Saturday, January 8, 2011

Interrogating Nature - to reveal God's way?

Long gone, I trust, are the days when the work of the mediaeval schoolmen could be dismissed. Men like Aquinas, who tried to integrate Aristotle with Augustine, were clearly persons of the highest talent. That they were working on material now by many discredited does not take away from the strength of their minds or their processes of thought. 

They worked on what they had. It does, though, show us what power there was in church thinking and also in the intense experience of faith. It was such an experience that brought Aquinas to silence in the last few months of his life, after a vision that convinced him of the reality of faith more than all his reasoning had done. And the overlapping of the two systems - Christianity and science - illustrates how slowly institutions guarding the levers of knowledge allow themselves to be displaced or even modified. Christianity itself carried within it pagan acts and polytheistic and classical practices that were even carried over into the New Testament.

The Royal Society Charter said it was devoted 'to the glory of God the Creator and the advantage of the human race ...'. Yet the Fellows were forbidden to meddle 'with divine metaphysics and morals'. Nor were politics allowed. But all the key players in science around that time - Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes and Newton - understood what was at stake in the revolution they were engineering. This was the place and fate of the soul. Newton's proof that all space obeyed the same laws abolished the essential separate and different space kept by Aristotle and Augustine and Aquinas for God and the soul. Where now could God and the soul actually exist? Therefore, what place did God and His Faith have in the new philosophy, the new knowledge?

From the beginning, the Royal Society insisted that Nature must be studied closely, since it is God's other book, alongside Scripture, as their tutelary figure, Francis Bacon, had said. And they believed the best way to make sense of this book of Nature was by conducting many different, instrumentally directed, observations and experiments on it. Put Nature to the question. Interrogate it, said Bacon the lawyer.

The Civil War had taught men such as John Wilkins and Robert Boyle that public religious controversy led to conflict, and the aim of the Royal Society, as its first historian Thomas Spratt put it in 1667, was to show 'an unusual sight to the English nation, that men of disagreeing parties and ways of life have forgotten to hate, and have met in the unanimous advancement of the same works'.

These were the early men of observational and experimental science, yet Robert Boyle, in the late seventeenth century, one of the geniuses of the group, whose Law - Boyle's Law - proved early on that the Society could do Big Science, published at enormous length on the intimate relation between admiration of the works of God and the great advantages experimental philosophy would bring to religious faith and vice versa.

Joseph Priestley, another Fellow, in the late eighteenth century saw a direct link between the right religion (in his case Dissenting Protestantism) and the right kind of natural knowledge. He used his chemical and electrical experiments to promote his dissenting views about the character of divinity. In the twentieth century, Arthur Eddington, another Fellow, was clear about the basic unity of his own spirituality as a Quaker and the principles of modern physics. He argued that mystical religious experience and modern physical science were consistent and indeed supported each other, as he made clear in public lectures.

Others were more careful in their public statements. Newton was the most significant example. He was worried about the public reaction to his unorthodox religious views, which were very close to a Unitarianism that would have had him cast out of Cambridge, so he kept quiet about them. Some of his closest allies, like William Whiston and Samuel Clarke, got into terrible public trouble by expressing these views. Newton saw God as the direct cause of gravity. 

And he said of space that it was 'as it were, God's sensorium' - seeing space as the realm of divine ideas. Finally, Michael Faraday, similarly cautious, was a Sandemanian, and that rigorous sect's views informed his science and that of many other eminent Fellows of the Royal Society. Non-Brits, especially the French, were always puzzled by the religious component in the thinking of British scientists, often the greatest British scientists through the centuries. Even Darwin was sure that his account of speciation with natural selection as one of its engines was not logically connected with atheism.

Indeed, Simon Schaffer, the eminent Cambridge historian of the Philosophy of Science, has developed this. He sees three techniques characteristic of the Royal Society Project: a social technique (work together, witness together, trade together); a material technique (use instruments and machines, dissect, experiment, analyse); and a literary technique (describe these trials and observations in so much detail that the descriptions can be followed by all readers and trusted by them).

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