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Dr. Mark Kalthoff Of Hillsdale College On The Scientific Revolution

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HH: It’s the last radio hour of the week. That means it’s time for the Hillsdale Dialogue. We end each week with a conversation with one or more of the great faculty at Hillsdale College about something that actually matters longer than the week that we are completing, the month of the year that we are completing. Usually, Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College is with us. He isn’t with us this week, but Mark Kalthoff is with us, and Professor Kalthoff has been an amazing presence at Hillsdale for a number of years. He was the dean for a long time. He is a history and philosophy professor of science there as well as, and I like this, the Templeton Foundation Teaching Award for his course in science and religion. And we need that, Dr. Kalthoff, because I don’t know anything about this.

MK: (laughing)

HH: Nothing.

MK: Well, join the club, Hugh. You’re not alone. There are a few other people who think what I talk about is pretty esoteric and out of the mainstream. So that’s all right.

HH: Well, I’m embarrassed to say this, but you could get out of Harvard in the 70s without taking one real history of science course or even a science course. And so when we talk about the scientific revolution, which we’re going to do in this hour today, and we’re going to cover some familiar names – Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Bacon and all this other stuff, a lot of people are walking around without much knowledge. Why is this actually important in our history of ideas arguments? You know, we’ve been doing everything from Homer, and we will end up, and we just finished Shakespeare with Dr. Smith, why does this matter?

MK: Well, think about it for a second with me, Hugh. We live in a world where everywhere we turn, we are confronted by something that science, modern science, has touched, whether it’s new modes of communication with your iPhone, or the bombs that are being dropped in the wars that are being fought, whether it’s the way that we can enjoy fresh fruit in the middle of the winter, because scientific food production has allowed it to be shipped and kept fresh. When we talk about medicine and the ability to fight diseases, when we think about the way that we talk about what knowledge is, what it means to say I know, usually, someone says oh, studies show. In other words, we defer to the scientific way of knowing. In other words, almost everything that we do is touched by some kind of scientific claim – claim about what knowledge is, or about what truth is, or about what works. In the same way we think about the human themes that Shakespeare might touch, about beauty and poetry and truth and goodness, or we talk about those key themes in political philosophy about liberty, freedom, the rule of law, we want to know about the origins of those ideas, because they inform the way we think about them. And we think and assume an awful lot about science today, but we don’t always know about the history of the claims that science makes.

HH: Now I want to pause there. Isn’t it always been thus, though? That’s what most people, I think, who are like me will wonder when we talk about the Scientific Revolution. If we’ve read our Aristotle or we’ve read our ancient Euclid, some point, it seems to me, that the ancient world was just as scientifically inclined if less adept as the modern world. So where does the revolution occur?

MK: Well that’s interesting, that the Scientific Revolution is supposedly the big event of the 16th and 17th Centuries. But that’s, it’s a matter of debate among historians. In fact, one of my old graduate school fellow classmates, who is now a professor also of the history of science at the John Hopkins University, recently published a short, little book on the Scientific Revolution, and he quipped something in that book something that I think makes a fair bit of sense. He said if you ask ten historians of science about the timing and the duration and the significance of the Scientific Revolution, you’ll get 15 different answers.

HH: (laughing) That’s very funny. And you know what? The reason we devote an hour to this is so that people will be aware of that debate and who the names are at both ends of that spectrum. But what I’m really getting at is, Dr. Kalthoff, do you think that a hundred, let’s say a thousand years hence, people will look at the last 20 years and say there was another scientific revolution? In other words, isn’t science always going to be there changing everything around us as those who are inclined to peer into fundamental physical matters are always going to be at work at it?

MK: Well, it’s true that science is a history of changing ideas. One of the important books of the last generation or two that dealt with this question of the nature of scientific change is a book I’m guessing you’ve probably bumped into somewhere by the phsycist/historian, Thomas Kuhn, The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions…

HH: Yes.

MK: …which came out back in the early 1960s. and Kuhn made the argument that the textbook version of the history of science, and you open your typical high school or college textbook, it gives you a little blurb about so and so had this idea, then somebody else added that bit, and it sounded like science grows through slow deposits of facts into our bank of knowledge, gradually developing over time. And that may be partially true about the way technology moves forward. One of my other grad school friends used to like to say that technology evolves, but science revolves. In other words, science sometimes goes through rapid period of change. And those rapid periods of change, we sometimes associate with this word radical change or shift or revolution, because we sometimes will hold onto one way of seeing things for a long time. And then in a short period of maybe just a few generations completely abandon that old view and begin to embrace a new view, which we’ll then hold onto for a while. I think that’s what the term revolution means with respect to something like the Copernican Revolution of the 16th and 17th Century.

HH: And we’re going to go there. I must ask, another book that I bumped into, actually I’ve read a number of times, is Bill Bryson’s A Brief History Of Nearly Everything, because it’s written for people like me who have, it’s actually the history of science, and it’s done in a humorous and fun sort of way. But the point he makes at the beginning is those science textbooks that you just mentioned that I grew up on, I’m 58 now, so I was reading them in the 60s, were all wrong about major issues. So had there actually been a revolution, or had there been a misfire?

MK: Well, I think there was a revolution. I think Bill Bryson is a good humorist, and that book particularly is probably a good way to start thinking about the history of science for many people. So I think you can affirm that many of the textbooks were wrong, but there still was something called a Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th Century, and it was pretty fundamental, pretty important. Some historians emphasized the continuity between the new ideas and that which they built upon in the Middle Ages, the so-called Continuity Thesis of early modern historians who tend to emphasize those things that were still medieval. But there are others, like the historian, Herbert Butterfield, from Cambridge in England, and he said that the Scientific Revolution, and he was probably the first person to use the term, he called it the most important thing in Western Civilization, and that it outpaces even the Renaissance and Reformation for its significance.

HH: Interesting. Butterfield is one of those people who have given me one of my guiding quotes, “Cling absolutely to Christ, and to all other things be relatively committed.”

MK: There you go.

HH: He’s an amazing writer, and a terrific…so as we go to the break in a minute or two, can you give sort of the overall definition of what you mean, and how you teach, I’m talking with Professor Mark Kalthoff of the, he’s the Henry Salvatore Chair of History and Traditional Values at Hillsdale College, what an interestingly named chair, by the way, Professor. But give us the overview of when you go in the first week of class on the introduction of the Scientific Revolution, how do you define what you’re going to be about?

MK: Well, if we’re going to look at the Scientific Revolution, and that’s the focus of the class, and I did teach a seminar one semester here that just took the semester to look at the Scientific Revolution, usually I treat the course in the context of larger survey classes, so we only get about a week or so on the Scientific Revolution itself, or maybe a little bit longer, depending on the nature of the class. But among the things that I emphasize is the degree to which despite the continuities that exist with medieval antecedents, and we explore those. I try to get students to understand that this is one of those strange, historically-constructed events. Most of the men living through the Scientific Revolution did not call themselves scientists. In fact, the word scientist as we use it today is a 19th Century creation. Instead, they were natural philosophers. They were clergymen. They were in some cases astronomers, Church workers or amateurs. And so there’s something already artificial to talk about this big, so-called event, and use the word scientific for it, when none of the people participating in it called themselves scientists. It’s also one of these events that sort of gradually happened, and over time, people began to be aware that something new was afoot, but it took quite a bit of time. And so it’s artificial in the sense that it didn’t begin and end on a fixed date that way that we could maybe talk about the beginning of World War I a hundred years ago.

HH: Or the French Revolution.

MK: Or the French Revolution, or the American Revolution for that matter.

HH: Right.

MK: And so in that way, it’s also historically constructed.

HH: When we come back from break, Mark Kalthoff will continue. He is the professor of history and holds the Henry Salvatore Chair of History and Traditional Values at Hillsdale College. For all of the Hillsdale Dialogues, go to, or all of the lectures online about Western Civilization at While you are there, sign up for the Imprimus newsletter available only at And I’ll be right back with Dr. Kalthoff.

— – – – –

HH: He teaches a lot there, but his Scientific Revolution lecture online, one of the most popular in the Western Civilization series put out by Hillsdale. And now he’s going to give us the introduction, I think, beginning with the Copernican Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres. Am I right about that, Dr.?

MK: Well, we can talk about that if you like.

HH: Let’s start there.

MK: Okay, well, Nicolaus Copernicus was an important figure in the history of science. I often tell my students that if we have to chart the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, this somewhat artificially constructed period, we often choose the year 1543. And we choose that year because of three important publication events that happened that year. One of them was the republication or the first complete Latin translation of the works of Archimedes. The other was an important work of the Belgian physician, Andreas Vesalius, his work on the fabric of the human body. It was a great anatomical treatise known for its great drawings. But the third work that really is the one that gets the term revolution attached to it was the publication in late 1543 of the work called On The Revolution Of The Heavenly Spheres by the Polish Church administrator, Nicolaus Copernicus. And one thing to stress is that Copernicus was himself a very well-educated man, and he did work for the Church, but he was not a priest. He was a canon, which means essentially somebody who works in the cathedral chapter as a Church administrator. And he did this job for his whole life, but in his spare time, he did everything from writing a treatise on the coinage of money, practicing some medicine, but also spending time in technical mathematical astronomy. And for some time, he had become convinced that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the cosmos. He was convinced of this for a variety of reasons. But in some respects, he was convinced, because he was such a conservative. I mentioned Herbert Butterfield earlier. I’m reminded that Herbert Butterfield’s little book on the origins of modern science includes a chapter called The Conservatism of Copernicus.

HH: Yes, and in fact, that’s where I quoted earlier. That’s where that quote comes from, yeah.

MK: And in that book, and other historians have noticed, that Copernicus was himself very much drawn to ancient sources. He was very much impressed by the command of Plato, what some historians of astronomy called the Platonic Mission. And it was the chart for technical astronomers to account for the motions of the heavenly bodies in terms, now we’re talking about technical geometry here, in terms of being able to predict where heavenly bodies will appear according to combinations of perfect circular motion. It was believed that the heavens were perfect, and the only motion that accords to the heavens would be perfect circular motion. And up to Copernicus’ time, ever since the 2nd Century of the Christian era, the Greco-Roman astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy, had put forward a theory of the Earth-centered cosmology that insisted upon the inclusion of a variety of complicated, geometric devices, one of which was something called the equant. The equant is a cumbersome, circular or quasi-circular device that suggests that the Earth, any planet that moves around the Earth, is moving around it in a circle, but not with either uniform velocity or angular motion, and that the Earth is not at the center of that planet’s orbit. Copernicus became convinced the equant was a violation of the Platonic Mission to account for heavenly motions in terms of perfect circles.

HH: Oh, really?

MK: Yeah, that was the real fly in the astronomical ointment, so to speak. And as a result, Copernicus took a closer look at the Ptolemaic System, and found what he thought were cumbersome, ad hoc components to it that just didn’t seem to make sense. Now if we weren’t on the radio and I had a chalkboard, I could diagram a few things and you would say oh, yeah, that does look kind of strange. Well, for Copernicus’ sake, he realized that if you swap the position of the Sun and the Earth, a number of these ad hoc, geometrical devices would be removed. Now in order to account for them, he still had to add some of these additional circles called epicycles, which had been added since the ancient Greeks were trying to account for the heavens. Copernicus didn’t get rid of those. In fact, depending on how you count the circles in his geometric system, he may have actually had a few more than Ptolemy did. But there was a new mathematical elegance in Copernicus’ system that he thought made it more compelling.

HH: Now here’s my critical question. There are 1,300 years between Ptolemy and Copernicus. And what you’ve just described when you said if I had a chalkboard, I could show you why this makes sense, at least presumes that it’s not that hard to diagram. And if it’s not that hard to diagram, it couldn’t have been that hard to discover. So why did it take 1,300 years? Was it a genius had to come along? Or was it orthodoxy? Or was it circumstances surrounding Copernicus that conspired to allow him to see it?

MK: That’s a great question. And I wish the answer were real simple. But it turns out that there are a number of factors at work. One of them has to do with the fact that there just weren’t very many technical astronomers. Technical astronomy was used for putting together tables that could be used for casting horoscopes or predicting the time of Easter and Lent. And these were often Church workers who did this for the purpose of simply doing what they called “Saving the Phenomena”, in other words, predicting when the new Moon would be or something like that. The average person didn’t read these kinds of treatises, didn’t look at what Ptolemy was doing, and it was a pretty rare thing. That’s one point. Another important point is the distinction that we would make between a realist interpretation and an instrumental interpretation of a theory. An instrumental interpretation says let’s pretend that the Earth moves, or let’s pretend that the Earth doesn’t move, and develop our theory that way. It might be the case that our instrument is good at predicting, but that doesn’t mean we have to really believe it’s true. For example, perhaps you, like I, when you studied chemistry as a high schooler, studied the Bore Model of the Atom, the little Solar System where the electrons were orbiting a nucleus.

HH: Yes.

MK: Physicists today know that when they think about atoms, that’s not what electrons really do. But it turns out that talking about that Bore Model of an Atom is a useful device for predicting the way, for example, hydrogen and oxygen will covalently bond to make water. So we might have an instrumental theory, and as long as it works, who cares? And it turns out the Ptolemaic Theory was an excellent predictor of where the planets would be…

HH: Oh, how interesting.

MK: It was a wrong theory that made perfect predictions.

HH: Okay, hold onto that. We’ll be right back with Dr. Mark Kalthoff, who is the professor, the Henry Salvatore Chair of History and Traditional Values at Hillsdale College.

—- – – – –

HH: Dr. Kalthoff had just said before the break something I never understood, that Ptolemy told you, let me paraphrase, Ptolemy told you the tides, so there wasn’t really any need to get to a new system, which opens up a huge reason why so much error could go on for a long time if it was utilitarian, if the utilitarian purposes of the system were being served.

MK: Right. What Ptolemy did was offer a workable utilitarian system that allowed one to predict which constellations would be where, which planets were going to be where, when the Sun was going to rise and set, and so forth. And so it wasn’t the case that what Copernicus said is there’s all these glaring mistakes. In fact, Copernicus was not an observational astronomer. The telescope had not been invented, yet. And so Copernicus’ discovery was not the result of any new observations. There wasn’t new data. He did have some new and improved mathematical techniques, but he didn’t have any instruments that were superior to those available in Ptolemy’s own day. In fact, in principle, the Copernican System is probably not capable even of greater accuracy than the Ptolemaic System, at least not at that time. It certainly didn’t function more accurately. There were a number of things that were kind of pressing against any reason to accept the Copernican view, which by the way, as a side point, people didn’t jump on the Copernican bandwagon. Remember, I said that it was published in 1543. Well, for the rest of the 16th Century, between 1543 and 1600, as far as historians of science are aware, we can only identify ten human beings who were properly, could be called Copernicans.

HH: Really?

MK: …during the rest of the 16th Century. And we know who they were. I mean, seven of them were Protestants, three of them are, the others were Catholic. Four were German, and let’s see, there was a couple of Italians and a couple Englishmen.

HH: Well, lonely work.

MK: And I think a Spaniard and a Dutch, yeah.

HH: Lonely, lonely work. They had to be dedicated, though, those ten people.

MK: Oh, you bet. You bet.

HH: So when does it break out? Is it Galileo who breaks it out?

MK: I think Galileo was probably the best name to go with, although there’s a case to be made that Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer, had a very important role in planetary astronomy as well, and he himself was a convinced Copernican. So there’s a kind of dual role between Kepler and Galileo. But Galileo is of particular importance because he turned the telescope to the heavens, and in some ways, became a celebrity as he popularized astronomy in the first part of the 17th Century. And the way of thinking about it that he urged was in more of a Copernican cast, because he was a convinced Copernican.

HH: Now born in 1564, he dies 77 years later. And his name is associated with revolution, right? He is the fellow who most people who are passing familiar with science would say he’s the guy that broke open the Scientific Revolution. What’s the strong point and the weak point of that argument?

MK: About Galileo being the central piece of the Scientific Revolution?

HH: Yes.

MK: Well, I mean, a strong point would be that when he heard about the invention of this spyglass for making distant objects seem nearer, it was invented by a Dutchman, but not for the purpose of turning it to the heavens, he heard about it, and he made his own. He turned it to the sky in the year 1609, and he saw all kinds of things that seem to run against the reigning cosmology that had been advanced most vigorously by Aristotle, and had been wedded to cultural understanding of the cosmos. So here was somebody who had data that seemed to threaten the prevailing cosmology. And one of the big themes of the Scientific Revolution is the development of a new astronomy and a new cosmology. And one of the implications of that is that we have to come up with a new physics and a new science of motion. And Galileo was not involved in just astronomy. He was also very much interested in what we call terrestrial dynamics, in other words, the physics and the motion of bodies on the surface of the Earth as well as the motion of heavenly bodies.

HH: And so when we come back from break, we’ll talk about Newton and Bacon, but should we spend as much time about the Vatican conflict with Galileo as is spent on that? Does that conflict really matter in your mind, Dr. Kalthoff?

MK: It really does matter, but it matters maybe for reasons that are different than what some might think it matters.

HH: Oh, that’s the perfect radio tease. That’s the perfect radio tease. I’ll be right back.

— – – —

HH: I’m just going to give you the floor, Professor. What do we need to know or properly appreciate about the Church and the scientists, and how that began?

MK: Well, first of all, many people understand the common impression about the Galileo affair is that Galileo was this bold, free-thinking spokesman for the scientific establishment, and as such, he had culled together data that constituted all but conclusive proof for the fact that the Earth moved and the Sun was stationary. And he was shut down by a closed-minded, bigoted Church that was wedded to an outmoded understanding driven by a kind of Bibleolotry, and that we have the quintessential case of science versus religion, and we have a piece of data that would continue to be retold so that in the late 19th Century, for example, when Andrew Dixon White published his famous history of the warfare of science with theology, he made it out to be the case that science has always tried to be forward looking and to shed new light on things, and religion has always held back both science and free inquiry.

HH: And that is, I would guess, probably the modern progressive argument always.

MK: That tends to be. It turns out the historical narrative of the Galileo affair is very different, and if there’s one reason to tell the story, it’s to set the record straight and make it clear that the interaction of science and Christianity is much more complex than a simple military metaphor like warfare or struggle would convey. And it’s really been the achievement of historians of science of the past generation, since the early 1980s, to go, to refute this warfare metaphor and to set the relationship, the historical relations of science and Christianity into their proper context and show that it’s much more nuanced.

HH: There have been a lot of great books on, especially Catholicism and science, but what do you think is the best in that regard?

MK: The best single book on this?

HH: Yeah.

MK: Oh, my goodness. It’s literally been an industry that has exploded in the past 30 years.

HH: Then we’ll let you think on that, because I do want to at least touch on Newton and Bacon this week, and we’ll figure out whether we have to come back around. But why specifically do we look to them? I know why, but for the audience, why is that the sort of murderer’s row of the Scientific Revolution – Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Bacon?

MK: Well, if we want to shift to Newton-Bacon, Bacon is important for reasons utterly different than the rest of these guys. He was not a scientist. He was, in some respects, had always aimed for a career in political and public life. And he actually achieved that at one point when he became, in 1618, the lord high chancellor in England. He also was thrown into the Tower of London because it was discovered that he took bribes.

HH: And we know him as an essayist as well.

MK: We do.

HH: Yeah.

MK: And he was an essayist and a writer. But he had this strong anti-Aristotelian bent. And so he had, in some respect, something on his side when it comes to the fact that Aristotle’s cosmology, Earth-centered as it was, was mistaken. And he took it upon himself to be a prophet, so to speak, of the possibility that science when done well will issue both in knowledge but in power. And he himself was in some respects a naysayer about some of the contemporary developments. He was not really a fan of Galileo or of the new medical theories put forward by William Harvey. He didn’t go along with Johannes Kepler’s idea. But he did believe that science is often obscured by presuppositions that people have about the way the world works. He referred to these as idols. He said that there were generally four classes of idols that people have, and these have to be cleared away. He referred to them as idols of the tribe, which are things that by virtue of being humans, human beings often trick themselves into being wrong about things. He spoke of idols of the cave. We all live in our own little cave, our own home, individual people have their own ways of obscuring nature. He also spoke about idols of the marketplace, which are, the theories that people agree upon by virtue of their intercourse with one another. And then idols of the theater, where various dogmas and philosophies had crept into our perceived understanding of the world. He believed that a proper interrogation of nature by fact gathering an induction could help clear away these idols and lead to a new, clear understanding of the way the world worked.

HH: So he predicted Newton, in many respects.

MK: He predicted, well, perhaps he predicted technological application of Newtonian ideas, and the idea that somehow the knowledge of nature could be harnessed in power. He may have been a better prophet of the world of the Industrial Revolution and technological applications of the 20th Century.

HH: Oh, interesting. Interesting. So let’s conclude. We have about two and a half, three minutes, Professor. Newton is well known, obviously, probably the most famous scientist ever, less famous for his alchemy and things like that, but the most famous scientist ever. Fair enough?

MK: I think there’s a great case to be made for that, yeah.

HH: And so why is that? What made him, again, is it genius? Or was it the circumstances that allowed him to be a genius of his day?

MK: Well, he was indisputably a genius. The circumstances of his day weren’t always congenial. He was a young man during turmoil in England, then the restoration of the monarchy. He was an academic, and he was well-suited to the life of the mind. He was definitely curious about everything. He wrote more about Old Testament prophecy than he did about science.

HH: You see, that surprises progressives. I love that.

MK: He was very much concerned about getting his theology right. By most Christian standards, he’d got it wrong. He denied the Divinity of Christ, was an Arian. But that’s neither here nor there in terms of his scientific achievement, which really is, perhaps, crystallized, and everyone knows the story of Newton and the apple. What was the point behind that? The point behind that was that Newton was able to put forward in mathematical elegant form a description of the way the world works in terms of the forces that move bodies, whether the body that’s moving is an apple falling from a tree close to the ground, or whether the body that’s moving is the Moon orbiting the Earth. It can all be accounted for by the same mathematical equation. There was something amazing about this, because what he did was united the heavens and the Earth.

HH: Wow.

MK: Prior to the Scientific Revolution, it was widely-received and believed that there was one physics that worked for everything from the orbit of the Moon to the center of the Earth, assuming an Earth-centered cosmology, a sub-lunar physics, a physics of the heaven was entirely different. Everything in the heaven was perfect. Newton put forward a universal theory of gravitation, and said therefore the science that we discover on the Earth’s surface can be applied to anywhere in the cosmos.

HH: And everything changed. Professor Mark Kalthoff, that was a fascinating and patient explanation. Thank you so much for doing that. It’s available at,, America.

End of interview.


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