Saturday, December 03, 2011

Book Review: The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy by Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton

In The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton set out to tell an educated but non-technical audience the story of the streams of thought that produced the science of the West, with a special emphasis on the role of Christian thought. The story they tell is perhaps too technical for their audience, and after the 17th century they have little to say about Christianity. However, they do produce a useful explanation of the Christian basis for science in the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, and provide a good, basic explanation of key scientific findings in the 20th century and a lucid and entertaining history of the sciences in general.

They begin by explaining how most people have heard the story of Western science from the viewpoint of positivism, which claims that science was gradually set free from religious superstition. Modern historians, however, have adopted idealism and historicism, two approaches to history that recognize the role that religion played in the foundation of Western science. The result, say the authors, has been a revival of interest in the beliefs of early scientists and a greater appreciation for the role of Christianity in birthing the sciences.

It turns out that early scientists were not at all like modern Naturalists. Pearcy and Thaxton explain the three major streams of thought into which most early scientists fell: Aristotelian, Platonist, and mechanistic. The Aristotelian system held that all objects in the universe reflected ideal, disembodied models called forms, and developed to reflect their true nature. The neo-Platonic system held the universe to be alive and personal. The mechanistic system viewed the universe as a large machine, and tried to discover the principles that could describe it completely, whether physical, mathematical, or logical.

In the light of these three major streams of though, the authors place a number of major contributors to the sciences in their philosophical context. They explain, for example, how Copernicus decided to place the Sun at the center of the universe because, as a neo-Platonist, he felt that it was nobler than the earth. They also explain how Newton and Descartes, as Christians, struggled to find places for God and for Aristotle in the universe since their mathematical achievements threatened to crowd both out.

Once they leave the early development of physics, chemistry, and astronomy, the authors make a dizzying leap from the 16th century to the 18th century, discussing biology and mathematics of much later contributors. Biology is seen as becoming increasingly mechanistic, while mathematics falls from a perch of perfection into confusing imprecision by developing new, non-Euclidian forms of geometry, new paradoxes violating the perfection of set theory, negative numbers, and Gödel's incompleteness.

It is at this point that the thread of the Christian religion in science gets lost. They barely mention faith and its role in the sciences beyond this point of the book -- not, that is, until they get to DNA in the 21st century, with its need for an explanation of the source of the information encoded in the DNA. Perhaps this is because faith, itself, became an afterthought to scientists at this time in history, but the book hardly lives up to its subtitle from this point forward.

The later sections of the book discuss what they call the Second Scientific Revolution, the changes in modern thought brought about by Einstein's relativity, quantum theory, and DNA. Ironically, the biggest changes took place because of misapplications of ideas from those fields outside of the sciences. Relativity does not imply relativism, but a lot of non-scientists thought that it did. Quantum theory does not necessarily imply that nothing makes sense, but a lot of non-scientists think that it does. Still, the focus of the book stays on the science and the scientists, not the general population where these errors are running amok, so not much is said beyond that those errors occur.

The greatest strength of the book lies in its explanations of basic scientific concepts and the philosophical implications of them. Readers should come away with a good layman's understanding of relativity, quantum theory, set theory, and DNA construction.

Their understanding of the philosophies underlying them will be a little fuzzier, since the development of those is a bit confusing and does not follow a clear structure after the narrative leaves the 16th century. The book is difficult for non-philosophers; the language is thick, the topic is complex, and it is easy to get lost in the isms.

The Soul of Science is a good introduction for students and adults wanting to understand more about the philosophies underlying the sciences, and a good general introduction to topics in modern science for intelligent readers. It is probably not a good source for average readers, nor is it the only book that interested readers should own on the subject if they intend to know the philosophy of science better.

Nancy Pearcey is a science writer and a contributing editor for the Pascal Centre for Advanced Studies in Science and Faith. She was a student of Dr. Francis Schaeffer, and continues his interest in understanding different worldviews and the effect they have on behavior. Charles Thaxton holds a doctorate in chemistry and has done postdoctoral work in the history of science. He is a fellow at the Discovery Institute, and co-author of the controversial biology textbook, Of Pandas and People: the Central Question of Biological Origins.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Phil Weingart Phil earned a BA in Speech (Rhetoric and Public Address) and an MBA emphasizing Information Systems from the University of Pittsburgh. He spent 25 years in the IT industry, but currently substitutes at local high schools, writes freelance, and occasionally updates a political blog called Plumb Bob Blog. He more or less fell into apologetics: he has been defending the faith on the Internet since before "Internet" was a household word. He lives with his wife on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where he is active in a local Vineyard church.


pds said...

Good, clear and concise review. Thanks! What other books on the History and Philosophy of Science would you recommend to compliment this one?


Anonymous said...


I'm currently reading "Galileo Goes To Jail (and Other Myths About Science and Religion)," a collection of myth-busting essays edited by Ronald Numbers. It's a much easier book to digest than The Soul of Science, and it fills in a lot of detail regarding the history of the individuals and their beliefs. I would not call it a textbook on the philosophy of science, but it is a useful collection of facts regarding the history of science.

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