The Wisdom in Wood Rot: God in Eighteenth Century Scientific Explanation

In William Krieger (ed.), Science at the Frontiers: Perspectives on the History and Philosophy of Science. Lexington Books. pp. 17-35 (2011)
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This chapter presents a historical study of how science has developed and of how philosophical theories of many sorts – philosophy of science, theory of the understanding, and philosophical theology – both enable and constrain certain lines of development in scientific practice. Its topic is change in the legitimacy or acceptability of scientific explanation that invokes purposes, or ends; specifically in the argument from design, in the natural science field of physico-theology, around the start of the eighteenth century. ... The context that produced physico-theology was clearly religious and political. It is unsurprising that a large body of Protestant intellectuals well-placed in a relatively peaceful society with a strong tradition of open speech, would develop links between science and critical discussion of both divinity and the Bible. There were also bounds to the discussion, as Newton, who chose to sit on the sidelines, knew well. Many others on Europe’s continent lived much more intimately with religious division as well as the reminder, in 1633, of Galileo’s failure to arrange a peaceable arrangement between science and religion. These aspects of the rise of physico-theology have not been the focus of this chapter, which has surveyed the philosophical and social origins found in the English context. Science, philosophy of science and other English philosophical currents – most particularly the theory of ideas and understanding that we are familiar with in its later development by John Locke – were formative for a field that might alternatively have been called ‘empirical natural theology.’ Prior shifts in religious sensibility that emptied the Book of Nature of much of its content also prepared the ground. Other philosophical and theological currents not discussed here – most notably theories of divine agency and predestination – and other philosophical trends – the rise of Spinoza’s challenge to such natural theology on the continent – also had both shaping and limiting influences upon the field. Finally, philosophers, including natural philosophers, did much more to promote physico-theology than just write about it: Boyle in particular provided a very important launch pad for the further development of an already healthy tradition of natural theology with his named lectureship, which drew the interest of others in the Royal Society, most notably Isaac Newton, and which spawned two of the most influential physico-theological tracts shortly before and shortly after the turn of the eighteenth century.
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