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Great Thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment

James HuttonThree of the most influential thinkers in European History emerged during the Scottish Enlightenment - James Hutton, David Hume and Adam Smith.

James Hutton (1726-97), Geologist
Since the Dark Ages when Christianity became Scotland’s religion it had been accepted without question that God had created the world in seven days at some point in the past. Antiquated accounts of Scottish history were related back to the Garden of Eden, and nobles, such as Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, claimed they could trace their ancestry back through 143 generations to Adam. In the late 17th century, Christian theologians formed the belief, based on precise calculations derived from their examination of the Bible, that the date of world creation could be pinpointed to 4004BC. That belief was never questioned until James Hutton, a religious sceptic and geologist, examined the rocks of Scotland. The secrets of time, he discovered, were not in written in books but in the rocks. To a geologist a rock is a page of the Earth’s autobiography with a story to unfold. Hutton demonstrated how to read rocks and in so doing he revealed the significance of ‘deep time’.

At Siccar Point, in Berwickshire, Hutton spotted a now famous unconformity in the land, where different kinds of rock, volcanic and sedimentary, overlay each other and tilt up. From this he deduced that the geological processes that had created the Earth were very ancient indeed and that the Earth had, ‘No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’.

According to the Creationists, the creation of the Earth was a unique event, but Hutton couldn’t believe that the laws of nature that had shaped the Earth were different from the laws of nature that apply today. For Hutton the same natural processes were at work and did not rely on preternatural events. In a brilliant leap of the imagination he recognised that, ‘Time is to nature endless and as nothing’. Through his recognition of the possibility of limitless time he suddenly saw how natural forces had shaped the Earth’s surface, not over 6000 years but over millions Jedburghof years.

Hutton believed, like other Enlightenment thinkers, that the findings of science, and not tradition, should be the basis of the laws of the universe: that any theory should be established by observation and testing of hypotheses against the evidence. At Jedburgh he found ample scientific evidence to prove his theories. The River Jed had exposed a rock face which showed that the Borders had once been part of the ocean bed, had then become dry land, then ocean again, before finally becoming the land mass we know today.
More evidence came at Glen Tilt in Perthshire, where he explored deposits of granite and disproved his contemporaries’ theories that granite had been formed in the singular creation of the world. Hutton found granite deposited above other rocks laid down on an old sea bed, therefore, he theorised, the creation of granite had been a repeatable and not a singular process. It was his Eureka moment. His guides thought he had struck gold, such was his excitement at the discovery. Hutton published the results of his studies in A Theory of the Earth in 1785. His ideas form the basis of modern geology.

David Hume, Philosopher (1711-1776)
Born in Ninewells, Berwickshire, David Hume was one of the greatest philosophers the world has ever known. At the age of only 28 he returned from France with his groundbreaking philosophical work, A Treatise on Human Nature, which was a bold attempt to introduce scientific reasoning into moral subjects.

Hume was a sceptic, a thinker who questioned everything, who sought to explain the world without reference to a God. He aimed to create a ‘Science of Man’, a new form of philosophy which took human nature as its basis and which used scientific methods to reach its conclusions. One of his principle areas of study was the human mind. Hume did not set out to discover the original qualities or essence of the human mind, as countless other philosophers had done, because this type of philosophy was not based on human experience. For Hume, experience was the boundary of knowledge, no one ‘can go beyond experience, or establish any principles which are not founded on that authority.’ Humanity was to become another branch of science and in applying his new philosophy Hume reached new and startling conclusions.

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