Reading Revolutions: Intellectual History

Hobbesian Science

Frank Underkuffler

The following is a summary of Frank Underkuffler's presentation:

Frank Underkuffler gave a talk at the University of Maine at Farmington about the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) that aimed to change the way we look at Hobbes.  As those who are familiar with Hobbes know, Hobbes is famous in philosophy circles primarily for his development of social contract theory and his defense of monarchy.  But, this is not the Hobbes that Underkuffler is interested in.  More interesting to Underkuffler is Hobbes the epistemologist and metaphysician.  Accordingly, Underkuffler focused his discussion on the epistemology and metaphysics of Hobbes, so that his audience might come to appreciate facets of Hobbes that seldom get much attention.

The reason Underkuffler said he finds Hobbes the epistemologist and metaphysician more interesting than Hobbes the political philosopher is that Hobbes' contributions to epistemology and metaphysics have had a much greater impact on the development of ideas and society than Hobbes' political philosophy.  After all, Underkuffler pointed out, few nations in the world have a monarchial government based on Hobbes' political philosophy, yet most physical scientists and psychologists have inherited a great deal from Hobbes' empiricism. 

To help his audience understand how important Hobbes' empiricism was to the Enlightenment and is to modern science, Underkuffler gave his audience a brief lesson in European history leading up to Hobbes. According to Underkuffler, prior to the Protestant Reformation, Europe was smothered by the all powerful Catholic Church. The Church during this time was bent on maintaining its authority and did so quite effectively by prohibiting ideas that challenged church doctrine. This created a rather static and monolithic understanding of the world and prevented Europeans from making any intellectual progress while at the same time provided Europe with stability and a shared culture.  The Church used its power to prevent war and acted in some ways like a United Nations.


The peace and security provided the environment for greater literacy, leisure, and reflection.  Eventually, the authority of the Church to interpret the bible for everyone came under attack by Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers.  Protestants declared that they had a right and responsibility to interpret the bible for themselves and that there was nothing the Church could do to stop them.  Subsequently, the Catholic Church's ability to control how people viewed the world declined.

Adding personal revelation to the system of doctrine had the interesting effect of calling into doubt the long standing method employed by Europeans to verify the truth of their beliefs.  Prior to the Protestant Reformation, the truth was defined as the Catholic Church's official doctrines.  But after the Reformation, it was open to religious thinkers as well as philosophers to try to come up with new ways of assessing what is truthful and what is not.

According to Underkuffler, it was out of this new found freedom that the seeds of the Enlightenment sprouted in the writings of Thomas Hobbes.  In his book Leviathan, published in 1651, Hobbes puts forth a number of empiricist ideas that would later become central to the Enlightenment.  One such idea is Hobbes' proposition that the world is composed of matter in motion that is governed by the laws of cause and effect.  This marks a pivotal break from the Church's teaching that immaterial things like divine intervention and souls have a direct influence on the way that the world operates.  God was seen as the source of all knowledge and power.  Kings ruled by Divine Right, the Pope was inspired by God and the people were simply the recipients of all this wisdom but had no direct line to God.  Under Hobbes' materialism people had the ability to question and were on an equal footing with both kings and popes since knowledge had an empirical base.

Essentially the individual was reborn.  The individual did not exist in medieval ideology.  You were essentially part of a team.  Just as dramatic as individuation was something that was parallel development in the arena of science.  It starts with Nicholas Copernicus. 

Copernicus was a minor churchman.  He dedicated his book to the Pope.  He must have been aware that his ideas would be controversial but the Church could live with them.  The heliocentric universe did not pose a major problem for dogma as long as it was quietly added to the body of knowledge.  What they could not survive was an entirely new truth finding method.  Copernicus, perhaps unwittingly, became the first to use the empirical method.  This is much more radical than making a small change by adding personal revelation, this change could potentially change every single doctrine.

If you contrast what would become the basis for Newtonian science with the assumptions and methods of Judeo/Christian doctrine you will see that the latter is a static system while the former is a dynamic system.  The empirical method has a log rolling effect in that each observation and theory leads to new hypotheses and tests.  It is a system designed to change and destroy old knowledge.  In fact, after Copernicus the new scientific method developed rapidly through Francis Bacon, Kepler, and Galileo.




Hobbes draws on the mechanics of Galileo, the materialism of Descartes and his rational method, and on Francis Bacon's methods to make a radical step forward.  Hobbes truth can only be proven by the existence of empirical evidence and by establishing causal regularity and prediction.  That is only possible if all reality is matter in motion.  Everything is material.  Thoughts and feelings are also matter in motion, that is the only way that they can have an effect on other matter.


It follows that humans and human behavior is lawful, that is, caused by matter in motion.  Notice that these laws come from observation not from any sacred authority.  He applies Galileo's principle of motion to all natural laws including human sense perceptions.  The soul is material.  What might appear to be immaterial is simply a by-product of the sense impressions.  Hobbes compared the soul to a dream or the reflection in a mirror. 





In order to make science possible, Hobbes had to link the real world to our sense impressions.  Rather than a God given knowledge of the universe, he proposed a sensory or empirical basis for thoughts, images, and ideas.  Each sense responded to a natural force such as light.  At that time little was known of the nature of light and light waves.  Instead he used light motion interacting with objects to produce a subsequent motion that when hitting our sense organs was transformed into a representation of the object in our brains.




The scientific theory of perception was a crucial link between the external world and our experience.  It is the most important of the scientific theories, because without it, you simply cannot do science.  First the theory states that the entire universe is matter, people are matter, light is matter, and matter is matter.  So, we must have a way to observe matter.  For instance, if we look at vision we find that the light source, would produce 'ether' according to Hobbes, the ether or medium would agitate matter and the matter would, in turn,  agitate our senses and that would produce a representation of matter in our brains.  The entire system is cause and effect. 

Further, all we "see" is a representation of the matter, not the matter itself.  The theory further distinguished between primary and secondary qualities of objects.  For instance, mass is a primary characteristic of the external object and belongs to it, but weight, color, and texture are all secondary qualities and products of our interpretation of the sensory information.  A wagon is not red, it is red because our senses react to it in that way on the basis of the motions of the light particles.  We live in a soundless, odorless, tasteless, colorless world of particles in motion.  The observer interprets the motion to produce some sort of representation depending on the sense involved.

In the final law, Hobbes says that we are caused by matter in motion.  There is no free will.  Everything that we do is fully determined by the natural laws.  Finally, he says that it is an amoral system.  He challenges the people who say that things are right or wrong because God told them, it is rather the world of reason responding to the natural laws.  Why is it bad to destroy life?  According to Hobbes, not because God says so, but because it is against our self-interest, our interest to live.  People are governed by the need to answer basic needs and will find a way to answer those needs.  The fact that we live in a society with others who have competing needs means that we must adapt to the dangers that competition presents.  For Hobbes, civilization also obeyed the natural laws.

Underkuffler pointed out that Hobbes' contributions to science are absolutely immense.  Essentially society is a machine and people are robots.  Now science could make predictions in human arena.  Hobbes because essentially the first political scientist.  There was one small step from there to Darwin, for once we are machines and caused by matter in motion, all we needed was a mechanism to figure out how we got here.  Darwin produced that natural mechanism.

Underkuffler then drew us back to the present to see the long range effects of Hobbes and the growth of science.  He asked, "Did science completely replace religion?"  In our society we have both, they exist side by side.  Look at Judeo/Christian Doctrine and Newtonian science again.  They are polar opposites.  Sacred truth opposes observation, intuitive faith opposes inductive logic, qualitative versus quantitative, teleological versus mechanical -- every method of knowledge is different and incompatible.

These systems are so different that most so-called debates between proponents aren't debates at all.  They don't speak the same language and they can't understand one another's argument.  To the scientist saying "It's in the bible" just doesn't make any sense.  The system of proof proposed by the scientist is irrelevant to the individual who relies totally on religious authority. 

We live in a society with a split personality between two knowledge ideologies that can't even communicate with each other.  While we currently have "debates" concerning intelligent design, that is only the most recent challenge to science and it will not be the last.  This situation has been going on for 400 years now.  Don't expect a solution to the conflict between faith and reason anytime soon, Underkuffler concluded.`

Marilyn Shea
with Michael Hughes, Class of 2006

Following the presentation members of the audience examined a first edition copy of Leviathon.

Examining Leviathan Frontispiece from Leviathan
Click for enlargement


"Hobbesian Science."  Summary of a lecture by Frank Underkuffler.  University of Maine at Farmington, September 21, 2005.  Retrieved _______.  <>.


Marilyn Shea, 2005