Science History: Europe

science history Europe
Figure 1.--

Science is strongly associated with the Western world and for good reason. Other societies, especially ancient Greece, medieval China, the Islamic Caliphate, and India have made vital contributions that led to modern science. But none of these societies actually invented science, meaning the scientific method--based on experimentation. Islamic investigators perhaps came the closest, but never took the final step, putting all the pieces together. It was in the West and only the West that the scientific method was developed and that the resulting science transformed society and created the modern world. This process began in the classical era, especially in the ancient Greek city states. One unanswered question is why China with all its riches and important discoveries did not develop science, but this occurred in the relatively poor and backward West. And of course the equally important question, what was it about the West that promoted the development and pursuit of science. It was the Italian genius Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) emerging out of the Renaissance who is commonly given the honor as the world's first true scientist. From that point on, it was Europeans who made the fundamental advances that created modern science as a result the modern world. The major intellectual movements rocking the West (the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment), and only the west all played important roles in the development of science. None were primarily focused on science, but all helped create the intellectual environment in which science flourished. From Galileo along list of European intellectual giants fashioned modern science: Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, Boyle, Volta, Priestly, Faraday, Darwin, Kelvin, Curie, Freud, Tesla, Einstein, and many others.

Medieval Era


The Renaissance began with a Europe still dominated by the Catholic Church. And the roots of the Renaissance were firmly set in Christian art and doctrine. What followed was a flourishing of art, architecture, mathematics, philosophy, and science strongly influenced by an increasing understanding of classical learning. As Galileo found, free thought was still restricted by the Church. The Church continued to impose a Biblical worldview. Free thinkers, essentially early scientists, deviating from this accused and even prosecuted for blasphemy. These are the same laws used to restrict free thinking in Muslim countries today. Copernicus and Galileo the two most notable targets of Church efforts to restrict free thought. Both wanted to use observation to understand the universe rather than the Bible. Galileo even added experimentation. The Inquisition convicted Galileo and placed him under under house arrest, preventing further publication. Such restrictions were first challenged by the Protestant Reformation, but did not really end until the Enlightenment began to free European thought from shackles of religious imposed dogma. This was a lengthy process, but science was the first area in which free thinking was permitted.

Protestant Reformation

Our modern increasingly secular world tends to pit religion as the antheisis of science and an obstale to not only science, but progress itself. Almost always the targets are the Catholic Church and Protestant fundamentism. Actually, Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, was an important dactor behind the devlopment of science in Europe. Hee one has to make aestinction between Christian theology and the policies of the Church fathers, especially the papacy. The evidence is overwealming. Sience emerged in a Europe in which religious faith was a central part of the intelectual climate. And science not only appeared at the same time as the Protestant reformtion, but it is in Protestant northern Europe that much of the major early scientific advances occurred (Britain, the Netherland, and Germany). The scientific hot spots ar so pronounced that it could not have been mere accident. This has been noted by many scholarsand has been the subject of a substantial literature. No one denies the association obvious between Protestantism and science, but there is a difference of opinion as to caussality. Some authors believe that the doctrines or at least the intelectual attitides of Reformers contributed directly to the development of science. They believe that the Reformtion ws one of the causes of the Scientific Revolution in Europe. Others postulate that deny that that Protestantism had a direct impact on the scientific Revolution and that science developed independently of the Reformation. They claim that the importance of northern Europe in science is that Protestantism presented fewer obstacles to science compared to the papcy and Catholic inquisitions. [Deason]

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment along with the Renaissance and Reformation were the key steps in the formation of the Western mind. Many of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers were French, but the Enlightenment was a movement which over time affected all of Europe to varying degrees. America was also affected by the Enlightenment, but the American experience was different, in part because of the Great Awakening. The Enlightenment is also termed the Age of Reason. Authors define it differently and there were many different aspects, but the Enlightenment at it heart was a basic turn in the Western mindset. The West for more than a millennium had been dominated by religion, often described as faith. Even the Reformation had not changed this. In fact the Protestants were often more consumed with faith and theological questions than the Roman church. With the Enlightenment, primacy was given to reason. Intellectuals began to think that objective truth about life and the universe could be achieved through rational thought. The advances achieved in physics, led by Sir Issac Newton in Britain, had a profound impact on European intellectuals. Enlightenment writers began to think that the same kind of systematic thinking could be used to understand and improve areas of human activity as well. A whole new system of aesthetics, ethics, government, and logic was developed based on reason. The Enlightenment was an era of great optimism. Enlightenment thinks were convinced that reason could dramatically improve society. They were not openly atheistic, but they were highly critical of religion which they often equated with irrationality and superstition. The Enlightenment also attacked political tyranny. The intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment led to the American and subsequent Latin American revolutions as well as the French Revolution which had a much more pronounced impact on Europe. the Enlightenment prepared the foundation for both classical liberalism and capitalism. There were comparable movements in music (high baroque and classical) and art (neo-classical).


Deason, G.B. "The Protestant Reformation and the rise of modern science," Scottish Journal of Theology Vol. 38, Issue 2 (May 1985), pp. 221-40. Deason provides a good summary of the debate over the Reformation and science. His conclusion is as he summarizes it is, "After brief discussion of each of these interpretations, I will argue that the strong interpretation is too strong and that the weak one can be strengthened. I will outline an indirect approach, which falls between the above extremes, and offers advantages not offered by either of them."

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (W.W.Norton and Company: New York, 1997). Diamond explains persuaively why modernity did not emerge in Africa, the Americas, and Oceania, but not why it did not emerge in China, India, and the Middle East.


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Created: 5:46 PM 10/29/2015
Last updated: 5:46 PM 10/29/2015