In the Italian reader I am working through at present, the essay on the Renaissance declared (I translate from memory) "During the Renaissance, the idea arose that nature was not a mystery but something that humans could comprehend."
You see this idea around often... and it is nonsense. Thinkers in the Middle Ages certainly believed that nature is comprehensible. The quote in Latin currently at the top of this blog is from the Middle Ages, and it can be translated:
All the world's creatures
As a book and a picture
Are to us as a mirror
The natural world was a book, written by God. It was rational and comprehensible because it was authored by a rational mind, albeit a mind far greater than ours, so that the book might be challenging to read.
Now, it is true that the Scientific Revolution brought a great change in the human attitude towards nature. But the change was not from dumbfounded incomprehension to comprehension, but was in the way one was to go about understanding nature. Francis Bacon summed up the change nicely as follows:
"My only earthly wish is... to stretch the deporably narrow limits of man's dominion over the universe to their promised bounds... [nature will be] bound into service, hounded in her wanderings and put on the rack and tortured for her secrets."
Rather than observed and contemplated, nature was to be forced to reveal her secrets. This change in attitude brought remarkable results, some good and some bad: penicillin and the atomic bomb, space telescopes and concentration camps. If we want to understand the change, and perhaps mitigate its evils while retaining its benefits, it is important that we don't adopt a false picture of what the change was.
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