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The Surprising Origins of Experimental Science: A Conversation with Peter Harrison, Part Two

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Peter Harrison is one of the leading scholars of science and religion. The former Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, he is Professor Emeritus at the University of Queensland and the Co-Director of our Meanings of Science Project. I have been a long-time admirer of Peter’s work, and my own work builds on his scholarship.

In this, the second-half of our conversation, we discuss the origins of experimental science, the connection between science and anthropology, and why we look to science for salvation. Read Part One.

The Cultural Status of Science


And so, to summarize the Meanings of Science Project—you and I are the directors—we’re working towards a more inclusive and rich image of science, one informed by the full complexity and breadth of science and its history.

And, of course, the nature of truth is a hard question. When you were answering, I thought of Bacon in his essay on Truth, where he writes: “‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” Of course, that’s a terribly hard question to ask anyone.

I will mention this, and I’d like to get your comment on it. I asked Lorraine Daston the same question in the interview about the history of science, and she gave a related answer that she thought it was relevant. And then I said, “Well, why do you think scientists ignore it?” And she said outright—and I was surprised, but also happy to hear this answer—she said, “Because it doesn’t give scientists the answer they want.”


Yeah, I think that’s right. Essentially, it’s not a scientific question, and it’s not part of scientific formation. It’s not helpful for the status of science and the image of science. What many scientists understandably want is some kind of vindicatory history, along the lines of the inevitable march of progress. Let me add a further, practical consideration here. I think another dimension of the problem is that the university curriculum is so crowded, and our educational systems so hyper-specialized, that there simply isn’t space in the scientific education for scientists to grapple with these kinds of questions. As I mentioned earlier, I studied science as an undergraduate. By the time I got to my third year, in the context of a subject on evolutionary biology, I was able to take an elective looking at evolution and ethics. And I was also fortunate in being able to take two history of science options in the program. It was partly this that sparked my interest in the history of science. But for undergraduates now, certainly in the institutions with which I’m familiar, it’d be very difficult to take such extra-curricula options. So the way in which we form scientists, and the structuring of scientific education, militate against the possibility that we’ve just discussed about scientists becoming more familiar with the history of their own discipline.

Now, to go back to the question about the status of science, we’re treading a very thin line here, because science skepticism is the other side of the story, and it’s a major problem: people who don’t accept the authority of science in the areas where science is the legitimate authority. And so, to be on the sidelines asking questions about whether science gives us access to truth has its limits; we’re not asking whether COVID-19 vaccines are effective, for example, or whether evolution is the best story we have about how we got to be here. That’s not what we’re about. But navigating these distinctions can be tricky. And to return to Lorraine Daston’s answer to the question: scientists would, I think understandably, be concerned when they see what could be attacks from humanities people who in their view have no understanding of the sciences—and they were just off on some weird relativistic trip. To be clear, that’s not what I’m about, and obviously that’s not what this project is about.

All of that said, there is something that’s incipiently relativizing about studying the history of a discipline like this, because you just see, over time, how all of these changes take place. And that’s entirely consistent with the view that science delivers us wonderful things and that it’s a great enterprise. But, as I say, studying how science actually works as a human enterprise—with fallible human actors—gives you a very different view of what’s going on. And I don’t think it would hurt if we could somehow incorporate elements of that into the education of all of our undergraduates, and the generally public, too, for that matter. That would be helpful.


Right, and as you suggest—and as others have suggested—it might make in a way science better. We know when we have good evidence; we have much stronger evidence in some areas, and that’s where science is an authority, and we need to show people that, but at the same time, if you just tell people, “well, science is infallible,” then any actual inquiry into science’s cultural context and history can actually produce science skepticism, almost as a reaction against what you could call an unconscious but quite dogmatically simplistic presentation.

So it seems like what you’re aiming for, and certainly what the project is aiming for, is a kind of maturity or complexity that enables more cooperation between natural scientists and historians and philosophers. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say—and this is what I was trying to gesture at in the introduction—your work is really quite revolutionary in the sense that if it’s accepted, it will and should lead to new pictures of the past and new pictures of what it is that we’re doing in the sciences. In particular, for example, maybe we could just touch on this one issue, because I think it’d be of great interest to people: we do take the current status of science for granted.

And since we’ve laid out the foundation for why scientists might want to care about their history, we can now raise this question. It has not been the case that historically humans have thought, “I’m going to do a bunch of experiments, assume that many of them won’t work, and then have this long-term vision of keeping on trying this until we get better answers.” This is a radically peculiar thing to happen, and your work argues that actually this has a great deal to do with Christianity. So, do you mind, if you don’t think it’s too off topic, giving people who are reading and listening a sense of where experimental science came from?

Like, why if science is so successful, in a way, when people start to realize it actually comes out of this matrix, I think that can help put flesh on the issues that we’re discussing. So, in your view, Peter—and I know you wrote a whole book on it—why do we do experimental science? Why did experimental science get off the ground, roughly speaking, in the seventeenth century in the Western European world? And why haven’t many other distinguished cultures of science—in China and in the Arabic world, for example—had this exact form?

The Importance of Experimental Science


Good question. I want to preface this by saying as everything in history, these things are overdetermined. So there are lots of causal factors. But for me the point is that experimental science—and this is not just the performing of experiments, but a whole approach of the sciences that was originally called ‘experimental natural philosophy’—is uniquely Western. And so the broad issue is, we’ve got science in various forms going on all over the place, but only in the West do we get this distinctive version of science. What this suggests is that there’s something about the cultural matrix of the West that’s given rise to this distinctive set of historical scientific practices. In order to provide some background, perhaps we should start with Aristotle—who on any account was the most influential scientist or natural philosopher who ever was, because his basic approach to nature dominated the scientific agenda in the West for a thousand years, which is astonishing, really. Indeed, arguably, it never completely went away and is being revived in various places. But that’s a whole other story.

Aristotle’s approach to nature was based on the fact that human minds are more or less attuned to how nature operates; their goal is to discover knowledge of nature. We naturally desire to know, he says, and further assumes that we can know in a more or less straightforward way. So we will naturally intuit what’s going on in the world simply by observing it under normal conditions. Aristotle’s conception of nature, moreover, assumes that it is to be observed in its normal, everyday operations. If you do something to nature, what you’re then observing is not natural at all. It’s ‘violent’, he would say, or it’s artificial. So the very idea of intervening in the natural world to discover things about it was completely paradoxical for Aristotle, because as soon as you change things, you’re no longer studying nature. You’re studying some set of conditions that you’ve artificially produced.

In the seventeenth century was witness a quite radical reversal of that commonsense view. Now the assumption becomes that by tinkering with and changing nature—stretching it beyond recognition you can actually discover more about it. This new assumption lies at the heart of experimentalism. How does this radical change happen? One factor is a renewed emphasis on the Christian idea of the fall. According to Genesis accounts Adam and Eve rebelled against God and as a consequence of this, their own cognitive capacities were limited; they were no longer the moral beings they once were, and crucially, no longer could they reliably intuit knowledge of the natural world. And at the same time, in the natural world, we now have animals eating each other and so on; plants were difficult to cultivate. In short not only was human beings weakened in their moral and intellectual capacities, but the natural world itself had changed. Human beings lost their dominion over nature, they lost the capacity for a natural knowledge of nature, and the world changed from its original pristine, transparent condition. In short, the natural affinity between human minds and the natural world was lost.

What followed from this perspective—which rose to prominence in the early modern period with new readings of the Genesis narratives—is that if we want to know about nature, we can’t just take for granted that it’s obvious and transparent to our minds. We can’t naturally intuit directly what’s going on. Nature itself, moreover, is not in its original ‘natural’ condition. Accordingly, we have to observe nature under specific conditions. An example of the different approaches would be this—Aristotle’s science is based on the idea of commonsense observations based on nature following its normal course. So a feather, if we drop it, takes a long time to reach the ground compared to a lead weight. That’s what we observe, and Aristotle would build a science around that. However, if you put the same two objects in a vacuum, they accelerate uniformly at exactly the same rate. But in order to see that, we have to create this set of artificial, experimental conditions. And there’s nothing in commonsense, observation-based Aristotelian science that would enable us to get at this idea of uniform rates of acceleration. So that’s part of the story. And there are a lot more aspects to it, too.

Crucially, the idea that a single human mind could intuit what’s going on is now off the cards, and what we now need on this new understanding of the inherent weakness of human minds, is science as a collaborative, corporate enterprise, where you have lots of people working away at tiny facets of large problems. And they need to do this for generations and generations. In order for that to happen, you can’t just have amateur philosophers out there, looking at the natural world and drawing generalizations from their observations. You need observations under special conditions and you also need somehow to make this an industry. And to industrialize it you’re going to need serious patronage or state support.

All of these notions—the idea of experimentation as interfering with nature, the idea of experimentation as making nature reveal secrets that it’s hiding, the notion of experimentation as a palliative for the limitations of human cognition, along with making this a corporate and cumulative enterprise—all of these are answers to a problem that arises in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, because Christian thinkers are going back to a very strong version of the Fall that they encounter in someone like Augustine—over against a medieval view that was much more sanguine about the prospects for human knowledge, partly because it was aligned with this Aristotelian approach. And so you get critiques of Aristotle by the Protestant reformers, for example; they say, “Aristotle knew nothing about the human fall, and had he been cognizant of that, he would have had a very different approach to the natural world.” And I think that’s exactly right, and that very different approach to the natural world—cutting a long story short—is to some extent the product of taking seriously the limitations of human cognition and the putative fallenness of the human world. Finally, a key theological justification for the pursuit of this knowledge is that is enables human beings to re-establish the dominion over nature that was lost as a consequence of the Fall. So that’s the once-over lightly version.


Those who are interested in more—and I’m going to ask a follow up—they can read The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, but I think this is so exciting. Maybe I can summarize part of what you’re saying, particularly for people interested in philosophy. This is even related to my own work. I’ve long thought there’s essentially what I would call a Lutheran metaphysical tradition.

There are very old Kant scholars at the beginning of the Kant-Studien era; one of them—maybe Adickes—wrote an article about it. But what you show—I think very strongly from my view—in the book and in what you’ve just said, is that what we think of today as critical epistemology, or epistemic humility, actually arises very specifically out of this exact framework you’re describing. It is very unusual.

But what you show is you need a different view of the world: that the world is somehow damaged, occluded, hiding, that our own faculties are hurt. And the result is: you get this whole set of questions, which you show, of course, can go in a Cartesian direction; people can answer them using, you could say, more traditional optimistic resources. But the questions themselves are quite revolutionary, and they produce what we think of as this totally secular enterprise of early modern philosophy, but you show, whether it’s Descartes or Locke or later Kant, the entire enterprise of asking, what actually is the power of the faculty that humans have to know anything?—that comes out of this assumption, which is connected to your prior book.

And there’s really a kind of an irony that Christianity—it’s not just Christianity, it’s rather the revival of Augustine, under the conditions of literal readings of Scripture, that leads to a far more literal version of the Fall than, arguably, even the Church Fathers had; they were still very Platonic in a way that many of the Reformers were not. And that then produces in that cultural context a deep-seated ongoing reflection on what is the actual power of human beings to know. I want to stress this for people reading: it is revolutionary. For people who know the history of philosophy, the history of modern philosophy is supposedly about epistemology.

But what you show very persuasively, in your remarks and in the book—and other scholars, I think, have known this—you point out Dilthey has a remark to this effect: it’s about anthropology, because the status of the human and the status of the human in nature itself are overshadowed by the question: how damaged are we?

People could interpret this as a negative view of human nature; instead of the Enlightenment story of science coming out of a confidence in human reason, it’s actually the opposite: science comes out of this deep-seated anxiety about the question, Can we know? And Bacon, Hooke, many of the founders of the Royal Society—they’re at the very forefront of this. They’re very Protestant. They’re very Augustinian.

This story changes how we conceptualize the emergence of science, not as a story of secular progress, per se, away from religion, but rather actually most of what we value even as secular people—being humble, reflecting on our limitations—this actually comes out of a profoundly religious engagement with a very literal reading and a sense of Scripture.

Why We Look to Science for Salvation


That’s a great summary. It’s obviously resources within the Christian tradition, but as you say it’s only at this point in history that they are manifested in this way. And so there must be a story about what’s different and distinctive about this. Christianity, obviously, is not just the same thing over and over again, and we get different versions of it. So the Protestant Reformation is a key part of this, and crucially it’s not just a kind of revolution in religious conceptions, but it’s a revolution that changes the whole of Europe and it changes its institutions and universities, and so on and so forth. Institutional change is going to be a key part of that.

But your point about the critical approach to epistemology, I think, is really key because again, in the famous first line of the Metaphysics, “Humans by nature desire to know.” For Aristotle—because nature does nothing in vain, another classic Aristotelian maxim—these desires will not be frustrated. And so human beings are natural knowledge-makers, and we have the whole package that’s necessary. It’s interesting that you get a slightly different version of this in Platonism with a parallel notion of a Fall that you see in [the Neoplatonic thinker] Plotinus: insofar as we’re material beings in a body, we have certain limitations. So there is a parallel conception there in Plato that, I think, is important.

But this conception of our limitations, then, becomes an acute issue following the Protestant Reformation. And there are a range of solutions, including experimental natural philosophy, as you’ve said. If you look closely at the philosophers, you will see it there too. It’s clear in Locke; on the very frontispiece of Locke’s famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding there’s a biblical quote about the limitations of human knowledge, and that’s clearly what Locke is interested in. Descartes—if we’re going to buy into this empiricist-rationalist distinction, which I think is somewhat problematic, but the truth to that distinction is that for the Cartesian tradition, there is an attempt to appeal to the integrity of the ‘natural light’, which is the original rational capacity that God had invested in human beings in their original state in the creation. So there’s a theological dispute about the extent of epistemic damage done as a consequence of the Fall, and the Protestants take a strong Calvinistic, Augustinian line that the whole of the human person has been corrupted as a consequence of the Fall. But in the Catholic tradition, there’s a slightly more optimistic type that says, “No, insofar as human beings are rational animals, our rationality cannot have been vitiated by the Fall; it must be to some extent intact.”

And so this is, I think, the truth of this distinction between empiricism and rationalism: the latter is a little bit more optimistic about what can be salvaged in the human person after the Fall. And this is why Descartes will consistently talk about appeals to the light of nature. The light of nature, for the medieval scholastics, was the rationality that was preserved—one of the gifts, as it were, that was not taken away as a consequence of the Fall. So different Christian anthropologies will yield slightly different epistemological approaches.

Thus, the marriage of the experimental and mathematical that we see in science is something of a cobbling together, an instance of the “anything goes” principle, because the underlying anthropologies are not quite consistent with each other. But, nonetheless, that’s the path you see: mathematical approaches particularly to astronomy, and experimental approaches to the more complicated things. If you look carefully at the philosophers, Malebranche is the one who, I think, is most explicit about how Augustinian anthropology is playing into his philosophy, and also helping us read Descartes in light of that; and as I say, on the other side, you’ve got John Locke. He’s very clear about human limitations, our present condition; and science is really the best we can do under these limited human conditions, but even then, the whole thing is very much a makeshift enterprise. Of course, eventually it becomes the only game in town. Then we forget these original, modest assessments of what science consists in and what it can help us accomplish. And what it can’t help us accomplish—someone like Locke is very clear on this—is some notion of moral perfection. And really, the whole aim of philosophy up until this point—and science as natural philosophy is part of it—is about, well, not moral perfection per se, but moral formation. And so science is a kind of second-best enterprise in that respect.

But the interesting historical story is, I think, how people have abandoned moral formation as the aim of the game and focused instead on practical utility, because that’s actually where we seem to be able to accomplish things. Clearly, we’ve cracked that problem. We have a set of methods for cranking out practical utility. We haven’t actually sorted out the moral question, and that falls by the wayside because, as the saying goes, to the person with the hammer, everything looks like a nail. We’ve got a terrific hammer in the methods of the sciences and that tends to lead us to construct all of the problems in the world in terms of the solutions that we can develop.


And in that sense, you could say morality is left behind alongside with truth. This is one of the things, I think, that is really remarkable about your work: there’s so many ironies. The more accurate historical origins of science ironizes and subverts the modern Enlightenment story that science tells about itself culturally. But it then renews an ability to do science. It’s not that you’re saying, just because this is the case, we need to believe in religion, but rather, science began in a way that’s very distinctive to the experimental sciences as a whole approach. It actually originated from a specifically Christian anthropology that was concerned with human sin, with human limitation; and there’s something quite salutary, I think, to that in a moment in which we’re as a culture trying to navigate both defending the integrity of science and its utility, while also trying to have a better sense, as you suggested, of its limitations.

Speaking of limitations, I’m aware of the limitations of time. I have so many more questions I’d like to ask you. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll ask you a short but hard one. Vittorio Hösle wrote a book called Wahrheit und Geschichte [Truth and History], and the first sentence is: “The history of philosophy is the greatest challenge to philosophy.” And summing up a lot of our conversation in one sense, it seems this is obviously true of science. At the same time, it seems like we could say the history of science is one of the great resources for science, and I think your work is a great resource for people who are interested in coming to a more culturally accurate view of science as power and its limitations. But insofar as the history of science may give us more access to truth than we might have thought historians can give us, would you agree—I’m going to put this as a claim—would you agree that the history of science more strongly supports the experimentalists’ critical program than the Cartesian rationalist program in the sense that, from the time of Descartes all the way to Immanuel Kant, this tradition of philosophy really is aiming at eternally valid, certain truth? And if it isn’t that, it’s not science, it’s not scientia, because their conception comes right out of Aristotle’s Organon, and really in a way out of Plato. Plato, I think, knew maybe better than his student that we are rarely going to get this truth.

But Descartes really thought, I’m restarting everything. Would you agree that the history of science itself has shown, as productive as it was, it’s really not quite right? History, in a sense, can weigh in now after 350 years on this debate, and actually say, “Of course, we need the math; of course, certainty inspired great epistemic searches, but it turns out humans are just a lot more limited than we thought in the early modern period. And knowledge is really, really hard,” which Descartes would have admitted to, but I think Descartes’ whole program fails, just as Kant’s does, if you take them on their own terms. They were convinced certainty was essential, and it just turns out people like Bacon, Hooke, and others thought this isn’t what we’re going to get.


Short answer: yes. Part of what we haven’t yet discussed is that there’s an eschatological dimension to this as well. This relates to the distinction between Augustine’s saeculum, which is the here and now, where we’re just kind of muddling along, and a future state, where we will have access to truth or the beatific vision or whatever. And so we can’t fully understand this story without grasping the crucial importance of the original idea of ‘the secular’ in an eschatological context, where the time to come is in some sense a mirror of our original created condition. So the desideratum of a redemption, a final culmination of all things, is certainly present in the origins of modern science and a really important part of the story. For the more modest experimentalists, the epistemic ideal of complete possession of the truth is postponed to the next world. But there are versions of secularization that seek to import into the secular time the conditions that had typically been postponed until the world to come.. Who is it who speaks of making the eschaton immanent—is it Voegelin? Yes. In this sense, our stories of the progress of science derive their plot-lines from a secularized Christian eschatology.

To some extent, I think you’re right to say that that the more optimistic anthropology correlates with the rationalist side of the equation. One very quick side-note. There’s a very interesting book by Robert Pasnau on the Aristotelian epistemic ideals, and what he suggests is that Aristotle was actually less optimistic than we tend to give him credit for. The conceptions of scientia and demonstrable certainty that Aristotle sets up as the markers for science were only ever to be understood as ideals, as opposed to things that could be actually realized in practice. I just throw that in as another interesting part of the whole story about our epistemic limitations.

But to come back to our main theme, the remarkable successes of science, which, ironically, as you’ve said, are premised on this very modest anthropology, actually occlude that fact about its origins; and they tend to make us think that science is going to solve all the problems. In the present, that overconfidence in science is just as dangerous as the science skepticism because people think science is going to solve, say, the climate crisis, when I don’t think it can. And it can’t because the climate crisis is not at root a scientific problem—it’s a cultural one.


Well, this is remarkable. Peter, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I’m going to. I’m sure everyone reading is going to have my reaction: boy, I want more of that! So we’d love to have a follow-up conversation sometime, where we could pursue this conversation and maybe put it into this broader eschatological context. But either way, I want to thank you so much for your extraordinary work in this really thrilling and enlightening conversation. I’m so grateful for your time and for everything that you’re doing to help us appreciate the value of science and its rich and extraordinary connection to history, philosophy, and religion.


Oh, thanks, Sam. A real pleasure to discuss these issues with you today.

This interview has been edited for clarity.


Peter Harrison is Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy at the University of Queensland, former Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion. He is the author of ten books, including The Territories of Science and Religion (winner of the 2016 Aldersgate Prize), and the Co-Director of Marginalia's Meanings of Science Project.

Samuel Loncar is a philosopher and writer, the Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, the creator of the Becoming Human Project, and the Director of the Meanings of Science Project at Marginalia. His work focuses on integrating separated spaces, including philosophy and poetry, science and religion, and the academic-public divide. Learn more about Samuel’s writing, speaking, and teaching at Tweets @samuelloncar


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