Integrity of Science

The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby had an interesting thought-piece in yesterday’s paper.

Did you hear about the religious fundamentalist who wanted to teach physics at Cambridge University? This would-be instructor wasn’t simply a Christian; he was so preoccupied with biblical prophecy that he wrote a book titled “Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John.” Based on his reading of Daniel, in fact, he forecast the date of the Apocalypse: no earlier than 2060. He also calculated the year the world was created. When Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning,” he determined, it means 3988 BC.

Not many modern universities are prepared to employ a science professor who espouses not merely “intelligent design” but out-and-out divine creation.

The man in question is Sir Isaac Newton, whom Cambridge nominated to the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics in 1668.

Jacobson’s thesis here is that Newton may offer us an example of how religious faith and scientific pursuits may be reconciled.

To be sure, religious dogma can be a blindfold, blocking truths from those who refuse to see them. Scientific dogma can have the same effect. Neither faith nor reason can answer every question. As Newton knew, the surer path to wisdom is the one that has room for both.

His examples harsh on science (Oxford’s Richard Dawkins’s “The God Delusion,” NAS classifying religion with myth) without counterbalancing examples. Of course, religious attacks on science no doubt get more play in the Globe, and I’m sure Jacoby’s readers don’t need his help conjuring examples.

The column is a little simplistic in its ‘Can’t we all just get along?’ message, but I think that encouraging harmony among the religious and the scientific is certainly a worthy cause. If we want science to help guide our policymaking, and we do, we’ll need to reach consensuses with people of faith. We may also need to provide a united front against zealots on both sides who threaten to spoil consensus.

Science doesn’t, and can’t, have all the answers. Being careful with our words and knowing where to draw the line between the knowable and the unknowable can help quell disquiet among science’s and religion’s faithful.


  1. #1 Abbie
    July 23, 2007

    Erm, isn’t Newton famous for having done all sorts of work on alchemy etc? The only stuff we hear about is the stuff he got right… which was a very small portion of his body of work.

  2. #2 pelio
    July 23, 2007

    I must say that ‘spoiling consensus’ can often have positive effects – anytime a minority’s rights advance some previous consensus has been spoiled.

    However, my main question is about unknowable things. Do you think that science purports to answer truly unknowable things? I think, by definition, the answer would be no. Filling the unknowable holes with a deity doesn’t change a thing.

    If you’re talking about ‘unknowable things’ such as the veracity of certain biblical claims (e.g. adam & eve, a worldwide flood, etc.) science can often say, at the very least, ‘all signs point to false’.

    So, where has (good) science overstepped the bounds and started staking claims on unknowable things?

  3. #3 Kurt
    July 23, 2007

    Ummm, you’re new in these parts, aren’t you?


  4. #4 lorax
    July 24, 2007

    Well I can see how religion doesnt have all the answers or even many of them, for example religion doesnt explain much about nature nd what it explains is invariably wrong. However, I often here statements like “science doesnt have all the answers” too. Well to put it bluntly, no shit. Science doesnt need to have all the answers, its the pursuit of getting the answers. It seems to be in the pursuit of understanding, science gets a lot right, and where science is not yet clear, religion simply fills in the gaps. What does religion tell us that science doesnt? One example might be “What happens when we die?” But is religion any good at the answer to this? There are many religions out there with different answers to this question, so if you ask me the “answer” is no better than a random guess.

    As far as scientists and theists coming together, I think that already happens. Many people already have a certain trust in science, regardless of religion. However, in the US a vocal minority of fundamentalists have taken over most of the policy discourse. In my opinion, there is no chance at “harmony” or “consensus.” In fact reaching consensus or harmony with these people would only be accomplished if we returned to at least the 17th century and our understanding was the same as Newton’s. Of course at that point the fundamentalists would likely have a problem with pi, so maybe we should regress all the way into the dark ages, just so their petty and arbitrary beliefs are not in anyway offended.

    This blog is largely about having science and the scientific process respected in the public sphere. When individuals are openly dismissive of faith, they cut off conversation with the faithful. Those individuals then have no standing for asking why the faithful ‘aren’t listening to the science?’

    Neither scientists nor fundamentalists are going to score a decisive victory in the world of policymaking. As such, there is by definition of the U.S. political process, a need to compromise. – Ed.

  5. #5 Don Strong
    August 1, 2007

    Newton is remembered for his physics. His contributions to theology and philosophy play second fiddle to contemporaries such as Spinoza, Leibniz, and Hobbes, for example. If not for his highly original and enduring physics, his voluminous theology and philosophy would be all but forgotten except to historians of the Enlightenment. Jacoby cherry picks from N’s theology and fails to illustrate its significance to the history of religous thought. None of the community for which Jacoby is writing this fluff would find much appeal in N’s theology.

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