The Copernican Revolution and the Evolution of the ‘Scientific’

by Clyd Rex Casia Jesalva

   The revolutionary heliocentric cosmology proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus in the 1540’s gradually undermined the traditional understanding of what is ‘scientific’ and decisively redefined the modern understanding of what is scientific and what is unscientific’ especially in terms of methodology. Traditionally, ‘science’ simply means ‘knowledge of something’ in consideration of Aristotle’s four causes. The modern scientific methodology resulted from the subtle process of redefining the traditional understanding of what is ‘scientific.’ The modern meaning of the ‘scientific’ has two characteristics. The first element is the mathematical character of the ‘scientific.’ Science, if it is to be legitimate, has to be mathematically, quantitatively measurable in order to guarantee a belief with certainty, precision and accuracy. The second element is empirical verifiability. Science must be based on empirically observable or verifiable and testable data. The new definition of the ‘scientific’ was produced by the reduction of Aristotle’s four causes into two intrinsic causes, namely, the material and the formal.
    The medieval period, from around the sixth to fifteenth century, which fell prior to the pre-Copernican revolution, generally understood knowledge as greatly characterized by the traditional four causes of Aristotle, namely the efficient causality, i.e. what or who brought the thing into being, the final causality, i.e. what the thing is made for, the material causality, i.e. what the thing is made of, and the formal causality, i.e. what makes a thing to be what it is. In the thirteenth century, Aristotle’s philosophic doctrine on substance and principles of science was the dominant system. Philosophy’s object was any certain “knowledge of the ultimate and highest causes in so far as these belong to the natural order” (Maritain 69). Philosophy studied everything in so far as it was knowable to man’s unaided intellectual and rational powers, and the knowledge obtained was constituted by a sufficient knowledge of the traditional four causes. Etymologically, the English word ‘science’ is derived from the Latin word ‘scio, scire,’ which simply means ‘to know,’ and hence the word ‘knowledge.’ In the medieval times, if we know each of the causes, we indeed have a sufficient knowledge of the thing. However, if we lack one of the causes, then our knowledge of the subject is de facto insufficient, thus, cannot be properly considered as knowledge.
    Moreover, this pre-Copernican revolution’s understanding of what is scientific knowledge and what is not, did not necessarily have to be limited to mathematical and empirical. The knowledge of the efficient cause included the certain fact that the agent is the cause of something’s existence. For example, the carpenter is the efficient cause of a chair. One can explore the knowledge about the efficient cause, his/her characteristics, activities, and qualities, without necessarily reducing him/her to numeric or quantifiable data. In judging a belief as to its ‘scientificity’ or ‘unscientificity,’ the traditional method which popularly accepted during the scholastic era, uses a scientific criterion which included not only those which were quantifiable or measurable but also includes those which were not at all quantifiable, mathematically demonstrable, non-empirically based and non-testable. In effect, theology, philosophy, metaphysics, physics, along with other natural physical sciences, were considered legitimate academic and scientific disciplines.


St. Thomas and the Medieval Conception of the ‘Scientific’


    St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy in the thirteenth century is one perfect example that shed light on the prominent place of the Four Causes at the time in the scientific field (Baird 400). In proving his claims and teachings and in certifying the legitimacy in what is knowable, he did not employ much of the sophisticated mathematical language and methods like that those of Archimedes, Pythagoras, or Euclid, although his non-employment of mathematical propositions does not necessarily imply a negative or dismissive attitude towards mathematics, or even physical or physiological sciences. In his philosophical discussions, such as in his metaphysics, he did not back up his claims with mathematical propositions and arguments at all. On the one hand, he relied on the Catholic faith that is based on biblical and dogmatic revelation, which he held unquestionable and superior to the power human reason and which is certainly not subject to empirical scrutiny and strictly mathematical calculations. On the other hand, he also trusted reason’s capacity in knowing truths about man and God, though it may at times fall short because of its inherent limitations. This indicates that he did not adhere to extreme fideism like the Christian fundamentalists, nor to extreme empiricism like some other post- Copernican Revolution philosophers and scientists. For Aquinas, certain subjects such as the soul, morality, freedom, responsibility, justice, good and evil, happiness, and the essences or existence, are not subject to direct empirical investigation, nor are they subject to mathematical calculations.
    During Thomas Aquinas’ time, as in the time of Aristotle, there were three degrees of abstraction: physics, mathematics and metaphysics (Crombie 68). In this notion of the degrees of abstraction, one can infer that natural philosophy, metaphysics and theology were different sciences which were recognized alongside the other. The subject of study of physics (first degree of abstraction) was change and motion (act-potency), which were discerned in material things. The subject of the study of mathematics (second degree of abstraction) was the abstractions from “change and matter, which are only attributes of matter” (Crombie 68). For this reason, one may conclude that inherent in matter is the calculability and measurability due to its actual extension in space and time. Metaphysics (third degree abstraction) studied the “immaterial substances that exist independently from the material composition” (Crombie 68). During that time, it was metaphysics which dominated and belittled the other two sciences. During the modern period, the physical and mathematical sciences dominate, and at times implicitly or explicitly persecute or dismiss metaphysics. Perhaps one may see this phenomenon figuratively as a kind of revolution or political rebellion against metaphysics.
    Clearly, St. Thomas’ scientific methodology included but was not limited to empirical and mathematical data. His was a balanced philosophy that was both realistic due to its candid adherence to the reality outside the mind, as well as metaphysical due to its intuition of being of things. In general, the medieval conception of knowledge was not exclusively defined in terms of quantifiability nor empirical verifiability.


The New Definition of the ‘Scientific’


    In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus, a Catholic monk and astronomer, published his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, in which the revolutionary heliocentric theory of the cosmos would confront the traditional Ptolemaic or geocentric model of the cosmos. Although the effects of the published work had gradually become more and more apparent, they were nevertheless tremendous because the new cosmology directly challenged the traditional scientific and religious authorities of the time. What was even more revolutionary in the Copernican model of the cosmos aside from its contents was its methodology, which was driven by a sincere desire for certain, accurate, and more precise knowledge of the celestial phenomena. Copernicus carefully and patiently observed natural phenomenon of the motions of the stars, sun, the moon and other celestial objects. This empirical observation made by Copernicus decisively marked the rise of the authority of observation, experience, phenomena, and experiment in the field of knowing the truth of things.
    Along with the rising authority of direct empirical observation and experience was the highly technical and highly mathematical language of the Copernican theory. He used geometric shapes, line and points, especially in his discussion of the retrograde motion of the planets, and other geometric principles in demonstrating the validity of his new cosmological theory. For this reason, his heliocentric model directly challenged not only the accepted traditional Ptolemaic model of the cosmos that prevailed throughout the society, culture and the Catholic Church during that time, but also reduced the traditional way of obtaining knowledge of a thing, that of the four causes, into two causes, the formal and the material.
    One should notice that in the process, two causes were being left out and considered as problematic, namely, the efficient cause and the final cause, thus, somehow abandoning the quest for the understanding of the ultimate origin and finality of the entire cosmos. What remained was an exclusive focus on both the formal cause, i.e. what makes the thing to be what it is, and on the material cause, i.e. what the thing is made of. Formal and material causes, however, are usually treated as one and the same cause by modern science, and are not particularly distinguished from each other. In effect, the reduction of the four causes into two causes induced the rise of the authority of empirical observation or experience as well as paved the way for the apparent necessary dominance of mathematics in scientific pursuits. The reason is that when human knowledge is concentrated on the formal cause, that is, the formality of things such as shape, color and abstract ideas, one will most likely consider the thing in itself, in which the shape, the color, the form, and the idea are abstractly discerned. Also, when human knowledge is solely concerned of the material, that is, the physical and the empirically verifiable and testable, one will most likely become a strict empiricist. Strict empiricism holds that only that which is observable and physically perceivable is certainly true and knowable. Sometimes this kind of empiricism assumes an anti-theological, anti-metaphysical positivistic attitude such as that of Auguste Comte (1798-1857) in the contemporary era (Crombie 318). Since the material or the matter is inherently empirically verifiable and quantifiable, calculable or measurable, due to its having shape, extension, width, length, height and weight, mathematics and geometry are indeed effective approaches in obtaining knowledge of the materially embodied object.


The New ‘Scientific’ and the Modern Scientists, Mathematicians and Philosophers


    In the post-Copernican Revolution (after 1540’s), the effect of this reduction to formal and material cause was made even more obvious by some philosophers and scientists such as Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Isaac Newton (1642-1727), and John Locke (1632-1704). Rene Descartes, who was a rationalist and has been hailed as the Father of Modern Philosophy, used mathematics and geometry as the foundation for certain knowledge. His mathematical and geometric ability noticeably went hand in hand with his mechanistic view of the world: “Physical world and phenomena could be understood in purely physical terms” (Hall 139). Another figure which contributed in the redefining of the ‘scientific’ is Galileo Galilei. In his book entitled The Assayer (1623), Galileo writes:


“Philosophy is written in that great book which continually lies open before us. I mean the universe. But it is not possible to understand this book without learning to understand its language, and knowing the letters in which it is written. It is written in the language of mathematics, and the letters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures.” (Hall140)


    In these words of Galileo, one clearly detects an outright advocacy and amplified confidence in the use of the first (physics) and second (mathematics) degrees of abstraction. This attitude has tremendous repercussions which the modern way of thinking clearly has embraced.
    Furthermore, it was clear in the mind of Galileo that Sacred Scripture and natural philosophy have their own parameters, and he emphasized that in natural philosophy (physics and astronomy) the proper method of inquiry is through experiments and tests: “I think that in the discussion of natural problems we ought to begin not with the Scriptures, but with experiments, and demonstrations” (Hall 53). Moreover, another philosopher who contributed to the redefinition of the ‘scientific’ is Francis Bacon who further re-affirms the authority of experience saying that knowledge must be based on empirically deduced propositions. After Galileo and Bacon was another scientist and mathematician named Sir Isaac Newton, who, in book three (rule IV) of his major work entitled Principia, wrote, “In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions inferred from the phenomena as accurately or very nearly true…till such time as other phenomena occur; by which they may either be made more accurate, or liable to exceptions” (Newton 400). John Locke, in his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding, book IV, chapter 3, also re-iterated the same empiricist position, that all knowledge is traced back or depends on direct sense-experience: “Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished?...To this I answer, in one word, from experience” (Hall106). Indeed, in today’s post-Copernican Revolution era, the modern criterion of what is scientific and what is unscientific has become closely associated with mathematical calculations and empirical observations. The works of some philosophers, scientists, and philosopher-scientists created an effect: the four causes were gradually and subtly reduced into the deepest recesses of the formal and material causes. It is as if in this age of modern science, the material and the formal causes as well as ‘the two criteria of the scientific’ are now canonized.
    In his address at Regensburg University, in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI observed that the traditional definition of the ‘scientific’ is now relegated to the realm of the obsolete and is sometimes viewed as pre-scientific or unscientific. The new definition is a result of looking for more restrictive and exact criterion, as Copernicus did, leaning more on non-flexible, or less-flexible, principles, and to some extent principles having deterministic tendencies. In effect, in our contemporary world, only those sciences which employ or are based on mathematics, empirical data and observations and experiments are considered as authentically scientific, because they give certain, precise knowledge about the nature of the world around us. Further, many people nowadays have serious and ineradicable suspicion and reservation in the traditional disciplines and knowledge that are not mathematically or numerically explainable and empirically verifiable, such as theology and metaphysics. Modern people who have been greatly influenced by such restricted criterion tend to have dismissive attitude towards theology, spirituality, and metaphysics. This modern attitude is due to the fact that the definition of science has greatly been restricted to the formal and material causes and, consequently, to the empirically observable/verifiable and measurable facts. The effect is the modern people’s impression on religion, morals, and philosophy as ‘unscientific,’ because all of these fields are neither mathematically based, nor are deduced from empirically verifiable propositions.
    In conclusion, the Copernican revolution was a major catalyst in the evolution of the traditional understanding of the ‘scientia’ (knowledge) and the ‘scientific’, which was then grounded on the knowledge of the four causes of Aristotle. It was a significant historical reference point, if you will, in illustrating how the meaning of the ‘scientific’ has been redefined. Due to the reduction of the traditional four causes into the formal and material causes, a new scientific system, which aims at certainty and accuracy of knowledge, gradually and silently emerges. The revolutionary theory of Copernicus did not just directly challenge the prevailing conception of what was scientific and what was not during that time, but it also decisively altered the very way or method of knowing, that is, through keen observation and direct experience of the thing to be known, and through numerical and mathematical justifications and descriptions of it.

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