Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century

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Young earth creationism sees these essentially scientific questions and attempts to give an answer based on the Bible. Can you tell us about this one? Historians of science have been attempting to destroy this myth—that science and religion have been perennially at war—for the past 40 years or so. This book brings together a group of historian myth-busters who have been thinking about this question. It rehearses the scholarship that shows why this story is bad history, but it also goes further to look at some of the reasons for its persistence.

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But historians have also put pressure on the idea that these episodes are unambiguously conflicts between science and religion. Could you tell us about that? These episodes are paradigmatic in the sense that we encounter them time and time again in the conflict narrative. They are taken to be exemplary instances, and this really goes back to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment philosophes in France used Galileo as an example as a perennial battle between the church and knowledge.

There are very powerful scientific arguments against it—such as the lack of observable stellar parallax. This actually satisfied much of the observational data that Galileo had, without getting into the physical problems of putting the earth into motion which was really impossible given the contemporary physics. So, there was a science versus science element involved. The other aspect is that Galileo also got into trouble because he attempted to do some biblical interpretation to support his view.

As soon as he did that, he stepped into the camp of the theologians and that was the point at which he was regarded as having gone too far. Galileo had also moved into the territory of biblical interpretation. To Catholics, he took a Protestant position because Protestants claimed that they could interpret Scripture for themselves. The Copernican hypothesis had been around for 50 years or so before it started to appear to be problematic. It is slightly different with Darwin. With evolution, there are religious issues at stake. This is part of what motivates young earth creationism: fundamental questions about the nature of human beings, the origins of morality, and the literal truth of the Bible.

Again, that appears to be inconsistent with Christian notions of a providential direction to history and the special place given to human beings. But, as we say, history is complicated. Darwin has very powerful highly religious supporters and he has some scientific critics as well. One of the virtues of this book is that it also looks at science and religion interactions in Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity.

Traditionally, science and religion discussions have centred on Christianity in the West. Is this just Western bias or are there important historical reasons for the particular focus? I think there are important historical reasons for the focus. If you look at the Eastern religions, the issues are far less acute. Whereas Islam and Judaism have parallel considerations.

This book is a classic. It opposes simplistic conflict narratives and indeed simplistic harmony narratives that say that everything was always sweetness and light between religion and science. By looking very carefully at specific historical episodes, Brooke shows that the story is really complicated.

I think much of the story in the last couple of centuries has been that they go their own paths independently with only a few points of tension. John Brooke was not the only person to make this sort of argument. At the University of Wisconsin, two historians—David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers—had a collection of essays called God and Nature that also ran a similar thesis.

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I think this is a point that Brooke recognises, but this book has become more well-known for deflating the conflict myth than for putting pressure on the harmony myth. And yet it does both. I think so. My own view is that there is more to the harmony story than to the conflict story. If we ask why science emerged in the West when it did, religion gives us much of the answer to that question. If you want to know what the key cultural ingredients are needed to get something like a scientific culture up and running and, crucially, give it social legitimacy, religion provides an important element of that.

But there are crude versions of the harmony story that I think are problematic as the conflict narratives. But they are not. This is the idea that science and religion are completely independent, with separate, non-overlapping domains. It seems more of a normative claim—that religion and science should keep to themselves and not interact—than a descriptive one. That seems to be a case where scientific research would have immensely significant religious implications.

There will necessarily be some touchpoints in that case because science deals with the empirical facts. Unless a religion is restricted purely to the realm of the moral, it will make at least some substantive claims about empirical reality. Part of the reason for that is that the contingencies of history and the fact that scientific theories change over time.

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Historically, it depends on what scientists might be claiming at a particular time. This is a classic work of sociology, but what does it have to tell us about science and religion? What I like about it is that Merton looks at a relatively constrained case of a specific time period in a specific place. This is when the Royal Society was founded, and considerable progress was made towards establishing the foundations of early modern science. Merton offers us a middle-range theory, as he would call it.

Theology and the Scientific Imagination

He argues that Puritan values were important to setting up science and justifying scientific practice. He understands that more generally, social values are crucial to the legitimation of science. Why this question is so vital to this very day is that science is undergoing challenges to its legitimacy.


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He wanted to argue that it was a puritan ethos that was distinctive for the rise of modern science. You said that the focus is on a very specific time in a very specific culture, but does the case generalise? I think it does generalise. Stephen Gaukroger is a historian and philosopher of science at the University of Sydney who is writing a long series of books on the emergence of the scientific culture in the West.


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What Gaukroger argues—rightly, in my view—is that part of the explanation for why we have science in the West is to do to with these issues of religious legitimation. The contrast cases are the boom-bust patterns where scientific activity gets started in China, medieval Arabic cultures, and ancient Greece, but does not consolidate into a central and ensuring part of the culture.

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So, the question is not just about the origins of science, but also about its consolidation. That then leads to the question of social legitimacy, which then takes us to the question of which cultural values underpin science. For me in the West, it is religious values that helped give science a boost and consolidate its position as a legitimate and important activity. Is it a problem for this argument that many of the titans of the scientific revolution like Copernicus and Galileo were Catholics?

He would be completely unembarrassed by that because he was focussing on a very particular time and place.

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But moving from the specific case to the more general argument takes a lot of work.