Christianity and the Mechanistic Universe
By William Ashworth Jr.
• In the second half of the seventeenth century new philosophy: mechanical philosophy
• Presented in several distinct forms by the likes of Descartes, Gassendi and Boyle.
o All forms treated matter as lifeless and inert, without any properties of its own.
o Suggested that all natural phenomena could be explained by the mechanical
interactions of matter in motion.
o Strong contrast to the picture painted by Aristotelianism and other, newer
philosophies of nature constructed during the Late Renaissance such as, natural
magic and Paracelsianism.
• The acceptance of the mechanical played a major role in the events collectively known
as the “Scientific Revolution”.
• Concerns: impact of mechanical philosophy on religion specifically Christian religion as
well as the impact of Christian thought on the mechanical philosophy.
• Obvious that there should have not been any interaction at all since theology and theory
are widely separate domains of inquiry.
o Proponents of mechanical philosophy were driven by religious concerns
Specifically adherence to Christian beliefs
• Debate on different forms of mechanical philosophy were waged on religious grounds
• The success of mechanical philosophy: hailed as a Christian triumph
• Religion and mechanical philo\sophy were linked throughout the seventeenth century
Descartes (1596 – 1650):
• Raised in France in an age of considerable concern over the conflicts between
traditional forms of knowledge and the new discoveries of late Renaissance.
• Evolution of modern society:
o Previously had been one well-established Church, one known world and one
picture of the cosmos. o Now, there are variety of churches, a recently discovered new world and
several new cosmologies.
Called the skeptical crisis
• Descartes decided to react to this “skeptical crisis” by doubting everything he knows
and had been taught.
• Thought by doing this, he could arrive at certain “clear and distinct” ideas that could
not be doubted
• Qualities of the matter could not be found – just the stuff of which the object is
o Beeswax example
o Matter, to be matter has to occupy space
o Characteristics perceived by the senses: called “secondary qualities” were
illusions of the senses.
Represented appearance not reality
o Defined matter as extension and extension as matter
Follows that matter has no properties other than the occupancy of
Implications of matter redefinition profound
o If matter has no properties all it can do is collide and move about
Cannot attract seek or sympathize with other matter.
o There can be no extension without matter, therefore no empty space
• Different levels of matter
o First Matter: The tiny spaces between particles of second matter are filled
o Second Matter: imperceptible matter that