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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

The Role of the Individual in Science and Religion

Lady Hope (1842 – 1922)[1] in 1915 published a claim that Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) on his death bed had recanted his views on evolution and God. This story published thirty-three years after Darwin’s death was strongly denied by his family but has made the rounds of various creationist publications and web sites to this day. Now my question is: Why would anyone care? It may be of interest to historians but nothing Darwin wrote, said, or did has any consequences for evolution today. The theory itself and the evidence supporting it have moved far beyond Darwin. But this story does serve to highlight the different role of individuals in science as compared to religion or even philosophy.

I have always considered it strange that philosophy places such importance on reading the works of long dead people—Aristotle, Descartes, etc. In science, Newton’s ideas trumped those of both Aristotle and Descartes, yet very few scientists today read Newton’s works. His ideas have been taken, clarified, reworked, and simplified. The same thing applies to the scientific writings of other great and long dead scientists. Nothing is gained by going to the older sources. Science advances and the older writings lose their pedagogical value. This is because in science, the ultimate authority is not a person, but observation.

A given person may play an important role but there is always someone else close on his heels. Natural selection was first suggested, not by Darwin, but by Patrick Matthew (1790 – 1874) in 1831 and perhaps by others even earlier. Alfred Russell Wallace’s (1823 – 1913) and Darwin’s works were presented together to the Linnean Society in July 1858[2].  And so it goes: Henri Poincaré (1854 – 1912) and Hendrik Lorentz (1853 – 1928) were nipping at Einstein’s heels when he published his work on special relativity.  Someone gets priority, but it is observation that ultimately should be given the credit for new models.

When the ultimate role of observation is forgotten, science stagnates. Take, for example, British physics after Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727). It fell behind the progress on the continent because the British physicists were too enamoured of Newton. But the most egregious example is Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC). The adoration of Aristotle delayed the development of knowledge for close to two millennia.  Galileo and his critic, Fortunio Liceti (1577 – 1657), disputed about which was the better Aristotelian, as if this was the crucial issue. Even today, post-docs all too frequently worry about what the supervisor means rather than thinking for themselves: But he is a great man, so his remark must be significant[3]. Actually he puts on his pants on one leg at a time like anyone else.

Then there is the related problem of rejecting results due to their origins, or the associated ideology. The most notorious example is the Nazi rejection of non-Aryan science; for example, relativity because Einstein was a Jew. One sees a similar thing in politics where ideas are rejected as being socialist, fascist, atheist, Islamic, Christian, or un-American thus avoiding the real issues of the validity of the idea: Darwinism[4] is atheistic hence it must be condemned. Yeah?  And your mother wears army boots.

In science, people are considered great because of the greatness of the models they develop or the experimental results they obtained. In religion, it is the other way around. Religions are considered great based on the greatness of their founder. Jesus Christ is central to Christianity: and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain (1 Corinthians 15:14). Islam is based on the idea: There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his prophet. Many other major religions (or philosophies of life) are founded on one person: Moses (Judaism), Buddha (Buddhism), Confucius (Confucianism), Lao Tzu (Taoism), Guru Nanak (Sikhism), Zoroaster (Zoroastrianism), Bahá’u’lláh (Bahá’í Faith) and Joseph Smith (Mormonism).  Even at an operational level, certain people have an elevated position and are considered authorities: for example, the Pope in the Catholic Church, or the Grand Ayatollahs in Shi’ite Islam. Because of the basic difference between science and religion, an attack on a founder of a religion is an attack on its core, while an attack on a scientist is an irrelevancy. If Joseph Smith (1805 – 1844) was a fraud, then Mormonism collapses. Yet nothing in evolution depends on Darwin, nor anything in classical mechanics on Newton. But we can understand the upset of the Islamic community when Mohammad is denigrated: it is an attack on their whole religious framework which depends on Mohammad’s unique role.

The difference in the role of the individual in science and religion is due to their different epistemologies. In science, everything is public—both the observations and the models built on them. In contradistinction, the inspiration or revelation of religion is inherently private, a point noted by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274). You too can check Einstein’s calculations or Eddington’s experiment; you do not have to rely on either Einstein or Eddington. Now it may take years of work and a lot of money, but in principle it can be done. But you cannot similarly check the claims of Jesus’s divinity, even with years of study, but must take it on faith or as the result of private revelation.

Unlike in science, in religion, old is better than new. If a physical manuscript of St. Paul’s writing dating from the first century were discovered, it would have a profound effect on Christianity. But a whole suitcase of newly discover works in Newton’s or Darwin’s handwriting would have no effect on the progress of science. This is because religion is based on following the teachings of the inspired leader, while science is based on observation.

Additional posts in this series will appear most Friday afternoons at 3:30 pm Vancouver time. To receive a reminder follow me on Twitter: @musquod.

[1] Otherwise known as Elizabeth Reid nee Cotton

[2] The president of the Linnean Society remarked in May 1859 that the year had not been marked by any revolutionary discoveries.

[3] I have heard that very comment.

[4] Note also the attempt to associate evolution with one person.


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  • Tinithraviel

    Some years ago there was this cartoonist that drew muhammad and there wer a lot of protests, attacks on cartoonist, even some people died. Now, I come from a muslim family and most of my friends are muslim. Still i never understood why people reacted this much. I mean if you are a muslim and some poeple insulted your prophet to your face, you might feel offended since insult is probably aimed at you but in the end whatever this cartoonist might have drew, it changes absolutely nothing. If you believe muhammad is a great guy he is still a great guy whatever some unrealated guy says. I always found it curious about it. Your post clarifies quite a lot about why people reacted this way. After all if muhammad is gone then there is no islam.
    Great post!

  • Kea

    When the ultimate role of observation is forgotten, science stagnates. Pretty much sums it up.

  • One of the key differences between Science & Religion is that: in Science people are encouraged to challenge other people’s understanding of science – but in Religion, people often get upset if you challenge their beliefs!

    Another difference: the validity of Evolution does not depend on any proof of the existence of Darwin – there is no need to believe in Darwin to accept the value of Evolution. Contrast that with Christianity that demands people believe in Christ, because their religion depends on the existence of the Biblical figure of Christ – yet there is no valid proof of his existence!

    Yet Creationists attempt to portray Science as a Religion!

  • Kea

    In Science people are encouraged to challenge other people’s understanding of science …


  • David Lau

    Science is man discovered while religion is man made.

  • Wow, what a great response to the cartoonist. I feel much the same way about a lot of things – it just isn’t worth the effort to get to excited. If it is truth, it will stand, if not – then that too will stand.

  • One of the reasons I like to read, and learn, from dead poets, philosophers, and scientists, is because even if their theories, or writings have been proven to be immature, false, or skewed, I can learn from their thought processes, methods, creative intent, and perspective.

    For me, it is like sitting in their class, probing their mind. But at some point, the student becomes the master.

  • Maybe that’s the problem.

    Maybe women would do a better job


  • I can imagine a post apocalyptic world where the science of evolution is remembered only in pieces blended and indistinguishable from the scientists who where best known for it.

    Darwin would be written in as God. (“In the beginning Darwin discovered the heavens and the earth….”)

    Dawkins would be Jesus.

    Anyone who spoke against any of it would be a heathen.

    And nobody would actually understand what any of it was about.

    People seem to be stuck in the belief thing.

    It would be a better world i am very sure if there was no belief – only experience.

    Perhaps we can isolate any genes involved in belief and have them sequenced out. They do so much damage after all. We’d be way way better without them.

    But i guess then we would not be humans.


  • Cameron

    This is a good elaboration of Hawking’s remark “Science will win, because it works”. I love these weekly blog posts on the philosophy of science, always a great read.

    I wish I could post/quote parts of this as a facebook status without people thinking how arrogant and disrespectful I am.

    I find two main problems with my facebook ‘friends’:
    1. They think religion doesn’t do any harm as they’re imaging the image of an 87 year old widow attending church every Sunday
    2. They are bored by and completely disinterested in science as all their science comes from the media or year 12 physics class. You could show them the most fascinating picture of a neubla or the summary findings of Richard Lenski’s E. coli experiment or a photo of the ATLAS detector at CERN or a video of a CME on HelioViewer and none of them would bat an eye.

    They spend their lives searching for wonder, excitement, understanding and meaning; not realising all of it is pretty easily accessible in science. No wonder people are depressed when all they do is flick between The Kardashians and the 6 o clock news.

  • I am currently exploring the hypothesis that a bridge between science and religion can be built by the development of a humanist approach to theology, and by the treatment of the bible as a source-document for an evolutionary analysis, along with subsequent religious publications.

    The existence of God becomes more real in proportion as the concept is shared by many people, and influences their behaviour. The immortality of Jesus is in the persistence of his teachings, the ‘resurrection’ being metaphoric.

    We owe to Islam the window into Greek science which fuelled the Renaissance. Critical analysis of the religious process needs to adopt a Humanist label, and to distance itself from ‘atheism’. Thus the existence of God is ‘virtual’ in the IT sense, or in a mode analogous to the existence of ‘credit’ in the financial world.