Monday, September 21, 2009

John L. Heilbron on Contingency in Science and Religion

John L. Heilbron
(Image from You Tube)

Back in 2005, John Heilbron sent me a copy of his article on Jean-André Deluc (1727-1817), "Jean-André Deluc: Citoyen de Genève and Philosopher to the Queen of England," Arch. Sci. Soc. Phys. Hist. Nat. Gen. 58, 75–92 (2005). Here's how John introduces the hero:
The paper begins (§1) with Deluc's liberal politics and exact science in Geneva, proceeds to his move to England (§2), outlines his application of geology to Genesis (§3), and ends with his attempt to unify his Calvinist religion, descriptive science, and increasingly reactionary politics into a program for the salvation of Europe (§4).
John has long maintained an active interest in the relations between science and religion, and given the ironic turn of his mind, he has noted the way in which science's historical development has been both resisted and assisted by religion -- despite the wholesale hostility claimed between science and religion by such earlier historians of science as John William Draper (A History of the Conflict between Religion and Science) and Andrew Dickson White (A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom).

After reading John's paper, I sent back to him my impression of the ironic lesson to be learned from Deluc's role as learned scientist and as Protestant advocate:
Would . . . [the case of Deluc] support the old warfare school in the history of science, or weigh against it? Deluc would seem an exemplar of one who saw no conflict between correct science and true religion, yet he was fighting those who used science against religion, and his own contribution of precision in measurement seems to have led, eventually, to the rejection of a young age for the continents . . . and thus of the earth.
John thought that this was "Exactly right." I added:
I remember once that you asked me what was wrong with too much of an emphasis upon the errors of a man like Decartes, which I was somewhat guilty of at the time that we were discussing the Cartesian system -- more broadly, why we should avoid Whig interpretations on the history of science. I replied: "Because we don't know where we're going." You seemed satisfied with my reply (one of the few occasions).
Again, John expressed perfect agreement:
Exactly right again. My current circumstances (living in a village of 175 people and a pub in remote Oxfordshire) though not as exotic as yours are still not what I would have expected when we had our conversation about Descartes.
There is a contingency to life that can serve to inspire both hopeful enthusiasm and dreadful anxiety -- if one is susceptible to intense emotions -- but applied to the study of history, whether of liberal politics in England after the 17th century or of science in the West since the scientific revolution, that same contingency ought to render us humbler in judging the 'mistakes' made by our predecessors in what might be called "intellectual history" and more open to the unexpected in looking at the vexed issue of science and religion in historical development.

By the way, I've located a couple more presentations by John -- both on history and science, and both providing a big picture -- in two Hitchcock Lectures at UC Berkeley: "Physics and History: Forged in the Baroque" and "Physics and History: Fractured in Modernity."

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At 4:53 AM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

Hi Jeffery,

How would you characterize what Dr. Heilbron meant for us to avoid when he said we should avoid "whig interpretations" of scientific history? The mocking of errors such as phlogiston and the luminiferous ether? Or the very notion of scientific progress?

At 5:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

He meant what historians of science generally mean by avoiding "Whig interpretations" -- namely, to avoid seeing the history of science as leading in some linear fashion from the past to the present, which often entails using today's truth to inform us on what was progress and what was error in the past.

So, yeah, it's the mocking of phlogiston and ether that he's against, but not the concept of scientific progress itself. I recall from his book on electricity and magnetism that he once remarked that the progress of physics in the 17th and 18th centuries could be precisely measured by the increasing precision of the instruments used in experiments -- and he was only half in jest.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:39 AM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

But, of course, phlogiston and ether were errors. (Does anyone imagine that science can make the undeniable progress it makes without exploring blind alleys?)

The right idea is often a stroke of genius, unforeseeable in advance. But in light of the newer insight, we can indeed see what those blind alleys were - i.e. what was indeed progress and what was not. Why not say so?

At 7:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, technically, Newtonian physics is wrong, too. Conversely, Ptolemaic astronomy, while wrong as a theory, was nevertheless a significant intellectual achievement, made excellent sense, and answered a lot of questions.

The problem with focusing upon science as a history of the progress of truth over error is that it distorts an understanding of the historical process. The old erroneous theories met needs and answered questions.

Neither Heilbron nor I would argue that science advances, and we'd agree that it advances by noticing errors and reworking its theories in response to those errors.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:15 AM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

Agreed - though I must add that Newtonian physics isn't really wrong (in the way that, say, the idea of the ether was); it's just a special case.

At 7:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

But doesn't "special case" mean that it's actually wrong but close enough in its predictions for us to use, and useful because it's simplier?

Be that as it may, you might find the couple of hours' expended in watching John's two videos time well spent. He's quite a good showman . . . in his quiet, understated manner.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:14 AM, Anonymous Malcolm Pollack said...

I suppose that's so, but in non-relativistic circumstances Newton's model gives results that are accurate to a fare-thee-well.

The model is not "wrong"; it just leaves out an extremely slight correction.

The best response I can give is probably this.

At 10:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, I won't argue with that view, and I advise humility before the facts. It does seem to me that our picture of the universe is getting better through science, but things look pretty weird in a lot of the picture as we fill in the details.

Jeffery Hodges

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