Sunday, April 15, 2007
Descartes, Bacon and Newton, giant's of science
Rene Descartes wrote his Discourse on Method 50 years before Issac Newton published his Principia. The Principia stunned the world and quickly established Newton as the leading intellectual of his age. Everyone recognized it as epoch making. But the Principia and the ideas it contained were built against a backdrop of feverish excitement that began well over a century before with Copernicus who had literally torn the cosmos from its foundations and hurled it into space. Aristotle's universe, Ptolemy's universe, had been overthrown. It took some time to sink in. But when it did, there began a concerted and feverish process of rebuilding the world on a newfooting. The century and a half of reconstruction culminating in Newton's magnificent achievement."The book of nature, Newton's nature was seen in poetic termsas a divine romance -- a book written in disconnectedcorpuscular characters scattered throughout an infinite and empty void following the syntax of motion and the rule of attraction."
This Newtonian cosmos was radically different from Aristotle's.Aristotle's cosmos had been closed, finite,
and differentiated. This universe was open, infinite, and undifferentiated. It was mathematical, knowable, material and
predictable. It ran like a clock with such incredible precision that witnessed for most evidence enough of a divine clockmaker who took an active and omnipresent interest in the affairs of men. Newton did not require God as a first principle in his grand synthesis--but the product of his endeavors was evidence enough that God was. The optimism that this awareness inspired fueled the spirit of Newton's Age, the Age of enlightenment.But Newton's achievements, catalyzed in the first instance by Copernicus, were produced through his fusing and synthesis of many others who took on the challenge of rebuilding the cosmos. These must have been exciting and nervous times. Tradition and authority were dead--but what would take their place? There were many actors in the drama that culminated in Newton's triumph, but three men in particular stood out: Galileo, Francis Bacon, and Rene Descartes: Italian, English and French. Before looking at the distinctions amongst these three it is important to recognize, that in the grand scheme of the age in which they worked, and that although their strategies differed,they had much in common. They would have made a grand teaching team. All three were optimistic. All three were individualistic and egalitarian. All three were anti-traditionalist and actively about the business of getting on with the business of forging a new cosmos. All three held views that ignorance came from error. The synthesis that Newton produced could be represented as a line drawn from Galileo to Newton with Descartes and Bacon standing on either side. Bacon is the proponent of a method of empiricism, induction, experiment and observation--a gatherer of particulars. Descartes is seen as the champion of deduction, the rational thinker. Newton, is seen as the harmonizer of these two contrasting approaches, claiming, correctly, that induction and particulars are primary, but, in fact, relying heavily on a system of grand intellectual constructions--space and time especially - which are very much from the tradition of Descartes. Notice that while the "language of Newton" is very much Baconian in tone and intent: RULE IV In experimental philosophy we are to look upon propositions inferred by general induction from phenomena as accurately or very nearly true, notwithstanding any contrary hypotheses that may be imagined, till such time as other phenomena occur by which they may be made more accurate or liable to exception. (Rules of reasoning). ...that it was Descartes who had the greatest influence on Newton's method through his "Analytic Geometry," which was Descartes' crowning intellectual achievement.