In a recent Telos article, James Santucci brings to attention Paul Piccone’s essay, “Towards a Socio-Historical Interpretation of the Scientific Revolution.” Stantucci reminds us how Piccone’s article helped to debunk the standard narrative surrounding the Copernican revolution’s ascendancy over Ptolemaic cosmology.

According to Piccone, it simply was not the case that the new model won because it was more scientific or empirical than the previous. Rather, it was the “new bourgeois social order” that ushered in the scientific revolution. In fact, barring this new social order, the empiricist model would never have gotten started; verifiable facts were not themselves enough to revolutionize Europe. Theology also had to change.

About this new order, Santucci writes:

While formerly, man existed in a world split between Heaven and earth, the Galilean physics and astronomy allowed him to believe only in a physical world. If Heaven existed—and it was still allowable that Heaven existed—it was elsewhere. Using his reason, concrete man could access all knowledge earth could provide. This epistemology appealed simultaneously to the Protestant work ethic and the Renaissance.

This paradigm shift of splitting heaven and earth, while still allowing the former to exist, is reminiscent of Bruno Latour’s work. Latour writes that one of the driving factors of the modern age was a new form of religious understanding. “Spirituality was reinvented,” writes Latour, “the all powerful God could descend into men’s heart or hearts without intervening in any way in their external affairs (We Have Never Been Modern, 33).”

The real import of Piccone’s work, as Santucci reminds us, is not simply to highlight how rival cosmologies contended with one another in some intellectual arena. We’re reminded, rather, that we go astray if we think we have effectively done away with superstition or ritual in favor of progress. In truth, modern humanity “is hounded by as much myth and superstition as any other period in his short stay on earth.”

Indeed. As Conor Cunningham states in Darwin’s Pious Idea, “if all the ‘sheep’ went to church in the Middle Ages, today the ‘sheep’ don’t go to church. Instead they watch television, surf the Internet, shop, or go to football matches” (134).

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