What has theology ever done for science? asks Dan Dennett. ‘Quite a lot’ replies Denis Alexander in a recent article posted on the Faraday Institute website, and proceeds to reel off four main themes.
1. The concept of Scientific Laws
‘there seems little doubt that the concept of scientific laws was nurtured by the Christian belief that God has established moral laws for the universe and therefore, ipso facto, God must maintain similar laws that govern the physical world. The rational God of Christian theology provided a rationale for seeking intelligibility in the world, as expressed through laws. This is made explicit in the writings of early natural philosophers such as Descartes, Boyle and Newton.’
I wrote something similar a while back, based on the Faraday Lecture series (which are a fantastic resource).
2. The Contingency of God’s Actions
A second theme that we often find in the early natural philosophers is the idea that the contingency of God’s actions encourages an empirical attitude towards the natural world. The God of the Bible can do what he likes, and it is up to natural philosophers to determine this empirically, it cannot be worked out from first principles as the Greek rationalists mistakenly thought. Contingency stems from the free will of the omnipotent Creator.
This is one of the key developments of the Middle Ages, which is documented in God’s Philosophers.
And now, my personal favourite…
3. The Fall of Man
‘The third way in which theology contributed to the emergence of modern science is perhaps counter-intuitive and unexpected, and it relates to the Christian doctrine of the Fall and its perceived impact on the ability of natural philosophers to gain access to truth. This is a good example where it’s quite hard to try and think our way back into the world-view of these early natural philosophers. The thesis is well expounded in ‘The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science’ written by the Oxford historian of science Peter Harrison. What Peter has done in this book is to amass a huge amount of historical data to show that the idea that the mind is fallen, a conviction shared by virtually all the natural philosophers of the early modern period (16th-17th centuries), led them to be suspicious of unaided reason as a way of arriving at truths about nature, using the kind of deductive processes familiar in Greek philosophy. This in turn stimulated the emergence of the empirical method because clearly the only way to establish reliable truths was to do experiments to find out how nature actually worked - this wasn't something that could be worked out from first principles by fallen minds. So in Harrison’s view, at its inception, modern science was conceptualized as a means of recapturing the knowledge of nature that Adam had once possessed, so reversing the effects of the Fall.’
I attempted to summarise Harrison’s intriguing thesis, here. The one thing that sticks out at you from early modern treatises of Natural Philosophy is their tendency to stress the fallen nature of humanity and to recommend experiment as a way of overcoming it’s effects.
4. The Mechanical Philosophy
A fourth theme in the scientific revolution that has strongly theological overtones is the enthusiasm of many of the natural philosophers for what came to be known as the new mechanical philosophy, a term virtually synonymous with the new experimental philosophy itself. From our perspective it might seem surprising that machine analogies to describe the properties of the world would be introduced within the context of Christian theology, but the machine for these natural philosophers was always God’s machine – they saw no tension between mechanism and meaning. The astronomer Kepler, who initially trained to be a Lutheran pastor, wrote that 'My aim is to show that the heavenly machine is not a kind of divine, live being, but a kind of clockwork....'
I wrote something on this back here. I should add that James’s book shows that this attitude emerges in the Middle Ages. We find the clockwork universe trope in the writings of John Buridan for example.
Denis Alexander’s conclusion is that:
Because science is an intellectually difficult enterprise, there is value in an under-pinning metaphysics which guarantees that scientific knowledge has real value. This under-pinning was provided during the emergence of modern science by the belief that God had made rational human minds with the ability to gain true insights into a rational universe with properties governed by God’s rational laws. True, as noted above, these minds were fallen, so their deficits needed to be supplemented by experimental data. But the data could be trusted because it was God’s universe that was being investigated. This optimism in the trustworthiness of human knowledge helped carry science along on its crest for centuries, sometimes pushing scientists over the top of the wave into straight hubris.
Today that optimism in the reliability of knowledge is gone, and the post-modern suspicion of meta-narratives sits uneasily with a scientific enterprise that seeks to maintain the reliability of its knowledge, conveying science to a public that hardly knows what truth is any more.
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