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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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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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