The Agnostic Theology of Huxley and Tyndall

Earlier today I read Bernard Lightman’s short essay “Does the History of Science and Religion Change Depending on the Narrator? Some Atheist and Agnostic Perspectives” (2012) as a break from reading his edited volume Victorian Science in Context (1997). It was, as expected, excellent.

Lightman’s answer is a resounding yes. In his estimation, “during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the strategy of unbelievers revolved around attempting, without too much success, to draw out of Newtonianism some kind of justification for their materialism and their atheism.” But later, in the nineteenth century and after the publication of The Origins of Species, “evolutionary theory offered new opportunities to unbelievers for dealing with the Newton problem”—the problem being that Newtonian physics was inextricably intertwined with Newton’s theology. The strategy of nineteenth-century scientific naturalists like T.H. Huxley and John Tyndall, for example, was “separating science and religion into two separate spheres,” which allowed them to “construct a religiously neutral scientific system and to offer a re-interpreation of the history of science and region that relegated Newtonianism to the sidelines.”

Focusing on Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789), Lightman underscores how radical Enlightenment philosophes saw science, particularly Newtonianism, as providing intellectual support for atheism—that is, as long as it was “purged of religious concepts that Newton had enshrined in the heart of his physics.” Indeed, d’Holbach and other radical philosophes such as Denis Diderot, Jean d’Alembert, Claude Adrien Helvétius, and Pierre-Simon Laplace, “pressed Newton into service as an ally.” But in order to deify Newton, of course, he had to be defied. In order to explain away Newton’s religious commitments, for instance, he was reinterpreted as schizophrenic (d’Holbach) or mentally deranged (Laplace). For d’Holbach and his coterie, “the history of science and religion confirmed the validity of materialism.”

Transitioning to Herbert Spencer’s (1820-1903) System of Synthetic Philosophy, Lightman shows that Spencer actually sought the “basis of a complete reconciliation” between science and religion. This was, Lightman notes, the central aim of Spencer’s First Principles, published in 1862. For Spencer, “the basis for a total reconciliation between science and religion, is the idea of a mysterious power underlying phenomena.”

Likewise, Tyndall was actually “curiously conciliatory towards religion.” In a 1847 journey entry Tyndall rejected the “main doctrines of Victorian Christianity”:

I cannot for an instant imagine that a good and merciful God would ever make our eternal salvation depend upon such slender links, as conformity with what some are pleased to call the essentials of religion. I was long fettered by these things, but now thank God they are placed upon the same shelf with the swaddling clothes which bound up my infancy.

But as Lightman points out, “this rejection of Christian doctrines did not lead him to atheism.” Indeed, Tyndall actually “believed that science and religion, as he defined them, could exist in peaceful harmony.” He saw subjective religious feeling “as true as any other part of human consciousness,” and thus was safe from any kind of scientific attack. According to Lightman, Tyndall thought “religion, in its subjective dimension and its articulation through symbol, could be reconciled with the objective facts of science if the boundaries between the two ‘magisteria’, as Stephen Jay Gould referred to them, were maintained.” In this sense, Tyndall rejected the label “materialist,” arguing that “materialism was fruitful as a scientific methodology, but it could not be a complete philosophy of life.” (Incidentally, this seems to be contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel‘s own position.) Rather, he ascribed to a “higher materialism” that “found in matter ‘the promise and potency of all terrestrial life.'” Religion was the “inward completeness and dignity of man.” And as pointed out by Ruth Barton elsewhere, “Tyndall voiced his debt to [Thomas] Carlyle” for much of his understanding of science-religion relations.

Although a physicist, Tyndall made little mention of Newton in his history of science and religion. As Lightman puts it, Tyndall displaced Newton “from the centre of the story of the making of modern science.” This is unsurprising as Newtonianism was central to nineteenth-century natural theology, which, like Carlyle, Tyndall completely rejected. Tyndall’s rejection of natural theology deserves closer inspection because it seems he did so on the basis that it led to deism. In 1849, for example, after reading William Paley’s (1743-1805) Natural Theology, Tyndall wrote in his journal that “the Great Spirit is not to be come at in this way; if so, his cognition would only be accessible to the scientific and to very little purpose even here,” and later wrote that he rejects “a detached God—a God outside his Universe who superintends the clockwork thereof.”

Huxley, the “self-styled ‘gladiator-general’ of evolutionary science,” took a surprisingly similar position on the science-religion relationship. Like Tyndall, “Huxley held to the idea that science and religion belonged to two distinct realms,” and once rightly conceived “science and religion could never come into conflict because each realm was distinct and without authority outside its proper sphere of interest.” What is more, Huxley argued that “atheism is as absurd, logically speaking, as polytheism.” For Huxley, agnosticism was the only legitimate course regarding religious questions. In Science and Hebrew Tradition (1893), Huxley declared that

the antagonism between science and religion about which we hear so much, appears to me to be purely fictitious—fabricated, on the one hand, by short-sighted religious people who confound a certain branch of science, theology, with religion; and, on the other, by equally short-sighted scientific people who forget that science takes for its province only that which is susceptible of clear intellectual comprehension.

However, when it came to understanding Newton, Huxley falls victim to his own short-sighted position, ignoring Newton’s “profound relationship between universal natural laws and a divine being” and simplistically arguing that “Newton stands as the exemplary empirical scientist.”

In conclusion Lightman highlights how contemporary atheists, particularly Steven Weinberg and Richard Dawkins, have “far more in common with Enlightenment philosophes like d’Holbach than they do with Victorian agnostics such as Huxley and Tyndall.” But unlike the philosophes, who tried to “finesse Newton, as did early modern unbelievers, their atheism, and their perpetuation of the conflict thesis in history…seems, to the uninformed, to have the complete backing of history.” In other words, the so-called “New Atheists” not only misread the history of science, they ultimately distort it for their readers. As Borden Painter points out in his reprimanding “New Atheism’s Old—and Flawed—History” article in Historically Speaking (2012), “the deficiencies of New Atheist history should be obvious to professional historians: choosing evidence to suit a predetermined and state ideology while ignoring the rest; lack of nuance and context; simplistic and monocausal explanations; anachronism and moralism; [and] poor choice or misrepresentation of secondary sources.”

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