Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Science Versus Religion

I've been listening to a series of lectures by Professor Frederik Gregory. One of the interesting points he makes, a number of times during the lectures, is that research by historians of science has shown that the idea of a long-standing conflict between religion and science is something that has been read back into the past by modern intellectuals. Of course, there were incidents where some particular scientist ran afoul of some particular religious body (like Galileo). But, basically, until the mid-19th century, just about no scientists or religious people understood the two to be at conflict in some fundamental way. Most scientists talked of how their findings "showed the glory of God" -- and for the most part, this was not just for show, as most of them were genuinely devout. (Newton, for instance, spent more of his life on Bible studies than he did on physics or mathematics.)

Furthermore, Gregory notes, the change in this view did not originate with science, but with the political radicals of the mid-19th century, who persuaded the younger scientists of the time that to be "progressive" one ought to be materialistic and atheistic. It was only then that the exact same sort of findings that, a generation before, would have displayed the glory of God, now were seen as indicating his non-existence!


  1. It amazes me how much the "history" I learned about science is totally bogus. Sort of like what I learned about the 1930s economy.

    What was the motivation for this? Someone like Rothbard would say, "Oh because they wanted to discredit the church, knowing it and the family were the only competitors to the State for people's loyalty."

    Does Gregory offer an explanation of motive for the radicals?

  2. Rothbard's explanation is not wrong, really, but does put it more cynically than those radicals would have. They saw religion as being part of the "old guard," defending royalty and privilege, and so on.

    Have you read Voegelin's The New Science of Politics yet? (No, you didn't say you would, I just keep bugging you to do so.)

  3. Having done some reading on the relationship between religion (specifically, Catholicism) and science, I see no problem with being religious and buying the most competent scientific ideas. I recently wrote an article for my uni's newspaper challenging the Individuals for Freethought group on their "rejection" of dogma (they dogmatically define that one should not believe dogmas). My argument centered around such things as Fr. Georges Henri Lemaitre being the progenitor of the Big Bang theory (following Einstein, of course), the pope having defended the ability for Catholics to intellectually assent to Darwin's evolution, and Copernicus (a Catholic monk) doing nearly as much as Galileo on the heliocentric theory. The Vatican has astronomers for crying out loud!

    Further, Galileo's problem was more an issue of proof versus unproven theory as this article written around the turn of the 20th century shows. The Church was really on the side of science, since Galileo claimed proof without having it.

    Using physics to describe metaphysical realities is what makes Richard Dawkins a fantastic biologist and a moronic philosopher.

  4. I believe that Newton abandoned physics quite early on in order to turn his attention to something far more useful: alchemy.

  5. Yes, Wabulon, Newton's priorities, in descending order of importance, seemed to be:

    1) Perform dangerous alchemical experiments;
    2) Work out odd theories of biblical exegesis;
    3) Scheme to get his way within the Royal Society;
    4) Run the mint;
    5) Engage in priority dispute over 6) and 7);
    6) Physical research; and
    7) Mathematical research.


Current review queue

Pearce: British Journal for the History of Philosophy Deneen: The American Conservative Chao-Reiss: Computing Reviews