Prelude to the Clock

1.     In Gawain and The Tempest magic and art are the terms for human agency in a world of wonders (Gawain) and a world ruled by fortune or chance (The Tempest).

2.     In Bacon, experiment as discovery became ways for humans to exercise agency in a world that was unknown, open, uncertain and new.  Thus the frontispiece image:

3.     In Defoe, humans exercised agency through self-reliant projects and improvements in a partially-mapped, yet still very uncertain world of random reverses and (temporary) achievements. Here is one way (a theological philosophical one) of putting this development: “In a Puritan view the normal course of nature is simply the sum total of an ongoing chain of special providences, for as a modern expositor of Calvin puts it, “Bread is not the natural product of the earth. In order that the earth may provide the wheat from which it is made, God must intervene, ceaselessly and ever anew, in the ‘order of nature,’ must send the rain and dew, must cause the sun to rise every morning” (Leopold Damrosch, Jr., p. 376).  In this view, the universe was very precarious—dependent on the unknowable will of god—and human agency was slight—Puritans saw humans as totally dependant on God. Crusoe, however, established agency through self-reliance, and his inventions helped order and improve his world; this meant that in fact he became less dependant, even as he himself attributed more and more determinative power to God. He became Puritan in thoughts, but more and more a modern self-reliant person in actions.

4.     But one of the foundations of science as it developed extended human agency further and changed the way that the world was seen. Theologically, Damrosch puts it this way: “In the eighteenth century, however, there was an increasing tendency to define providence as the general order of things rather than as a series of specific interventions” (p. 376). There was now, more than before, a stable order to nature and life.

5.     This sense of stable order became essential to science as it developed. We take the idea of “laws of nature” now for granted, but it was an idea that had to be invented and believed in.  God became the maker of a universe that ran itself—a universe imaged as a mechanism that God created, set running, and then simply let run without further intervening into it. Some even moved God further out of the picture by dispensing with Him altogether and becoming atheists. Here is an excerpt from a discussion of the origin of modern science:

The lawful Universe

Science and regularity

ohn D. Barrow (1988), The World Within the World, Oxford.

Science, it is widely agreed, originated from two main sources. One was the need to develop practical knowledge and to pass it from generation to generation. The other was a more spiritual concern with the nature and origin of the world. Common to both of these well-springs of science was an appreciation of the regularity of Nature. The way to build an arch that would not fall down today was to build it in much the same way as an arch that had not fallen down yesterday. The way to predict the waxing and waning of the Moon this month was to assume that it would follow much the same course as the waxing and waning that had been observed last month and the month before.

The observation of regularity in Nature allows predictions to be made concerning the future course of particular events. In many primitive societies these regularities were ascribed to the activities of gods or other mystical spirits. However, gradually, over a long period of time, there emerged the notion that the behaviour of the world was guided by a set of natural laws that were themselves regular, in the sense that identical situations could be expected to have identical outcomes.

6.     An early version of the image of mechanism comes from Thomas Hobbes, in his book The Leviathan (1651), made memorable use of the image of mechanism to describe human bodies and also human society; his use of the word “art” clearly means “mechanical art”

NATURE (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the Artificer? Art goes yet further, imitating that rational and most excellent work of Nature, man. For by art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE (in Latin, CIVITAS), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; the magistrates and other officers of judicature and execution, artificial joints; reward and punishment (by which fastened to the seat of the sovereignty, every joint and member is moved to perform his duty) are the nerves, that do the same in the body natural; the wealth and riches of all the particular members are the strength; salus populi (the people’s safety) its business; counsellors, by whom all things needful for it to know are suggested unto it, are the memory; equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death. Lastly, the pacts and covenants, by which the parts of this body politic were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.

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