History of Science

This is a copy of a post (slightly edited) that I made in the online tutorial for my A103: Introduction to the Humanities course.

The course is moving onto religious studies and the history of science, and our tutor said: ‘before we get going properly it would be interesting to start by seeing if anyone has views on the links between the two subject areas.’

I have plenty of views on how science and religion link together, and so I posted the following (which was probably longer than the tutor had in mind) – and I was self censoring along the way to an extent.


Both science and religion are attempting to discover a truth about the world. Both are seeking to understand not only what, but also why.

They contrast in that science is built on doubt (though it can seem like certainty, and humans being humans sometimes real scientists forget that true proof of a scientific idea isn’t possible (Karl Popper)) – whereas religion is built on a conviction of being right, sometimes in spite of contradictory evidence (as the evolutionist said to the creationist "We have the fossils, what about you?")

They’re often viewed as mutually exclusive, but this isn’t necessarily the case, and many scientists are also religious, however, some have to ignore contradictions in order for the two ways of thinking to co-exist. Others, operating in a field which doesn’t overlap with religious views don’t have this conflict. Some religious scientists seem to take the view that religion and science are alternative explanations of the same phenomenae, both theories(*) of the world have their limitations – both both are relevant in their own context (to take a physics example, to understand light both the wave model and the particle model are needed – together they form Quantum Mechanics, which allows incredibly accurate, but sometimes weird, predictions to be made – predictions which are borne out by experiment, which is why the weirdness survives!)

There are also historical links. To look at western Europe as an example, the catholic church is known for only recently having apologised to Galileo after his treatment when he was accused of heresy for saying that the earth wasn’t the centre of the universe, in contrast to the relevant parts of genesis. (Copernicus got away with it, he merely pointing out that if we do the maths with the sun at the centre it gets a lot simpler… and he dedicated his book to the Pope). On the other hand, due to the decision about when to have Easter at the First Council of Nicea during the dark ages astronomy was kept alive by the church as the calculation of easter is based on the moon, which doesn’t exactly fit into the solar year (around which the calendar is based). Add to this the shock of the calendar drifting by around 11 days by the 1500s, and having to switch to the Gregorian system (as per usual the UK followed some time after the rest of Europe, so there was, for a time, the need to put the clock forward several days when going to France!)

In other religions, Science and religion have co-existed. For example, we use Arabic numerals – much of the knowledge of the west (including the ancient greeks) were preserved in Arabia through the dark ages. This is due to the pursuit of knowledge being prized in Islam. As Europe came from the dark ages, these materials were recovered (and translated back).

In the same way, the concept of a place holder when writing numbers came from the east via Arabic scholars, (put a 1 in the tens column….) and this necessitated an empty place holder, which came from India – the zero. The Ancient Greeks found the concept of zero appalling!

Interestingly, but irrelevantly, the Bengali symbol for 1 is a curvy version of the number we use. 2 is recognisable, and the Bengali symbol for 4 looks like our 8 – the Bengali 7 looks like our 9 – but the zero is the same – essentially our written numbers and Bengali written numbers share a common heritage – I’m afraid I don’t know about the Hindi numbers. In India they tend to use western style numbers quite often though.

In the west, we see links between science and religion most obviously when popular science uses religious language. Examples include Einstein’s “God doesn’t play dice with the Universe” (I don’t think he was religious) or Dawkins’ “River Out of Eden”. Physicists are searching for the Unifying theory of everything (I can expand on that if you want), and Hawkins talks of knowing the ‘Mind of God’ (I’m pretty sure he’s not religious).

At the same time, religious leaders talk on scientific issues such as stem cell research, and talk of being ‘under attack by secularism(**)‘ They talk of science going ‘too far’.

Worryingly, at a time when religion is becoming a divisive force in the world, our scientific knowledge is at the point that we could bring about an apocalypse (in the ‘no more people’ sense). Indeed, there are some right wing fundamentalists in the US who pray for such a final battle. here’s one starting point – admittedly one unsympathetic to the idea of a final Armageddon!

At a time when religion and science are being forced apart, it’s ironic that science could provide people professing religious adherence the means to destroy us all(***).

Science is a neutral, it can do great things – or not. Science is not moral, that’s not to say it’s IMmoral! The scientific method is a neutral, and be applied to any problem which admits the possibility of falsification, from saving us from global warming (to showing that global warming is the most probable explanation for observations), to the ‘problem’ of human destruction in warfare. Whilst science is neutral, how it’s applied is not – and that is a matter of political will, which religion feeds into.


(*) I’m using this in the scientific context, not the accurate but derogatory sense that creationists say ‘evolution is just a theory’. ALL science is ‘just’ a theory, however, it’s formed of theories that explain observed phenomenae and allow predictions to be made which are subject to testing.
(**) In a nation where we demand that the deity save the monarch?
(***) … and if anyone really wants to know just how easy it would be to make something that would be really very nasty, then I don’t think I want to tell you. Sufficed to say, it’s scarily not hard – given the right tools and knowledge.

About Murk

I'm interested in a range of things, from science and computers, to history and creative stuff. I'm leaving a lot out. My problem is time. As a result, murky.org, flits around from topic to topic as my interest is piqued. It's all tagged though - so it should be easy to find other posts of mine on similar topics - do give the RSS feed a try, and I welcome, nay, I crave comments on articles.

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