Without a Memory
Professor of History of Science and Technology
The Open University, England
Chairman - Vice President
Christians in Science
[From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 45 (March 1993): 219-221.]
©1993 by the American Scientific Affiliation
A discussion meeting of the British Society
for the History of Science 1 was convened in London
in 1992 specially to discuss the theme of "Science and Religion." A major focus
ofthe discussion was the important new book, Science and Religion: Some Historical
Perspectives, by John Brooke.2 As one of the invited
speakers I tried to address one particular aspect of the subject, and I am glad for this
opportunity to repeat some of the remarks I made at that meeting. These concern the value
of historical perspectives for contemporary discussions on science and religious belief.
There are, of course, many scientists who have little time for history. If the aphorism is
true that a culture without its history is like a man without his memory, science can ill
afford such a cavalier attitude toward the past. It is my conviction that the history of
science has a crucial role to play in the current debate involving Christian theology.
This is so whether or not the historical research is conducted by scholars with an
explicit Christian commitment, an outstanding example being Geoffrey Cantor's recent study
of Michael Faraday.3
So what specific values are there in historical perspectives? First, and
at the most trivial level, good history of science can correct common inaccuracies. These
include the well-known myths of Bruno's "martyrdom" for science and of Galileo's
torture. Similarly exposed are the legends of clerical opposition to the use of chloroform
anaesthesia and of the demolition of Bishop Wilberforce by Huxley at the British
Association debate in 1860. There are many more.
Secondly, history of science can demythologize popular paradigms that are
seriously deficient. Correcting errors like those just mentioned may seem to be simply a
matter of putting the record straight. Sometimes it is, but, apart from a certain lurid
media-appeal, the survival of these flawed stories is due in large part to their
conformity to popular paradigms as to what the "science and religion"
relationship should be. The classic case is the conflict model enshrined in those most
notorious pieces of pseudo-history by J. Draper4 and A. D.
White.5 My first encounter as a young scientist with White's
book led to deep suspicion; the book did not describe any scientific attitude I had ever
met and its thesis seemed inherently improbable. Only later was a measure of historical
understanding able to suggest not only where White was wrong but also why he had been able
to promote such a bizarre view of science and religion.
However, history of science is not only, or chiefly, engaged in the demolition business.
It can also, thirdly, suggest alternative perspectives for today. Thus a
"Darwinian perspective" that understood Darwinism in its genesis and historical
context is highly relevant to the "creationist" debate today and could take much
heat out of the argument. Then again, a sound understanding of the mechanical philosophy
of the 17th and 18th centuries would show how such a worldview did not inevitably lead to
an abrogation of moral responsibility for the environment. Such an insight would be an
eye-opener to certain post-modernist writers who seem to think that the only route to such
responsibility lies in a retreat to a prescientific and organismic view of the universe.
Fourthly, historical insights can help to expose the limitations of
science. I do not refer here to that perverse obsession with denigrating science on all
possible occasions that once marked the effusions of a minority of historians (most of
whom were blissfully ignorant of the actual practice of science). I refer rather to the
more mature and responsible analysis of the nature of science that marks much modern
historical study. In particular, such analysis discloses the slow transformation of
science into mere scientism, the latter, for the Christian, being the real enemy: an
elevation of science to the status of universal panacea and of nature as an object of
worship. Few, however, are aware of the distinction between science and scientism, as
witnessed by many contemporary discussions. Historical insights can be enormously helpful
here.6 Science per se can never claim to have had these
extravagant values attributed to it.
However, science is not value-free. Writing of those who restricted values to theology and
facts to science, John Brooke observes (in a masterpiece of understatement), "had
they been more familiar with the history of science, the proponents of that neat division
of labor might have found it difficult to sustain."7
Fifthly, history can demonstrate that the relationship between science
and religion is not a static one. If Mrs. Thatcher could observe that "there is no
such thing as society," John Brooke can aver "there is no such thing as the
relationship between science and religion."8 That matters
very much in an age when past stereotypes are often taken as normative for today. To
ignore the changing relationship is to deny the possibilities of creative dialogue, a
process to which Christians in Science and its associated journal Science and
Christian Belief remain totally committed. I am sure the same is true in North
America of ASA and Perspectives.
In the sixth place, historical studies have surely demonstrated that
science has a human face. Its practitioners are and always have been fallible, creative
people who reflect the values and attitudes of their own cultures. To realize that simple
fact is to turn your back on scientism: the misnamed scientific humanism of a past
generation, and the ghosts of logical positivism that seem to haunt theology even more
than science. Incidentally, "the humanization" of science via its history has
considerable educational value for those seeking at school or elsewhere to attract and
hold potential students of science.
Finally, I have to enter a caveat. Although it is commonly supposed that
scientific research ought to be independent of the ideological position of the scientist,
historians will often claim that this is not so, and manifestly not so in the more remote
past. They are right. Unquestionably science has often been a manifestation of all kinds
of "non-scientific" ideas. However, to assert that it always must be so and that
scientific activity can always be reduced to sociological categories is to go beyond the
facts and is a supposition incapable of proof. This kind of speculative reductionism is an
open invitation to circular argument and can give history a deservedly bad name among
scientists. Historians, like everyone else, do their cause no service by gross
What is now needed is a new generation of historians of science capable of following the
truth as dispassionately as their scientific colleagues believe themselves to be doing,
unafraid of where their inquiries may lead them. For the Christian, the use of history for
apologetic purposes is surely as legitimate as arguments based on anything else (nature,
aesthetics, moral imperatives etc.). But such history must be marked by honesty, integrity
painstaking attention to detail and a scrupulous regard for alternative interpretations.
Nothing else is worthy of the Lord of nature who is also Lord of history.
1Held on May 27, 1992, at the Science Museum, London.
2Brooke, J. H., Science and Religion: Some Historical
Perspectives, Cambridge University
3Cantor, G., Michael Faraday: Sandemanian and Scientist,
Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1991.
4Draper, J. W., History of the Conflict Between Religion and
Science, H. S. King, London,
5White, A. D., A History of the Warfare of Science with
Theology, Macmillan, London, 1896.
6A good recent example is Hakfoort, C., "Science Deified:
Wilhelm Ostwald's Energeticist
World-view and the History of Scientism," Annals of Science (1992), 49, 52544.
7Brooke (1991), p. 337.
8Brooke (1991), p. 321.
Reprinted with permission from Science & Christian Belief.
(1993) Vol 5. No 1. Slightly
revised for publication in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. Colin Russell was
President of Christians in Science when this essay was originally published as a guest
editorial in PSCF.