Post-Reformation Nominalism Gives Birth to Modern Science

Between the fourteenth century and the seventeenth century, the most world-changing movement to happen to Western Christendom was the Reformation. This is not the place to explore the distinctive impact of Calvinist and Puritan thinking on the origins of modern science (and, of course, Catholics such as Galileo and Descartes are vital in the birth of modern science) but the point 1 wish to draw your attention to is that both the Catholics and Protestants—who drove what we now call the scientific revolution forward in the seventeenth century—were largely nominalists in their metaphysics. The implications of this for both first philosophy and theologies of nature are hard to overstate.

Modern science (and hence. Western modernity) was born nominalist. The concrete and the particular now define reality such that there is a more or less total inversion of the meaning of “realism” between the eleventh and the seventeenth centuries. By the seventeenth century, a realistic understanding of nature is built up by a carefully observed knowledge of particular concrete reality and its regularised appearances. Qualities, purposes, and intelligible essences in (and/or beyond) nature become obsolete. In important regards, Aristotle’s careful rational observations of concrete natural beings is the first rocket booster that gets modern science out of the lower atmosphere, but it largely falls away in the seventeenth century. This falling away is worth understanding.

Aristotle observes four types of causes in nature: material, efficient, formal, and final. Formal causes are concerned with intelligible essence, and final causes are concerned with purpose. These two causes are simply dropped in the new natural philosophy of the seventeenth century, and the only type of causes we can recognise in nature now are material causation (what something is made of) and efficient causation (how one thing causes another thing, more or less mechanically). That is, our scientific realism has no conception of essence or purpose in nature. We have a simpler philosophy of nature than what Aristotle had, which is arguably simplistic as regards essence and purpose in nature. This does not make purpose and essence in nature go away; it just makes them invisible to what we think of as demonstrable scientific knowledge. But when purpose and essential value are no longer observable to our conception of a scientific understanding of natural reality, this promotes an instrumental and qualitatively un-constrained set of operational norms as regards what we do to nature with our knowledge and our technological power. Why not put huge quantities of sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere to “fix” global warming?

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