International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science

by Peter Harrison

Introductory Essay by Matthew Day

The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science is a model of what probing intelligence, historical curiosity and impeccable scholarship can accomplish. Rather than congratulating early modern science for its advocacy of Baconian experimentalism, Harrison sets out to explain why so many were ready to believe that thinking small represented a step forward. After all, there were lots of people who “expressed considerable impatience with the mass of observations and experiments demanded by the Baconian regime, and were disappointed by the modesty of the conclusions drawn from them” (242). On his account, the shift in natural philosophical ambition was an unforeseen consequence of the Reformation’s turn towards the bleak Augustinian portrait of our post-lapsarian condition.

Martin Luther observed in his Lectures on Genesis that after Adam, “the will is impaired, the intellect depraved, and the reason entirely corrupt and altogether changed.” Harrrison argues that this breed of epistemic despair represents a kind of felix culpa in the history of science. Protestant suspicions about our cognitive faculties mark, “the starting point for the methodological discussions of the early modern period and was particularly important in the development of what became known as the experimental philosophy” (87-8). Indeed, he suggests that it was only because of this pessimistic assessment of the mind’s tendencies that natural philosophers worried about a productive “method” of inquiry in the first place. The Fall of Man thus makes the case that Augustinian theological anthropology was midwife to early modern science. Or, as Harrison makes the point, “what ultimately drives experimentalism and its relatively modest vision of what can be achieved in the realm of natural philosophy is not a particular portrait of God and how he makes his decisions, but rather a view of human nature” (220).

By the time Isaac Newton appeared on the scene, much of the distinctively theological force behind these epistemic issues had been eclipsed. Figures such as Robert Boyle and John Locke had elaborated the specifically Augustinian portrait of crooked post-lapsarian reason into a generalized vision of a mind constrained by natural limitations. In fact, Harrison sees Newton standing at a defining moment: the point where the previous interest in original sin and its consequences was eclipsed by a physico-theological concern with “design” in the natural world. From Newton on, we are told, the “religious legitimacy of new forms of knowledge increasingly came to rest on their capacity to deliver a robustly theistic view of the natural world, rather than whether their methods accorded with a quite specific conception of human nature” (241).

When we pair The Fall of Man with its predecessor—the equally impressive The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science—the ambition of Harrison’s project comes into focus. By unraveling the historical conditions that made the curious emergence of “science” possible, Harrison is offering us nothing less than a genealogy of modern empiricism.