ROBERT W. BROCKWAYTHE ROOTS OF NEW AGE
the windy, barren rocky shore, I gazed out to sea and tried to imagine what thoughts may have stirred Dom Henrique (whom we know as Prince Henry the Navigator), a Portuguese prince of the fifteenth century. The tour bus went from there to the tiny village of Sagres. Here, in five-hundred-year-old, low brick buildings, Prince Henry and geographers recruited from all over Europe planned their voyages. Tiny frail carabelas set out South from Lisbon year after year, until, at last in 1486, Bartolomeu Diaz reached the Cape of Good Hope. In 1498, Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape, crossed the Indian Ocean, and reached Calicut in India. By then, Columbus had discovered the Bahamas and West Indies, thinking them to be islands off the coasts of Japan. From then on, Europeans went forth as explorers and traders, conquerors and colonists, and, by 1850, created a global civilization.
Since the fourteenth century, there has been a process of secularization in the West, the disintegration of the Christian synthesis. Science and philosophy gradually split away from theology, a process which was accentuated during the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. A rupture began between science and mysticism which culminated in what the English historian Herbert Butterfield has labelled “the Scientific Revolution.” The latter refers to a transitional era in scientific thought and praxis which began with the publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestum by Copernicus in 1534.
While many prominent scientists were devout Christians, such as Sir Isaac Newton, others were inclined to skepticism. This was enhanced by the rise of modern philosophy beginning with Réne Descartes and his famous cogito ergo sum. His conclusion was reached one day in the course of a day’s meditation when, in his own words, “he shut himself up in a stove,” and set about to systematically doubt all that could be doubted. His conclusion cogito ergo sum “I think therefore I am” asserted that the one thing which could not be denied was the consciousness of the thinker. To escape the solipsism which necessarily followed from such a conclusion, he made the act of faith that God revealed the world to him, and that his senses, however flawed, were relatively reliable. This answer did not satisfy other thinkers such as John Locke in England.
The epistemological question in philosophy asks: How do we know anything? The consequence of this line of inquiry was to focus increasing doubt on all forms of traditional knowledge, such as the deductive theories of the Scholastic philosophers. The Scottish philosopher William Hume shattered Aquinas’s time-honored “proofs” for the existence of God by showing how each of them could be effectively and convincingly answered.
Again, this is a very complex area, nothing less than the early history of modern philosophy, and we cannot enter into the details. Suffice it to say, skepticism in the area of epistemology was accompanied by skepticism concerning the authority of the Bible and the Church.
The Scientific Revolution
Butterfield’s “Scientific Revolution” refers to the rise of modern science during the late seventeenth century. The revolution began with individuals