Monday, October 12, 2009

What has theology ever done for science?

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

Alexander writes:

‘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.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Bemused. said...

Can anyone comment on Alexander's astonishing statement on the reliability of knowledge. There are any number of scientific fields where we have more reliable knowledge than we did have even five years ago- I am thinking in particular of origins of life research, some of the genetic foundations of cancer, but there are countless areas where progress is being made in understanding. Of course there are moments where progress in understanding opens new areas of research where there are new big questions but this has always been the way with science and there is nothing new here. It would be ahistorical to say we have reached some kind of watershed which somehow allows theology back in if that is what is implied here.

Bernard said...

I'm not sure if it's a matter of "allowing theology back in". I think what he meant was that theology, in this case monotheistic Christianity, provided the philosophical impetus that encouraged the development of modern science.

Melvin Calvin
Nobel Prize-winning biochemist

"As I try to discern the origin of that conviction, I seem to find it in a basic notion discovered 2000 to 3000 years ago, and enunciated first in the Western world by the ancient Hebrews: namely, that the universe is governed by a single God, and is not the product of the whims of many gods, each governing his own province according to his own laws. The monotheistic view seems to be the historical foundation for modern science."
Chemical Evolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969)p.258

The Soul of Science

Nancy R Pearcey
Charles B. Thaxton

page 25

"As to the truth, of which mathematical demonstrations give us the knowledge, it is the same which the Divine Wisdom knoweth; but ... the manner whereby God knoweth the infinite propositions, whereof we understand some few, is highly more excellent than ours. . ."
Quoted by Edwin Arthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science: A Historical and Critical Survey (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1950), p.72.

"Without this belief, the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is . . . the motive power of research - that there is a secret, a secret which can be revealed. When we compare this tone of thought in Europe with the attitude of other civilizations when left to themselves, there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality."
Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948), p. 18.

Bernard said...

Sorry, the second quote came from Galileo.

Humphrey said...

Bemused, I think he is referring to the contemporary attack on science by post-modernism’, which has challenged the idea of universal rationality.

Post-modernism denies that we all share the same ability to reason, and can together arrive at a truth that holds universally. Instead it stresses the differences between traditions and epochs.

What is regarded as obviously true at one time and place may be very different from the assumptions brought to bear at another time. There is then no common core of reasoning which all people share and no objective truth.

It should be the job of theology to get behind science and attempt to bolster our confidence that reason is equipped to uncover the mysterious of the physical world, not set itself in opposition to science, throw itself in with post-modernism and hide in the gaps.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, Christianity is as un-postmodern as you can get - it unequivocally states that there is a God, whether one thinks there is or not; likewise, the resurrection is an historical fact, not something that is "true for you".

Unknown said...


I don't think Alexander was talking about 'allowing theology back in;' pretty hard to do that anyway considering it never really left. Atheism, after all, is a theological belief system and some scientists, like Dawkins and Meyers, are very quick to apply it to science. Besides most historians and philosophers of science agree that without theological framework provided by monotheism, especially the Abrahmic traditions like Christianity, modern science as we know it wouldn't exist. Anyway, I think Humphrey's right about the focus being on postmodernism.

Bernard said...

Apologies for the mammoth quotes - I wanted to find the one about whitehead's thesis and got a bit carried away...

Humphrey said...


"Atheism, after all, is a theological belief system"

Shouldn't that be 'Lack of belief system' :)

"most historians and philosophers of science agree that without theological framework provided by monotheism, especially the Abrahmic traditions like Christianity, modern science as we know it wouldn't exist."

That's probably a bolder conclusion that most would contemplate (it's a bit of a one legged interpretation). The full historical picture is complex because science, philosophy and theology are so inextricably entwined. What we can say is that certain types of christian theology were an important factor.

Phil. B. said...

I notice the interesting comments on the relationship of Fallen Man and science. Can anyone tell me how Christians who support Evolution fit in the Fall of Man into their narrative? Thanks.

Unknown said...


Ok, I'll agree to that.

Humphrey said...

Phil B

I would suggest posting that on the forum as I suspect it's complicated.

It's funny, but when I read 'The Selfish Gene' it read so much like a rewriting of Genesis. The modern contemporary science of sociobiology contains a theory of human nature that is remarkably similar to major versions of the Christian doctrines of original sin; so for example selfish DNA replication induces our propensity towards selfishness, self deception, jealousy and violence. However, it is also the author of co-operation and alturism; not only that but as Dawkins says 'we have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination'. Sounds a lot like Augustine when he says that we cannot overcome our more base instincts (which have been inherited through the sin of Adam) except through a gift of grace from God.

TheOFloinn said...

I have often had the same thought: Dawkins is a Calvinist preacher. Sometimes, when the subject of original sin comes up, I will say something about "original sin, or the selfish gene...." He has even explained why it is that everyone inherits the original sin. It's genetic! Of course, unlike Augustine, he has no basis in his own philosophy for saying we can "defy" our genes.

David B. Ellis said...

I think what he meant was that theology, in this case monotheistic Christianity, provided the philosophical impetus that encouraged the development of modern science.

The underlying hope of articles such as these seems to be that we will find Christianity more plausible as a result.

But when much the same can be said of alchemy laying the groundwork for modern chemistry and astrology doing the same for astronomy it's less than persuasive.

Humphrey said...

Hi David

It's a good point you make. Modern Science certainly arose out of a bewildering array of beliefs which we would now consider irrational. Astrology and Alchemy certainly provided strong motivations for people to make observations and develop the equipment and techniques which would facilitate scientific enquiry, as did belief in God. Once thinks here particularly of Jerome Cardan, John Dee and Paracelsus.

Unlike astrology and alchemy however we still operate in a conceptual framework which retains aspects of monotheism (all science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way). We have ditched the assumptions of astrology and alchemy but we have retained assumptions which are ultimately grounded in certain (medieval and early modern) conceptions of divine activity; the idea for example of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws.

Botogol said...

But all human endeavour in history was performed in a religious milieu. By necessity