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Far from the clockwork universe.

A Fortnightly Review
Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion
Edited by Ronald L. Numbers
320 pages $27.95 Harvard University Press.
TWENTY-FIVE ‘MYTHS’ CONCERNING the relations between science and religion are analysed and dispatched in 232 pages of text by twenty five different scholars, although there are many pages of footnotes for those who want a more scholarly approach. As the myths include propositions as exhaustively discussed as Descartes’ view of the mind –body problem and as wide-ranging as the relationship between modern science and the secularized west (in strange juxtaposition with the claim that creationism is not a purely American phenomenon), more will often be needed to reach a sober conclusion. That said, the aim of the book is, in these tolerant days, admirable enough. It is to show that religion and science either have not been in conflict or have not been in conflict as much as is widely believed.

As much as is widely believed. Perhaps our days are not quite so tolerant, after all. The two figures who loom over the book as a whole and over many of the individual chapters are the now largely forgotten nineteenth century writers, Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper. Both argued noisily and vociferously that religion in general and Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, in particular had been major obstacles to scientific progress and discovery, and it is against this view that most of the articles are directed. One suspects, though, that our authors’ real targets are somewhat closer to home than White and Draper, but apart from the occasional mention of Dan Dennett in connexion with Descartes, we are largely spared examination of the writings of our contemporary village atheists (or agnostics, if they so insist).

In one sense the task of our authors is rather easy. They are easily able to show that the Christian Church during the patristic and medieval periods and during the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century, and Islam, at least from the seventh to the twelfth century, and arguably even after, were far from being opposed to science. Tertullian excepted, the early fathers concurred with Augustine in thinking that, while scientific knowledge of the natural world was not an ultimate end, it was for Christians a necessary adjunct to knowing God’s truth. A huge amount of scientific work, theoretical and practical went on in the early Islamic world, where Islam formed a melting pot for streams of scientific thinking from ancient Greece, Persia, India and China. In the middle ages (Christian) universities were where Roger Bacon, Grosseteste, Oresme, Buridan and many others pursued their researches (nor did the medieval generally believe the earth was flat). Copernicus was a priest, and his rejection of geocentrism was hardly resisted by religious figures, as the earth’s centrality in the Aristotelian system actually meant that it was the lowest place in the universe, full of turbidity, dimness and darkness, the place for the most material and coarsest of bodies. In the seventeenth century most of the major figures in the new science were committed Christians – Gassendi, Descartes, Mersenne, Boyle and Newton (who, in one of the most interesting articles in the book, is shown to have believed that as material bodies can act on one another only by contact, gravity required constant and direct causation by God – very far, then from the ‘clockwork universe’ view often attributed to him by myth and all of a piece with his theological endeavours). And in 1603, 57 years before the Royal Society was founded, in Catholic Rome the first scientific academy as set up, the Accademia dei Lincei, only three years after Giordano Bruno had been burnt to death.

Ah yes, Bruno. It is here that things get a bit more tricky for our reconciling project. Bruno 1600, Galileo in 1616 and 1633, and Hypatia in the fourth century, all scientific victims of Christian brutality. One has to admit that there is a degree of special pleading in our de-mythologisers here. Hypatia was 60 and not young and beautiful (as she is often depicted) when she was horribly murdered by the followers of Cyril of Alexandria, and it was probably about a political spat rather than about her mathematics. Bruno went to his death for his denial of the Trinity, along with his Pythagorean anti-theology and a belief in the plurality of worlds rather than for his Copernicanism. Galileo was not actually tortured and was sentenced only (!) to house arrest for the last years of his life. And, committed Christian as he was, he did have to abjure his Copernican belief in the motion of the sun (so not all about Copernicus was Christian sweetness and light).

Mythical as some of the stories about Hypatia, Bruno and Galileo may be, as a whole they do not redound to the credit of the Christian authorities, and they show that not all the animus of the Catholic Church’s critics is misplaced, or to be minimized by showing exaggeration in the telling. Jole Shackelford, who writes about Bruno, points out, quite correctly, that in 1600 there weren’t the clear separations between theology, philosophy and science with which we work to-day, but this hardly exonerates the Church for trying him, because the Church in 1600 did not make those distinctions, and his science was, so to speak, part of the charge sheet. (His belief in the plurality of worlds, a cosmological speculation to us, seemed to his inquisitors to undermine the doctrine of the Incarnation, which they thought, wrongly in my view, required that we humans are unique.) Even less does it excuse the Church in the case of Galileo, where good science (Copernicus) came plumb up against the Church’s understanding of scripture. I think that those attempting to reconcile science and religion should not talk about myths at these points, but rather make the point that it was precisely notorious cases like those of Bruno and Galileo in which the Church flagrantly over-stepped its proper domain which have moved us on to a position where we can now make useful distinctions between science and religion, enabling us to curb the illegitimate pretensions of each.

OF THE REMAINING ESSAYS, two show that in general there was no religious opposition either to the dissection of human corpses or to the use of anaesthesia in childbirth, one examines Einstein’s sense of religion (deterministic and Spinozistic), while another, ostensibly on the relation of quantum theory to freewill, actually concentrates mainly on the use new age thinkers have made of the theory (a pity, as there are real questions here). As would be expected nearly a third of the essays, eight in total, focus on Darwin and evolution.

And here I must register a problem I have with the whole book, which has been implicit in some of the things we have already looked at. For the treatment of the topics or ‘myths’ is largely historical, as we have seen. So, it is true that medieval Christianity was able to co-exist with science; but it does not follow from that that there weren’t beneath the surface conflicts and contradictions which meant that both could not stand unaltered. (Maybe this is what began to emerge with Bruno and Galileo.) So, too, with Newton; even if he did not believe in the clockwork universe, his system had that as a pretty well inevitable outcome.

And so, too, with evolution: it may be, as one of our authors shows, that, despite the claims of Richard Dawkins, natural theology and the design argument have continued after Darwin. But, surely one feels, at the very least the type of argument put by Paley, suggesting that the human eye could only have come about by divine design, has been dealt a mortal blow by Darwin. Dawkins has a point here (though one originally made by Darwin himself in his Autobiography). From the other side, it may be, as again is claimed in the book, that the Nazis eventually repudiated Haeckel and Darwin; but it is hard to credit that some of the things Darwin said in ‘The Descent of Man’ and of their amplification by his followers did not help to prepare the ground for the Nazis (that, for example, we must ensure that ‘the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound’). And I’m really at a loss to know what to make of the (obviously true) point that creationism did not stop after the Scopes trial – and in that sense that is it a ‘myth’ that the anti-evolutionists lost. Maybe the myth has a philosophical truth which history has yet to catch up with.

So, Numbers is to be congratulated in bringing together a good deal of relevant and interesting historical data, which show (as one would expect) that the inter-relationships between science and religion are far more complicated than religion’s critics would have us believe. Half the job in reconciling science and religion may be done, but it is only half. The more difficult part is to decide how the two forms of experience should relate to-day; and for that we need more than Numbers.

Anthony O’Hear is an editor of this New Series, the director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and the author of Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, among other books. He is currently a Visiting Scholar of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.


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