Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 1)

Though it has earlier origins, modern science arose in the time following the Black Death in Europe. For 1,300 years, the Church had held the reins when it came to the Truth. The beliefs of the Church had carried binding power in nearly all aspects of life. Legitimacy had come from adherence to the orthodoxy of the time.

Detail Academy of Sciences - 1666
In the year 1666, Louis XIV founded the Paris Observatory.

Science, the Revolutionary

There had been more than a millennium of (partial) intellectual stagnation. The Faith had held not only religious power but also political recognition. Religious officials held offices that granted them legal status as authorities.

To understand the influence of the Medieval clergy, we need look no further than the Three Estates system in Medieval Europe. The Three Estates were the way Europe understood its own culture and authority.

The clergy were the First Estate, the nobility the Second estate, and the important (and bourgeois) commoners the Third Estate. Such divisions were explicit, not implicit. When bodies were set to advise kings, for instance, they were often developed along these lines. While the peasants were known as the Fourth Estate, no one cared much what they thought.

In representative bodies, and in general, the First and Second Estates tended to band together to maintain the status quo. Since there was a fair amount of interpenetration between the clergy and nobility, the division between the two was more often theoretical than real.

The Church Loses It

The Black Death
The Black Death killed 30-60% of the European population.

The Black Death (CE 1348 – 1350), as well as repeated plagues, ripped apart Europe up through the 19th century. In the wake of the death and destruction, the religious hierarchy started to lose its grip on authority. The clergy had promoted certain rules of cause and effect in the world — their authority was founded upon their understanding of the nature of the world as a place created by God, and misfortune as His punishment.

In the plagues, there was massive destruction that made few distinctions in class and wealth. As the Black Death killed the saint and sinner alike, it became harder and harder to believe that the saint was anything special.

The destruction of the plagues went on for centuries. As the Church began to lose credibility, there was an authority vacuum. Into that vacuum stepped Science, which told people (rightly) that these horrors were not personal, but mechanistic –not ineffable, but comprehensible.

Thus was born Science the Revolutionary. The new worldview told Western Culture to throw out all the old ways, so that we could start fresh.

These are still matters of some debate even today. The West has not wholly thrown away religion. But science did displace (or perhaps replace) religion. In the time since then, Science (writ large) has moved into a place of cultural authority.

Science Grows Up and Gets a Job

Hampstead Garden Suburb by Ben Brooksbank
Science got promoted, and moved to the suburbs.

Science went from being a (metaphorical) wild-eyed revolutionary — who wanted to burn down the old order and build something new and utopian — to a protector of a new status quo. I’ll be the first to argue that science does a lot of good in the world, and that it still has some of that revolutionary zeal. But in the past six or seven centuries, science has gotten established, respectable, and middle-aged.

Once, science depended on a bunch of guys tinkering in their sheds and workshops, writing to each other. They were always on the edge of either a great breakthrough or breakdown (ahem, Isaac Newton, ahem).

Now, scientific progress is expensive, incremental, institutionalized, and — above all — patented. Did science “sell out”? Did it “go bad” or “get lost”?

In a word, no. Science (if I can anthropomorphicize once more) won the battle for authority, and has a respectable job as an administrator. Science lives in the suburbs with two cats, three dogs, and a mortgage.

Science: Revolutionary, Heir, or Rebellious Child? (Part 2) will publish on September 15, 2013.


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