How can such a foreign idea feel so familiar? That was my recurring question from William Ashworth’s essay “Christianity and the Mechanistic Universe.” Ashworth’s approach is wide ranging, weaving threads from ancient Greek philosophy with the nascent science of sixteen and seventeenth centuries. He focuses on how different thinkers approach the big questions about the fundamental nature of the universe and everything contained in it. I generally find it difficult to engage with classical and medieval science when it gets this abstract, because the categories are so very far removed from the ones I’m used to using. Whether it’s Cartesian first, second or third matter or Aristotelian forms, I never feel comfortable that I really understand what those thinkers had in mind. But Ashworth describes them in a way that reveals how the conversations and choices of the 1500s and 1600s still reverberate today, even if the vocabulary and conceptual landscape is quite different.
This is the third week in our book club discussion of When Science and Christianity Meet, and our first chapter from someone other than the volume’s editors. We’re advancing chronologically, although the ancient Greeks still loom large. We’re solidly into the Renaissance, and names like Descartes, Hobbes, Boyle and Newton should be familiar from even introductory coverage of the history of philosophy and/or science. Yet debates on whether the world operates according to mechanical interactions or magical sympathies feel decidedly unmodern. We, or at least I, need a guide like Ashworth to see how the foundation laid by those figures influences what has been built on top of it.
One familiar concern is whether God wound up the universe like a watch and then left it to be governed by the motions of its clockworks, or if God’s continual action is required to sustain the universe. Or maybe the truth lies with some other option, wherein God intervenes periodically or where our intellect is inadequate to properly describe God’s true relationship to his creation. On the one hand, there is an elegance in being able to fine tune a system so exquisitely that desired outcomes are achieved millenia later to arbitrary precision. On the other hand, such a God seems more remote than the God of the Bible and also responsible for everything we understand to be evil. Obviously we still haven’t converged on a single solution to this question. But the way we frame the discussion and the dichotomies we rely on apparently owe a lot to our Renaissance predecessors.
Another modern question is whether the universe boils down to nothing but particles and their movements and interactions. Today we have panpsychism alongside Christian and other religious notions of the spiritual, all proposing some form of counterpoint to pure reductionism. More fundamentally, does science only reveal reductive mechanistic explanations because they are all that exist, or are those simply the only kinds of explanations science is able to produce? And then there is the matter of whether science is necessarily reductionist. There’s a lot to be said for what we now talk about with words like ’emergence’ and ‘levels of organization,’ the idea that while particle physics is foundational, a full understanding of causality requires higher-level descriptions. I could see the roots of these issues in the history Ashworth presents.
I also saw echoes of the present-day search for a Theory of Everything. Sure, I suppose most cultures have attempted to explain as much of the universe as possible, and practicality if nothing else favors compact, comprehensive accounts over an endless succession of ad hoc one-offs. Still, I think there’s something distinctive about trying to explain it all from the ground up by searching for the most fundamental components that can support such an endeavor. It’s amusing to note that while we might think we are much further along in that particular program, one notable marker of how far we’ve come is our ability to appreciate that 97% of the observable universe cannot be explained by our present models.
Maybe magic isn’t such a crazy alternative. There were a couple of more distinctively pre-modern ideas in this chapter that I did feel I understood better with Ashworth’s help, and magic was one of them. I know stage magic of today relies a lot on psychology and cognitive science, exploiting the limits of our attention and focus to hide mechanical operations in plain sight. But I’ve never had a good sense of how older forms of magic were meant to work. So I appreciated the explanation of the philosophy behind it, and also the acknowledgment that at least some magic was based on the kind of empirical trial-and-error we now associate with science. I’m not thinking of studying sympathetic magic or anything, I simply feel as though I understand a little bit more of where its practitioners were coming from.
The other point I found helpful was the discussion of transubstantiation in terms of the Aristotelian framework of essential and accidental properties. The explanation of what is meant by that doctrine clicked in a way that it hadn’t for me previously. Yet another way in which looking back at the history of ideas helps make sense of the present.
As we get ready for our first video chat tonight, I’d love to hear what has stood out to you from these first few chapters. Did you encounter any new ideas from the past? Do you see any of the same conversations happening today, perhaps differing in accidental properties but essentially related? Are you thinking differently about the ways that science and Christianity meet?
I hope you can join us at 7:30pm Eastern tonight (2/21/2018) to discuss all of this face-to-face!