Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Tale of Four Scholars

In February of 1829 the Earl of Bridgewater died, and left as his legacy 8000 pounds sterling for the express purpose of publishing 1000 copies of a writing ‘On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation’.  This publication was to be directed by the Royal Society of London, a society which still exists today and is best known for its prestigious scientific journals, Proceedings of the Royal Society and Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.  Given today’s inherent assumption that science and religion are in conflict, one would expect the Royal Society to have turned down the Earl of Bridgewater’s final request.  But, shockingly to us, but not to the scientists of the 19th century, the President of the Royal Society agreed.  Seeking counsel from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, the President of the Royal Society chose eight of the leading intelligentsia of England and Scotland to publish eight volumes on natural theology.  These eight volumes became the Bridgewater Treatises, and were as follows:

Treatise I, by Thomas Chalmers. The Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man. 2 vols.

Treatise II, by John Kidd. On the Adaptation of External Nature to the Physical Condition of Man.

Treatise III, by William Whewell. On Astronomy and General Physics.

Treatise IV, by Charles Bell. The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design.

Treatise V, by Peter Mark Roget. Animal and Vegetable Physiology Considered with Reference to Natural Theology. 2 vols.

Treatise VI, by William Buckland. Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology. 2 vols.

Treatise VII, by William Kirby. On the History, Habits and Instincts of Animals. 2 vols.

Treatise VIII, by William Prout. Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion.

These treatises represented the sum of collected scientific knowledge in Victorian England.  I would like to direct your attention to treatise III, by William Whewell, on physics. 

Whewell was both an Anglican priest and a scientist, a man whose writings were voluminous and embraced everything from physics to philosophy.  Today, he is probably best known for coining many everyday words, including scientist, physicist, anode and cathode

In Whewell’s contribution of The Bridgewater Treatise, he says of God’s power in nature, ‘But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this – we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.’

In other words, Whewell argued that God does not need to miraculously intervene for everyday physical phenomenon to occur.  When I drop my pen it falls to the floor, not because God miraculously intervenes to drag it to the floor, but because He established a Law of Gravity which, once established, operated of its own accord. 

According to Whewell, Newtonian physics had given us a glimpse into how God operates.  His grandeur is manifested in that there is no need for Him to micro-manage.  Gravity, conservation of mass-energy, conservation of momentum, thermodynamics – these were all means put in place by God that allowed the natural world to operate.

There was certainly nothing shocking or scandalous about these assertions.  Although some could argue it pointed more towards a deistic God than a theistic God, there was no real reason to come to this conclusion.  The God who put the laws into place could be actively sustaining them, or miraculously intervening in human history.  Indeed, it certainly fit with Joseph Butler’s take on religion, as written in the Analogy of Revealed Religion (1736):

‘The only distinct meaning of the word ‘natural’ is stated, fixed, or settled; since what is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent agent to render it so, i.e., to effect it continually or at stated times, as what is supernatural or miraculous does to effect it for once.’

Joseph Butler was an Anglican Bishop (becoming the Bishop of Durham in 1750).  His writings went on to influence such a disparate group of people as John Wesley and David Hume.  Butler was a staunch defender of orthodox Christianity; his Analogy was in part a response to those who would seek to overthrow morality or participate in deism.  The importance of the above quote is that ‘natural’ need not be a term stripped of religious meaning.  All that ‘natural’ means is the general order of things; supernatural indicates a deviation from that which is natural.  But these are not in conflict with one another – indeed, just as supernatural or miraculous events require an intelligence to carry them out, so to do the natural events.  In the case of the natural event, however, the intelligence appears to be hidden, and can only be discerned through the beauty of the laws that carry the natural event out.  As Whewell would later point out, God operates through natural law.

This mingling between the natural and divine is in part what unites science with religion.  Wrote Francis Bacon in Advancement of Learning (1605):

‘To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.’

Francis Bacon has often been called the father of empiricism and was one of the first to develop what is now called the scientific method.  Besides being a ‘scientist’ (keeping in mind that that word did not yet exist), he was also a politician and devout Anglican.  He saw no contradiction between studying nature and theology.  God revealed himself through two books: the Bible, and Creation.  A student who only studied one would miss the lessons present in the other.  To understand the mind of God, one needed to be proficient in both.

These three quotes bridge over two hundred years of thought on the relationship between science and religion.  They reveal some remarkably deep insights into how God established the created world - certainly insights far deeper than we often hear in the media today.

Why have I used these three quotes, and not others?  The reason is perhaps shocking in its simplicity:

I didn’t choose them.  They were chosen for me.

By Charles Darwin.

It is with these three quotes that he begins On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.


Keith Shields said...

Very nice. I will definitely keep all of those quotes close at hand. We need continual reminders that science and faith are not at odds with each other.

Matthew said...

This is very much to-be-continued. Keith, I'm glad you find the quotes helpful. The irony is that they were pointed out by Darwin, not by me, and for a very specific purpose, which I will get to in my next post.

Chris Lantz said...

I LOVE the twist ending. Consider it a cliffhanger for the sequel.