Science and Faith

If you read the debates on the nature of space and motion between Leibniz and Newton's student Clarke, you'll find that much of it is explicitly theology. To talk about the world in theological terms may sound like an absurd thing, certain to lead to bad thinking; in fact, we still return to those debates today because the theology is helpful in thinking through the logical issues about the structure of reality that they and we are still debating.

Noah Berlatsky writes that this unity can be seen elsewhere:
The pop culture account of science is, as Lipking, a Northwestern University emeritus professor of English, notes, one of continuous advancement and ever-clearer sight—or, alternately, one of ever-encroaching spiritual death, as cold technology alienates us from our true selves. But both narratives of progress and those of apocalypse erase the extent to which the scientific revolution was fired by religious fervor. Galileo, forced to recant his heliocentrism by the Church, nobly refused “to be swayed by myths or orthodoxies,” and boldly declared, “Nevertheless it moves.” Except, there’s no record that he said that; the rejection of myths and orthodoxies is itself a myth—one of the founding stories of modernity’s science code.

Along the same lines, Descartes’ famous mental experiment, in which he stripped the world down to what can be rationally known, was, it turns out, inspired by a series of vivid dreams, in which, Descartes believed, God had called him to a great work. Kepler introduced his epochal Third Law explaining planetary motion by declaring, “It is my pleasure to yield to inspired frenzy, it is my pleasure to taunt mortal men with the candid acknowledgement that I am stealing the golden vessels of the Egyptians to build a tabernacle to my God.”


Gringo said...

While I am still a former atheist turned agnostic, my readings in the history of science gave me a much more positive view of the effect of religion on the Scientific Revolution. Perhaps the biggest effect was the belief that God had ordered the world, resulting investigations of our world, looking for confirmation of this order. Contrast this with Medieval Islam, which maintained that God was beyond all rules. Copernicus was a church canon and the nephew of a Bishop. And so forth. Up to the 19th Century, we see that Faraday came from a highly religious background.

Grim said...

Contrast this with Medieval Islam, which maintained that God was beyond all rules.

In high Medieval Islam, until the lifetime of Averroes, that's only half right: God was certainly beyond all rules, but there were some things you could say about him (Avicenna goes on about this at length in chapter eight of book thirteen of The Healing, where he lays out his metaphysics).

More importantly, though, while there's a sense in which 'rules' don't apply to God, all the rules of the world depend upon him. So you're still looking to the divine as the provider of the laws you find at work in the world.

Two things really combined to end that approach to science in Islam. The first was the rise of Sufism, which was not rationally philosophical in that era, but was about abandoning rationality in pursuit of a direct and emotional experience of God. The second was military conquests that destroyed Islam's best schools and captured its best libraries -- the Mongols in the East, and the Spanish in the West.

Eric Blair said...

That's an interesting thought about the destruction of centers of learning, but I'm not sure I buy it, especially in the case of Spain.

There is a tendency toward stasis in Islam--"Everything you need to know is in the book", that was not so ingrained in the West due to the heritage of the Classical world which was always remembered however faintly. Islam never had that.

Grim said...

It's a standard reading, which I can't claim as my own pure invention. But it is controversial, though the controversy is mostly about the power of the Sufi movement's influence.

Averroes didn't think that 'everything you need to know is in this book'; he was an Islamic law judge, and an advocate of ijtihad, which is to say, the creation of new precedents to solve new problems. He advocated altering the law to allow women a parallel to divorce (somewhat like those who want a parallel "gay marriage" to marriage, women couldn't "divorce" divorce because the law said so; but they could be granted an exactly similar set of rights with a different name). He read Plato's Republic, and adopted the position that women should have roughly equal rights and enjoy military service -- the fact that shariah treats them as spoils of war rather than warriors notwithstanding.

But all that stopped about the time of his death, which was also about the time that his schools and libraries fell to the Spanish kings. We got a lot out of the translations we made from those libraries, but Islam seems to me to have lost a lot.