3.1.2 Looking again at Unit 2’s historical outline
Back to 3.1.1
To begin this unit, we take up from Unit 2 the outline of the historical background to modern CST (2.1.2-2.1.4). That outline referred to Christian division and serious conflict in the 1600s, and the way that those things provoked a sceptical reaction which led some to look to human reason alone for secure knowledge of reality. Their search generated a new way of seeing the world – as a great mechanism, like a huge clock. This view of the world meant that anything in the world could be investigated in order to see how it worked – by being taken apart and separated into its various components, and by experiments being done in which these are put together in various ways, in order to identify causes and effects. This kind of experimentation produced ‘empirical evidence’ that gave understanding of the way things are in the physical world.
It is basically the widespread adoption of this method of investigation of the world which is labelled the ‘seventeenth century scientific revolution’. As a way of gaining understanding of how the physical world works, it has, over the subsequent three centuries, proved immensely successful – even if the human race still knows only a fraction of what there is to know about the world, let alone the rest of the universe.
Two of the most influential figures in the scientific revolution were English: Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. (If you know the name Francis Bacon, it might be because you have heard of this seventeenth century thinker, or because you know of a twentieth century painter with the same name!)
You are probably aware of Newton, who is best known for formulating certain ‘laws of nature’. These included the ‘law of universal gravitation’ (inspired by Newton reflecting on an apple falling from a tree) and the ‘three laws of motion’, the best known of which is the third: ‘To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’.
Optional reading (c.15pp)
If you have time, and with the usual caveats about Wikipedia in mind, you might like to look at the Wikipedia article on Newton:
This article mentions Newton’s fairly unorthodox religious views. Like a growing number of intellectuals in his day, Newton believed in God’s existence, but not in mainstream Christian teaching about God revealing his own being to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The view Newton had is known as ‘deism’ (pronounced ‘day-ism’).
Unit 2 summarized how, within this mechanistic world-view, humans came to be seen also in a mechanistic way, as driven by desire for pleasure-gain and pain-avoidance, which came to be referred to as maximization of ‘utility’. This way of seeing human beings was part of the new discipline of economics, inspired especially by Adam Smith. We return to this here especially because of an assumption that was absolutely basic in the new discipline of economics. This was the assumption of scarcity. It is really important to understand the massive impact, right through to the present time, of three things:
- the mechanistic world-view
- the economic theory of human beings as ‘utility maximizers’
- non-human nature as a scarce resource.
Before we look at the last of these, and how they fit together, spend a few moments on this reflection.
What do you understand by the word ‘scarcity’? What is the relationship between ‘scarcity’ and ‘poverty’?
Do you think that someone who has all they need for a materially very comfortable life – who therefore could not be called materially ‘poor’ – could nevertheless be described as experiencing ‘scarcity’?
Do you think human desires are limitless, and that, however great our resources are for getting what we feel we want, we shall never be satisfied? Do you think that a whole society, most members of which are materially comfortable and some of whom are extremely rich (such as the UK), could be said to suffer from ‘scarcity’?
End of 3.1.2
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