Galileo. Descartes. These names almost everybody knows. Galileo for his trial by the Church; Descartes for his famous dictum: “I think therefore I am”. While the contours of their contributions are widely known, what is little appreciated is the revolution they helped initiate in the way we experience ourselves; the supplanting of soul with self.
Our inner life is not independent from how we position ourselves in the cosmos. When our cosmology dramatically changes, so too does our experience of ourselves. The two are tethered. Galileo, peering through his telescope, brought a new vision of the planets, moon and sun that also transformed our vision of ourselves within this new cosmic order.
The trial of Galileo, one of the most celebrated cases in Western history, marks a pivot-point when scientific fact eclipsed religious dogma, a material world supplants an inspirited cosmos, and reasoning about the path of an earthly self begins to overshadow concern about the fate a transcendental soul. The trial turned on the nature of the cosmos. Church dogma posited that God, in His omniscience, created a perfect cosmos. This cosmos must be unchanging, for change implies either corruption or an improvement, both of which would slander God’s infallibility. Humans, who are made in the image of God, must reside at the center, and heavenly bodies, while possessing unique personal characteristics discernible from their behavior and appearance, also must exhibit perfection in movement (circular), shape (unblemished sphere) and number (seven).
Galileo not only challenged Church dogma about geocentric cosmology but, telescope in hand, discovered craters on the moon, spots on the sun, and multiple moons orbiting Jupiter. The cosmos became unhinged from theology; pockmarked and blemished, suffering from inexplicable numerical irregularity, and no longer anthropocentric. While this planetary dispute is widely known and easily grasped, the reworking of our psyche, presaged by this trial, is more difficult to discern. The reply of an opponent to Galileo instructs:
There are seven windows given to animals in the domicile of the head, through which the air is admitted to the tabernacle of the body…two nostrils, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth. So in the heavens, as in a macrocosmus, there are two favorable stars, two unpropitious, two luminaries, and Mercury undecided and indifferent. From this and many other similarities in nature, such as the seven metals, etc., we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven. Moreover, these satellites of Jupiter are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore can exercise no influence on the earth, and therefore would be useless, and therefore do not exist…Now, if we increase the number of the planets, this whole and beautiful system falls to the ground.1
This response, like the trial of the Autun rats2, appears befuddling, if not ridiculous to us. But closer scrutiny exposes the anatomy of medieval thought and belief. First, the reasoning is deductive. Truth, and the conclusions, are presumed, given by scripture and dogma, and evidence reveals itself to support the obvious, God-given reality: “The number of planets is necessarily seven.” Second, the argument proceeds by analogy, so that a pattern in one domain, the microcosm of the body, is repeated in another, the macrocosm of the stars. Thus, a dense web of signs weave “the heavens and earth and all that dwells within” into a grand, harmonious design attesting to God’s perfection. Third, only evidence that supports this grand, sacred design is recognized; all else is useless. This rebuttal makes sense only if these assumptions about the world are shared.
Galileo’s methods, evidence, reasoning and conclusions, so obvious to us denizens of the modern scientific-technological world, were as alien to his critics as their rebuttals are to us. Galileo not only challenged planetary explanations, he undercut what constitutes a fact, how facts are legitimized, what beliefs are fundamental, indeed the entire assumptive background that organizes how we position ourselves in the cosmos. He smashed our cherished interior gyroscope, cut loose the universe to float free of our certainties, and enshrined critical doubt, empirical observation and analytic reasoning as the pathway to truth. Perhaps worst of all, he situates us in a morally indifferent universe. This is a fate worse than Hell; a limbo without the vitalizing drama of salvation, without the thrill of being at the vortex of cosmic creation, and without the confident certainty that affords righteous action. It is a profoundly groundless moment, historically, evidenced by the plaintive, desperate lament that “this whole and beautiful system falls to the ground.” And, indeed, it did. And this collapse introduced new ways of thinking that we applied to ourselves.
Rene Descartes, a young contemporary of Galileo, carried the implications of the new science into the realm of the psyche. His famous dictum, “I think therefore I am”, ushers in modern philosophy. What makes this modern? He was born over four centuries ago and died over a century before the American Revolution; hardly “modern” to our digital-age selves. Galileo challenged planetary facts and scholastic reasoning, and Descartes posited a modern philosophy— one steeped in the new science that applied analytic reasoning to immediate experience to achieve certainty; certainty unfettered by the corrupting influence of theology.
Each word in Descartes famous line is freighted with revolutionary significance:
“I think…”: The locus of authority is not priests, not biblical text, not Church dogma, not external authority to which “I” takes commands. Rather, it is I, the self-reflective, subjective, independent self that provides the ground for truth-making.
“I think…”: The source of truth is my cogitations; the experience and activity of my inner, subjective self.
“I think therefore…”: Reason is what provides the link between the experience of the ‘I’ and the conclusions about truth. This is unlike prior reasoning, which sought harmony with the sacred logos of the cosmos. This reasoning is, instead, procedural, analytic and detached.
“I think therefore I am.” The most basic given, that I am, that I exist, has become problematic and in need of proof. Proofs of God’s existence are supplanted by proofs of our own, and the center of gravity shifts from soul to self. No more profound statement of a new, existential groundlessness could be made than this befuddling, self-contradictory equation, where “I am” is both the ultimate source of truth and also most in doubt.
Descartes’ solitary, subjective “I” is the inward consequence of the new Galilean-influenced science of the external world. The only vestige of the lost spirit-world is our own internal mental experience, whose origins in a materially caused world are now the ultimate mystery. This is the mind-body problem that begins modern philosophy. This quandary breeds another equally troubling befuddlement: How we can know anything with certainty? Through reason? Experience? Feelings? The isolated, subjective “I” peers onto an alien landscape and asks: “What is the relation between my rich inner experience and the indifferent material world where I find myself? How can I, from the shadows of my private experience, know truth, when meaning is not given, when logos is not divinely imposed?” Descartes answers: “I can have no knowledge of what is outside me except by means of the ideas I have within me”.3 I, we, our inner selves bring forth knowledge, truth, meaning. The power formally held by God as bringer of truth befalls to us. We bear this weight, not by God’s power and grace, but through our own bolstering of ourselves.4
Descartes did not single-handedly initiate a revolution of the self. The 17th century witnessed a raft of developments that highlighted the “I,” the self. The etymology of the word, self, predates the 10th century and its origins recede into the mists of the past. Its use as a prefix, however, appears in the middle of the 16th century. “The number of self compounds was greatly augmented toward the middle of the 17th century, when many new words appeared in theological and philosophical writing…a large proportion became established and have a continuous history down to the present time”.5 These words include self-contradiction, self-elation, self-inspection, self-neglect, self-perception, self-vindication, self-prizing, self-consuming, self-punishing, self-blinded, self-corrupted, self-invented, self-improvable, self-affected, self-endeared, self-cruelty, self-holiness, self-strength, self-worthiness and self-admiration. Descartes was the most noteworthy and influential voice among many who came to view the self as an object of scrutiny, praise, blame and concern.
Our experience of ourselves has undergone startling and profound transformations. Augustine’s injunction, “Try to build yourself up, and you build ruin.”6 is inverted; self-esteem, self-reliance and self-confidence are now essential to the new, modern, “self-made man” (and woman).Terror about the everlasting fate of our soul is eclipsed by existential dread about our uncertain place in the cosmos.The authority of church sanctioned leaders, who minister to the soul, is superseded by accredited scientists of the self, who instruct on the management of the psyche. These changes, of course, took centuries. Galileo and Descartes, ushering in modern science and philosophy, provided germinating seeds that helped midwife the modern self.