science had evinced some signs of vitality, and even promising symptoms of advance, while yet under the dominion of the Aristotelian schools.

The mathematical literature of the ancients was, perhaps, the first department cultivated; and this, from the nature of the subject, could hardly excite much suspicion or opposition. It was, however, the necessary precursor of the more dangerous innovations which shortly followed in its train in the physical branches.

System of Copernicus

The theory of Copernicus (1643) is a splendid monument of the power of simple analogical, conjecture, when its course is in happy accordance with the great principles of nature, to anticipate what the labours of centuries of observation have been employed in confirming, and transcendent mathematical skill in demonstrating.  But its simplicity and unity are the characteristics which peculiarly mark it out as connected with those higher contemplations to which we are now referring.  It opened the door to the conception of one common cause of the planetary motions, of one universal principle of order and arrangement pervading the system; --the first real glimpse obtained of the true Cosmos. 


Within a century, this bold, if not wholly original, conception received its great corroboration and extension in the grand discovery of the three laws of planetary motion by Kepler, based on the accurate observations of Tycho (1609-1618) and the mechanical and astronomical discoveries of Galileo, which followed in rapid succession with the invention of the telescope, to verify and extend the predictions of Copernicus.  

Verbal disputes.

We have before noticed the extent to which the verbal spirit of the Peripatetic logic had fixed itself  in the intellect of the 15th and 16th centuries: so deeply had it taken root that we find the very same style of argument sometimes adopted by the defenders as well as the assailants of the new doctrines. 

Thus, Nicolas of Cusa argued against the central position and fixity of the earth that " since there is no circumference to the system there can be no centre."  And in the same strain, on the other side, the Sieur de Beaulieu affirmed it to be a proposition absurd in geometry as it is against faith and reason to make the circumference of a circle fixed while the centre is moveable. 

We cannot, however, be surprised at the slow progress made by such novel ideas even among the more educated classes. The new theory seemed to contradict the evidence of the senses; and as an eloquent writer has observed, " the glorious deIusion of the rising and setting sun could not be overcome."  [ Mr. Everett's Address on the Opening of Albany Observatory, U. S., 1856, p, 97.]  All impressions, associations, and prejudices were arrayed against the new doctrine, which only the few were even competent to understand.  

Opposition to the Discoveries of Galileo. 

In the disputes which arose as to the Copernican theory, and still more extensively, half a century later, in those which the discoveries of Galileo called forth, we trace the first decisive conflict of the positive physical philosophy with the scholastic metaphysical spirit of the age; and in the more serious hostility and persecution which it encountered from the ecclesiastical authorities, we see the same antagonism with the erroneous theological principles then maintained. 

These events form, perhaps, the first great epoch where we may contemplate the real influence which the advance of physical discovery was beginning to exercise on subjects and opinions, which, though of a different kind, could not fail to be materially affected by the general movement. 

Philosophical and Theological Mysticism.

Philosophical and Theological Mysticism.

The influence of the metaphysical forms of rea soning, in those times adopted even in physical questions, directly cooperated with the theologica I spirit of the age, in that they both tended to involve the subject in mystery, which it is the distinguish ing character of the inductive principle to clear away. 

Thus, the single experimental fact exhibited by Galileo, -- so utterly confounding to the Aristotelians, as by necessary consequence it impugned   their entire system, --that weights of ten pounds and of one fell from the top of the tower at Pisa in exactly the same time; and the simple reason that each of the ten must fall in exactly the same time, --whether united in one mass or falling singly, however obvious in itself, -- was highly important for dispelling the mysticising spirit which then involved and obscured physical truth equally whether it rose from a metaphysical or from a theological source. 

Science Divested of Mystery 

By this and other simple experiments, Galileo divested the laws of mechanics of the obscurity and confusion with which the Peripatetic system had invested them, and prepared the way for the novel and startling doctrine that the same laws of motion would apply to bodies in the heavens as to those on the earth. 

After the investigation of the simpler mechanical powers, from the date of the discoveries of Archimedes, eighteen centuries elapsed before the solution of the problem, of the inclined plane was effected by Stevinus: and the great algebraist Cardan could not conceive the composition of forces: so entirely were the minds of men incapacitated by confused metaphysical notions, which mystified the plainest truths. 

Slow Advance of Inductive Principles 

It was thus long before the simple philosophical  principles announced by Galileo obtained acceptance. Even Kepler did not acknowledge the sufficiency of the law of inertia to preserve the motions of the planets; and imagined animal forces or supernatural agency for the purpose.  In other words, in accor dance with his age, he did not apprehend the simple proposition that a body in motion must go on till its motion is stopped or altered; and whatever stops or alters it is a new force. 

The followers of Copernicus long felt a difficulty as to the preservation of the parallelism of the earth's axis, and imagined three distinct motions impressed upon it, orbital, rotatory, axial; not understanding that the third is a necessary part and consequence of the second. 

The Peripatetic dogma was that a body could only be moved by something in contact with it.  They had not attained the abstract notion of free motion retained after impulse.  Hence the main difficulty of the Copernican system to their minds. It was on this ground that the Ptolemaists could only conceive the planets as being carried round their orbits by the motion of the solid crystalline spheres, like the hands of a clock; just as even at the present day we have heard of some who fancy this to be the case with the moon. Nothing was more difficult at first than to accept the simpler idea of free motion under the influence of cosmical forces; or to appreciate the analogy of all the celestial motions, as being of the same kind, or the connection of impulsive with rotatory force. 

Such Instances are important, as they point to the necessity for clearing the subject of all obscurity of ideas whether of a metaphysical or supernatural kind; if we would adhere to the simplicity of nature, and above all, of seizing upon just analogy as the true key to the unity of principle and harmony of causation pervading the whole. 

Theological Persecution

The Order of Nature






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Last modified: October 15, 2016.