Revolutionary Curiosity
October 14, 2014

The scientific revolution is often characterized as a revolution in method. In place of speculative, deductive metaphysical science came experimental, empirical science. 

Philip Ball (Curiosity) argues that behind this was a revolution in mentality, in the questions that could be asked and investigated: “To the new philosophers, the national world was replete with secrets that they must hunt down diligently with an experimental approach that was closely allied to the tradition of natural magic. This ‘hunt’ was to be engaged by international, sometimes occult fraternities of virtuoso-scientists, themselves a construct of utopian visions. . . . Underpinning all this was a profound change in the nature of the questions one might ask. Nothing was too mean or trivial to be neglected, for as Boyle said, it was all God’s work and therefore worthy of attention” (4).

The difference between Tertullian and Hobbes illustrates. Tertullian represented the Christian suspicion of curiosity: “We want no curious disputation after possessing Jesus Christ” (quoted 11). For Hobbes, curiosity “motivates ‘the continuall and indefatigable generation of knowledge.’ It was ‘a more than ordinary curiosity’ about a particular optical phenomenon that made Isaac Newton determined to discover ‘from whence it might proceed’ - to search for the principles behind it. Unlike carnal passion, said Hobbes, curiosity was not expended with ‘short vehemence’ but was inexhaustible - as his one-time mentor Francis Bacon said, ‘of knowledge there is no satiety” (6-7).

As the Boyle quotation indicates, it wasn’t just skeptics like Hobbes who became defenders of curiosity. From this angle, the scientific revolution is not a combat of religion and science, but a conflict between different  understandings of the implications of Christian faith for our relation to the natural world: Does faith prohibit us from probing the things God has hidden, or should believers attempt, Solomonlike, to unravel creation’s secrets?

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