Exploration and Belief

Extract from The Discovery of Truth: how seventeenth-century exploration changed the criteria for belief:

Travellers are notorious for telling tales. In the seventeenth century there was a lucrative trade to be made by bringing back examples of newly discovered plant and animal species and in describing the strange worlds explored. With such opportunities for fame and fortune the number of marvellous claims increased dramatically, so that it seemed all the monsters of ancient legend and popular imagination might exist in some far-flung corner of the globe.

Aware of their poor reputation for telling the truth, explorer William Dampier, in his dedication to Charles Mountague, President of the Royal Society, defended his honour with the words, ‘I have not so much the vanity of a Traveller, as to be fond of telling Stories, especially of this kind’ (Dampier 1698:preface).

With more and more discoveries being made people became convinced that all the monsters of their imagination could be found in yet unexplored corners of the world. The issue of verification and what could be believed became a great concern to seventeenth-century natural philosophers, hence Tyson’s concern rather ‘to find out the Truth, than to enlarge in the Mythology’ about his ‘pygmie’ (Tyson 1699:preface).

Countless explorers claimed to have discovered new species of animals, new races of humans, or even to have located Paradise. Collections, the propagation of old tales and many new books on travel provided explorers (including armchair or ‘imaginary’ explorers) with further support for the existence of the monsters of classical authority. With so many extravagant claims to choose from, judging which could be believed became an essential skill.

The new extent of possibility threatened the existing understanding of the world, thus new knowledge had to be managed to distinguish between the credible and the implausible. The first step, therefore, was to establish criteria for belief.

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