Chapters in Western Civilization - Vol. 1

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XIII
THE DEVELOPMENT OF MODERN SCIENCE

Ernest Nagel

The intellectual revolution produced by the rise of modern science during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries consisted not only in altering radically men's conceptions of the universe and their place in it. It also involved the erection of a fresh ideal of knowledge and ultimately the construction of new instruments, both physical and intellectual, for transforming the physical and social environment. The rise of modern science was no less potent as an agent helping to discredit medieval philosophy than was the commercial civilization that replaced the medieval agricultural economy.

We will appreciate the revolutionary significance of modern science more fully, however, if we first note some of the distinctive assumptions of medieval science -- assumptions against which an experimentally based mathematical science had to contend. Medieval science was in the main ancillary to a theology that placed greater value on the salvation of man's soul than on man's ability to discover the physical conditions for the order of events. The primary concern of medieval thinkers was to understand the order of existence as illustrating the divine goodness and to see how that order ministered to man's spiritual needs. On the other hand, how man's salvation was to be achieved and in what way the facts of the universe testified to the possibility of that salvation were questions regarded as definitely settled by a fixed and complete doctrine.

The fundamental premises of this doctrine were believed to be supplied either by divine revelation or by a number of selected authorities -- the Bible and its interpretation by the Church Fathers, and eventually also Aristotle, after his writings were absorbed into the fabric of Christian thought. The physical and cosmological ideas of the medievals thus consisted of a fusion of Christian theology and Greek science. Although the medievals frequently

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This chapter appeared in previous editions of Chapters in Western Civilization.

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