Author: Peter Harrison ABC Religion and Ethics 11 Apr 2012
Vestiges of the theological convictions of the pioneers of modern science may still be found in the common assumption that there are laws of nature that can be discovered.
The predominance of scientists among those preaching the new gospel of atheism might lead to the assumption that science has somehow rendered religious belief unintelligible.
This assumption is worth exploring further, not only because traditionally the question of the grounds of belief has been the province of philosophy, and not the natural sciences, but also because it seems at odds with history.
To begin with a historian’s perspective, it can be noted that an alliance of science and atheism is something that the founders of modern science would have found most puzzling. It has long been known that the key figures in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century cherished sincere religious beliefs.
Nicholas Copernicus, whose ideas were to precipitate the scientific revolution, was a canon at Frombork Cathedral in Northern Poland. Astronomer Johannes Kepler believed that his laws of planetary motion captured the divine mathematical plan of the universe. Robert Boyle, often designated “the father of modern chemistry,” was a model of Christian piety who believed that scientific advances would lend support to the truth of Christianity. Isaac Newton, as we now know from his voluminous unpublished manuscripts, wrote many more words on theological topics than on the scientific subjects for which he is justly celebrated.
Clearly, for these scientific luminaries, science constituted no barrier to belief in God.
To be sure, enlisting celebrity endorsements cuts both ways, and we could easily devise a competing list of contemporary scientists whose opposition to religion might seem to counterbalance the religious commitments of their more pious forebears. But what is especially significant about the positions of earlier scientists such as Kepler and Newton is that their science was grounded in fundamentally religious assumptions about the lawfulness and mathematical intelligibility of the natural world.
Theistic belief, in short, was integral to their scientific investigations and provided a vital metaphysical foundation for modern science. The vestiges of the theological convictions of these pioneers of modern science may still be found in the common assumption that there are laws of nature that can be discovered by science.
As Kepler and Newton understood full well, the mathematical intelligibility of nature is not something that science explains, but rather something that makes scientific explanation possible.
It is true that my historical exemplars for the compatibility of theism and science came before the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and that this theory presents special difficulties for some traditional Christian beliefs.
Yet, as is evident from the religious support for Darwin’s views, both in the nineteenth century and in the present, these difficulties are not insurmountable. Darwin himself was astute enough to realize this. The great scientist was most probably still a theist when he wrote the Origin, and in a letter written twenty years after its publication he declared that it was “absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist & an evolutionist.”
His eventual loss of faith was not a consequence of the religious implications of his theories, but of his acute consciousness of the amount of suffering in the world. It cannot be denied that the problem of evil represents a powerful objection to traditional theism. It always has. But this has little, if anything, to do with the advance of science.
Some of Darwin’s more dogmatic disciples seem to have missed this point. We often hear them articulate the view that science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular, offers superior answers to the questions that were previously in the domain of religion. A measure of support for this stance comes from the fact that the design arguments so beloved of many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thinkers were eventually to give way to Darwin’s naturalistic account of the remarkable adaptations of living things.
However, it would be a gross overgeneralization to conclude from this single episode that science and religion inevitably compete for the same explanatory territory. In any case, such a view rests on a conflation of two different kinds of explanation.
Ask yourself, for example, why you are reading these words. It might be possible to offer an account in terms of your brain states and neurons, and even more basically in terms of the behaviour of the relevant atoms and molecules. But there is surely another kind of explanation to do with personal interests and intentions, and ultimately perhaps, with a concern to arrive at the truth about an important issue.
The first kind of explanation is a scientific one, but if it excludes the possibility of the second kind of explanation there is little point in reading further. After all, if your reasons for thinking about these important questions boil down to nothing more than physics, why bother?
The distinction between these two kinds of explanation goes back to the Greek philosopher Socrates, executed as a martyr to philosophy in 399 BC. Under house arrest, and calmly awaiting his death, Socrates asked his companions, “Why I am here?” Two answers were possible, he pointed out: one that made reference to the disposition of his bones and sinews, and another that required recourse to his views about his purpose in life, his divine mission, and his quest for truth.
While the two explanations are not incompatible, Socrates leaves us in no doubt as to which is more satisfactory. On his own account, he had abandoned the investigation of the natural world early in his philosophical career in order to devote himself to questions that he believed to be of greater consequence. It was his contention that the things of ultimate import to human beings are to do with truth, beauty, and goodness. These were the values for which he was prepared to sacrifice his life.
Many since have affirmed Socrates’s priorities. While there is no doubt that science can offer powerful explanations in its own sphere, it seems premature to insist that the only questions worth posing are ones that science can answer.
For all their differences, most philosophers in the Western tradition, and indeed most of the world’s religious traditions, have held that a satisfactory account of the things of greatest concern to human beings requires reference to some transcendent reality. As one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it:
“We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”
There are, of course, many different ways of responding to the problems of life. But while there remain such questions – questions to which God provides one possible answer – it is not clear how science could render belief in God obsolete.
Peter Harrison is a Research Professor at University of Queensland and a Senior Research Fellow at the Ian Ramsay Centre in Oxford, where for a number of years he was the Idreos Professor of Science and Religion. He has published many books on the history of science and is editor of The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion.