Thursday, May 28, 2015

Discovery or Revolution?

Several times in past posts we have referred to landmark scientific discoveries during the lifetimes of several of our most recent generations. For example, retirement age residents of the present day may be surprised to learn that sub-atomic particles, now commonly part of our current science lexicon—electrons, protons, and neutrons—were discovered and named during the lifetimes of their parents and grandparents. The vast structure and size of our universe, now known with great precision, was unknown during the prime adult lifetimes of our parents.

In 1897 J. B. Rutherford discovered electrons. Atomic nuclei were credited to Ernest Rutherford in 1911. Later he named protons as components of nuclei in 1920. And James Chadwick described neutrons with experiments reported in 1932. In astronomy Edwin Hubble revealed his findings during the 1920s concerning the size of the universe. That information upstaged the already enormously large distances then known to comprise our Milky Way Galaxy of which we are part. Edwin Hubble died in 1953 when I was in high school.

Hundreds of examples could be offered of discoveries in science over the last four hundred years. Groups of discoveries do not constitute a revolution, however. Within the famous Scientific Revolution of the last four hundred years, collective progress in science fully qualifies as a revolution, defined as replacement of one system in favor of a new system. When the 17th century dawned, Aristotelian thinking still dominated science. Aristotle lived in the fourth century BC. For centuries “science” was termed “natural philosophy.”

Aristotelian science held sway until the 17th century. Aristotelian philosophy is full of mystery to the modern mind. Matter was supposedly composed of spheres of earth, water, air, and fire. Objects moved in straight lines to their “natural” positions. Natural circumstances were determined through reasoning about mystical “final causes.” These beliefs held sway for hundreds of years with few exceptions. A few earlier enlightened thinkers such as Roger Bacon had introduced empiricism in the study of nature.

In the scope of humanity’s history, the Scientific Revolution is a recent development. Its inception was pivotal to man’s progress on many fronts. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were cultural and intellectual social movements roughly coincidental with the Scientific Revolution. 

The Scientific Revolution was the removal of one system in favor of a new system. We remind readers that 400 years in the history of humanity is a relatively short time interval. In that time frame we experienced an overthrow of the old system followed by hundreds of discoveries affirming that we are in a new regime in the history of humanity in terms of science. We revel in new discoveries such as subatomic particles and the enormity of our universe in less than 100 years. God oversees the pace of past, present, and future progress in the field of science, whether discoveries or true revolutions.

What philosophical dimensions accompany this new regime of science? How does our society justify the claims being made for our newfound human knowledge? Does science draw us closer to the knowledge of God’s reality as Creator? Does science exalt humanity instead? Or are both exalted? Hundreds of volumes have analyzed these questions. Our blog commentary serves only as a conversation starter.