International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Science and the Modern World

by Alfred North Whitehead

Introductory Essay by Leslie Kawamura

In this volume, Science and the Modern World, Alfred North Whitehead presents the contents of his eight Lowell Lectures delivered in February of 1925. He enhances his lecture with the addition of chapters on Mathematics as an Element in the History of Thought, Religion and Science, Abstraction, and God. Chapters VII (Relativity) and VIII (The Quantum Theory) are essentially two sub-divisions of one of the topics covered in his Lowell Lectures.  

In this book, Whitehead covers the development of science from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, which he considers to be the period during which science was born, nourished, and then gradually faced the challenge of religion. However, the challenge need not be understood as a stalemate nor an event of anathema. Rather, Whitehead believes that the clash is a sign that there are wider truths and finer perspectives within which a reconciliation of a deeper religion and a more subtle science can be found.

In the first two chapters, Whitehead devotes himself to a discussion on “…the antecedent conditions which prepared the soil for the scientific outburst of the seventeenth century” [39]. He highlights three major factors which are 1) the rise of mathematics, 2) the belief in the order of nature, and 3) unbridled rationalism of the thought of the later Middle Ages.    

From chapter III through chapter VI, he presents us with a panorama of the intellectual history of the interaction between philosophy/theology and science which have been understood to be at odds with each other. 

In chapter III (The Century of Genius), he discusses the geniuses of the seventeenth century who were responsible for the basic concept of a “mass” which was the foundation for what Whitehead calls “misplaced concreteness.” In chapter IV (The Eighteenth Century) he challenges the simple notion of matter which implicates location and consequently, time. In chapter V (The Romantic Reaction) we find a kind of “interlude” between his lively discussion of philosophy and science in which Whitehead reflects upon the “moral intuitions, which are presupposed in the concrete affairs of life..” that “… gradually assumed its true importance as the [later] centuries advanced” [80].

In chapter VI (The Nineteenth Century), Whitehead introduces technology as that which  is peculiar to that century, and among these technologies he states that the “greatest invention…was the invention of the method of invention” [96]. 

In chapters VII (Relativity) and VIII (The Quantum Theory), he shows that what, in earlier centuries, seemed nonsense has been later demonstrated as truth. This he attributes to the advancement of better instrument designs.

In chapters X (Abstraction) and XI (God), Whitehead deals with “metaphysics,” but before getting on with the subject, he cautions those who find metaphysics “irksome” to proceed at once to chapter XII.

In chapter XII, Religion and Science, he notes these to be in conflict with each other throughout history but shows that the clash of doctrines need not be a disaster but rather an opportunity for growth.

In his final chapter, Requisite for Social Progress, Whitehead emphasizes the importance of the appreciation of aesthetic values, the target of which is to produce great societies, not just great men, in which other nations of different habits are not seen as enemies, but as godsent.