Thursday, June 11, 2015

Rebutting the historical conflict thesis

Last friday we had Peter Harrison give the Physics colloquium on "The Progress of Science and the Decline of Religion?"
He is a historian, who prior to coming back to UQ, held a chair at Oxford, and in 2011 gave The Gifford Lectures, which were recently published.
He is probably best known for arguing that changing approaches to Biblical interpretation, associated with the Reformation [moving away from an emphasis on allegorical interpretations towards more literal and historical interpretations] changed peoples conception of "nature" and had a significant influence on the development of modern science.
Peter is director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses at UQ and attracts many stimulating and distinguished seminar speakers, some of whom I have blogged about before.

One issue Peter addressed head on is the "conflict thesis" which claims that science and religion have always been in conflict and particularly that religion has impeded the progress of science. This view is popular in the public realm but not among historians of science. [The Wikipedia page is worth reading]. Like most issues the reality is much more complex.

Peter mentioned several widely cited historical "conflict" incidents such as Galileo and Darwin. In both cases there were people who opposed them and who supported them using religious and scientific arguments. For the Galileo affair the main contention was about competing scientific models and different philosophical perspectives. Furthermore, Galileo's scientific case was hardly solid; no stellar parallax had been observed and his argument using the tides was (in hindsight) wrong. In Darwin's case he was opposed by Lord Kelvin (who had miscalculated the age of the earth) and supported by Asa Gray and some conservative theologians.
John Heilbron's book, The Sun in the Church "illuminates the niches protected and financed by the Catholic Church in which science and mathematics thrived."
Stephen Gaukroger's book, The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity emphasised how science had religious sanctions.

If you have a few hours (and $200!) you can watch some very nice lectures on the above historical issues. I highly recommend a course given by Lawrence Principe (Johns Hopkins) and sold by The Great Courses [The Learning Company in Australia]. [Peter Harrison recommended these to me and I bought them on special for A$52 including shipping].

Peter also discussed more recent history including some sociological studies, which seemed to attract the most questions from the audience.
He gave a similar talk at BrisScience a few years ago and can be viewed here.

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