October 23, 2009

The Tyranny – Scientific Revolution

Posted in Scientific Revolution tagged at 10:56 pm by Jeremy

In our modern era, there’s a common view that Christianity and science are opposed to each other.  But, in terms of the pfc, they’re really part of the same dynamic: the domination by the pfc over other aspects of our consciousness.

Science couldn’t have emerged in the West without the dualistic view that nature was something separate from Man, something to be conquered.  In earlier posts, I’ve touched on how Plato and his followers were responsible for embedding dualism in Western thought, and how the Christian fathers integrated Platonic dualism into Christianity.

13th. Century picture showing God as “architect of the universe”.  Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

13th. Century picture showing God as “architect of the universe”. Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

What is less generally known is the direct link between Platonism, Christianity and the scientific method.   From as early as the 12th century, well before the Renaissance, there was a powerful tradition in European thought of God as the great geometer, the great machine-maker in the heavens, and Man’s role was to use his Reason for the greater glory of God.

Beginning with Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), there was a new desire to join reason and intellectual enquiry with Christianity, rather than to merely accept the authority of the Bible.  Anselm believed that, rather than relying on the Scripture itself, you should believe “whatever the conclusion of independent investigation should declare to be true.”[1]

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

This approach found full force with Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who achieved a linkage between Reason, Divine Law and Natural Law that served as a template for future scientific innovators.  In Aquinas’ words:

There is a certain Eternal Law, to wit, Reason, existing in the mind of God, and governing the whole universe… And so this Reason, thus ruling all things, and existing in God the governor of the universe, has the nature of Law.. And accordingly the eternal law is nothing else than the reason of the divine wisdom regarded as directive of all actions and motions.[2]

Therefore, it made sense that, by expanding his own knowledge of these laws of nature through the application of reason, man was becoming closer to God.

In fact, during the centuries following Anselm and Aquinas, European thinkers gradually began to develop some of the fundamental concepts that we take for granted, such as “reason”, “truth”, “scientific laws.”  These ideas have their roots in classical Greek thought, but have only emerged in their current form since the days of Aquinas.

There was, however, a missing element in the integration of God’s laws, reason and the search for truth that was necessary for the scientific revolution to really take off.  That was the notion of “power.”  The idea that mankind has – and should have – the power to change the course of Nature at will.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

The ascendancy of this idea can be traced to Francis Bacon, (1561-1626), one of the founders of modern scientific thinking, who believed the aim of the scientist was to ‘torture nature’s secrets from her’[3] – and that of course is what we’ve done so well in the past three centuries.  The huge significance of this view is often underestimated, but is in fact one of the underlying causes of the massive global imbalances we’re currently experiencing.  In the words of historian Lynn White:

The emergence in widespread practice of the Baconian creed that scientific knowledge means technological power over nature can scarcely be dated before about 1850…  Its acceptance as a normal pattern of action may mark the greatest event in human history since the invention of agriculture, and perhaps in nonhuman terrestrial history as well.[4]

In my view, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions were as much about power as science or industry: they were driven not just by an increased understanding of nature but by using that knowledge to exercise power over nature… and consequently power over other societies.

In other posts, I’ll explore why this unique Western view of humanity’s separation from – and power over – Nature was perhaps the reason why the scientific revolution could only have happened in Europe, rather than any other of the advanced civilizations of the past two thousand years.

The dramatic increase in humanity’s power over nature has brought tremendous benefits to us over the past three hundred years, which none of us would want to do without.  But they’ve come with the price of a terrible dislocation, both within the consciousness of each and every one of us, and in our global environment.

Each day, we’re bombarded with the news of the effects of our approach to nature as a soulless resource there for our benefit: global warming, deforestation, overpopulation, massive extinctions, loss of biodiversity… the list gets ever bigger and ever more threatening.  As environmental biologist Paul Ehrlich puts it: “Our evolving human natures may be heading us toward the worst catastrophe in the history of Homo sapiens.”[5]

I’ll try in future posts to understand our current global environmental crisis in terms of the pfc’s tyranny of human consciousness.  Something that we need to understand is that this dislocation within ourselves and in our relationship to the natural world is continually increasing at a faster and faster pace.  This dynamic affects not only our relationship to our planet, but even our relationship to our own humanity.  That’s a topic I’ll begin exploring in my next post.


[1] Cited by Grant, E. (2004). Science and Religion, 400 B.C. to A.D. 1550: From Aristotle to Copernicus, pp. 153-4.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[2] Quoted by Needham, J. ([1956] 1972). Science and Civilisation in China, Volume II, p. 538 London: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Quoted by Capra, F., (1982/1988). The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture. New York: Bantam Books.

[4] White, L., Jr. (1967). “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”Science. City, pp. Volume 155, Issue 3767, pp. 1203-1207.

[5] Ehrlich, P.R., (2000/2002). Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. New York: Penguin.

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2 Comments »

  1. […] of the “tyranny of the pfc” that I’ve traced through agriculture, monotheist dualism and the scientific revolution, could be paraphrased in these lines from the Laozi: Therefore when Tao is lost, then there is te. […]

  2. […] I describe in my blog, The Tyranny of the Prefrontal Cortex, I believe that Dumanoski is in fact describing one of the most glaring results of an imbalance […]


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