On the European scientific revolution

Nick Spencer tackles a much-debated question: why did modern science emerge when and where it did?



Nick Spencer tackles a much-debated question: why did modern science emerge when and where it did?


What makes the European scientific revolution different from other potential scientific revolutions is, in one sense, one of the great unanswered (or at least heavily debated) questions in this field. The important thing to realise is there are, there were other scientific revolutions. China went through several; the Middle East around the 8th, 9th, 10th century, in the Golden Age of Islam, so called, went through one. You could argue that there was a minor one in Paris and Oxford in the 13th, 14th century. So why Europe, why northwest Europe in the 16th, 17th century onwards?

I would suggest there are two reasons. One, it could only happen because of the massive epistemological crisis of the Reformation. By epistemological crisis, I mean you have two … actually, many different – but for the sake of argument, two different bodies, each having different views on how the world should work. And they both ground those views on Scripture, but then you get these big questions about, whose interpretation of Scripture? And for a hundred years or so, Catholic and Protestant apologists throw arguments at one another (which are interestingly later picked up and used by atheists against both of them). And coming to the 17th century, there is a profound uncertainty about how you understand the world – and Aristotelianism, which is the big philosophical doctrine that remains in most of Europe’s universities, isn’t helping very much.

And so as it were, the fields are ripe … that’s the wrong word. The fields have potential for new ideas. One of those new ideas is that you understand the world through examining it, through the experimental method. And here comes the second reason why the Scientific Revolution picks up in Europe then, because that scientific analysis of the world is legitimated by Scripture, it’s legitimated in the Christian worldview. You’re not doing anything heretical or suspect or pagan or superstitious by investigating the world, but you’re actually doing honour to God. And certain early scientists quote the scriptures to the effect of saying, by studying nature we’re glorifying God. So the opportunity is there, the need is there, and the legitimacy is there. And for the first time in history, these tender shoots of a scientific revolution get a real opportunity to grow.