Tuesday, May 13, 2014

An excellent lecture on myths associated with history of science

by Salman Hameed

Two weeks ago I had a chance to visit Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Lovely campus with a lot of history. Unfortunately, I missed by a week a chance to a attend a wonderful history of science conference organized by Nicolaas Rupke. The conference in some ways is a follow-up to an excellent collection of essays titled Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about  Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and published by Harvard University Press in 2009. If you are interested in the topic of science and religion (and I'm assuming you are, since you are here on Irtiqa), then you should definitely own a copy of this book. The 'sequel', as Nicolaas Rupke calls it, was a conference titled Newton's Apple and Other Historical Myths about Science that took place last week at Washington & Lee University (you can download the pdf program of the conference here).

I'm sure that the resulting volume will be excellent as well. In the mean time, you can enjoy the keynote address by John L. Heilbron of the University of California, Berkeley. It takes on notion of myth and talks about not only scientific myths, but also those that are a part of the scholarship of history of science. This is an excellent talk, but it is too bad that there was no Q/A session afterwards, as I could see some spicy exchanges about some of the statements in the talk. Nevertheless, you should definitely check out discussion on science and religion about 15 minutes into the talk, where after discussing the gross historical misrepresentations of the topic, John Heilbron takes an interesting position that science and religion are (should?) always potentially at odds with each other, and he goes on to explain why he thinks that and why that might even be a good thing. He then provides some interesting examples of myths from history of science before spending a considerable amount of time on the myth associated search for the ultimate physical theory (Theory of Everything). Hold on. But myth is not simply a false story - and that is one of the points he wants to stress.

If you have an hour, this is a worthwhile lecture to listen to. Enjoy.


geopolicraticus said...

On the topic of recent views on the relation of science to religion, do you know the lectures by Lawrence M. Principe on Science and Religion from The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company)? I think Principe goes much too far in his revisionism, and I reject many of his conclusions, but the lectures are stimulating nevertheless.

I know that you know about The Great Courses since I found your blog by searching on the "vodka-hashish line" mentioned by Kenneth Harl in his lectures, and you wrote about this back in 2008. I'm happy to have found your blog and I will be returning here.

Best wishes,


Salman Hameed said...


Yes, I did listen to Principe's Great Courses lectures (both on the history of science, and on science and religion). I liked them both. Where do you think he goes too far? By the way, Principe was also at the conference at W&L last week.

I recently listened to Great Courses lectures on "Turning Points in Modern History" and "The Long 19th Century" - and both of those were terrific.

Thanks for your comment!

Nick Nielsen said...

Hi Salman,

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this topic but haven’t gotten to it yet, so I’ll try to briefly summarize my view on Principe’s approach.

Like many historians of science today, Principe wants to distance himself from what he calls the “warfare thesis” according to which science and religion are in conflict. He rightly points out that all of the scientists of the scientific revolution were deeply religious men. Therefore, religion and science are not in conflict and the warfare thesis is a social construction of the 19th century. This is where I think he goes too far.

Principe neglects a distinction that was crucial in the past, but which is almost absent in the modern world, and that is the distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. While it is true that all the scientists of the scientific revolution were religious, there were also highly heterodox, and many held views for which they could have been killed. Principe in his lectures speaks as though being religious were all that matters, but that’s not at all true. Prior to the twentieth century, the number of atheists was vanishingly small, but there were a great many heterodox believers.

Since you teach the History and Philosophy of Science & Religion you will of course be aware of the hysteria over deism in the eighteenth century and the Atheismustreit in the nineteenth century, and many similar events. There is also the long history (starting at least with Socrates) of calling heterodox believers atheists even when those believers went out of their way to try to prove their religiosity. In the absence of real atheists, heterodox believers were attacked either for their heterodoxy or for trumped up atheism.

In this kind of intellectual atmosphere, the concept of orthodoxy is crucial. Only orthodoxy was acceptable, and any deviation from orthodoxy was censured and often criminalized. Many of these non-orthodox but religious scientists suffered terribly at the hands of the orthodox. If an historian wants to deny that this is a war between science and religion, they can do so, and technically they are correct, but it would also be correct to say that there was a war between orthodoxy and science.

In contemporary western societies, the idea of orthodoxy has almost entirely vanished, and people only seem to care whether or not an individual makes a vague claim of religious faith (such as, for example, asserting that they are, “spiritual but not religious”), which at the time of the scientific revolution would have earned such an individual relentless religious persecution. But the near absence of the idea of orthodoxy in today’s society make’s Principe’s critique of the warfare thesis sound plausible.
That’s as brief as I can make it, and that’s written off the top of my head without re-listening to Principe’s lectures or citing my sources.

Best wishes,