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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Gaukroger on physico-theology

Late in his book The Emergence of a Scientific Culture, which I was discussing yesterday, Stephen Gaukroger discusses the (largely British) phenomenon of physico-theology: the attempts by some theologians, scientists (as we'd now call them), and philosophers to reconcile theology with what was emerging from science - or even to use scientific findings to support or revitalise theology.

He writes interestingly of thinkers such as Ralph Cudworth, who embraced some version of the atomist view of the natural world that had become popular within science, while attempting at the same time to modify it and to include it in their metaphysical systems (pp. 493-94).

Gaukroger writes at some length about others who attempted to reconcile scientific theories of the formation of the Earth with the Genesis account of creation and the biblical chronology of history (pp. 494-504).

He puts an impressive enough case that in the 1680s and 1690s, especially in the UK, there was a widespread view that natural philosophy could be used as a source of evidence for God (p. 505).

But none of this adds up to much of a case that the successful consolidation of science in the 17th and 18th centuries had much to with Christianity. On the face of it, I'd have thought that the successful consolidation of science at this point in history owed more simply to its unprecedented theoretical successes, the causes of which were contingent and complicated - perhaps having to do with some of the personalities involved, perhaps having to do with the non-religious aspects of European culture, perhaps having to do with breakthroughs in mathematics and scientific instrumentation. And perhaps with other things. I don't see much of a case for giving credit to religion.

Maybe Gaukroger's next (i.e. 2010) volume in his ongoing work on the philosophical/sociological history of science will have more on that, though... I'll get to it soon.

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