The Early Modern Revolution in Science and Philosophy

Fictionalism, Probabilism, Fideism, and Catholic ‘Prophetism’
  • Benjamin Nelson
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 3)


The early modern revolution in science and philosophy has been arduously studied and discussed for at least two centuries now.1 Contemporary scholars and publicists2 are everywhere continuing, with undiminished vigor, to explore archives3, plumb sources, and to dispute one another’s interpretations.4 Nonetheless, few would claim that the roots and outcomes of the 17th-century ‘breakthrough’ had been reliably established.5 Indeed, many of the central issues are hardly more clear to us than are the circumstances and ideas which explain the breathless ‘take-off’ of our own century.6


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  1. 1.
    For general guidance on the research and issues, see Burtt (1925); Butterfield (1951); Crombie (1952-53); Crombie and others (1963, 1964); Dugas (1958); Dijksterhuis (1961); A. R. Hall (1954, 1963); Marie Hall (1962); Hanson (1959); Randall (1957a, 1957b); Rosen (1959; 1964a, b); Taton (1964). Also see the instructive papers in two newly issued books on Galileo, especially Hanson in Kaplon (1965) and Moody and Spini in Golino (1966).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See, above all, the provocative study The Sleepwalkers, by Arthur Koestler (1959).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For an especially interesting — but not textually faultless - instance of archival work, see the study by P. D’Elia, S.J. (1960), relating to Galileo, the Jesuits, and the reception of Copernicanism in 17th-century China.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See, e.g., papers on Duhem by Koyre (1949,1957b) and Rosen (1964).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    D’Abro (1950); Hanson (1958); Stallo, ed. (1960); Einstein and Infeld (1950); Crombie, ed. (1963).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    The above phrases from Rostow (1962) appear in my very first paragraph because I wish to lose no time in suggesting the two sides of my outlook: (a) mediaeval innovations did play a part (not so great as Duhem and some of his followers have at times contended, but an important part nonetheless) in the revolution of scientific interests and outlooks; (b) the discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries do constitute a ‘break-through’ and ‘take-off’, one which continues at a vastly accelerated rate in our own century. For a related view, see now Moody (1966). Also cf. Price (1962).Google Scholar
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    See, e.g., Clagett (1959a, 1959b ), the papers by Murdoch and others in I. B. Cohen and R. Taton, eds. ( 1964 ), Vol. I.Google Scholar
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    Hessen (1931); Borkenau (1934); Clark (1937); Grossman (1935); Hall (1963b); Koyre (1957b), pp. 148–150; idem. (1965); Olschki (1927); Zilsel (1941–42).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    This distinction hinted at between the emergence of modern science and its subsequent institutionalization is assumed in works of informed theorists like Merton and Parsons, but their almost exclusive interest in Protestant developments has tempted many less learned colleagues and students into faulty views on the Catholic developments. See, e.g., Merton (1938); Bellah (1965); Eisenstadt (1965); Ben-David (1960). Although all the necessary qualifications and cautions appear to be made by Merton, it remains true that his study makes no reference to the names of Duhem, Gilson, and many others who have done intensive research in intellectual life of Catholic culture areas from the 12th to the 17th centuries. Almost nothing is said of mediaeval technological development, which has now been presented in a new light in extensive research summarized by Lynn White (1964). The only references actually made to mediaeval situations - those to St. Peter Damiani and the prohibitions of the Council of Tours (1163) - give a quite negative view of science of the Middle Ages: Merton (1938), 43 and in notes. One wonders whether Merton’s position may be correlated with his high valuation of Francis Bacon’s view of science. On this point and on Merton’s historical views, see now A. R. Hall (1963b), esp. pp. 12–13. For another unenthusiastic view of Bacon’s role in the history and philosophy of science, by an earlier writer, see M. R. Cohen (1926). A superb depiction of the role of Baconian ideology in the promotion of the scientific movement will be found in Jones (1961).Google Scholar
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    An exceptionally revealing account of the decisive importance of the notion of certitude in the debates over probabilism as given in Fagnani (1661, written in 1656–7). The probabilist background of the controversies connected with the names of Galileo, Descartes, and Pascal are overlooked by Popkin, who allows himself only one sentence for the analysis of (subjective) certitude and (objective) certainty. Fagnani and other probabilists also go unmentioned in the pages of Van Leeuwen (1963). For preliminary insights into the outlooks of the intellectual innovators of the 16th and 17th centuries, see Febvre (1947), Blake (1960).Google Scholar
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  43. 43.
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    Duhem (1908), p. 587-588, 592. The oft-quoted lines given above condense two longer passages, one from the beginning and the other from the end of the striking conclusion of Duhem’s remarkable study. A careful reading of the full text of the passages given below will reveal that the phrases usually omitted, especially those appearing as the last in Duhem’s essay and here, add a dimension to the argument: “Bien des philosophes, depuis Giordano Bruno, ont durement reproché à André Osiander la préface qu’il avait mise en tête du livre de Copernic. Les avis donnés à Galilée par Bellarmin et par Urbain VIII n’ont guère été traités avec moins de sévérité, depuis le jour où ils ont été publiés. Les physiciens de notre temps ont pesé plus minutieusement que leurs prédécesseurs l’exacte valeur des hypothèses employées en Astronomie et en Physique; ils ont vu se dissiper bien des illusions qui, naguère encore, passaient pour certitudes; force leur est de reconnaître et de déclarer aujourd’hui que la Logique était du parti d’Osiander, de Bellarmin et d’Urbain VIII, et non pas du parti de Képler et de Galilée; que ceux-là avaient compris l’exacte portée de la méthode expérimentale et qu’à cet égard, ceux-ci s’étaient mépris. L’Histoire des sciences, cependant célèbre Képler et Galilée, qu’elle place au rang des grands réformateurs de la méthode expérimentale, tandis qu’elle ne prononce pas les noms d’Osiander, de Bellarmin ou d’Urbain VIII. Est-ce, de sa part, souveraine injustice? Ne serait-ce pas, au contraire, que ceux qui attribuaient à la méthode ex¬périmentale une fausse portée et une valeur exagérée ont travaillé au perfectionnement de cette méthode beaucoup plus et beaucoup mieux que ceux dont l’appréciation avait été, tout d’abord, plus précise et plus exactement mesurée?” (pp. 587-588). “En dépit de Képler et de Galilée, nous croyons aujourd’hui, avec Osiander et Bellarmin, que les hypothèses de la Physique ne sont que des artifices mathématiques destinés à sauver les phénomènes; mais grâce à Képler et à Galilée, nous leur demandons de sauver à la fois tous les phénomènes de l’Univers inanimé.” (p. 592)Google Scholar
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    See Occam’s Dialogue, Pars. 1, lib. 2, c. 22: “Assertiones praecipue physicae, quae ad theologiam non pertinent, non sunt ab aliquo solemniter condemnandae sue inter- dicendae, quia in talibus quilibet debet esse liber, ut libere dicat, quod sibi placet. Et ideo, quia dictus archiepiscopus damnavit et interdixit opiniones grammaticales, logicales et pure physicas, sua sententia fuit temeraria reputanda. Iste opinionem Thomae de unitate formae in homine inter alias condemnavit, et tarnen tu scis, quod plures Parisius ipsam publice tenent et defendunt et docent, et ita de multis aliis.” Cited in Geyer (1928), p. 582.Google Scholar
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    In a letter sent to Kepler from Tübingen on April 12, 1598 (old Style), Matthias Hafenreffer wrote: “… Proinde si fraterno meo Consilio (-uti firmiter spero*) locus aliquis est; porrò in eiusmodi demonstrandis Hypothesibus, nudum Mathematicum ages, nihil sollicitus utrum rebus creatis ita respondeant an secus. Mathematicum enim, finem suum consequutum arbitror, se tales exhibeat hypotheses, quibus cpaivójieva quam exactissimè respondeant: et teipsum puto cessurum esse illi, qui porferre posset meliores. Nec tamen consequitur, uniuscuiusque Artificis Meditatis hypothesibus, rerum veritatem confestim conformari. Nolo attingere, quae ex sacris inuicta possem depromere. Non enim disputationibus, sed fraternis monitis opus esse iudico. Quibus se tu (uti certò confido) parueris, et abstractum Mathematicum egeris, nihil dubito, quin cogitationes tuae, pi ur im is (-uti certè mihi quoque sunt«) iucundissimae sint futurae. Sin Oquod maximus et optimus auertat Deus*) publicè istas hypotheses cum scriptura sacra conciliare velles, et propugnare, certum metuo, ut in dissensiones et neruum res isthaec erumpat: quo casu velim ego, me istas cogitationes tuas, in se quidem, et Mathmaticè consideratas, praeclaras et nobiles, nunquam vidisse: Iam dudum enim in Ecclesia Domini, plus contentionis est, quam infirmis expediat.” See Kepler (1938 ed.), Vol. 13, pp. 202-204, esp. at 203. Professor Edward Rosen graciously placed a copy of this passage at my disposal, in response to my request for texts bearing on the fictional view of hypothesis.Google Scholar
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    Professor Mosse has confused this issue in his Holy Pretence (1957). Cf. Nelson (1965) and the work of Wood (1952).Google Scholar
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    As we note elsewhere (see below, note 123) Koestler and other writers do not discriminate the shades of the arguments directed against Galileo. The issues are of the greatest moment from the points of view both of theology and philosophy. Fictionalism and logical probabilism had different sources, foundations and contexts. Bellar- mine came down consistently on the fictionalist side, but probabilist motifs are given greater prominence by some other writers. At no point, however, did Bellarmine ascribe probability to the Copernican hypothesis. If he had done that, there could have been little defence later against Galileo’s effort to claim probability for his views. Bellarmine only refers to suppositio in the sense of a ‘conterfactual’ hypothesis, thus remaining in the orbit of mathematical fictionalism. Osiander’s Preface also implies a sharp distinction between mathematical fictionalism and probable opinions or true knowledge.Google Scholar
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    Santillana (1955), pp. 165-166; cf. Koestler, p. 533, for a very strong endorsement of Urban VIII’s argument in the light of current physical theory. See, however, Santillana, p. 167.Google Scholar
  121. 121.
    For the texts, see Favaro (1907), pp. 61–62. A vast literature has accumulated on the discrepancies between several 1616 actions — notably those of February 25 and February 26 especially as these arise in and qualify our understanding of the 1633 Sentence. The February 26,1616 protocol has, indeed, been declared a forgery by many scholars because of its odd twists and turns. Koestler’s textual discussion of the juridical and theological issues reveal lapses of command and lacks of precision. See the criticisms by Father Brodrick, pp. 366, 376–377 in notes. I hope to discuss the relevant procedural and moral theological questions from fresh points of view in later essays.Google Scholar
  122. 122.
    Favaro, op. city pp. 62–63. Crombie errs in tracing the 1633 Proceedings to this decree alone.Google Scholar
  123. 123.
    Koestler’s references to ‘probability’ in the 1633 Sentence —see below in note — are in manifest contradiction with the argument of Father Inchofer’s official protocol as Qualifier to the Inquisition. Favaro (1907), p. 89, p. 95. Yet Koestler’s errors are easier to overlook than it is to understand Crombie’s highly personal reconstruction of Bellarmine’s life and mind: “A student of astronomy in his youth, it had been Bellar- mine’s unhappy task to frame the decision that led Giordano Bruno to his death at the stake in 1600. Undoubtedly his policy over Galileo was based on a determination never to let that episode be repeated. Over seventy years old, he aimed at administrative peace, and his method of achieving it was to take the alternative way to Galileo’s in order to escape the conflict between astronomy and Scripture. His policy was to weaken the conclusions of natural science and to accept the new astronomy as in no sense established with ‘indubitable certainty’ but only as ‘probable opinion and plausible conjecture’, to accept it only in a form that would leave undisturbed the literal interpretation of Scripture and the Aristotelian cosmology which historical accident had married with it. He shut his eyes to the respects in which the union was less like marriage than living in sin. Yet although primarily administrative in their aim and limited in their application, it cannot be denied that Bellarmine’s arguments succeeded in making a philosophical point against Galileo. Their two philosophies represent a classical polarisation of opposites, an antithesis in the conception of the discoveries and inventions of theoretical science that is at once ancient, persistent, and easily misunderstood” (Crombie, 2 (1959), pp. 207–08). The moral of all this is clear: Scientists and scholars now working in the history of science need to become more careful in their rendering of certain important expressions. If strict fidelity to logic and history is sought, probabilis, probabilitas, probabilismus - and only these words - should be rendered as ‘probable’, ‘probability* or ‘probabilism’. In point of tradition, terms such as verisimilis and notions like ‘hypothesis saving the phenomena* or ‘statistical frequency* are at a great remove from speculative and moral probability, which relate to the technically elaborated dialectics of different shades of probable opinion. (Professor Popper is one of the very few writers on the subject who have recognized the pitfalls of the word verisimilis.) Even exceptionally reliable writers as Rosen and Blake waver now and then on this point. See, e.g., Rosen (1959), p. 25; Blake, p. 32.Google Scholar
  124. 124.
    There were ambiguities in Galileo’s situation when viewed from the standpoint of the highest level of moral theology. It is hard to account for Galileo’s acts after 1616, except on the hypothesis that Galileo and his learned advisors in the clergy thought that there were theological loopholes available to Galileo so long as he adopted the probabilist stance. Cf. the passages cited from Cardinal Caramuel’s Theologia Moralis Fundamentalis in Nelson (1965c). Also, the Anti-Aristarchus of Galileo’s contemporary, Fromond of Louvain, cited in Ward (1865), p. 406. In short, there was no clear-cut doctrine as to whether a view denounced by a Congregation of the Index as opposed to Holy Scripture did or did not preserve any measure of probability of one or another sort. See also, Descartes’ notable and quotable remarks on the issue in his letter to Mersenne of April 1,1634. Tr. in Crombie 2 (1959), pp. 218–219.Google Scholar
  125. 125.
    The Qualifiers closed off Galileo’s routes in two ways:(1) They insisted that he had discussed matters assertively rather than hypothetically; (2j they charged that it was heresy to impute probability to a proposition which had been declared to be contrary to Holy Scriptures. See, e.g., Favaro (1907), pp. 87–96. Koestler misconceives the reference to probability in the sentence of the Inquisitors of 1633. W. G. Ward’s Victorian discussion of the issue of probability is much better informed. See Ward (1865), esp. pp. 412–414, where he discriminates between the meanings of probability in strict theology and in ordinary usage. He also offers interesting sidelights on theo¬logical notions of ‘hypothesis’ and ‘scientifically grounded’. I am not, however, able to accept the details of Ward’s reconstruction (pp. 414-415) of the meaning and intended effect of the 1633 Decree.Google Scholar
  126. 126.
    Cf. translations in Ward (1865) and in Santillana, pp. 306-314.Google Scholar
  127. 127.
    Nelson (1965c).Google Scholar
  128. 128.
    Despite the studies of Van Leeuwen (1963) and Popkin (1960), we are in great need of a critical history of the linked ideas of certitude and certainty. No such study can be done without an exhaustive study of the treatises and polemics on conscience and probability, where the matters of certitude receive their most elaborate analysis. It is not surprising, therefore, to note that Koestler and Crombie almost entirely do little by way of exploring these issues.Google Scholar
  129. 129.
    This fact emerges clearly in a study of the documents of 1633. See, e.g., Favaro, pp. 79–80.Google Scholar
  130. 130.
    Cf. the careful statements of the Qualifiers, esp. those of the Jesuit Melchior Inchofer. Favaro (1907), pp. 89-95. Inchofer explains: “Sed non est hypothosis mathe- matica quae conclusionibus physicis et necessariis stabilitur” (ibid., p. 92).Google Scholar
  131. 131.
    Koestler writes: “This legend and hindsight combined to distort the picture, and gave rise to the erroneous belief that to defend the Copernican hypothesis entailed the risk of ecclesiastical disfavour or persecution. During the first fifty years of Galileo’s lifetime, no such risk existed and the thought did not even occur to Galileo” (op. cit., p. 358; cf. p. 449).Google Scholar
  132. 132.
    Crombie(1950); idem, 2(1958).Google Scholar
  133. 133.
    Rosen (1959), p. 24, n. 68.Google Scholar
  134. 134.
    For modern interpretations of this passage, see Duhem (1908), pp. 585-586; Crombie (1959), 2, pp. 214–216; Koestler (1959), p. 473.Google Scholar
  135. 135.
    See his De divina omnipotentia, discussed in Geyer (1928), pp. 187–188.Google Scholar
  136. 136.
    is Geyer (1928), pp. 186–190, esp. p. 187; Gilson (1930), pp. 37–38; cf. the discussion of Walter of Saint Victor (d. 1180) and his treatise, Against the Four Labyrinths of France, ibid., p. 79.Google Scholar
  137. 137.
    Van Leeuwen (1963); Popkin (1960).Google Scholar
  138. 138.
    For the history of the claims of conscience, the opposition to probabilism, and the quest for certitude and certainty, see the literature cited in Nelson (1965c), especially the works of Kirk and Stewart (1919) in his introduction to his edition of the provincial Letters of Pascal.Google Scholar
  139. 139.
    Our point here is not rendered weaker by referring, as Duhem and his followers regularly do, to Pascal’s queries on Copernicus. I hope one day to study the ideological cross-currents in the polemics against Galileo and Descartes by the French ‘Pascalians’ among the historians and philosophers of science. See, e.g., Duhem (1911) and Picard (1925). The present paper is the discussion of the opposition to these thinkers by Ger-man and other scholars sharing a partiality for Kepler (The Sleepwalkers) against Galileo in this regard. Lest an impression be left that Galileo was, after all, aprobabilist, it remains to be added that Galileo - like Descartes, Pascal, and Newton — had to strike out against the vast storehouse of probable arguments received from the past. See, e.g., Dialogue, Day 2, as cited in Crombie (1950), p. 117. In the final note of this Appendix it is a pleasure to be able to add that in the 1959 revised edition of his valuable book, Crombie offers a fresh review of the influence of the struggle over hypothesis in the life and work of Galileo, Newton, and in the 17th-century science generally. Crombie, 2 (1959), pp. 215–290, 315–333. This discussion carries Crombie well beyond his own 1950 essay, beyond Duhem’s writings of 1905–1914, and for that matter, beyond Koestler, who, as has been pointed out above, strangely never mentions Crombie.Google Scholar
  140. 140.
    See, also, Father Brodrick’s remarks in his latest and most popular study of Galileo (1966).Google Scholar
  141. 141.
    The spirited tone of Father Brodrick’s self-criticisms is struck at the very outset: “The most disconcerting chapter in the old volumes re-read thirty-three years later was that entitled The first Troubles of Galileo’. Myself when young spent many weary months in the Reading Room of the British Museum poring daily over the twenty volumes of Favaro’s Opere di Galileo Galilei, but the labour did not cure my romantic determination to justify Roberto even in the esoteric realms of physical science where I see now rather ruefully that he possessed no competence whatever ” (Brodrick (1961), p. I X ).Google Scholar
  142. 142.
    Ibid., pp. 365–366. Ibid., p. 365 n. 3. 144 Ibid., pp. 365–366.Google Scholar
  143. 143.
    Ibid., p. 365 n. 3.Google Scholar
  144. 144.
    Ibid., pp. 365–366.Google Scholar
  145. 145.
    Ibid., p. 367.Google Scholar
  146. 146.
    Ibid., pp. 364–365.Google Scholar
  147. 147.
    Ibid., p. 365.Google Scholar
  148. 148.
    Ibid p. 365 n. 3–366.Google Scholar
  149. 149.
    Idem (1928), 2, p. 335.Google Scholar
  150. 150.
    Addendum (10 July, Ì967): While this essay was going through the press, I have studied the following relevant writings with profit: the two chapters on Scheiner and Maffeo Barberini in A. Favaro’s series on the ‘Oppositori di Galileo’ published separately at Venice in 1919 and 1921 (cf. Atti del R. 1st. Veneto di sc., lett. ed arti 78, pt. 2a and 80, pt. 2a); W. Risse, Logik der Neuzeit, I (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt 1964); H. Blumenberg’s moving introduction to the German transl. of the Siderius nuncius and other selections from Galileo (Frankfurt, Sammlung Insel, 1965); and Mach’s unnoticed Foreword to F. Adler’s German transl. (Leipzig 1912) of Duhem (1905).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company / Dordrecht-Holland 1967

Authors and Affiliations

  • Benjamin Nelson
    • 1
  1. 1.The New School for Social ResearchNew York CityUSA

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