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Note: This was originally written as a follow-up to a final presentation in my class "World Views In Collision: The Counterreformation and the Scientific Revolution", the best history class I have ever taken. I have removed the footnotes, though a bibliography is provided at the bottom. /msg me if you'd like to know specific citations.

Galileo and Darwin:
The Birth of the Non-Teleological Paradigm
Through the Formation of Modern Experimental Science

How do we think about the world? What are our assumptions? What do we take for granted when we consider the nature of our selves, knowledge, and the universe in general? These are some of what are perhaps the most difficult questions for us to answer because they require us to examine something that ordinarily is completely transparent: our fundamental belief system. When Galileo made his discoveries in the early 17th century he contributed what was to become more than just a simple advancement in the understanding of planetary motion. He started a revolution of thought that changed the way we perceived ourselves, the critical fashion in which we examined the world, and exactly what our relationship was with God. His work began to change this fundamental belief system, but it was not until Darwin that the changes were fully realized. With the publication of The Origin of Species Darwin created another revolution in thinking that complemented and finalized the ideas begun with The Starry Messenger and essentially completed the foundation for our current non-teleological mode of thought. Their work led to our current model of scientific examination and our current paradigm, knowledge, and entire view of the world are all in some way directly drawn from the revolutions started by these two men.

First, a few definitions. A paradigm is essentially what the members of a community share. It is the sum and subsequent effect of the axioms that guide the group’s thinking and it is this paradigm that shapes the community’s beliefs about knowledge and the world. Thomas Kuhn identifies a paradigm as being composed specifically of Symbolic Generalizations ("those expressions deployed without question or dissent by group members"), Metaphysical Paradigms ("beliefs in particular models"), Values, and Exemplars ("the concrete problem-solutions students encounter that show them how their job is done"). All of these function to create a sort of lens that filters and defines the perspective of the community, shaping the most basic thoughts and questions. The second term that needs definition is teleological which has at its heart the root teleos, or 'end'. Teleology is a way of thinking that looks at the ends –the end result or final state of being– and attempts to explain existence or purpose in terms of them. A good example of teleological thinking is the Machiavellian dictum, 'the ends justify the means'. This moral examination looks specifically at the result to determine if the process is acceptable. What is important to note about this method of thinking is that it is top-down and it always assumes a sort of design or plan as a way of explaining things.

In order to understand the changes that came about during Galileo’s time, it is important to examine what the attitudes were towards scientific inquiry during the Renaissance. Before Galileo, the Medieval and Renaissance scientist had no conception of operating from an objective standpoint. The scientist had a point of view regarding some aspect of the world (a view most likely handed down from Aristotle or God), and although he performed experiments, they weren’t really performed in order to validate the theory. A scientist would fit the results of his experiments into a theory already firm in his mind, and if for some reason they did not mesh, he would simply disregard them as being erroneous. A theory was not extrapolated from and then corroborated by evidence, possibly being disproved by future results; it was instead only strengthened by evidence the scientist had selected as being beneficial. This approach, looking at the significance of a piece of data and then determining its worth rather than basing it on its validity is representative of the teleological method that was common to the time. This approach left no room for scientific growth, and inevitably led to many erroneous findings. Galileo, along with Copernicus and Kepler, was one of the few people who reasoned from evidence rather than towards it. He gazed through his spyglass and saw the moons around Jupiter, but instead of disregarding them simply because they didn’t fit into his current framework, he continued to investigate and gather more information. He used reason to formulate a logical theory that explained the evidence, and kept an open mind as to what its origins could be. Galileo was also revolutionary because of his use of the telescope. He had a concern for the enlargement of the scope of observation and experiment through newly invented techniques. At the time, many scientists did not make use of the latest technology because this type of evidence was not essential to their theories. Galileo’s use of the telescope showed concern for technique and accuracy, and highlighted the emphasis he placed on obtaining the highest quality data possible.

By publishing The Starry Messenger and standing by his theories, Galileo forever changed the way we thought about the universe. He increased our knowledge of the planets and in so doing, made us reconsider exactly what it was we believed about the world and how. No longer could the word of God be taken literally, and man suddenly had to consider whether or not the earth and everything else was created (in a teleological fashion) for him. Galileo raised questions about teleology, specifically our place in the world, and about the bible in general. He also set a precedent for scientific inquiry, showing the value of using modern technology and reasoning from facts in a objective manner.

This trend was to continue for centuries after him, but certain fundamental understandings about how we base our knowledge and what it meant to think objectively and scientifically still remained undeveloped. "Copernicus and Galileo should have made grownups of us all by illustrating that the world worked the way it worked in defiance of our deeply rooted need to believe otherwise." Many of the old notions, including a top-down approach to looking at nature, continued up until Darwin’s time. When Darwin began his research into the nature of evolution, the mentality of the time was basically the same as it had been centuries earlier – science in essence believed that animals and humans were placed on Earth and that species had existed in the same form since the beginning of time. They were considered to be immutable, just like the elements that had been discovered not too long before.

The scientific community of the time according to Daniel Dennet also possessed a sort of Great Chain of Being, although that instead of being materially object-oriented (God, Angels, Man, Tree, Stone, etc.) this chain was composed of different levels of organization, and it is this hierarchy that shaped the scientists’ perception of the world. The Great Chain of Being of the 19th century could be described as looking something roughly like this:

D e s i g n
O   r   d   e   r
C      h      a      o       s
N      o      t      h      i      n      g

This implied a sort of hierarchy, specifically that phenomena such as regularity (order) must have at its origins a mind or purposive creator. An entity (mind) created something (using design), and in so doing imbued it with order. The idea that something could display regularity without being designed was incomprehensible. In order to understand the difference between Design and Order, consider the solar system. It exhibits order, but it isn’t for anything. An eye on the other hand, is for seeing. At the time, this distinction was blurred.

Darwin’s work revolutionized this way of thinking by proposing the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, a process by which change accumulates over time in a manner that produces highly complicated, organized results. Darwin says that there is in fact a division between Design and Order, and furthermore, given Order and given Time, natural selection will produce Design. The process is built on regularity: it utilizes the regular passage of time and the regularity of physics –both of which are purposeless and mindless– and without any sort of mind or teleological end in sight, natural selection will produce not only regularity but purposive design. By distributing the work of evolution over a large amount of time, Darwin reduced the amount of work that had to take place at any one time to virtually nothing, and this allowed each step to be mindlessly simple: the product of a mindless, non-purposive process.

In one fell swoop, Darwin divorced teleology from the existence of man. Man and all forms of life were shown to be the result of an effect, not a creator. This standpoint was extremely hard to accept, and particularly so for John Locke and Thomas Hume, two prominent philosophers who had devoted much work towards proving the need for a mind to explain nature. Darwin had suddenly thrown man’s entire existence to the wind and declared us the product of random chance. This raised enormous theological questions because he had essentially removed God from the world picture. Humans were the greatest proof we had for the existence of God, and Darwin had just shown our existence did not necessarily imply the existence of a creator. Natural selection removed the notion that complicated things required an even more complicated inventor. This essentially was the final nail in the coffin of teleological scientific explanations and in many ways helped finalize the ideas that arose from Galileo’s work. Darwin reasoned from the evidence just like Galileo, and just like him he sought a non-teleological explanation for things. He did not let current theories shut down his thinking and he championed objectivity by studying things in order to discover their nature, not to fit them into a particular world view.

The revolution that started with Galileo and came to maturity with Darwin has great bearing on our current paradigm. Their work has created modern experimental science, a field that values proof, technique, and evidence. It has removed teleology from our thinking, at least in terms of explaining natural phenomena, and it has made us rethink how we view the world, ourselves, and our origins.


Cohen, H. Floris. The Scientific Revolution : A Historiographical Inquiry. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Dennet Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Fermi Laura. Galileo and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1961.

Kuhn Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Russo Richard. "How 'I' Moved Heaven and Earth." The New York Times Magazine. 17, October 1999.

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