International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Science in Theistic Contexts: Cognitive Dimensions: v. 16 (Osiris)

edited by John Hedley Brooke , Margaret J. Osler , Jitse M. van der Meer

Introductory Essay by Geoffrey Cantor

This collection of sixteen papers, many of which were first presented at a conference in Canada in 1998, addresses the important question of how religion influences theorizing in the sciences. The contributors thus examine both the ways in which the religious commitments of scientists shape the construction and evaluation of scientific theories and how religious beliefs enter scientific theorizing as presuppositions, constraints or guiding principles.

The volume opens with two sophisticated introductory essays that enable the reader to appreciate the nature of religious belief and the routes by which such beliefs can enter science. In the first, John Hedley Brooke offers an informative overview of how religion can effect the conceptual content of science, but he also pinpoints the difficulties involved in demonstrating such influences. He argues that although religion sometimes enters science directly, religious beliefs often exert a more subtle influence by entering the scientist’s worldview and becoming framed as metaphysical principles (such as the conservation of matter) which, in turn, govern the content of specific theories. While focusing on such cognitive interrelations Brooke also examines the role of social practices in both religion and science demonstrating that such practices can sometimes be closely interrelated.

In the second introductory essay the philosopher Stephen J. Wykstra addresses the question of whether and how religious beliefs can be distinguished from metaphysical or scientific beliefs. His answer is that we cannot make this distinction merely by looking at what is being claimed; rather we should examine the motivation of the person – often the scientist – making the claim. Thus we may determine that a specific belief is religious because it is intimately related to the scientist’s overall religious commitments. Wykstra therefore champions a rich contextualist approach in helping us understand how scientists engage religious themes.

Wykstra’s prescription of examining carefully and in context how religion enters scientific theorising is exemplified in the case studies that constitute the remainder of this volume. Following a chapter on the religious assumptions underlying Islamic astronomy, several of these studies focus on seventeenth century figures, including David Gans (a German Jew living in Prague), Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, and Newton – including an incisive analysis of the theological underpinnings of the General Scholium that Newton added to the second edition of his Principia (1713).

The remaining chapters address science in the nineteenth century, principally by examining the role of religion in shaping attitudes to the theory of evolution. Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace each receive separate chapters, as do responses by the Quaker community and by neo-Darwinians, including the Oxford theologian Aubrey Moore. Other chapters address the debates over extraterrestrial life, the role of religious and antireligious views in constructing theories about the emotions, and the arguments between religious and secular Victorians. In the light of the issues raised by this last topic, it is disappointing that the volume does not include any studies of the role of religion in twentieth-century science.