The Rise of Science

18A • Civilisation & Society 2 • Technique & Science • Lecture 02 • The Rise of Modern Science • 09.02.12 from The Muslim Faculty on Vimeo.

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: The Rise of Science

Author:  Abdassamad Clarke

Publication date: 9/2/2013

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation and Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the second of 12 sessions which make up the Technique and Science module. The lecture will last approximately 40 minutes during which time you should make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture. 

The Rise of Science


In this lecture, we will ask examine the significance of the creation of modern science by Galileo, Descartes, Newton and others in a period that stretched from the Renaissance through the crisis of the Reformation to the foundation of the modern state and the first central banks, the issuance of banknotes and the first national debt. For this purpose, we must first briefly consider the historical background. 


Christianity and Rome

Every tree is from the seed of the tree which preceded it,  and is also a product of the soil in which it grew. The mutant seed of Pauline Christianity was planted, fatefully enough, in the soil of the Roman Empire. The seed was different enough from the original tree of Christianity and the soil was of such a singular nature that the resultant tree carried within itself, one could say, further mutants, the seeds of its own destruction, the seeds of the tree that would replace it. 

Papal Roman Catholicism was, dogmatically speaking, an imperial form, which nevertheless accommodated itself in other respects to the exigencies of the world. Our story takes place in one of the successor epochs long after the demise of the Empire in the West and around the time of its final demise in the East.

We will find that this epoch is one of the great fault lines of history. In 1450 Gutenberg invented printing and in 1453 the Osmanlıs entered Constantinople. In 1492 the last stronghold of Islam in Spain, Granada, fell to Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus sailed West to try and reach India and in so doing, caused the floods of gold and silver which radically altered the situation in currency starved Europe. 

In that year, Antonio de Nebrija (1441 – 1522)1 gave Ferdinand and Isabella a grammar of the Castilian language, which they were to make the ‘Spanish’ language, saying, “Majesty, the language is the instrument of the empire.” His grammar, the first of a vernacular rather than a classical language, was nakedly political in intent and was to provide the basis for mass education as a political programme henceforth in Europe and the world. In essence, this is the first foundation of the modern idea of the ‘nation’ which was to receive legal form in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia. 

In 1497 Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope sidelining the Silk Road through Osmanlı lands thus depriving them of much revenue, a matter which would determine a great deal of later Osmanlı history, and at the same time impoverishing Venice. In 1518, Martin Luther raised the banner of protest that would become Protestantism and split Europe, leading to the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 which was concluded with the Peace of Westphalia, universally regarded as the birth of the state. This is just a part of the backdrop for the story of the rise of science. But we must take a step backwards to an earlier period.

The Renaissance

In his excellent study, The Medici – Godfathers of the Renaissance, Strathearn draws attention to two matters that historians regard as among the causes of the Renaissance: the influx of Greek philosophical works into Florence and Italy and the rather more mundane issue of banking. Both these issues are amply illustrated in the life of one man, but we must approach them in the reverse order.


Còsimo di Giovanni degli Mèdici (27 September 1389 – 1 August 1464) was a Christian and a banker, indeed at one point banker to the Pope. In conversation with a Cardinal, the latter confirmed that usury, or the practice of banking, is a mortal sin, and said the only way to atone for his sin was to cease his usurious activities and give away all that he had gained. Cosimo made a very pragmatic decision that had no theological basis and which was to alter the course of history: he decided to continue as a banker and to give a ‘lot’ of money away. That lot went to Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and a host of others and would go far to bankroll the Renaissance. A successor, Cosimo II, would be the patron of the man who is often cited as the very beginning of the modern scientific approach, Galileo Galilei, who would, fittingly enough, design for his patron a slide-rule to calculate compound interest.


Interesting though that theme is to us and even though it itself weaves in and out of our story, it leads on to another which is more directly germane. Around the time of the fall of Constantinople to the Osmanlıs in 1453, the Christian ecclesiastical and scholarly élite began to flee to Italy, taking with them much of their heritage of classical Greek learning. Just as Cosimo had found solace from his guilty conscience in philanthropy, he now sought refuge from guilt-ridden Christianity in the works of the pre-Christian philosophers, translations of whose works he commissioned, and the reading and study of which he engaged in with others in convivial circles in Florence. With the weight of his finance behind it, it would spread very far indeed.

Thus, Christianity was coming apart, Islam was advancing in the east and retreating in the west, banking was beginning to drive everything a bit faster as is its wont and subvert Christianity, and in the middle of it all, philosophy and later science would seem to hold out a calm non-conflictive possibility.

Heaven and Earth

Although Galileo is counted as the beginning of our modern science, the study of the heavens had led the way. Copernicus had arguably been the first in 1543 with his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) to propose a heliocentric model of the solar system, although Aristarchus (310 BCE – ca. 230 BCE) of Samos had already done so. What is often not understood about Copernicus’s heliocentric view of the solar system is that he revived a more ancient view and along with it a strange quasi-sun worship. He said:

“Not unfittingly do some call it the light of the world, others the soul, still others the governor. Tremigistus calls it the visible God: Sophocles’ Electra, the All-seer. And in fact does the sun, seated on his royal throne, guide his family of planets as they circle around him.”2

The transition from Ptolemy to Copernicus is not merely from one model of the solar system to another but something much more fundamental, a complete change in how one experiences the world. The direct experience that people have is of living on the earth with the planets and stars rising and setting.3 Thus people who actually experience the night sky see the sun and moon rise and set, and the planets advancing across the sky and then performing retrograde motions, pericycles, before continuing. This was was most succinctly articulated by Ptolemy (90 CE – c. 168 CE) whose ‘universe’, as Shaw said, ‘lasted for fourteen hundred years.’ Of course, we are not saying that objectively this is what is happening, but that this is what we, humanity, have always experienced and always will.

But prior to this explanation of the objects ‘in’ the sky there is the matter of Heaven itself, and this is something almost completely lost to modern man with the overwhelming light pollution that  has effectively closed the door of Heaven. Contrary to Earth, where, even with its vastness, all is bounded and limited, the experience of looking at the night sky is the closest we come to seeing the infinite, and has always stood as the most potent sign of the Lord of Heaven. It is for this reason that in many traditions the word Heaven itself indicates the Divine. And there is this provocative hadith:

 عن ابن عباس قال: أتى النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم رجل بجارية سوداء فقال: يا رسول الله إن أمي ماتت وعليها رقبة مؤمنة فهل تجزي هذه عنها؟ فقال لها رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: أين الله؟ فأومأت برأسها إلى السماء، فقال: من أنا؟ قالت: رسول الله. قال: أعتقها فإنها مؤمنة. (الترمذي).

From Ibn ‘Abbās ? there is that he said: A man brought a black slave girl to the Prophet @ and said, “Messenger of Allah, my mother died owing a believing slave, so will this one suffice her?” So the Messenger of Allah @ said to her, “Where is Allah?” And she indicated the sky with her head. Then he said, “Who am I?” She said, “The Messenger of Allah.” He said, “Free her, for she is a believer.” (At-Tirmidhī)

This is something that is unthinkable in ordinary kalām and is certainly not an endorsement of the fallacious reasoning of literalist anthropomorphists. It is only city people who, because they do not experience the night sky, can turn this into a theological argument; for the country dweller this is self-evident.

Thus we moved from an age in which men lived on Earth under a Heaven that indicates the Lord, to one in which the focus shifts from the visible Heaven to a conceptual zone in which the emphasis is on the heavenly bodies. This emphasis is intrinsically Earthly; it transforms the infinite Heaven into an extension of bounded earth, even if the boundaries are mind-numbingly enormous, inhabited by other earths. The distinction between Heaven and Earth has been abolished.

The viewpoint of Ptolemaic man is from within his own body, but the viewpoint of Copernican man is out-of-body, out beyond the solar system. It is true, but it has a viewpoint. The Ptolemaic system is also true but it has a viewpoint, and that is the viewpoint we actually do have: people in bodies on Earth gazing at the sky.

Galileo (15th February 1564 – 8th January 1642)

Galileo’s famous encounter with the Church revolves around whether he was promulgating the Copernican heliocentric view, contrary to the Church’s Ptolemaic perspective, not on his work on physics and dropping objects painstakingly from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. But his physics contained the seed of something that Descartes and Newton were to articulate more fully which would be the beginning proper of all modern science. It is the law of inertia which was later to become Newton’s First Law, or properly his First Axiom, 

Lex I: Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare.

Law I: Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.

In paraphrase it is “A body will continue at rest or in uniform motion along a straight line unless acted upon by a force”. Heidegger says:

How about this law? It speaks of a body, corpus quod a viribus impressis non cogitur, a body which is left to itself. Where do we find it? There is no such body. There is also no experiment that could ever bring such a body to direct perception. But modern science, in contrast to the mere dialectical, poetic conception of medieval Scholasticism and science, is supposed to be based upon experience. Instead, it has such a law at its apex. This law speaks of a thing that does not exist. It demands a fundamental representation of things that contradict the ordinary.

It is important to grasp this properly, because this is proposed as a universal law of things that things themselves never ever obey, indeed a law that no single thing in the entire universe that can be shown as an example of, and yet the science erected on this basis ‘works’.


The step that was taken by Copernicus in astronomy and Galileo in physics was the same: it is the conception of a model in the imagination. Whereas Ptolemy conceived of a model based on what everyone actually sees and experiences, Copernicus conceived a model of the solar system seen as if outside it gazing upon it. Galileo’s step was even more radical: he visualised a universe with nothing in it but one object at rest or in uniform motion along a straight line. It fell later to Newton to elaborate the consequences of this step.

Descartes (31st March 1596 – 11th February 1650)

Although Descartes was a man with numerous interests and talents, many of which made fundamental contributions to the history of science, his Cartesian coordinate system, his conception of the universe as a totality as a machine and living creatures in general as machines, and his work on the method of science in his Discourse on Method, he is most famous for one thing: positing the centrality of the ‘I’, most obviously in his cogito ergo sum – ‘I think therefore I am’. This is the foundation of his attempt to found a philosophy on a mathematical basis à la Euclid which we will look at in more detail in the fourth lecture of this series on Logic and the Mathematical. Whereas Galileo and Newton were content to observe and think about the creation, as a philosopher Descartes knew that something had to be said about the observer and the thinker before any other thing. Although as a Christian, he attempted to find a logical place in his schema for God, yet his first axiom, this ‘I think, therefore I am’ inevitably would displace God from subsequent thought. It would take until the use of MRI and the works of the neurophysiologists before this ‘I’ would be subjected to the same scrutiny that matter was by the quantum theorists and logic was by Gödel, but that will be the subject of our 9th lecture.

On this fundamental tenet he erected his ‘method’ which he outlined in a couple of major works, Regulae ad directionem ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind) and Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method).

His coordinate system was vital for giving exactness to the mathematical imagination which had pictured the solar system for Copernicus and had envisioned the strange space in which Galileo’s object sat at rest or moved in uniform motion in a straight line.

His positing the world as a machine was arguably to have disastrous effects.

He connects, quite unexpectedly to one of our major themes, “In 1623, he sold some family assets [in his home of La Haye] investing the revenues in bonds; these provided a yearly allowance sufficient to devote his time to study and research only.” Thus, there was the move from natural wealth, land and property which require work and management and involve people, to the new mathematical wealth that just sits and yields income.

Descartes lived his life as a Catholic in Protestant Holland, living throughout the long drawn out Thirty Years War, during which casualties amounted to from a third to two-thirds of the population, plague and famine were rife, populations were moved and villages destroyed.

Some Reflections

It is well to pose a question here without necessarily answering it: did these figures move and drive history or were they simply the expression of wider movements, symptoms of something else? It would be all too easy to posit Descartes or Newton as geniuses who substantially affected the world in their time and subsequently. It is, however, not so difficult to see them as figures who gave expression to the driving thought of their times or even as men who were chosen post factum by other less cerebral forces to whom their work was advantageous such as political and commercial élites.4 Thus we could see Descartes’ cogito ergo sum as merely being a thoroughly rigorous statement of the dominant post-Renaissance humanism that put man at the centre of existence in the place of God.

Newton (25th December 1642 – 20th March 1726)

Whatever was born with Galileo and given rigour with Descartes was written out in full and promulgated down to our age in multiple channels by Newton.


Newton was a lifelong bachelor obsessively committed to the pursuit of arcane occult sciences perhaps more than to his scientific studies, which some have suggested were almost a by-product of his main interests. He entered into a couple of controversies with Robert Hooke, over the issue of the law of gravity, and Leibniz, over calculus. Historians of science usually acquit Newton of any charge of plagiarism. Nevertheless, Newton pursued these controversies with a certain degree of vindictiveness.


Newton is noted in history as a Unitarian; he did not ascribe to the Trinitarian position of Christianity, but to the position that ‘Īsā ï was a prophet and messenger of Allah. This put him in an unenviable position since whatever toleration had been won for Protestantism certainly did not extend to what was regarded by both sides as the vilest heresy. Newton thus concealed his Unitarianism all his life, and accepted in the end a position in the Anglican political and social hierarchy and burial in Westminster Abbey.

Alchemy and the Occult

We approach the topic of alchemy before the scientific work because there is considerable evidence of its central importance for Newton himself and that he doggedly pursued alchemical experimentation throughout the period when he was scientifically creative, and that even his scientific work was an offshoot of his alchemical and occult studies. It must be remembered that alchemy was considered heretical and was a capital offence throughout this period. When Keynes purchased a large number of Newton’s papers at an auction in 1936 and discovered the bulk of them to be occupied with alchemy and other occult matters, he remarked: “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”5 But we have already seen a hint of this with Copernicus and Kepler, and it is vital to remember that, almost without exception, the people of the age were deeply immersed in myth, legend, superstition, and symbolism just as much as with science and philosophy. This is as much a part of our story as the issues of power and wealth.


The first official Freemasonic Lodge was established in London in 1717, the very same year that Newton fixed the price of gold. One of Newton’s biographers, Michael White, told me in correspondence that he has found no evidence of Newton being a Freemason. But Freemasonry is an important element of the age that is to come, with its close connection to science, occult matters, secret initiation rites, power, in the UK to the monarchy and the élite, and in Europe and elsewhere to revolution, and finally its connections to economic élite.


Although Newton’s Opticks was published in 1704 after his accession to the post of Master of the Mint, Newton had lectured on the subject in 1670-2 long before his Principia. In it Newton successfully elaborated the corpuscular view. The most important thing to remember here is that light itself is invisible and is only known by its effects on other things, among which effects are the colours. Newton physicalised how we imagine light, so that we came to think of it as particles, later as waves, and even later as both particles and waves. What was lost was the general understanding of light as an invisible Divine attribute. We will defer study of this in more depth until next week’s lecture on Goethe’s Way of Science.

Principia, Gravity and Mechanics

In 1687 Newton published his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) in Latin. In one work, Newton united Heaven and Earth coherently, whereas before they had been considered as two fundamentally opposite domains. In reality, this was the extension of the laws of Earth to Heaven. Everything was now governed by one set of physical, i.e. earthly, laws. In their earthly application these laws produced laws of motion and mechanics that were immediately applicable to artillery and a wide variety of physical processes that were to find their practical expression in the industrial revolution and in modern warfare.

Calculus, Leibniz and Atomism/Monadology

The unnecessary controversy between Newton and Leibniz as to who had priority in the invention of calculus is nevertheless illustrative of wider issues. Newton certainly seems to have been earlier, but both men worked on it independently, and expressed it quite differently, and it is more to Leibniz’s formulation that we look to today than to Newton’s.

Calculus is the necessary companion to atomism, considering the infinitesimally small in the realm of numbers and geometry as atomism does in the realm of matter. In that respect, the figure of Leibniz is a curious and interesting one, and in his Monadology there are tantalising signs of an alternative route that atomism could have taken. Rather than Democritus’s characterless pieces of pure being, or the modern utterly physical and material atom, Leibniz’s monads, his term for atoms, were conceived as having perception. But that route was not followed, and we ended with the paradigm of an entirely physical universe in which dogmatic scientists find material explanations for everything from beauty to altruism.

Royal Society

From 1703-27 Isaac Newton was president of the Royal Society, the foremost scientific body of its age, and it is agreed that he used the post to establish those most sympathetic to his work both in the Society itself and in posts elsewhere. By his long tenure there and these actions, he was to dictate the direction of science in general for some time after his death.

Royal Mint – Newton and Economics

In 1696, Newton took up the position of Warden of the Mint, rising in 1700 to the post of Master of the Mint. This was the seal of approval the establishment after the Glorious Revolution gave this covert Arian. Newton pursued his duties with characteristic zeal and is not known to have done any original scientific work for the remainder of his life, although this is not uncommon among scientists, as the best work is ordinarily done in youth. Newton pursued counterfeiters mercilessly, and personally tracked them down in the seedier regions of London and saw to their being hung, drawn and quartered. In 1717 Sir Isaac Newton set the historic gold price of £4.4.11½d per fine ounce, a price that lasted two hundred years. Mistakenly I used to assert that this was his endorsement of the new paper money of the Bank of England. Rather, he set the price in terms of silver, and this was an issue that was to have serious economic consequences that lie beyond the scope of this lecture.

His Effect on Subsequent Science and History

Newton’s work had an extraordinary impact on the people of his time and on subsequent epochs. Aspiring scientists rushed to extend his insights into other fields, including most significantly from a political perspective, the science of economics which came to underpin modern finance, itself the controlling element of political power.


Thus, we see that as the political order – the Papacy, the Hapsburg Empire and the House of Stewart – fell into disarray and even collapse, the scientist-scholar was set loose and, with the winds of humanism in his sails, took his own direction, except that we do not find him that far from the forces that were making the new age: finance and banking.

The Secular Discourse

In the end, science’s main function has been to contribute to the introduction of a new discourse/worldview. Was it the urge to find a means of talking about meaning outside of the European civil strife that the Reformation brought about, which led to a kind of language that automatically had to exclude the religious language of either party, Catholics or Protestants? Initially that language was Christian, then Deist, i.e. admitting a Creator God, but not admitting the role of prophets and revelation. Quickly, it dispensed with God altogether.

Later, after the French Revolution and Napoleon’s release of the Jews from the ghetto, educated and intellectual Jews would join the discourse, automatically omitting their religious language and, because of their long tradition of study and scholarship, contributing disproportionately to academe. 

The invitation is now made to Muslims and others to join in the secular discourse at the implicit cost of omitting their beliefs and commitments, which is offered as the way towards a world intellectual community. However, it is only such inasmuch as people renounce Judaism, Christianity and Islam entirely and embrace this particular discourse that makes pretence to universality by exclusion, that such a universality may be reached.

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. Recommended background reading includes Paul Strathern’s The Medicis, Godfathers of the Renaissance, Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter, and Michael White’s Newton, the Last Sorcerer. These are all popular works of history rather than academic studies but are reliable guides to the respective eras they chronicle. The subject of our next lecture is Goethe’s Way of Science. Recommend preparatory reading for that is Henri Bortoft’s The Wholeness of Nature, Goethe’s Way of Science. Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.

1 Ivan Illich, Vernacular Values and Shadow Work.

2 Similarly Kepler said: “In the first place, lest perchance a blind man might deny it to you, of all the bodies in the universe the most excellent is the sun, whose whole essence is nothing else than the purest light, than which there is no greater star; which singly and alone is the producer, conserver, and warmer of all things; it is a fountain of light, rich in fruitful heat, most fair, limpid, and pure to the sight, the source of vision, portrayer of all colours, though himself empty of all colour, called the king of the planets for his motion, heart of the world for his power, its eye for his beauty, and which alone we should judge worthy of the most high God, should he be pleased with a material domicile arid choose a place in which to dwell with the blessed angels.”

3 Thus even today everyone talks about sunrise and sunset, and only the engineer Buckminster Fuller tried to use convoluted expressions such as “The earth rotated on its axis thus…” rather than say “The sun rose” but finally settling on the neologisms ‘sunsight’ and ‘sunclipse’ for sunrise and sunset.

4 Much as later Roman Catholicism, after the Papal-authorised Norman invasion of Ireland of 1169, chose the 4th-5th century Patrick from among early Celtic Christians as the one most in harmony with their dogma.

5 John Maynard Keynes, ‘Newton the Man’ July 1946 lecture was delivered posthumously by Keynes’ brother Geoffrey. accessed 8/2/2013