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The Paradigm Shift: A New Vision of Science and Religion with Peter Harrison

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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.

So I was thrilled to get the chance to sit down with Peter. We discussed how science relates to philosophy, religion, and history, the role of cultural imperialism in Western scholarship, and the huge question, what is truth? I began by summarizing my sense of Peter's work and its significance, and asking him about his intellectual journey. This is part one of our conversation.


Welcome, Peter. It is my privilege and honor to be working with you as the co-director of the Meanings of Science Project and Symposium, funded generously by the Templeton World Charity Foundation.

I’m really excited to interview you, and I want to share a brief summary of how I see your work for the people listening and watching this. I think it’s fair to say you’ve revolutionized three fields that, before your work, were thought of, as much more separate than you’ve shown them to be, and those are, broadly speaking: the history of theology, the history of modern philosophy, and the history of the natural sciences. You were decades ahead of what has now become a trend in religious studies when you wrote your first book, 'Religion' and the Religions in the English Enlightenment (Cambridge), on the emergence of the concept of religion, and I’d love to talk about this when we discuss your intellectual development. Then you wrote an extraordinary book, The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge), in which you engage the major historiographical theses about the origins of modern science and religion; and you really did challenge and modify many of them. In particular, you argued that there was a very profound connection between the way in which the Protestant Reformation changed how people read the Bible and then how they read the world. And that book is how I found your work, and I thought it was just an utterly extraordinary argument in terms of its significance. I learned so much from it.

And then you published a book of particular excitement for me personally, because I’ve always been interested in the fall—maybe like a heretic, as Augustine says—The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge), which we can discuss in detail, but it’s really an extraordinary book because you challenged the entire meta-story about the origins of science, and you tell a radically new story about the origins of experimental science.

So you started off working on the concept of religion; then you did very major work on the history of theology, textual interpretation, the Protestant Reformation, and the emergence of modern science; then you developed that work into The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science in a revolutionary reassessment—building on some existing work, of course—of the question “Where did experimental philosophy come from?” We now take experiments for granted, but one of the things you show in the book is that experimental science is a radically novel thing. And so it raises deep questions about why anyone would have done this, and what their reasons were, and you show, I think very persuasively, the reasons were theological, and they had a lot to do with the revival of Augustine in Protestantism.

And then, as I chart the trajectory of your work, you brought together the insights of your entire career and advanced them in your book The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago). The first three books were published by Cambridge, and this book was published by the University of Chicago in 2015, and it was based on your Gifford lectures. In it, you have advanced a point that no one who’s in the field of science and religion can turn back from: that is, you show that the entire field of science and religion, productive and interesting as it is, is in a very deep sense a kind of anachronism, especially if we don’t recognize that the categories of “science” and “religion” are themselves much more recent than anyone has ever realized. And, of course, that book builds on your earlier work on religion and on the prior two books on science.

I know you’re also working on a major project on secularization. I could not be more delighted and honored to speak to you, and in light of this incredible body of work, and in light of the fact that we’re both YDS alums, I would love to hear how you got into this extraordinary program of research. What led you into your first academic interests? You obviously have a command of the history of modern philosophy, theology, and science. But did you start off with those interests? How did you get into this work?


Well, thanks for that very generous introduction. I’m glad to know that you’ve appreciated my work.

As with any historical story, there are a lot of contingencies involved in how I got to where I am, and to some extent, I feel really fortunate that the things I’ve worked on over the years just seemed to fall into place in terms of ways of relating to each other. But if I go back, my initial undergraduate training was in the natural sciences. I studied the biological sciences mostly, although since I was destined for a teaching career, I had to gain some basic competence in chemistry and physics. So I was initially interested in the sciences. For several years after graduation I taught science and mathematics at secondary school, which I really enjoyed, but always retained an interest in the broader issues about what science is, what it means, how we arrived at it. And so I eventually went back to university and did a part-time undergraduate degree in arts—mostly religious studies. And at that point, I also had some theological interests, so I wrote a small thesis on the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. Barth has some interesting things to say about the concept of religion. In the field of Religious Studies there was already some discussion about the concept of religion, but there was also a matching discussion going on in theology, largely under the influence of Barth, who was very critical of certain conceptions of religion. So my early interest in the conception of religion came then, with science still in the background.

And so, after my PhD—there was an interlude at Yale, as you’ve mentioned, where I studied philosophy and religious studies with Hans Frei, who’d worked on the history of the interpretation of the Bible and was important for my intellectual formation. That was another part of the story. But I went back to the University of Queensland and completed my PhD on the concept of religion, and that then became my first book. In essence, I claim that religion is not something that the religious traditions themselves buy into as a concept, but is the invention of the early modern period, and that in turn affects the way we understand religious beliefs and practices under the banner of this notion ‘religion’. And as for science, as I say, it was always there in the background, and my sense about science was that, once you look back at the history, it’s clear that the natural sciences, up until the nineteenth century, were permeated with theological and philosophical conceptions. And the same is true for the history of philosophy; although you wouldn’t know it to read many contemporary histories of philosophy, philosophy is deeply theological. And so, there were these missing components to the history of philosophy and the history of science and I thought, as someone who was interested in religious ideas, that I could actually bring these to the history and put them back in where they belonged.

In addition to that kind of approach, it’s become increasingly clear to me that the modern categories that we use to interpret the past, categories like 'science’ and ‘religion’—or some of the categories I’m working on now, like ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’—are often just granted as givens in our intellectual culture, as if they’re written into the structure of the universe. But once we attend to their history, what we see is that a number of these concepts are historically idiosyncratic, very unusual—not only in relation to our own past, but in relation to other cultures too. And what that means is that when we assume them to be natural and we look back to the past and read them into the past, we get a completely distorted idea of what the historical actors themselves imagined themselves to be doing. In order to gain insights into how history actually functioned, we need to think ourselves back into the thought worlds of these earlier people, and this means disabusing ourselves of the idea that the present repertoire of analytic concepts that we operate with are somehow universally valid, when in fact they’re often the contingent products of a long historical process. So telling that kind of genealogical story about how we got these concepts is also part of my general approach to these sorts of questions.

Relativism vs Humility in the History of Science


I have the same interests, and I think you would agree that, in a way, what you’re saying can seem straightforward, because every historian would of course say, “Yes, put the historical period you’re studying into its historical context.” However, once you actually do that with concepts, it really begins to challenge the entire structure of the academy. And so—I’m curious about this—would you call yourself a historicist?

I know the term is contested, and we don’t have to get into that unless you want to, but from my standpoint, that’s part of what distinguishes your work. I see you as radically historicist, but somehow not in a way that ever makes the reader think you would be a relativist. However, you seem to me to practice the historical methods scientifically by just taking seriously what we know: these concepts are contingent; they’re not universal; we have to localize them. So how do you see your own identity in that practice vis-à-vis the broader academy?—and the ways in which, even though it is in a sense obvious, it’s also very challenging to contemporary colleagues in many fields?


I’m not overly concerned with labels. To be honest, I find it hard to locate myself. I don’t know whether I’m a historian or a philosopher or a historian of philosophy or whatever. I tend not to worry about that. In terms of method, I’m a bit of a fan of Paul Feyerabend, and he said, in the context of the history of science, that when you look at how scientists actually operate, “anything goes.” While this caused a bit of an uproar at the time, all he meant was that in practice good scientists don’t slavishly adhere to specific methodological protocols, but reach for whatever methods will get the job done. And to some extent, I use whatever tools are to hand to attempt to understand the past. That’s the broad picture.

In terms of relation to the academy—look, the issue that you’ve raised is a really interesting one, because, on some level, if you want to persuade people within the contemporary academy, you’ve got to maintain connections or common points of contact. So you’ve got to do a work of translation in relation to the categories that you’re seeking to question. You can’t throw them all up in the air because you cease then to have any common language with which to engage the academic community. And I do think it’s important to engage both the academic community and the public, if you can, although that’s a challenge.

The relativism question is really central, because, whereas I’ve said these modern categories that we use in the academy as analytic categories systematically distort the past and we should get rid of them, it doesn’t follow from that necessarily that everything is up for grabs and there are no fundamentals underlying them. The position I’m coming to is to look at how idiosyncratic the modern range of conceptions is—and this relates to the secularization thesis—in relation to our present tendency to default to a secular or naturalistic understanding of the world. If you compare this to other periods of history, and to other cultures, this approach is the radical exception.

So my point would be not that it’s cultural relativism all the way down, but rather that the one culture that we need to think seriously about relativizing, in relation to some of its dominant conceptions, is our own at this moment in history. But I don’t think it necessarily follows from that that we need therefore to buy into a thoroughgoing relativism. There are what appear to be broad cultural constants, historically and cross-culturally. That’s a very ambitious claim to make, but that’s my deep sense. For much of our own Western history, thinkers would speak of a consensus gentium, which is very foreign to the present ethos.


So, it’s not relativism, but rather a form of humility, a suspicion of Western imperialism, that arises from your work. It doesn’t suggest that everything’s up for grabs, but rather that we need to relativize our own culture and our own assumptions about the ways in which we should generalize Western modern academic categories. They are not intentionally, but ultimately, arrogant and actually unscientific, in the sense of mistaken. We need to figure out how to do scholarship without assuming that the tools we’re using are good for every period. Is that a fair summary?


Yeah, I think that is a fair summary, and if I can add to that—and again the work I’m presently doing is making this clear—what I think we have in the modern West is a combination of two things. We have this set of categories that we tend to think is universal, but that’s underpinned by a historical thesis of progress that sees the West, either implicitly or explicitly, as the pinnacle of human achievement. And that underlying assumption, which starts from the Enlightenment and builds through the nineteenth century, underpins most of our academic enterprises.

So there’s a kind of imperialistic assumption about the superiority of the intellectual apparatus that we’re operating with. And that’s mistakenly thought to be completely consistent with, at some level, an appreciation of the importance of other cultures and traditions. But if we take a long historical perspective, and set aside the parochial assumption of our present intellectual superiority, we can start to see just how contingent our approach is and come to understand that our assumptions about its universal applicability arise out of a set of prejudices about progress.

This leads to the conclusion that the conception of instrumental rationality epitomized by secular Western culture is a major historical and cultural outlier. And there are a whole range of broad historical theses from philosophers like Kant and Hegel, along with certain anthropological theories, all of which are manifestations of this assumption that there’s something quite specific and unique about the West’s historical trajectory which elevates our present time and place above all others.

The Value of History for Science


That then leads on naturally to a set of questions about what we call science itself. So you have established this, and it’s well known in the field, but for those readers who are learning this for the first time: science as a word in English is very new, coined in the mid-nineteenth century, maybe not becoming dominant until even the early twentieth. Historically, it’s part of natural philosophy, and natural philosophy is broadly part of philosophy, just as theology is part of philosophy, and therefore this very deep connection that you mentioned was part of your early work. So, in terms of science and its own history—I’ll ask two questions.

The first is: do you think the practice of the natural sciences should attend to its history? And if you do, why do you think it doesn’t?


It’s a great question whether the practice of the modern sciences should be informed by its history. I think if we are to understand the cultural significance of science—and, crucially, its limits—we must attend to its history. By the same token, as a set of practices devoted to particular goals, I would say that the modern sciences are more-or-less fine as they are. They are what they are, and at some level, they deliver remarkable things. There is thus a connection between science and technology (although this is not always as straightforward as is commonly assumed). But the contributions that the natural sciences have made to the improvement of our material welfare are unquestionable, and there is something very special about modern science. Moreover, to go back to the previous point: notions of human progress and the idea that West represents the epitome of progress are almost invariably linked to the sciences and the conception of progress that we imagine the sciences to embody. And to that extent, I think, for scientists to be attending to their history would be useful, but it wouldn’t necessarily impact on the specific practices of science. I don’t want to be seen here as a critic of the modern sciences.

But in ideological terms, one of the consequences of the success of the sciences is that we have a particular model of what progress and success consist in. And that’s understood in material terms and in terms of certain aspects of human welfare. But that ‘success’ often leads to the mistaken conclusion that science is a model for accessing truth in some wider sense, and I don’t think the sciences do that. That might sound like a big claim. But it’s really crucial to tease apart the utility of the sciences and the incredible advances they have made in certain areas, from more fundamental question about the nature of reality.

What attending to the history of the sciences would establish, I think, is in part that there is this huge gap between the utility of the sciences and the notion of the sciences as somehow pointing us in the direction of some ultimate truth about the world. Even at a very superficial level, the history of science points to the fact that scientific progress does not necessarily entail arriving at a more accurate picture of what the world is really like. This is the story that Thomas Kuhn told, I think, extremely well, certainly in relation to some aspects of the sciences: scientific revolutions yield different pictures of the world, but it’s not clear that the succession of different pictures of the world are homing in on a more refined version of reality, even if they enable better technologies or other material advances. They’re often different versions of reality, rather than subtle modifications of what came before. So, I answered the first question.


You answered both! As to whether the sciences should attend to their history, as you’ve indicated, it’s complicated: they’re fine as they are. But in another sense, if they want to understand their significance, they really ought to.

And then what you said just now, Peter, is very significant, and I think it would be controversial to many, so if you don’t mind, let’s dig into it.

The main defense of the natural sciences is indeed their utility, and you point out that the utility of science is undeniable; however, then you say, this is very different from the idea that they’re giving us access to a truthful description of the world. However, that is—I think you would agree—the perspective of most practicing natural scientists, not someone, for example, like Tom McLeish, whom I mentioned I just talked to. He’s very aware of this, because he knows the history of science in a way that is exceptional for practicing natural scientists today. He himself said, when we discussed this—and he said in some of his books—the history of science in many ways is the history of error, but ideally it’s productive error. He agrees at least on that level with someone like Karl Popper.

So, if it’s not getting us truth, but scientists think it’s getting at truth, what is its epistemic utility? Or how do we get truth if it’s not through science, this one institution or set of practices that culturally is the great truth-giving enterprise and that our culture, in many ways, accepts as the only great truth-giving enterprise?


I should perhaps go back to the question about the extent to which the history of science is relevant to the practice of science, and perhaps I dismissed too quickly why the history of science might be relevant. I think why the history of science is relevant is that if practicing scientists are aware of how scientific change takes place—what Kuhn referred to as these paradigmatic revolutions (though there are all sorts of problems with that concept)—what this may enable them to do as practicing scientists is to see—to put it again in Kuhnian language—where anomalies keep cropping up in what we might call normal science.

If you take contemporary physics, for example—from my perspective, as an outsider—there are clear problems with it: it just doesn’t all fit together. Now, one approach, the approach of normal science, would be to keep plugging away at the standard model as it were, and keep bolting on bits and pieces that attempt to fix up these anomalies. But what the history of science suggests is that the reason there are all these anomalies in the first place is that the fundamental theory is mistaken. And in maybe 100 or 200 years’ time, there’ll be another paradigm that will account for at least some of these anomalies, but will eventually encounter difficulties of its own and be subject to change. So familiarity with the history of science may help practicing scientists realize when the current model is really exhausted, in spite of all of the practical spinoffs. We’ve seen wrong theories in the past give us technologies and practical spinoffs; and that’s again the danger of conflating utility with truth.

So there is something, I think, for practicing scientists to learn about the history in terms of the potential for new paradigms or models and when working away and bolting on ad hoc epicycles to an existing model is no longer going to do the job. Very often those sorts of pushes come as a result of reflection on philosophical conceptions, and I think that was the case, certainly, for the generation of physicists who introduced the new physics at the turn of the twentieth century. So that’s a clarification on the previous question.

Now, to get back to this question of truth and utility—it’s worth saying just a little bit more about this. Here’s a good example of the difference between truth and utility. If you want to navigate the London Underground, you use the tube map, right? Wonderful thing, ingeniously designed, and a terrific way of getting around underground. But that tube map is a very poor depiction of the actual geographical territory that’s being covered. It would be hopeless above-ground, for example. No one thinks that the tube map provides an accurate representation of the geography of London (although it’s not completely divorced from it). But you use it because it’s a great way of navigating the system. The same is true for our scientific theories: they give us a terrific way of doing things and getting places, but the mistake is to think of them as providing an accurate picture of reality. To put it another way, the assumption of the omnicompetence of the sciences is fine if (with apologies to Plato) you’re happy to spend your whole life in the underground.

And so, to come back to your question: this is Pilate’s question: “What is truth?” I’m not going to answer that for you right now in this interview. What I can say is this: once we understand that science is not the sole method for generating reliable knowledge, and it’s certainly not the sole method of arriving at truth, we’re at least part of the way there. I think that is one modest step in the right direction.

Philosophy has always attempted to answer these questions, and religion has attempted to answer these questions. And I think there are certain insights we get from philosophy and theology that we don’t get from the sciences that are actually important. But because science is occupying all the epistemic space, it’s not possible for these now marginal enterprises to get the kind of airplay that they should have.


Peter, I think this is so helpful, and it’s profound. What we’re discussing and what you’re addressing—in a way, I think, that’s going to be very helpful for many people, particularly people who have struggled with these issues or will if they begin to study them—is at the heart of what we’re trying to do together in the in the Meanings of Science Project. Of course, all of us involved are deep admirers of the incredible success of the natural sciences. No one involved in this project is in any way critical or anti-scientific; in fact, we are combatting science skepticism.

However, we all share a concern about the way in which science is represented, where it can be portrayed simplistically, rather than as the rich and deeply human enterprise that Philip Ball, for example, emphasizes it is.

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.

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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