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12.7: The Philosophical Impact of Science

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  • One of the effects of the scientific discoveries of the sixteenth century was a growing belief that the universe itself operated according to regular, predictable, “mechanical” laws that could be described through mathematics. This outlook lent itself to one in which God could be seen as a great scientist or clockmaker: the divine intelligence who created a perfect universe and then set it in motion. In this sense, then, the new scientific discoveries in no way undermined religious belief at the time, despite the fact that they contradicted certain specific passages of the Bible. This kind of religious outlook became known as deism, and its proponents deists, people who believed that God did not intervene in everyday life but instead simply set the universe in motion, then stepped back to watch.

    Some thinkers, most notably the French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), tried to apply this new logical outlook to theology itself. Descartes tried to subject belief and doubt to a thorough logical critique, asking what he could be absolutely sure of as a philosophical starting-point. His conclusion was that the only thing he really knew was that he doubted, that there was something thinking and operating skeptically, which in turn implied that there was a thing, himself, capable of thought. This led to his famous statement “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes went on to follow a series of logical “proofs” from this existing, thinking being to “prove” that God Himself existed, as the original source of thought. This was a philosophical application not just of the new mechanical and mathematical outlook, but of deductive reasoning. Descartes, personally, embraced the view that God was a benevolent and reasonable power of creation, but one who did not lower Himself to meddle in the universe.

    Perhaps the most important cultural change that emerged from the Revolution was the simple fact that science acquired growing cultural authority. The results of the new science were demonstrable; Galileo delighted onlookers by allowing them to use his telescope not just to look at the sky, but at buildings in Rome, thereby proving that his invention worked. The possibility that science could, and in fact already had, disproved claims made in the Bible laid the foundation for a whole new approach to knowledge that threatened a permanent break with a religiously-founded paradigm. In other words, scientific advances inadvertently led to the growth in skepticism about religion, sometimes up to and including outright atheism: the rejection of the very idea of the existence of God.

    The most extreme figure in this regard was Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677), a Sephardic Jew who was born and raised in Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Spinoza took the insights of the era and applied them wholeheartedly to religion itself, arguing that the universe of natural, physical laws was synonymous with God, and that the very idea of a human-like God with a personality and intentions was superstitious, unprovable, and absurd. He was excommunicated from Judaism itself when he was only twenty-four but went on to continue publishing his works, in the process laying the groundwork for what were later known as “freethinkers” – people who may or may not have been actual atheists, but who certainly rejected the authority of holy writings and churches.

    Spinoza’s work was controversial enough that he was condemned as an atheist not only by the Jewish community, but by both the Catholic church and various Protestant churches as well. One of the things about his thought that infuriated practically everyone was that Spinoza claimed that there was no such thing as “spirit” or “the soul” – all of the universe was merely matter, and the only way to truly learn about its operation was to combine empirical experimentation with mathematics. This “materialism” as it was called at the time was so close to outright atheism as to be almost indistinguishable.

    The other side of skepticism was a kind of cynical version of religious belief that dispensed with the emotional connection to God and reduced it to a simple act of spiritual insurance: the French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662), inventor of the field of probability, postulated “Pascal’s Wager.” In the Wager, Pascal argued that either God does or does not exist, and each person can choose either to acknowledge Him or not. If He does exist, and one acknowledges Him, then one is saved. If He does exist, and one rejects Him, then one is damned. If He does not exist and one acknowledges Him, nothing happens, and if He does not exist and one does not acknowledge Him, nothing happens either. Thus, one might as well worship God in some way, since there is no negative fallout if He does not exist, but there is (i.e. an eternity of torment in hell) if He does.

    Pascal applied an equally skeptical view to the existing governments of his day. He noted that “We see neither justice nor injustice which does not change its nature with change in climate. Three degrees of latitude reverse all jurisprudence; a meridian decides the truth. Fundamental laws change after a few years of possession...a strange justice that is bounded by a river! Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side.” In other words, there was no fixed or eternal or God-given about royal decrees and laws; they were arbitrary customs enforced through the state.

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