From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 1

Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science by Matthew Stanley (Univ. of Chicago Press, Nov. 2014) is basically the first book to tell the story of how science was redefined in the 19th century. Most people don’t know it even happened and few know how. I bought a copy of this book and will give some excerpts and comments here.

Every paragraph of the Introduction is worth excerpting but let me pick a few key points. He starts with the contemporary debate initiated by the intelligent design movement, which criticizes the adoption of naturalism by the scientific community, then introduces his main theme:

p.2 – Naturalism has a history. The existential connection of naturalism with science is a relatively recent development. Further, naturalism has a specific birthplace. Despite naturalism’s high profile in modern American courts, its roots are in Victorian Britain. It was not until the end of the Victorian period (1837-1901) that naturalism became a common way to think about science, and it was a distinctively British creation. Regardless of this late and local appearance, naturalistic science has come to be seen as universal and eternal. Somehow the long-standing practice of nonnaturalistic science has been forgotten.

p.3 – The naturalists had to fight for their definition of science.

The history of naturalism in a broader conceptual sense is more controversial. It is complicated by a frequently drawn distinction between “methodological” naturalism and “metaphysical” or “ontological” naturalism.

p.3 – In the Victorian period, naturalism was only one possibility of how to practice science. Because science today is naturalistic, it is easy to overestimate the influence of scientific naturalists in the past.  … Far more central was the tradition of practicing science in close embrace with Christianity. This had been the standard in Britain since the days of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton.

I will refer to this tradition as “theistic science.” Its practitioners were overwhelmingly Christian (and largely Protestant), but the term Christian science would be confusing for obvious reasons. … Theistic science, like naturalistic science, should be considered in terms of methodology, not in terms of particular theoretical allegiances. Theistic science was a way to do science. This is not a story about science versus religion. All parties discussed here, theist and naturalist, cared deeply about science and wanted it to thrive. Rather, the question was about how religious ideas and values should appear in scientific practice, if at all.

p.4 – The core of this book explores the relationship between the methodological values of theistic and naturalistic science: that is, the foundational principles on which scientific researchers were expected to base their work. As already discussed, our modern expectation is that theism should dramatically change the way science is done. Here I will argue that this was not the case in Victorian Britain, the birthplace of scientific naturalism. Instead, both theistic and naturalistic science held virtually identical methodological values. While this is remarkable on its own, it is even stranger when we see that each group argued that proper scientific methodology could only be justified in their worldview.

p.5 – To explore these issues, this book will focus on one major representative from each of the theist and naturalist camps, with supporting figures appearing as necessary. … Naturalistic will be represented by T. H. Huxley (1825-95), pioneering biologist, iconoclastic science educator, and public spokesman for science. He was one of the major figures in creating and propagating naturalistic science, and was closely involved with virtually all the strategies, forces, and social developments that eventually led to the dominance of naturalism. Theistic science will be examined through James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79), the physicist whose work revolutionized electricity, magnetism, thermodynamics, and optics. Maxwell’s contributions to science have survived the test of time, and as a conservative evangelical, he cannot be dismissed as someone who was not genuinely religious. He was a product of the long-standing tradition of theistic science that Huxley sought to overthrow, and helps demonstrate the powerful social, cultural, and intellectual forces that made that tradition productive.

Despite precedents in France, scientific naturalism in the modern sense was a peculiarly Victorian creation, and we need to understand the particulars of religion and science that made it possible. … [p.6]The established Church of England dominated intellectual and educational life in many ways, both propagating theistic science and providing the impetus for the development of naturalistic science. Despite Anglican power, this was an age of increasing religious diversity, which provided important resources for the growth of naturalistic science. The scientific naturalists sought not only to battle established religion, but also to set up their worldview as an alternative framework for a full intellectual and cultural life. Huxley wanted not only a new science, but a new church.

In Chapter One – Religious Lives, the author gives brief bios of Maxwell and Huxley: Maxwell was born into an aristocratic Scottish family, had an avid interest in how things worked, studied in Cambridge, had an intense conversion experience, was comfortable with established and dissenting (e.g., Baptist) churches, and died suddenly in 1879. Huxley had to make his own way in the world, was mostly self-taught, supported himself (and his family) mostly by writing, was well-versed in the Bible, and was a life-long opponent of established churches and their influence. Some excerpts:

p.14 – Natural theology was overwhelmingly the standard context for the practice of science in the early nineteenth century.

p. 24 – Huxley and friends began an assault against the Anglican Church’s control that would last decades. They wanted to ensure, however, that their attacks were not misconstrued. They emphasized that they were not against religion, they were against theology. Most of the scientific naturalists had religious upbringings and maintained their Christian values of sincerity, honesty, moral earnestness, and respect for the Bible.

p.25 – [Huxley’s] critique of the old aristocracy with a new meritocracy was exactly what those young men of science hoped for.

This sense of religion as apart from theology was usually characterized in a Romantic fashion, emphasizing emotion and feeling instead of reason.

p.26 – Real religion, based on emotion, could remain untouched by science.

The naturalists made the case that this kind of religion was not their invention, but was rather the true religion that had been disguised by centuries of clergy. … In particular, religion’s purity was opposed to the corruption of the Anglican Church. They saw their attacks as part of a “New Reformation” intended to restore that pure Christianity.

p.28 – Darwin gently probed Huxley’s views on species change, only to be rebuffed by Huxley’s strong feelings about the fixity of species. But when the Origin appeared, Huxley swore his loyalty despite his reservations about the truth of natural selection. What he was fascinated by was not so much the content of the book as its purely naturalistic approach to the living world. As Ruth Barton has argued, “Huxley’s defence of Darwin was less a defence of Darwin than the kind of theory he propounded.”

p. 29 – The debates over Darwin became set in the public imagination as an epic battle between science and theology.

p.30 – It may be too strong to say that the scientific naturalists engaged in a conspiracy to take over science — but it is close.

p.31 – The debaters did not see the struggle as between science and religion, but rather between theistic and naturalistic views of science.

Part 2 is here.