Center of Science, Policy and Society Programs: AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion
AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion
History & Philosophy of Science
Science has an illustrious history spanning centuries of innovative thinkers and discoveries. In our textbooks, journals, lectures, and casual conversations, intellectual giants like Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein loom large. The history of science offers powerful narratives not only of famous figures but also of lesser known but highly-talented researchers—like Rosalind Franklin and Lise Meitner—who were marginalized by their peers. History investigates not only science’s great intellectual achievements but also the contexts in which they took place.
Stories about science are as old as science itself, but the history of science emerged as an academic discipline in the early 20th century. Historians work diligently to uncover original documents, scrutinize popular anecdotes and legends of discoveries, and separate real history from the mythology that surrounds science. For instance, many people claim that Giordano Bruno, a contemporary of Galileo, was executed by the Inquisition for his scientific views. The truth is, Bruno was executed for embracing occult practices, denying the divinity of Christ, and rejecting many central Catholic tenets. While capital punishment for religious heresy may be excessive, Bruno was never a “martyr for science.” (1)
Besides these extreme cases, much of what we take for granted about past scientists and their work does not withstand the scrutiny of painstaking scholarship. Did science truly thrive in ancient Greece? What were the “Dark Ages”? When and where was the “Scientific Revolution” Have science and religion been “at war” throughout their histories? Everyone has their opinions, but careful study often yields surprising results.
Time, place, and context all impact scientific research in fascinating and unexpected ways. Science does not take place in a vacuum but is conducted and financially supported by members of particular societies who have certain aims and goals. This does not diminish the accuracy of scientific knowledge, but it helps us understand how and why certain research has been carried out. For instance, the acclaimed historian John Heilbron has established a staggering fact:
“The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and probably, all other institutions.” (2)
While it is easy to point out areas of conflict, the fact remains that religiously devout scientists have had an indelible impact on their fields. In fact, one of the greatest astronomical theories of the 20th century—The Big Bang—was originally proposed by the Belgian priest and scientist Georges Lemaitre. Such historical research demonstrates that science and Christianity are not perpetual enemies.
Over the course of history, science has proceeded at an increasingly rapid pace. It has resulted in an unprecedented array of new discoveries and innovations, both helpful and harmful. What will humans do with our ever-increasing knowledge and power? Will we employ science to serve our society or to destroy it? Though history cannot tell us the future, it certainly reminds us that the stakes are very high. (3)
Until the 19th century, natural science was primarily known as “natural philosophy”, and contemporary philosophy still maintains deep connections with science. Some of the greatest intellectuals of all time were both scientists and philosophers. In the 17th century, Descartes, Leibniz, and Pascal developed modern science and articulated its philosophical foundations. In the 20th century, philosophically-minded scientists such as Max Planck, Erwin Schroedinger, Albert Einstein, and Neils Bohr led the way in some of the most surprising discoveries about our natural world.
Both philosophy and science pursue a deeper understanding of the world and its structure, and both disciplines have viewed mathematics as the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Quantitative analysis helps us understand the underlying order and regularities of nature, particularly in regard to things like matter, energy, and motion. But other phenomena, particularly human behavior, often defy logic. Will scientific theories eventually account for all of our choices and values, or will some of our characteristics remain unpredictable?
Truth and objectivity are of tremendous interest to both scientists and philosophers. Immanuel Kant was one of the first to systematically argue that truth depends both on what is “out there” and also on how our minds are constructed. The basic categories by which we see the world—such as time, space, objects, and causation—contribute to what we perceive. All empirical data, and even our basic senses, such as vision, require constant interpretation. So, to what degree is scientific knowledge independent of human cognition? Are our rational faculties universal, or are they unique to our species? Answering these questions is one of the reasons why we are eager to finds other forms of intelligent life in the universe. Many of us long to know whether there are other aspects of the universe that remain hidden from human inquiry.
Another area of interest is how science actually works. (3) How has science been so successful at explaining, predicting, and harnessing the power of nature? Can its methods be effectively applied to other fields? How reliable is scientific knowledge? One of the notable characteristics of science is how often it changes. While this can challenge our trust in scientific theories, the lack of certainty is also a strength because it requires that scientists continue to test and refine their ideas. This adaptability and potential for self-correction is missing in many other systems that seek to understand the world.
What kinds of questions may be fruitfully investigated by science? If a particular question is not amenable to the scientific method, is it not a topic worth investigating? Are there other reliable ways of exploring and understanding the world? Philosophers investigate these questions and many others, including the limits and goals of science, ethical quandaries that arise from scientific innovation, and the relationship of scientific knowledge to other ways of knowing. In the philosophy of science, progress is measured but gratifying as great thinkers explore the limits of human reason, logic, and intelligibility.
1. Shackleford, Joel. “That Giordano Bruno was the First Martyr of Modern Science.” Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. Ed. Ronald Numbers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009. 59-67
2. Heilbron, John. The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
3. Classic examples include Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shifts”, Karl Popper’s “falsificationism” and Imre Lakatos’ “research programs”.
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