The Other I

July 19, 2010

The beginnings of reductionism

The beginnings of reductionism which many believe to be the bedrock of science can be traced back Galileo.  The traditional belief is that Galileo got in trouble with church authorities because, following Copernicus, he argued that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way around.

But that isn’t really the core of what was so threatening about Galileo.  He was called to Rome, threatened with the rack, and ultimately confined for the rest of his life to house arrest for a different reason.  Galileo believed that physical evidence and his observations of heavenly bodies seen through his telescope provided a more accurate account of the how the natural world worked than did revelation and the teachings of the church.

The belief that natural law is not subordinate to interference of supernatural or higher powers is one of the revolutionary foundation stones of scientific thought.

When Newton’s theory of gravity explained why apples fall from trees but stars don’t fall from the sky, the faith in the study of these natural laws in their own right provided a confidence in science and its methodology that was unprecedented.  With its powerful mathematical base,  Newton’s theory could tell where stars and planets had been in the past, but also predict where they would be for thousands of years to come.

Science became unequivocably committed to explanations of the universe based on natural laws.

Galileo and Newton and indeed most scientists continued to believe in God and most often to accept church teachings.  God created the universe and the laws under which it is was governed, but then did not interfere with their impersonal operation.  Mankind might still be held accountable on the day of final judgement and sentenced to eternal heaven or hell,  but the rain today did not come because we prayed for it.  Nor was the earthquake a punishment for our sinfulness.

This insistence that science seeks to explain the universe only through the discovery of natural laws has changed the very metaphysics of Western thought  and the role of religion in society.

But the specific assumptions of reductionism include more than a commitment to the exploration of natural law in its own right.  An examination of these further assumptions will be the topic of the next post on the topic.

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