Friday, November 21, 2008

The fall of man and the genesis of modern science

The history of Science began as a discipline towards the end of the 19th century with the emergence of such works as John William Draper’sHistory of the Conflict between Religion and Science’ and Andrew Dickinson White’sHistory of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom’. These books presented a triumphalist view of science as symptomatic of the progressive nature of western civilisation and anathema to a biblical understanding of nature. The history of the development of science as narrated by White and Draper, represented a series of triumphs of reason over dogma and superstition. This view has been largely overturned by modern historiography, although it is still alive and well in the public consciousness and has become an ineradicable part of popular mythology.

Modern scholarship now favours the complexity thesis which presents the relationship of religion and science as much more positive than is popularly thought. Studies have shown that Christianity has often nurtured and encouraged scientific endeavour, while at other times the two have co-existed without either tension or attempts at harmonization. Some of the most influential work of recent times has come from Professor Peter Harrison, the Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, who has published extensively on the philosophical, scientific and religious thought of the early modern period. Central to an understanding of the European intellectual landscape of the 16th and 17th century – the era of the scientific revolution – is the question of why is it in the west we value scientific activity?. This seems an odd question to the modern mind, but it worth recalling that scientific activity does not deliver much practical payoff for the first couple of centuries. As a result the underlying moral and intellectual values that will underpin scientific activities are key in understanding their development.

In ‘The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science’ Peter Harrison has shown that early modern debates about the acquisition of knowledge were dominated by the Augustinian belief that the 'fall' of Adam in the Garden of Eden not only deprived Adam's mind and senses of their original perfection, but also led to the loss of intellectual capacity in all of humanity. The promotion and practice of experimental science, he argues, were meant to counter these epistemological effects of original sin and scientific techniques were developed explicitly with theological doctrines in mind. One finds this most strikingly in many of the prefaces to works of natural philosophy, and in the intellectual discourse of the time. Robert South, the Oxford orator describes the figure of Adam in these terms:

‘He came into the world a philosopher (a scientist), which sufficiently appeared by his writing the nature of things upon their names; he could view essences in themselves, and read forms without the comment of their respective properties; he could see consequents yet dormant in their principles, and effects yet unborn and in the womb of their causes; his understanding could almost pierce into future contingents; his conjectures improving even to prophecy, or the certainties of prediction; till his fall, it was ignorant of nothing but sin, or at least it rested in the notion, without the smart of the experiment....I confess tis difficult for us who date our ignorance from our first birth and are still bred up with the same infirmities about us, with which we are born, to raise our thoughts and imaginations to those intellectual affections that attended our nature in its time of innocence’

Adam here is depicted as the perfect philosopher with a comprehensive knowledge of the natural world and the ability by looking at the present state of affairs to predict the future. Some figures, such as Luther, even maintained that Adam possessed such attributes as telescopic vision. In the early modern period this was contrasted with humanities present state of knowledge which pales in comparison to that enjoyed by Adam in paradise. The perfections of Adam’s knowledge were held up as an aspiration for the present generation, and yet were regarded as impossible to fulfil due to the damage caused by the fall.

In one of the most famous statements of this kind, Francis Bacon states that:

"Man by the Fall, fell at the same time from his state of innocence and from his dominion over creation. Both of these losses can in this life be in some part repaired; the former by religion and faith; the latter by arts and science, for creation was not by the curse made forever a rebel"

Humans, he asserted, could "recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest," and should endeavour "to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the [entire] universe."

Bacon argued that not merely are there the barriers to knowledge generated by the fallen nature of the human mind but that the natural world itself was also cursed and resists our investigations. The Royal Society founded itself on Baconian principles and adopted as its motto, 'Nullius in verba (take no-ones words for it)'. This choice of words was significant because it demonstrated the academy fellow’s commitment to find out things for themselves and not simply to accept the view of the received authorities. This was a development which was paralleled in the religious sphere with the Protestant emphasis on what was called “experimental religion” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During this period the term “experimental” occurs as much if not more in a religious context than a scientific one, and by that term was then meant “direct experience”.

The academy’s response to the state of the human condition as a consequence of the fall was to advocate the particular approach of experimental natural philosophy.

Robert Hooke who became the first curator of experiments for the royal society says in his preface to his famous Micrographia in 1665:

‘By the addition of such artificial Instruments and methods, there may be, in some manner, a reparation made for the mischiefs, and imperfection, mankind has drawn upon it self, by negligence, and intemperance, and a wilful and superstitious deserting the Prescripts and Rules of Nature, whereby every man, both from a deriv'd corruption, innate and born with him, and from his breeding and converse with men, Is very subject to slip into all sorts of errors…The only way which now remains for us to recover some degree of those former perfections, seems to be, by rectifying the operations of the Sense, the Memory, and Reason, since upon the evidence, the strength, the integrity, and the right correspondence of all these, all the light, by which our actions are to be guided, is to be renewed, and all our command over things is to be establish’

Such thinking was far from being the preserve of the English. In Catholic France the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, claimed that while we have aspirations to perfect knowledge we are acutely conscious that we fall well short:

‘The point is that if man had never been corrupted, he would, in his innocence, confidently enjoy both truth and felicity, and, if man had never been anything but corrupt, he would have no idea either of truth or bliss. But unhappy as we are (and we should be less so if there were no element of greatness in our condition) we have an idea of happiness but we cannot attain it. We perceive an image of the truth and possess nothing but falsehood’

In another example, the Cartesian philosopher Nicholas Malebranche titled his book ‘Concerning the Search after Truth - In which is treated the nature of the human mind and the use that must be made of it to avoid error in the sciences’. His emphasis was on the need to identify error, the assumption being that as fallen beings we are naturally prone to it. By understanding the initial conditions of Adam we will be in a position to set up structures to ameliorate the consequences of the fall.

It followed that the experimental method and the more rational approach towards the natural world would provide such a framework. This was an important shift. Aristotelianism was undeniably empirically based, but tended to make generalisations on the basis of our commonsense observations – “heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones”. Nature was read uncritically and taken to be more or less as it presents itself to us. This is in stark contrast to seventeenth century English “experimental philosophy”, which interrogates nature and examines it time and time again under what are essentially “unnatural” or artificial conditions.

What provoked all this discussion centred around the fall of Adam?. The first factor was the renewed interest in biblical narratives understood in their literal sense. In the Middle Ages, Adam’s mastery over nature was conceived as the struggle to establish reason over the more bestial passions. With the arrival of the Reformation, biblical narratives became conceived in a literal sense and In the writings of Bacon and his contemporaries the philosophical life became not just about reordering the mental dominion, but now projecting this order out onto the material world.

The second factor was the revival of ancient skepticism which chimed extremely well with the fall narrative and the idea we consequently cannot really know anything. The early modern period saw what can only be called a skeptical crisis, partly caused by the revival of ancient philosophy, but also importantly, a revival of Augustinian thought. This became a powerful strain in the thought of both Protestants and Catholics and put the question about original sin and its consequences to the forefront. Competing views about the nature of original sin had enormous impact on natural philosophy and informed differing epistemological programs. Those who took a negative view of the damage caused by the fall were more likely to favour experimental natural philosophy. Those who took an optimistic approach were more likely to be rationalists. The intellectual fervour created by the Reformation thus swept over into the natural sciences and helped provide the conceptual framework for modern science.

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Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.


Kendalf said...

I am looking forward to your book God's Philosophers with keen interest! I am a science/theology teacher at a Christian high school and I have created a senior theology class for our students who will be pursuing careers in the sciences, to help equip them with the knowledge and wisdom they need to stand up for what the faith when they enter the secular colleges and universities. I have recently started a blog to share with other teachers what I am doing with this class, and to provide them with an easy source for information that they can incorporate in their own courses. My most recent post deals with this "conflict thesis" as popularized by Draper and White. I appreciate the additional insight that you have provided in this post, and others on your site. If I may include the link to my post for comment:
Reasonable Answers: The "Conflict Thesis" between Science and Christianity

Humphrey said...

Hi Kendalf.

I have to point out that the God's Philosophers book is written by James not me. I'm an amateur when it comes to this sort of stuff, although I like to think I am a well informed one.

I would suggest you direct your student to this resource here, specifically the history of science section.