During the seventeenth century, changes in how educated Europeans understood the natural world marked the emergence of a recognizably modern scientific perspective. The practical impact of that shift was relatively minor at the time, but the long-term consequences were enormous. For the first time, a culture emerged in Europe in which empirical observations served as the basis for logical conjecture about how natural laws operated, leading to the possibility of a vast range of scientific discovery.
For well over a thousand years, Europeans had looked backwards for insights into the natural world. They relied on Aristotle and accounts by other ancient authors to explain how the universe functioned, how physics operated, and how the human body regulated itself. These teachings were supplemented by Christian scholarship that sought to find the hand of God in the natural world. There was a marked absence of empirical research: observing, from a neutral and objective standpoint, natural phenomena and using those observations as the basis of informed experimentation as to their causes and operation.
Medieval and early-modern Europeans had never developed an empirical scientific culture because the point of science had never been to discover the truth, but to describe it. In other words, practically every pre-modern person already knew how the world worked: they knew it from myth, from the teachings of ancient authorities, and from religion. In a sense, all of the answers were already there, and thus empirical observation was seen as redundant. The term used at the time for “science” was “natural philosophy,” a branch of philosophy devoted to observing and cataloging natural phenomena, for the most part without attempting to explain those observations outside of references to ancient authorities and the Bible.
Thumbnail: Nicolaus Copernicus formulated a model of the universe that placed the Sun rather than Earth at the center of the universe.