Month: August 2014

Progress as a Secularized Eschatology

Nineteenth-century Victorian scientific naturalists had a particular conception of scientific and social progress. In his “The Progress of Science 1837-1887” (1887), Thomas Henry Huxley argued that a “revolution” had taken place, both politically and socially, in the modern world. In brief, scientific progress came with the adoption of a naturalistic approach to studying nature. Any other approach would count as an obstacle both to scientific and social progress. Similar sentiments were shared by John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer, and other scientific naturalists.

Of course the idea of progress was held by other Victorians as well. “We are on the side of progress,” wrote British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1835. “From the great advances which European society has made, during the last four centuries, in every species of knowledge, we infer, not that there is no room for improvement, but that, in every science which deserves the name, immense improvements may be confidently expected.” “History,” he continued, “is full of the signs of this natural progress of society.” From Macaulay, Arnold, Mill, Morley, and Kingsley, to Huxley and Co., the idea of progress became dogma for Victorian intellectuals.

But where did this idea of progress come from, and why was it so pervasive?  From the 1920s onward, several historians have offered strikingly different (and sometimes opposing) answers. J.B. Bury, for example, explained in his The Idea of Progress (1920) that progress was the “animating and controlling idea of western civilization.” But in saying this, Bury also disputed, and dismissed, the connection between the idea of progress and the Christian doctrine of providence. Indeed, the idea of progress presupposed its rejection: “it was not till men felt independence of Providence,” he writes, “that they could organize a theory of Progress…So long as the doctrine of Progress was…in the ascendent, a doctrine of Progress could not arise.” According to Bury, the origin of the idea of progress is found among eighteenth-century philosophes. To make his point, Bury also portrayed the philosophes as characteristically anti-Christian or anti-religious.

Lowith - Meaning in HistoryHowever, other historians saw the idea of progress in terms of the secularization of biblical eschatology. Ernest Lee Tuveson, for instance, argued in his Millennium and Utopia (1949) that “gradually the role of Providence was transferred to ‘natural laws’…Providence was disguised rather than eliminated.” A new kind of Providence emerged, one based on the confidence of the historical process: “This confidence…resulted in part from the transformation of a religious idea—the great millennial expectation…The New Jerusalem in a utopia of mechanistic philosophers; the heavenly city of the eighteenth-century philosophers and of the nineteenth-century optimists retained many features of the New Jerusalem.” Others would follow and expand Tuveson’s analysis, including Carl L. Becker, Nicolas Berdyaev, Carl Schmitt, Jacob Taubes, Karl Löwith, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Eric Voegelin, among others. It was becoming increasingly clear that the modern idea of progress rested on biblical presuppositions, particularly a secularized eschatological myth of salvation.

A great debate followed after the publication of Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1976). Blumenberg’s book was essentially a reply to Löwith’s Meaning in History (1949). Löwith had argued that modern categories of reason and progress, and modern philosophies of history are secularized vestiges of Judeo-Christian eschatology. In other words, the modern idea of progress only appears to be rational or scientific. Under the surface, it is supported by an eschatological hope and expectation. Löwith traces these religious elements backward, from Burckhardt, Marx, Hegel, Proudhon, Comte, Condorcet and Turgot, Voltaire, Vico, Bossuet, Joachim, Augustine and Orosius, all the way to the “biblical” view of history. According to Löwith, “philosophy of history originates with the Hebrew and Christian faith in a fulfillment and…ends with the secularization of its eschatological pattern.” Whether religious or irreligious, all narratives of progress are overtly or covertly “eschatological from Isaiah to Marx, form Augustine to Hegel, from Joachim to Schelling.”

Blumenberg - The Legitmacy of the Modern AgeOpposition to Löwith’s thesis came most forcefully from Blumenberg. According to Blumenberg, the idea of progress was no vestige of biblical eschatology. Rather, it was a radical break from it, a Neuzeit. Christian eschatology and modern progressivism, says Blumenberg, do not share any identifiable ideas, nor does the modern idea of progress contain any authentic, original content found in Christianity. In brief, they are diametrically different: “it is…a manifest difference,” he writes, “that an eschatology speaks of an event breaking into history, an event that transcends and is heterogeneous to it, while the idea of progress extrapolates from a structure present in every moment to a future that is immanent in history.” More explicitly, Blumenberg contends that the idea of progress “hopes for the greater security of man in the world,” the here and now, while “eschatology” is “more nearly an aggregate of terror and dread.” Blumenberg concludes that “the dependence of the idea of progress on Christian eschatology” is nil, and therefore “block any transposition of the one into the other.”

So, where does the modern idea of progress come from? Blumenberg offers an alternative genealogy, found in late-medieval theological nominalism, human self-assertion, and astronomy. The nominalism of William of Ockham (c. 1287-1347) pushed knowledge of God beyond the boundaries of human intelligibility or comprehension. Once God essentially “disappeared,” humanity had to assert itself:

deprived by God’s hiddenness of metaphysical guarantees for the world, man constructs for himself a counterworld of elementary rationality and manipulability…Because theology meant to defend God’s absolute interest, it allowed and caused man’s interest in himself and his concern for himself to become absolute.

Representative of this new position, says Blumenberg, is the work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626). From Blumenberg’s view, Bacon turned away from understanding God to understanding man and nature. With Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, we reach man’s full self-assertion. And herein lies Blumenberg’s central argument: this modern self-assertion of reason provided the means for “possible progress” rather than the “necessary progress” of the eschatological view.

But according to a host of scholars, Blumenberg’s critique of Löwith ultimately fails. Hans-Georg Gadamer, for example, found it unconvincing, if not perplexing. Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote that “the modern age came into being out of a world in which Christianity was dominant, and therefore its relationship, and particularly that of its early stages, to Christianity is not merely a matter of historical interest.” Pannenberg goes on to observe that key to Blumenberg’s argument depended on the theme of theodicy. Christianity attempted to answer the question of the problem of evil. But according to Blumenberg, Christian theologians failed to provide a satisfactory answer. This, in Pannenberg’s assessment, is where Blumenberg derives his “conception that the modern age originated in opposition to theological absolutism.” In short, the idea of progress takes on “the vanished role of theodicy.”

But according to Pannenberg, Christian theodicy is not that simple. “Christianity came to terms in a decisive way with the evil and wickedness in the world,” Pannenberg argues, “not by removing responsibility for the world from the creator, but by belief in the reconciliation of the world by the God who took upon himself the burden of its guilt and misery and so set men free from it.” In this sense, Pannenberg finds it strange that Blumenberg neglects to mention this central Christian theme. What is more, the “rise of the modern age cannot be understood in the abstract terms of the history of ideas.” Pannenberg points to the Protestant Reformation and the “historical catastrophes which came about in its train,” that it was essential to the emancipation of the modern age. Here, too, Pannenberg is astonished that Blumenberg has ignored the role of the “Reformation in the rise and the self-understanding of the modern age.”

In his own response to Blumenberg, Löwith argued that the modern idea of progress and Christian eschatology are essentially common in “that both live by hope insofar as they conceive of history as proceeding toward final fulfillment which lies in the future.” In short, Blumenberg’s “possible progress” ultimately collapses back into “necessary progress.”

Many historians of science in recent years have argued that early modern science was a religious activity. With some minor modification, Blumenberg’s thesis of modern man’s self-assertion of reason was not a revolutionary turn away from God, but rather the attempt to find better proofs of God’s existence, in the natural world. Self-assertion, in other words, was a religious conception as well. It was a dialogue with God within a new medium, that of science.


The Study of Nature as Devotional Practice

In the Winter issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Peter Harrison considers the “Sentiments of Devotion and Experimental Philosophy in Seventeenth-Century England” (2014). In particular, he focuses on the sentiments of chemist, physicist, and natural philosopher, Robert Boyle (1627-1691). In his Disquisition concerning the Final Causes of Natural Things (1688), Boyle argued that studying nature will excite “true Sentiments both of Devotion and of particular Vertues.” That is, the study of nature is a religious activity. As Harrison puts it, natural philosophy not only provides arguments for the existence of the Deity, it also induces “moral and religious sentiments in the investigator.”

Recent trends in history of philosophy demonstrate that “philosophy” was always more than mere theoretical argumentation and logical abstractions; it was, according to the late French philosopher Pierra Hadot, “a way of life.” In short, philosophy was a spiritual exercise. This “spiritual” element was present in early studies on nature. We see this not only in Plato, Claudius Ptolemy, and Simplicius, but also in the works of early Christian writers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and even medieval authors.

Harrison quickly moves on to the early modern period, particularly in the work of Francis Bacon. In a number of his treatises, Harrison observes, “Bacon framed his justification for the pursuit of natural philosophy in terms of the biblical narrative of the Creation and Fall.” The aim of natural philosophy was to regain control over nature, which was lost after Adam’s fall. Natural philosophy, in other words, was a restoration project. Experimentation was the labor required after the Adamic Fall. According to Harrison, the Protestant idea of a “universal priesthood” and personal piety were essential components to Bacon’s program.

Harrison then turns to Bacon’s successors, the Royal Society, which was founded in 1660. Harrison focuses on Thomas Sprat’s work on the History of the Royal Society (1667). According to Sprat, experimental philosophy undoubtedly reveals useful knowledge, but it also has moral ends. Natural philosophy, in short, purges moral deficiencies from the experimenter. But it also does more than this. Its also “promotes a properly informed worship of God.” Clergyman Joseph Glanvill and others would follow this Baconian program. In his “The Usefulness of Real Philosophy to Religion,” Glanvill affirms that “the Free, experimental Philosophy will do to purpose, by giving the mind another tincture, and introducing a sounder habit, which by degrees will last absolutely repel all the little malignancies, and setle in it a strong and manly temperment, that will master, and cast out idle dotages, and effeminate Fears.”

Returning to Boyle, Harrison observes that he “was also concerned to make an explicit case for the personal piety of the experimentalist.” For Boyle, natural philosophy not only revealed the power and wisdom of God, it also “promoted piety and particular virtues.”

Experimental activity, in other words, was a decidedly religious activity.


Phrenology, the Origins of Scientific Naturalism, and Herbert Spencer’s “Religion of the Heart”

Wyhe - PhrenologyOver the weekend I came across several interconnecting books and themes. The first was John van Wyhe’s excellent Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), which traces the origins of scientific naturalism back to British phrenology. In this book Wyhe takes the “social interests” approach, resting on the “common-sense assumption,” he writes in his introduction, “that people are disposed to like or dislike, to adopt or reject ideas according to their coherence or usefulness to social interests.” Wyhe wants to argue that phrenology, “the science of the mind,” was hugely diffused before and after Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was this “phrenological naturalism” that fed the stream of the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. What is more, the professional and religious controversies that followed the surge of phrenological works “were often personal competition for status and authority between individuals, rather than manifestations of group conflicts.” In saying this he follows the work of Adrian Desmond, James Moore, John Brooke, Peter Bowler, Frank Turner, and others. The “‘science and religion’ conflict,” he writes, was  about “personal competition between individuals for status and authority.”

According to Wyhe, phrenology had its roots in the German work of physicians Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828) and Johann Spurzheim (1776-1832), before greatly expanding in Britain in the 1820s with the work of George Combe (1788-1858). Gall was a rather eccentric individual. He not only amassed a large collection of human skulls, he also saw himself as somehow superior to the rest of mankind. Gall used his phrenological studies, his system schädellehre (“doctrine of the skull”) or “the physiology of the brain,” to proffer the notion that Nature should be seen as the ultimate arbiter. Spurzheim became Gall’s patron, student, and eventually dissecting assistant. Early in the century, Spurzheim composed his Philosophical catechism of the natural laws of man, which attempted to apply “immutable law” to mankind. Most of this work was borrowed from the work of French revolutionary writer Constantin Francois de Volney (1757-1820), his The law of nature (1793). Volney rejected revelation and called for the worship of Nature. According to Wyhe, Volney taught that “Man’s happiness increased the more he acted in accordance with the law of nature and that science was necessary to know the ‘facts’ of nature.” Spurzheim himself was anti-clerical and, like Volney, was strongly deistic.

According to Wyhe, Combe “revered Spurzheim.” His The Constitution of Man (1828), he says, “should be recognized as the major British work on progress in the years before [Robert Chambers’] Vestiges of the natural history of creation appeared in 1844.” Wyhe modifies and reproduces a chart found in James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), demonstrating the remarkable popularity of Combe’s work:

Wyhe Chart (2)

Used with permission

Its sales were tremendous. But even more remarkable is Wyhe’s claim that the “crux of the book’s provocativeness was its effectiveness as an alternative to Christianity.” It was an attempt to provide an “alternative for the traditional Christian system as a guide of conduct, and especially beliefs of the fallen state of Nature and Man, the sufficient and necessity of the Bible as a guide to daily living and as a moral, philosophical, and epistemological authority.” According to Combe, if man devoted himself to obeying the “‘doctrine of the natural laws,’ all would live in a happier, healthier world and experience the greatest possible joys and satisfactions as civilization, and individuals, progressed ever further towards perfection.” To secularists like George Jacob Holyoake (1817-1906), Combe’s Constitution was “a new Gospel of Practical Ethics.” For Combe, god became Natural Law.

It should be clear that Combe’s Constitution was not simply a textbook on phrenology. It was the formation of a new “sect”; a new creed or worldview of the naturalists.

Another interesting fact about Combe is that he was one of the earliest narrators of the much maligned—at least, among contemporary historians of science—”conflict thesis” between religion and science. In his On the Relation between Science and Religion, first published as a pamphlet in 1847, Combe foresaw a “new faith” arising, one that would recognize natural laws as the providential instructor of humanity. “Science,” he says, has banished the “belief in the exercise, by the Deity…of special acts of supernatural power, as a means of influencing human affairs,” and in its place has “presented a systematic order of nature, which man may study, comprehend, and follow, as a guide to his practical conduct. In point of fact, the new faith [he says] has already partially taken the place of the old.” This has been no easy task. Since the “days of Galileo to the present time, religious professors have too often made war on science, on scientific teachers, and on the order of nature.” What we need, says Combe, is a “new Reformation” and a “new creed,” one which will “harmonize with a sound Natural Religion.” As Wyhe observes, this narrative of conflict would be taken up later in the century by scientific writers such as Huxley—but also Tyndall, Spencer, Draper, and White, among others.

One of the more salient features of Combe’s Constitution was his optimistic view of progress. Progress was mankind’s salvation. According to Wyhe, “Combe’s engine of progress, like that of Condorcet, Lord Kames and later of the historian H.T. Buckle, Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte, was natural law, and especially the increased knowledge of natural law.” Nature was naturally progressive. Man was naturally progressive. But ignorance of science stymied progress; it was mankind’s “chief cause of suffering.” And like the other authors Wyhe lists, Combe saw mankind as “arranged in a hierarchical scale of superiority and inferiority.” In Combe’s view, the bottom rung of the hierarchy began with non-Europeans (i.e., those with “dark skins”), and led to western Europeans (i.e., particularly himself).

Despite its extraordinary popularity (e.g., British sales in 1893 reached approximately 125,000 copies), Combe’s work was not without its critics. Indeed, according to Wyhe, “the controversies over Vestiges and The origin of species really pale in comparison with those over Constitution.” Evangelicals and members of the Edinburgh Phrenological Society were particularly critical. Most were concerned that Combe’s new philosophy would somehow replace Christianity or, even worse, God. Another was where to find the source of morality in a completely naturalized cosmos. Yet another was Combe’s claims of natural progress and the “infinite perfectibility of Man.”

Nevertheless, many—secular and religious—found ways to lessen the more radical implications of Combe’s philosophy. Most importantly, Combe’s Constitution appealed to a recent surge of popular scientific texts that trumpeted the “overarching cosmology of progress through natural law.” This idea of progress, as many scholars have pointed out, had religious foundations. Indeed, Combe himself claimed that his work “fulfilled the Bridgewater goal” of demonstrating the “power, wisdom, and goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation.” But just who or what god was, Combe never says.

Taylor - The Philosophy of Herbet SpencerIn many ways, Combe and his Constitution cleared the way for Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and others. In fact, my other reading over the weekend, Michael W. Taylor’s The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer (2007) and Mark Francis’ Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern Life (2007), both mention the important influence of Combe’s work on Spencer. Taylor comments on how Spencer used several  doctrines found in Combe, particularly that “happiness requires man to obey the natural laws,” and that “disobedience as surely brings its punishment in the one case, as in the other.” In short, “Spencer’s mature moral philosophy was founded on the same conception of the beneficence of the laws of nature that was to be discovered in the writings of predecessors like Combe, Hodgskin, and Chambers.”

Francis - Herbert Spencer and the Invention of Modern LifeIn his book, Francis thinks Spencer has been misinterpreted, and thus offers a reappraisal. He portrays Spencer as an oversensitive man filled with feeling. In this sense Spencer was not unlike Luther, a prophet of the new century calling for a New Reformation not only in science, but also morality and religion. Members of the New Reformation, including Spencer, held strongly to a metaphysical belief in the Unknown, were often called “spiritualists,” and were behind the weekly journal, The Leader.

Francis rejects the notion that Spencer was the progenitor of Social Darwinism. Spencer’s evolutionary theory, he says, “(i) did not focus on species change; (ii) did not draw on natural selection or competition; and (iii) did not accept the modern individuals or societies would continue to make progress through struggle for survival.”

Most interestingly, however, Francis highlights Spencer’s religious background, and how religion continued to play a prominent role in his writings, where one can find a “reservoir of religious meaning.” Spencer wanted to create a “new morality and metaphysics with which to replace both orthodox Christianity and materialistic positivism.” He rejected Comte’s alleged scientific rationalism for a “religion of the heart.” Science must have some religious aim.

These three remarkable works continue to complicate and even problematize conventional views of the scientific naturalists. The lives and ideas of this coterie were often messy, incomplete, inconsistent, and contradictory.  In other words, they were human.


The Age of Scientific Naturalism

John Tyndall died of poisoning. From 1890-93, this enthusiastic mountaineer found himself bedridden, struggling with illness. He was in the habit of taking doses of chloral hydrate at night to help him with his insomnia, and every other day some sulphate of magnesia for his constipation. Near the end, his wife, Louisa, 25 years his junior, administered the dosages to him.

In 1893, on a Monday morning, Tyndall asked Louisa for a spoonful of magnesium. It was dark, and his beside table was littered with bottles. Louisa took a bottle a poured a spoonful, serving it to his lips. He took a big gulp and, tasting it, said, “there is a curious sweet taste.” Immediately Louisa realized she had accidentally given him a spoonful of chloral. She turned to him and said, “John, I have given you chloral.” He replied, “yes, my poor darling, you have killed your John” (see account in “Mrs. Tyndall’s Fatal Error,” New York Times, 1893).

The great physicist John Tyndall died that same evening. Stricken with guilt, Louisa spent the rest of her life attempting to resurrect him. She collected his journals, correspondence, and all unfinished writings for the purpose of publishing a massive Life and Letters. No Life and Letter ever came to fruition. She died in 1940 at the age of 95.

Lightman and Reidy - The Age of Scientific NaturalismThe current volume under review is a renewed attempt to resurrect the life and work of John Tyndall. Edited by Bernie Lightman and Michael S. Reidy, The Age of Scientific Naturalism: Tyndall and his Contemporaries (2014), the essays in this collection originate from two conferences specifically organized around the work of Tyndall, including the “Evolutionary Naturalism Conference” held at York University in 2011 and “John Tyndall and Nineteenth-Century Science Workshop and Conference” held at Montana State University in 2012. Publisher Pickering & Chatto (publishers of the current volume) will also begin publishing Tyndall’s correspondence in 16 volumes, beginning in 2015.

The Age of Scientific Naturalism is divided into three parts. Part I, “John Tyndall,” highlights Tyndall’s “unflinching defence of a naturalistic world view” and the role he played “within the contested nature of science in the Victorian era.” Tyndall was known for his “flamboyant lectures, which mixed practised showmanship with extravagant experiments,” presenting “science as an exhilarating spectacle.” The essays in this first part stress Tyndall’s research and the construction of his public persona. Elizabeth Neswald’s opening essay, “Saving the World in the Age of Entropy,” connects Tyndall with philosophical threads and ideological biases of the mid-nineteenth century, particularly German naturaphilosophie. In his work, for example, Tyndall marginalized the law of entropy in “favour of a balanced world of cycles,” in much the same way that German materialists did, proposing a “living nature in an eternal process of becoming.” Tyndall emphasized “the role of the sun in supporting life,” and drew “a picture of a nature embodying organic unity.” This verges on “nature worship,” and Neswald emphasizes that Victorian religious agnosticism “differed little from Christian theology.” According to Neswald, “for Tyndall…god was nature.” Following the work of Ruth Barton, Stephen S. Kim, and Tess Cosslett, Neswald notes that “the use of religious language in works of popular science was widespread in this period,” and that Tyndall’s language was particularly indebted to the “natural supernaturalism” of Thomas Carlyle. “Tyndall’s private writings, his journals and letters, reveal a view of nature and the universe that sees a creative power that could not be fully comprehended through science alone.” In a letter to his close friend Thomas Archer Hirst, for instance, Tyndall writes that “the universe is a body with life within it, and among it, and through it, permeating its every fiber…Everything in nature is in the act of becoming another thing.” These sentiments were due to Tyndall’s reading of “German philosophers,” which he “imbibed them through the interpretations and writings of Thomas Carlyle, who himself was deeply indebted to German idealist and romantic philosophies.” Indeed, Tyndall was very much encrusted within this tradition, so much so that modern interpretations, such as viewing him as a progenitor of global warming, become problematic, as Joshua Howe shows in the following essay, “Getting Past the Greenhouse.” Howe criticizes the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom for co-opting Tyndall as a forefather of modern climate science. Also criticizing recent “histories” of global warming, Howe writes that the “biography of global warming is ahistorical.” Such “presentist biography,” he argues, “has consequences for the way we understand the role of science in the twenty-first-century politics of climate change.” These stories “feed myths and misunderstandings about contemporary and historical issues, both academic and otherwise.” Jeremiah Rankin and Ruth Barton, in the next essay, “Tyndall, Lewes and Popular Representations of Scientific Authority in Victorian Britain,” compare the popular science writings of Tyndall and those of literary critic George Henry Lewes, showing how porous the boundaries between public and private science, the laboratory and the field, and the popularizer and practitioner, were during the mid-Victorian period. Both Tyndall and Lewes, they argue, “pursued scientific research, wrote for the periodical press, addressed topics beyond their specialist expertise, and devoted considerable effort to popularizing a naturalistic version of science.” Indeed, both men used many of the “same tropes in their self-representation as reliable and authoritative expositors of science.”

Part II, “Scientific Naturalism,” examines scientific naturalism itself, demonstrating that science was still in a state of flux in the late-nineteenth century. But this set of essays attempt to move beyond Frank Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974). Who were the “scientific naturalists” turns out to be an increasingly complex question. Looking at some of the “less obvious scientific naturalists,” these essays go beyond the myopic focus on Huxley and Tyndall, and examine the complex personalities of Herbert Spencer, William Kingdon Clifford, William Huggins, and Alfred Newton. Spencer, for example, planted his philosophical roots in the soil of naturaphilosophie and evolutionary deism. According to Michael Taylor, in his “Herbert Spencer and the Metaphysical Roots of Evolutionary Naturalism,” Spencer underscored the “popular and fluid definitions of scientific naturalism.” Rather than an empiricist and materialist, Taylor argues, Spencer’s philosophical system reveals “elements of transcendentalism and rationalism, as well as an awareness of the limits of knowledge that verged on mysticism.” Spencer undoubtedly had metaphysical sources, such as Erasmus Darwin and Robert Chambers’ “evolutionary deism,” which “articulated a vision of cosmic evolution that presented a story of progress from the nebulae to human society.” Another metaphysical source was German transcendental biology or naturaphilosophie. Despite his neglect in contemporary works, Spencer’s impact on Victorian intellectual life was immense. Taylor persuasively argues that “Spencer’s evolutionary naturalism had its roots deep in metaphysical theories that were far removed from empiricism and materialism.” Josipa Petrunic follows with an essay on the “Evolutionary Mathematics” of Clifford and his beliefs in the Spencerian process of evolution, which included the search for a foundation for a new morality within scientific naturalism. In the end, according to Petrunic, Clifford became a “more thoroughgoing evolutionary naturalist than either Huxley or Tyndall, as well as many others amongst the older generation who founded the X-Club.” Robert W. Smith’s essay, “The ‘Great Plan of the Visible Universe,'” looks at astronomer Huggins who, although rejecting traditional natural theology, sought a conception of the unity of nature founded upon divine design. A leading pioneer in the development of astrophysics, Huggins’ work, according to Smith, was shaped by deep “religious sensibilities.” However, this was only the Huggins of the mid-1860s. This early Huggins “saw very powerful evidence of design when he viewed the heavens.” Yet by the 1880s and 1890s, Huggins’ opinions had decidedly shifted to something more resembling Turner’s “Scientific Naturalist.” Unfortunately, why this shift occurred, says Smith, is rather obscure. Jonathan Smith, in the final essay in this section, “Alfred Newton: The Scientific Naturalist Who Wasn’t,” shows how Newton applied Darwinism to his own work in ornithology, but was “restrained and cautious in his public endorsement of Darwinism.” Indeed, he did not “share the broader agenda of scientific naturalism.” Newton was a clear example that “one could be a Darwinian without being a scientific naturalist.”

Part III, “Communicating Science,” looks at the disparate “modes of communication, including public lectures, scientific meetings, personal correspondence, newspaper editorials, pamphlets, and even town-hall meetings and church gatherings” that supported science during the Victorian period. Janet Brown, in the opening essay, “Corresponding Naturalists,”offers an engaging “correspondence-history” of the scientific naturalists, and “how epistolary exchange helped shape the very foundation of modern science, with its emphasis on evaluation, adjudication, authentication, prioritization and distribution of the latest scientific research” (my emphasis). In the same vein, Melinda Baldwin’s essay, “Tyndall and Stokes,” offers a more detailed examination of the epistolary exchange between Tyndall and mathematician and theologian George Gabriel Stokes. Although Tyndall and Strokes “differed radically in upbringing, temperament and religious orientation,” these ideological differences did not prevent them from maintaining a friendship, thus problematizing the notion of an antagonism between science and religion at the time. Baldwin demonstrates the central role their correspondence played in shaping the physical sciences in the Victorian period. The Tyndall Correspondence Project has found some two hundreds letters between Tyndall and Stokes, and it seems that Stokes, Baldwin suggests, “shaped both Tyndall’s papers and Tyndall’s idea about scientific theories.” In other words, Tyndall respected Stokes’ scientific expertise, consulted him on scientific theories, and even called on him to review some of his essays. Stokes was a member of the North British physicists, which have been portrayed as the great antagonists of the scientific naturalists. But the Tyndall-Stokes correspondence suggests a more complex picture. Bernie Lightman concludes with an essay on the “Science at the Metaphysical Society.” Much of what he has to say here depends on the research of Alan Willard Brown’s masterful The Metaphysical Society: Victorian Minds in Crisis, 1869-1880 (1947), but Lightman distinguishes himself from Brown’s politically idealistic philosophy. Most importantly, Lightman shows that religious members of the Society were not anti-science; rather, “they simply had their own definition of what it was, the role it should play in society, and the broader ramifications of its findings.”

This set of essays, along with those in Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2014) complicates our conventional understanding of Victorian naturalists. “The contest for cultural authority,” Lightman concludes in The Age of Scientific Naturalism, “was not only between the Anglican clergy and scientific naturalists. Feminists, socialists and others were claiming that they were qualified to provide leadership, and that contemporary science supported their claims.” Furthermore, the scientific naturalists were not mere “agnostics,” in the contemporary sense of the term, as “rationalists.” Their ideas, and ideals, were infused with metaphysics, a romantic sense of nature, and, indeed, a deep reforming spirit, of knowledge, society, and religion.

Victorian Scientific Naturalism

A numDawson and Lightman - Victorian Scientific Naturalismber of books of recent date have made significant contributions to our understanding of the Victorian coterie known as the scientific naturalists. A comprehensive survey of the last few decades of scholarship in this field can be found in Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman’s introduction to their Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity (2014). Dedicated to Frank Miller Turner, who was one of the first scholars to use “scientific naturalism” as a historiographic category to describe a group of Victorian intellectuals—such as, e.g., Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall, William Kingdon Clifford, Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, John Lubbock, Edward Tylor, George H. Lewes, E. Ray Lankester, Henry Maudsley, Frederic Harrison, Leslie Stephen, John Morley, Grant Allen, and Edward Clodd—with the supposed common goal of redefining nature, humanity, society, and science, Dawson and Lightman have collected a group of essays first presented at a workshop on “Revisiting Evolutionary Naturalism: New Perspectives on Victorian Science and Culture” at York University in 2011.

They begin their introduction with an etymological survey of “scientific naturalism,” showing that long before Huxley used it in his Essays upon Some Controverted Questions (1892), it was employed by American evangelicals in the 1840s as a pejorative epithet. In the 1860s and 70s,  Scottish Free Church theologian David Brown and journalist and owner of the Contemporary Review William Brightly Rands also complained that scientific naturalism was the cause of “an inescapable sense of melancholy” and “moral decay” of their time. Only at the turn of the decade, in a letter published in the Secular Review, scientific naturalism was used, seemingly for the first time, as an “entirely positive designation for the scientific rejection of all nonmaterial phenomena.”

Returning to Huxley, Dawson and Lightman highlight his attempt to give the term a lengthy intellectual lineage. More interesting, however, is Huxley’s claim that the Bible is “the most democratic book in the world,” and that its strength lies in its “ethical sense,” and as such the “human race is not yet, possibly may never be, in a position to dispense with it.” In short, Huxley’s strategy was to make scientific naturalism “unimpeachably respectable, scrupulously cleansed of all the deleterious ethical and political connotations it had accrued since first coming into usage in the 1840s.”

Indeed, Huxley’s usage matched earlier connotations of the scientific naturalist, which simply meant being an expert and specialist practitioner of the life sciences. This leads Dawson and Lightman to suggest that scientific naturalism and scientific naturalist were “actor’s categories for much of the nineteenth century,” polemical constructs “employed by both evangelicals and secularists even before it was taken up by the archpolemicist Huxley.”

Dawson and Lightman then turn to twentieth and twenty-first developments. The work of Frank Turner is of course mentioned. But they also point out Robert M. Young’s collection of essays in Darwin’s Metaphor: Nature’s Place in Victorian Culture (1985), where an overarching theme of continuity is pronounced, “pointing out that while natural theology was built on an explicitly theological theodicy, scientific naturalism similarly rested on a secular theodicy based on biological conceptions and the assumptions of the uniformity of nature.” Two years later Lightman published his The Origins of Agnosticism (1987), which argued that “there were many vestiges of traditional religious thought embedded in Victorian agnosticism” and the “possibility that agnositicism originated in a religious context.” They also mention the influential work of Ruth Barton, especially her essays on the X-Club, John Tyndall, and the origins of the scientific journal, Nature.

More recently, historians of science have begun marginalizing Turner’s notion of an emerging, professional scientific elite. Adrian Desmond’s The Politics of Evolution (1989), Ann Secord’s “Science in the Pub” (1994), James Secord’s Victorian Sensation (2000), John van Wyhe’s Phrenology and the Origins of Victorian Scientific Naturalism (2004), and Lightman’s Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007), pushed “back the establishment of a secular naturalistic tendency in British science into the 1830s and 1840s,” essentially placing the scientific naturalists on the periphery. We should add here Lightman’s own collection of essays on Evolutionary Naturalism in Victorian Britain (2009), which examined the enduring strength of religion in the late nineteenth century and the vestiges of religious thought among the scientific naturalists, the problems of communicating their message to the general public, and Victorian critics of scientific naturalism and their strong resemblance to postmodern criticism.

Despite being pushed to the periphery in modern scholarship, Huxley and the scientific naturalists continue to fascinate. Paul White’s Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (2003) demonstrates that Huxley’s self-identity was “drawn, in part, from his understanding of domesticity, literature, and religion.” Dawson‘s own Darwin, Literature, and Victorian Respectability (2007) shows how advocates of scientific naturalism constructed “their model of professional scientific authority in line with their opponents’ standards of respectability.” Here again we should also add Lightman and Machael S. Reidy’s The Age of Scientific Naturalism (2014), which focuses on physicist John Tyndall, but also contains exemplary essays on Herbert Spencer and the metaphysical roots of his evolutionary naturalism, William Clifford’s use of Spencerian evolution, and many others.

“The time is right,” writes Dawson and Lightman, “to return to those canonical figures, in the light of the new scholarly agendas, and reevaluate their status as icons of the Victorian scientific scene.” With a focus on “forging friendships,” “institutional politics,” “broader alliances,” and “new generations,” this volume of essays offers “new perspectives on Victorian scientific naturalism that…produce a radically different understanding of the movement centering on the issues of community, identity, and continuity.”

Scientific Epistemology as Moral Narrative

The latest hierology is hitting the big screen in November, director James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything.  Based on the trailer, the film sets out to tell the “love story” between world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and his (first) wife, Jane Wilde. Nevermind that Wilde and Hawking divorced in 1995, after years of what she has called absolute “misery” (but which had little to do with his motor neuron disease ). The same year they were divorced, moreover, Hawking married one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, whom he also later divorced in 2006.

Upon watching the trailer, however, one of course only sees Hawking’s nobler traits. At least that is how the narrative unfolds. This reminds me of George Levine’s fascinating book, Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England (2002). In this book Levine examines the narratives underlying Victorian scientific epistemology, which he locates in themes of self-sacrifice, self-denial, self-effacement, self-abnegation—in other words, in dying to self. “There is something in our culture,” he writes,” that drives it to find things out, even at the risk of life.” This is the central metaphor underlying Western culture’s quest for truth as well as the underlying narrative of scientific epistemology. The narrative of renunciation is found, for example, in Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes; in the dying-to-know narrative of Thomas Carlyle, which he seems to have derived from Goethe and a “rigid Calvinism”; in John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, John Tyndall, Thomas Henry Huxley, Anthony Trollope, and Francis Galton, among others; and finally in the autobiographical texts of Mary Somerville, Harriet Martineau, and Beatrice Webb.

Levine - Dying to KnowThis “new” narrative of science was also the “new” narrative of morality. Levine argues that the narrative of scientific epistemology had ethical underpinnings, which are still present in discussions today: the notion that to gain reliable knowledge, observers must die as individuals. The scientist must repress his or her desires, emotions, and “everything merely personal, contingent, historical, [and] material that might get in the way of acquiring knowledge.” Paradoxically, then, “all who rightly touch philosophy, study nothing else than to die, and to be dead.”

“The model for scientific investigation,” Levine writes, “is heroic, self-humiliation; the seeker of natural knowledge puts aside worldly things, the idols of theater, cave, and marketplace, and prepares to submit to the blows of reality for the sake of a pilgrimage to the promised land of pure knowledge, human enrichment, and material progress.” In short, universal, valid, and objective knowledge required a kind of pilgrimage from “humanness.”

This narrative of pursuing knowledge, a secular pilgrim’s progress, however, cannot be fully trusted. Levine cites philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument that the narrative of repudiation is impossible, for the language we use is part and parcel of the same intellectual inheritance we are trying to repudiate! In other words, these narratives were often self-serving and disingenuous. Nevertheless, what emerged from writers such as Bacon and Descartes, Herschel and Whewell, and from Huxley, Tyndall and the scientific naturalists, is a narrative of scientific epistemology, a kind of “heroic epistemology.”

The Victorian narrative of scientific epistemology, much like the one we see in the trailer on Hawking, implies moral rigor: impartiality, patience, self-denial, the rejection of authority for experience, a strong intellectual independence, a willingness to face the facts, no matter how detrimental to tradition—in short, the total surrender of self to the thing being studied. Levine demonstrates that the story of dying-to-know has become the dominant story in our times and that the propagation of that story allows science to displace religion as the ultimate authority for all knowledge.

But in an ironic twist, as Steven Shapin has shown in various works, but which Levine only hints at, the narrative of scientific epistemology is undeniably intertwined with the religious—and particularly the Christian—ideal of self-renunciation: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9.23).

The Principle of Uniformity and its Theological Foundations

According to John Herschel, Charles Lyell, and William Whewell, the concept of “uniformity” of nature is the defining feature of science. Nature’s “inflexible order,” its “uniform sequences  and laws,” led many nineteenth-century scientists to reject miracles and divine intervention. According to Lyell,

By degrees, many of the enigmas of the moral and physical world are explained, and, instead of being due to extrinsic and irregular causes, they are found to depend on fixed and invariable laws. The philosopher at last becomes convinced of the undeviating uniformity of secondary causes, and, guided by his faith in this principle, he determines the probability of accounts transmitted to him of former ages, on the ground of their being irreconcilable with the experience of more enlightened ages.

Herschel, Lyell, and Whewell opposed dogmatic restrictions on free scientific inquiry. By mid-century, scientists could envision a uniformity of nature that allowed for progressive development but ruled out divine agency. As Ron Numbers noted in his When Science & Christianity Meet (2003), “by the 1820s virtually all geologists, even those who invoked catastrophic events, were eschewing appeals to the supernatural.”

But this is not the whole story. Matthew Stanley’s paper, “The Uniformity of Natural Laws in Victorian Britain: Naturalism, Theism, and Scientific Practice,” published in Zygon in 2011, argues that “uniformity was an important part of both theistic and naturalistic worldviews” (my emphasis). More importantly, “the methodological practices of theistic and naturalistic scientists in the nineteenth century were effectively indistinguishable despite each group’s argument that uniformity was closely dependent on their worldview.”

Stanley’s defines “uniformity” succinctly as the “claim that the laws of nature are the same everywhere and everywhen in the universe” and that “those laws do not break down or lapse anywhere in time or space.” As modern scientists and philosophers argue, the key distinguishing factor of science is its “appeal to and reliance on law: blind, natural regularity.” In short, modern science would be impossible without the assumption of uniformity.

But must uniformity require naturalism—that is, must it necessarily exclude religion, theology, and supernatural considerations? According to Stanley, a historical perspective requires us to say, “No.” In Stanley’s account, here once again encounter Huxley and his acolytes, the Scientific Naturalists. These scientists “preached” the “strict exclusion of religion from scientific matters,” and portrayed themselves as “the vanguard of a truly modern and enlightened science.” They saw the uniformity of nature as warrant of their position. But according to Stanley, “uniformity was not an obvious ally for those hostile to religion.” Theistic scientists also embraced the principle of uniformity. Moreover, they were its original formulators. Indeed, throughout its history, science has been deeply implicated with metaphysical and religious presuppositions. The supposed demarcation between science and religion by the scientific naturalists was, as Stanley and so many other historians of science have shown, was philosophically charged.

In his paper Stanley discusses the significant overlap between “theistic and naturalistic thinking” during the nineteenth century. Beginning with Huxley and Tyndall and the scientific naturalists in general, Stanley shows that the rejection of divine intervention in favor of natural causes is the exact narrative this naturalistic coterie constructed to promote their own authority. From their point of view, “the uniformity of laws left no room for religion in science.”

However, theistic scientists “were in total agreement with the naturalists that uniformity was critical to the advance of science.” Herschel, Lyell, and Whewell, for example, promoted uniformity yet were deeply religious men. According to Herschel, writing when Huxley was still a child, uniformity is the “constant exercise of his [Divine Author] direct power in maintaining the system of nature, or the ultimate emanation of every energy which material agents exert from his immediate will, acting in conformity with his own laws.” Stanley writes (following Peter Harrison): “natural laws were seen as instances of divine fiat, and they were constant because God is consistent in his actions.”

This position was also taken up by Lord Kelvin, James Clerk Maxwell, William Carpenter, Frederick Temple, Baden Powell, and the Duke of Argyll, among others. Quoting scientist Hans Christian Oersted, Powell, for example, nicely summarizes the theistic scientist position on uniformity:

The progress of discovery continually produces fresh evidence that Nature acts according to eternal laws, and that these laws are constituted as the mandates of an infinite perfect reason; so that the friend of Nature lives in a constant rational contemplation of the Omnipresent Divinity…The laws of Nature are the thoughts of Nature; and these are the thoughts of God.

But what about miracles and creation? According to philosopher Micheal Ruse, “a miracle must be a violation of a natural law, and therefore, a violation of uniformity, and therefore, has nothing to do with science” (my emphasis). But Stanley argues that theistic scientists also agreed that “apparent violations of natural law were illusory.” Argyll maintained that “the maker of a miracle is not the presence of supernatural causes, but rather that it has its origin in divine intent.” Similarly, Temple argued that

Science will continue its progress, and as the thoughts of men become clearer it will be perpetually more plainly seen that nothing in Revelation really interferes with that progress. It will be seen that devout believers can observe, can cross-question nature, can look for uniformity and find it, with as keen an eye, with as active an imagination, with as sure a reasoning, as those who deny entirely all possibility of miracles and reject all Revelation on that account. The belief that God can work miracles and has worked them, has never yet obstructed the path of a single student of Science…

Indeed, the ultimate “miracle” was the ultimate violation of the law of uniformity: creation. And here we have both theistic and naturalistic scientists grappled—and mused—over the origin of matter and energy. As Stanley points out, Tyndall himself concluded that the origins of the universe “transcends” scientific understanding. “Both groups agreed,” writes Stanley, “the moment of the creation was not something to be discussed scientifically.”

So how did the scientific naturalists win? How was it that their views became orthodoxy? According to Stanley, they won because they “seized the means of production.” In brief, they were better self-promoters, better at putting themselves in the locales of scientific power, better at shaping the next generation of scientists than their predecessors. Although this argument is not entirely convincing, it has merit. The scientific naturalists were indeed relentless self-promoters and popularizers of science. But as Bernie Lightman has shown in his Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007), so were the theists.

Where Stanley’s argument rings most true is in the context of education. The scientific naturalists produced textbooks, lab manuals, gave lectures, taught courses, and much more. They inserted themselves in scientific societies and promoted educational reform, to be sure, but as Adrian Desmond has put it, with a “‘distinct ideological faction‘ that clearly marked off acceptable (naturalistic) from unacceptable (theistic) ways of thinking about science” (my emphasis).

They were also very effective at rewriting history. Huxley and his acolytes rewrote “the history of their discipline to erase the long tradition of theistic science,” reimagining the “past in order to support their vision for the future.” This was a slow and gradual process that met little resistance, for, as Stanley observes “the positions of the theistic scientists and the scientific naturalists were actually quite similar in terms of basic concepts such as the uniformity of nature.” Moreover, the scientific naturalists “coopted literary strategies associated with natural theological writings to promote a naturalistic cosmology.” Taking a page from Turner, Stanley concludes that the “victory of the scientific naturalists in removing theism from the expectations and parlance of the scientific community had little to do with how science was done and much more to do with attempting to secure better access to professional positions, resources, and cultural authority.” In the end, however, it is “damaging for scientists to insist on this false dichotomy, as it makes an unnecessary enemy of anyone with religious beliefs.”

The Romanticism of the Victorian Scientific Naturalists

The scientific naturalists were, according to Frank M. Turner, “successors to the eighteenth-century philosophes.” “Combing research, polemical wit, and literary eloquence,” Turner writes,  “they defended and propagated a scientific world view based on atomism, conservation of energy, and evolution.” Turner, however, in his “Victorian Scientific Naturalism and Thomas Carlyle” (1975), urges caution in showing the connection between nineteenth-century and eighteenth-century intellectuals. There is “considerable room for qualification in accepting contemporary or self-espoused views of the intellectual background of the scientific writers or in establishing a uniformitarian apostolic succession within naturalistic thought.”

These Victorian popularizers of science were all reared in a Christian home and attended clerically dominated universities, where scientific education was infused with metaphysics, idealism, and natural religion. Put succinctly, Turner reminds us that “Huxely as a boy would go off to the woods to deliver sermons from tree stumps. Tyndall had grown up amid the rigors of Irish Orange protestantism; Leslie Stephen, in a strict evangelical household. The latter had also taken holy orders. [And] Herbert Spencer’s childhood had been passed among liberal nonconformists in the provinces.”

There was, indeed, a gradual, transitional process to their more “naturalistic frame of mind.” Here Turner emphasizes the “rather unexpected influence of Thomas Carlyle on the naturalistic coterie.” Carlyle introduced German romanticism and idealism to the British, most well-known for his Sartor Resartus, published in 1836, but appearing in serial form from 1833-34 in Fraser’s Magazine. According to Turner, “Huxley, Tyndall, Morley, Galton, and even Spencer drew upon Carlyle’s wisdom in their early manhood.” Morley claimed that Carlyle “has done more than anybody else to fire men’s hearts with a feeling for right and an eager desire for social activity.” Huxley recalled “the bracing wholesome influence of his writings when, as a young man, I was essaying without rudder or compass to strike out a course for myself.” But highest praise came from Tyndall, writing: “I must ever gratefully remember that through three long cold German winters Carlyle placed me in my tub, even when ice was on its surface, at five o’clock every morning—not slavishly, but cheerfully, meeting each day’s studies with a resolute will, determined whether victor or vanquished not to shrink from difficulty.”

But Carlyle’s influence on the scientific naturalists went beyond mere temperament.  “Contemporaries of a rationlistic and naturalistic bent of mind,” Turner argues, “discovered the foundation for a view of nature, religion, and society that allowed them to regard themselves as thoroughly scientific and naturalistic without becoming either materialistic or atheistic and to accept secular society with good conscience and a finite universe without spiritual regret.”

The link between Carlyle and the scientific naturalists, Turner tells us, is social critique and the call for a new social and intellectual elite. “Carlyle believed the problems of Britain’s social and physical well-being should be addressed by leaders whose authority and legitimacy stemmed from talent, veracity, and knowledge of facts.” This appeal to a meritorious society characterized the “young guard’s” ambitious attempt to remove all aristocratic influence from the scientific societies. But this was not egalitarian enterprise. Like Carlyle, they “believed the new elite itself should formulate and direct policy. In Huxley’s words, “I should be very sorry to find myself on board a ship in which the voices of the cook and loblolly boys counted for as much as those of the officers, upon questions of steering, or reefing topsails.” In short, the naturalistic movement was a new elitist’s movement.

This is most clearly demonstrated in the thought and career of Galton. Indeed, Galton had nothing but contempt for democracy and equality. “I have no patience with the hypothesis,” he once wrote, “that babies are born pretty much alike…it is in the most unqualified manner that I object to pretension of natural equality.” In Turner’s estimation, “a direct line of intellectual descent connects Carlyle’s demand for heroes and his devotion to great men with Galton’s eugenics.”

The scientist was the new hero, often represented in messianic imagery. This image of scientist as savor came, of course, with invectives against the current priesthood and clerical-scientist. In his Heroes and Hero Worship (1841), Past and Present (1843), and Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850), Carlyle declared that the reigning “sham” priesthood should (and will) be replaced with a more industrious, honest, courageous, effective, and active intellectual leadership. By the mid-nineteenth century, the new scientific elite asserted themselves as this new intellectual leadership. In a letter to Charles Kingsley, for example, Huxley claimed that the “caste of priests must give way to a new order of prophets”: “Understand that this new school of prophets [he writes] is the only one that can work miracles, the only one that can constantly appeal to nature for evidence that it is right, and you will comprehend that it is no use to try to barricade us with shovel hats and aprons, or to talk about our doctrines being ‘shocking.'” The scientists thus were the new teachers of truth.

This Carlylean influence, Turner says, solves an apparent paradox. Although the scientific naturalists attacked the clergy and Christian doctrine, they remained men of deep moral and religious sensitivity. Carlyle had separated religion from spirituality. Religion was “wonder, humility, and work amidst the eternities and silences.” True religion was the “inner man.” Huxley likewise declared that “a deep sense of religion was compatible with the entire absence of theology.” Other members of the naturalistic coterie would concur. Carlyle had been a religious and philosophical agnostic long before Huxley coined the term. In a letter to Scottish author John Sterling, Carlyle proclaimed:

Assure yourself,  I am neither Pagan nor Turk, not circumcised Jew, but an unfortunate Christian individual resident at Chelsea in this year of Grace; neither Pantheist nor Pottheist, nor any Theist or ist whatsoever, having the most decided contempt for all manner of System-builders  and Sectfounders—so far as contempt may be compatible with so mild a nature; feeling well beforehand (taught by experience) that all such are and even must be wrong. By God’s blessing, one has got two eyes to look with; and also a mind capable of knowing, of believing: that is all the creed I will at this time insist on.

According to Turner, Carlyle statement “stood as a statement of Huxley’s, Tyndall’s, Spencer’s, or Stephen’s religious and metaphysical position.” The Victorian scientific naturalists’ philosophical skepticism, optimism, work ethic, and conceptions of force and matter, all belong to this Carlylean intellectual heritage. “Carlyle’s impetus provided the foundation for their moral commitment,” Turner concludes, “for the scientific publicists approached their age in the guise of the man of letters confident with Carlyle that ‘What he teaches, the whole world will do and make.'”

Contesting Cultural Authority

Cover TemplateFrank M. Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974) presented a new perspective on the relationship between science and religion. By carefully examining Victorian figures, such as Henry Sidgwick, Alfred Russel Wallace, Frederic W.H. Myers, George John Romanes, Samuel Butler, and James Ward, Turner demonstrated that the pervading “conflict thesis” was overly simplistic. In that same book Turner examined the influence of the “scientific naturalists,” a phrase employed by T.H. Huxley in his Essays upon Some Controverted Questions (1892), but which had an earlier history as a pejorative epithet among American evangelicals. For Huxley and others, the phrase came to encapsulate a particular set of assumptions, values, and cosmology (i.e. the three seminal theories found in the atomic theory, the law of the conservation of energy, and evolution).

Turner continued to develop his understanding of the scientific naturalists in a series of articles, most of which are collected in the volume Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life (1993).

In 1973, Turner published his article on “Lucretius among the Victorians,” which traced the rising interest on the Roman poet Lucretius in late-Victorian scholarship. In the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1875-1889), for example, W.Y. Sellar’s entry on “Lucretius” notes that “physical philosophy in the present day is occupied with the same problems as those which are discussed in the first two books of the De Rerum Natura” (“On the Nature of Things”), and that “the old war between science and theology, which has been revived in the present generation, is fought, though with different weapons, yet in the same ardent and uncompromising spirit throughout the whole poem, as it is in the writings of living thinkers.”

But according to Turner, associating Lucretius with science and the conflict with religion was an Victorian invention. “During this period,” he writes, “classical scholars, men of letters, and philosophers discovered commentaries on Lucretius to be convenient vehicles for attacking scientific naturalism.” In associating naturalistic and scientific thought with philosophical materialism, many authors saw a symbolic target in Lucretius. Liberal Christians in particular sought this connection. As religious philosopher and historian of Unitarianism James Martineau put it: “To get rid of a troublesome discoverer or vigorous thinker, there is no readier way…than to dismiss his new ideas as stale fallacies dug up again out of the discarded rubbish of the past.” The polemical advantage was clear. Huxley et al. modern scientific thought could be discredited as stale fallacies based on Lucretian philosophy.

But first Lucretius had to be transformed from a poet to a natural philosopher. Early Victorian commentators judged Lucretius on his artistic merit. Yet by mid-century, writers were beginning to see him in the spirit of modernity, as a precursor of the modern scientist. What happened? Turner cites Scottish scientist Henry Charles Fleeming Jenkin (1833-85) as the earliest to associate Lucretius with atomic theory, thus setting the “precedent for considering the thought of Lucretius in relation to modern ideas and scientific theory and for drawing parallels between the work of the ancient poet and the endeavors of contemporary scientists.”

But according to Turner, it was John Tyndall’s infamous Belfast Address of 1874 that solidified the association. In advocating his own naturalistic view of the development of science, Tyndall used Lucretius as giving “posterity the best and most eloquent explication of [atomic] theory.” In short, Lucretius became the “upholder of true science in the ancient world, a noble enemy of superstition, and a pioneer in the struggle to liberate science from the ideals, opinions, cosmology, and institutions of religion and theology.” This view continues to be popular, as Neil deGrasse Tyson’s first episode of the rebooted Cosmos so clearly demonstrated.

Victorian writers were quick to pounce on the association, however. From James Martineau, John Veitch, Robert Flint, John Tulloch, W.H. Mallock, and John Masson,  “Lucretius,” Turner writes, “became the pawn in the struggle for cultural domination between the men of science and the men of religion.” According to these writers, Lucretius had anticipated the doctrines of modern scientists. But then they argued that Lucretius’ philosophy was inadequate or incorrect. The implication being that so were the ideas of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, and other scientific naturalists. Perhaps most interestingly, these writers then “suggested that Lucretius’ critique of religion had been appropriate and necessary for the development of pure religion. However, his particular argument as resurrected by Huxley [et al.] had in the course of two millenia became inapplicable and invalid. Therefore the anti-religious arguments of the scientific publicists were both irrelevant and anachronistic” (my emphasis). In short, by re-constructing Lucretius as a precursor of modern science, these writers undermined Huxley and company. And whereas Lucretius presented a “high, reverential, moral, and spiritual purpose,” by contrast the scientific naturalists were simply “anti-religious.”

The scientific naturalists were not, of course, without a response. Huxley, Tyndall, Clifford and others were keen to disassociate classical atomic theories with those of the nineteenth century. But they also wanted to emphasize that they, too, “deduce social, philosophical, and religious conclusions from theories of matter and organic evolution,” thus indicating that they too sought to reform religion in ways similar to Lucretius.

The following year Turner came out with an article entitled “Rainfall, Plagues, and the Prince of Wales: A Chapter in the Conflict of Religion and Science,” published in the Journal of British Studies. Here he presented an early formulation of what would become his signature argument:  “Victorian conflict between religion and science,” he writes in his conclusion, “was something more than a dispute over ideas. It manifested the tension arising as the intellectual nation become more highly differentiated in functions, professions, and institutions. It was a clash between established and emerging intellectual and social elites for popular cultural preeminence in a modern industrial society.”

In this article Turner examines three episodes in the Victorian debate over the nature of prayer. First, the excessive rainfall in the summer of 1860, which Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce attributed to “the national sins of the Divorce Act of 1857, recent riots at St. George’s church in London’s East End, and the war with China,” spurred many in the Anglican church to call for appointed prayers for better weather. But this call was contested among many scientific practitioners, particularly physicist John Tyndall. The scientists were not alone, however. There were also others in the church who called for a new interpretation of nature without recourse to the supernatural. Charles Kingsley, for example, “told his parishioners that praying for fair weather was an act of unwarranted presumption,” and was thus unwilling to abide the call. For his resistance, Kingsley received several congratulatory letters, including one from geologist Charles Lyell. According to Turner, scientists were beginning to claim authority over matters that pertained to natural knowledge, and liberal churchmen were willing to oblige and support their position.

Another clash over prayer came in 1865, when a cattle plague hit English farmers. The Archbishop of Canterbury issued a special prayer for those affected. At the same time, a Royal Commission under Lyon Playfair instituted preventive measures and stricter regulations for cattle trade. Many saw the Archbishop’s call to prayer as a retrogression. Tyndall once again entered the scene with an article published by the Pall Mall Gazette, arguing that such prayers were no different than ancient and heathen prayers which called for some divine, spontaneous interference. The debate continued on into the monthly journals, such as the North British Review and Macmillan’s Magazine. Although presented with both scientific and theological arguments against such a conception of prayer, many bishops refused to back down. This led to a number of leading broad churchmen to declare that the “national church must encompass leading intellects of the nation and must not employ its dignity and power to block or discourage intellectual discourse and discovery.”

The final example Turner provides is when the Prince of Wales contracted typhoid in 1871. The Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with a committee drawn from members of the Cabinet and the Privy Council, issued a telegraph calling for prayers for the recovery of Prince Edward. The Prince eventually recovered and clergymen attested this to the power of prayer. This “vindication” was given further publicity in the Guardian, which saw the event as “a solemn recognition of the direct and personal working of the Hand of God in things of this life.” Without directly criticizing the special prayers offered, the professional and medical periodicals used the event as an opportunity “publicize the necessity for further sanitary reform and legislation.” Things became heated, however, when the “clergy explicitly and the government implicitly credited prayer rather than medical treatment for the recovery of the heir to the throne.” The medical journal Lancet, for example, declared that “while we recognize the hand of Providence, we still claim for modern medical science that she has signally won fresh laurels in the recovery of the Prince of Wales.”

Several months later, surgeon Henry Thompson challenged Christians, in an essay entitled “The Prayer for the Sick,” published in the Contemporary Review in 1872, and what would later be dubbed the “Prayer Gauge Debate,”  to “conduct an experiment to determine the physical efficacy of prayer.” The debate would appear very publicly in the British magazine, Spectator. What is more, eugenicist Francis Galton, in an article published in the Fortnightly Review, used statistical analysis to condemn the efficacy of religious practices and, more importantly, the general “ability of religious men to solve practical problems of society.” This same theme appeared in one of the Spectator articles, signed by a mysterious “Protagoras.” According to Turner, the article argued that “scientists had no intention of abolishing belief in the supernatural or reverence for God. Rather they sought to lead men to an understanding of the results of science and of their application to daily life.”

The removal of such base superstition from public knowledge required, Turner claims, “the recognition of a new intellectual elite who would displace the clergy on all levels of society as the interpreters of natural phenomena.” Once again, liberal religious thinkers were only too willing to oblige the emerging scientific elite. According to Huxley, Tyndall, and other leading scientific naturalists, “the scientist now stood as the mediator between modern man and a nature that could almost be commanded to serve his material needs.” In 1879, historian James Anthony Froude went so far as to argue that those who “observe the rules of health as ascertained and laid down by science…better deserve the name of religious men than those who neglect the means of protecting themselves which God has provided, and try to induce Him by prayers to suspend His ordinances in their favor.” Clearly, this was the “transfer of cultural and intellectual leadership and prestige from the exponents of one faith to those of another.”

Turner continued working on the scientific naturalists in his article, “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension,” first published by Isis in 1978. The conflict between science and religion was not only a narrative; it was also a by-product of professional elites vying for cultural authority. Writers like G.H. Lewes and Huxley used polemical language to construct a progressionist ideology that juxtaposed a “good progressive science against [an] evil retrogressive metaphysics and theology.” This was not simply a reified “science” against “religion” but a battle between particular spokesmen for science and religion.

Working from statements made by James Clerk Maxwell, A.W. Benn and others, to the effect that there was “a transfer of authority from religious to naturalistic beliefs,” Turner states his thesis clearly: “the primary motivating force behind this shift in social and intellectual authority…was activity within the scientific community that displayed most of the major features associated with nascent professionalism.” This “young guard of science,” to use a phrase employed by Leonard Huxley, consisting of Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall, Joseph Dalton Hooker, George Busk, Edward Frankland, Thomas Archer Hirst, John Lubbock, William Spottiswoode, Herbert Spencer, Henry Cole, Norman Lockyer, Francis Galton, Lyon Playfair, and others, “had established themselves as a major segment of the elite of the Victorian scientific world.” They advocated a positivist epistemology as the exclusive epistemological foundation of legitimate science, which came to “discredit the wider cultural influences of organized religion.”

By the late-nineteenth century, these men held editorships, professorships, and offices in major scientific societies. Indeed, they had “established themselves as a major segment of the elite of the Victorian scientific world.”

Now, this “young guard” agreed among themselves that science should be pursued without recourse to religious dogma, theology, or religious authority. This exclusivity eventually came to serve as a weapon against the cultural influence of religion in general. This was all, of course, a recent phenomena. According to Turner, during the seventeenth century and up to the 1840s, scientists—or more precisely, natural philosophers—saw natural science and natural theology not alone compatible, but complementary. By the 1840s, a “naturalistic bent of theories in geology, biology, and physiological psychology drove deep wedges into existing reconciliation of scientific theory with revelation or theology.” In addition, the “young guard” pushed for the recognition of greater expertise in scientific practice, thus not only excluding the clergy but also women. Then came the rhetorical ploy of accusing clerical scientists of “dual loyalties”; according to Huxley and his acolytes, one could not both serve God and science. Francis Galton, for example, in his well-known English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture (1872), declared that the “pursuit of science in uncongenial to the priestly character.” Using the veneer of statistical analysis, Galton claimed that clerical scientists had significantly dropped by the mid-nineteenth century. But what Galton left out in his “analysis” was the membership reforms that took place in many scientific societies after 1850. “Had he not so skewed his numbers by choosing the date of 1850,” writes Turner, “more clergymen would have been included.” This would become a commonplace tactic of the “young guard.”

There were also major changes within the religious community of the mid-nineteenth century. Many clergymen—naturally enough—came to have nothing but contempt for the new scientific elite. They wanted to reassert their authority, in matters of religion but also in matters of natural knowledge. Others took the opposite approach, leaving the pursuit of natural knowledge to the scientists and religious matters to the clergy, thus creating two separate spheres of knowledge. As Turner puts it, “within the Church of England a clergymen-scientist confronted the choice of perpetuating traditional natural theology and risking ridicule by scientists or attempting further rationalization of theology in accord with science and encountering persecution by fellow clergymen.” All this gave further credibility to stereotypes on both sides of the debate.

One of the most admirable aspects of Turner’s scholarship—and character—was his willingness to admit his failings. A rare trait among scholars indeed. In his opening essay in Contesting Cultural Authority (1993) , “The Religious and the Secular in Victorian Britain,” Turner reflects on some of the assumptions scholars of Victorian Britain have made—including himself—about the “secular,” “religious,” and “professionalization” of Victorian scientists.

To begin, “the secular interpretation of Victorian and general nineteenth-century intellectual life,” he writes, “very much reflected the concerns of mid-twentieth-century American university intellectuals” (my emphasis). In other words, the secularization of the nineteenth-century Victorian mind is a clear example of modern ideas imposed on the past. It was an assumption accepted without question, and thus became an obstacle to real understanding. As Turner observes, it “prevented scholars from confronting in a direct manner the full spectrum of the secular and religious as the latter concretely manifested themselves in nineteenth-century life and crossed over the twentieth-century conceptual boundaries.” The change in Turner’s outlook came when gave his figures of study a closer and more sympathetic reading: “I had begun to reject the conceptual categories then widely accepted in the historical literature because those categories simply could not encompass nineteenth-century intellectual life as I found it.” What had changed, he says, was a new sensibility among social and intellectual historians, ultimately leading to a “rethinking of the character of the secular and the religious in the nineteenth century.”

As Turner’s thought developed, he came to see religion playing an immense role in nineteenth-century Britain, culturally, politically, and scientifically. Here Turner credits the work of Bernie Lightman, Ruth Barton, Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray and others for changing his mind. In his “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion” Turner argued against the view that the scientific naturalists were attempting to reform and free religion from dogmatic theology. Scientists sought to “reform religion for the sake not of purifying religious life but of improving the lot of science in Victorian society.” But as Lightman’s study of Victorian agnosticism reveals, “many agnostics [and scientific naturalists] sought to set forth a serious new, non-clerical religious synthesis.” In short, they pursued “genuine religious goals and not merely the substitution of something secular for something religious.”

The changes in scholarship in the last fifty years has revealed “religion” as a “far more many splendoured thing than most of us who pursue intellectual history have tended to recognize.” Turner’s challenge to us is to “recapture that world of concrete social reference that informed both religious and non-religious intellectual life and exchange.” When we do this, he says, our present categories of “secular” and “religious” will dissolve. “Although the words secular and religious, as well as the concept of secularization, remain and intellectual historians, including myself, will continue to employ them, those terms and the often unexamined assumptions that may lie behind them no longer in and of themselves provide an adequate analytic framework for probing the Victorian age.”

Between Scientific Naturalism and “an Antiquated Religion”

The other day I began reading Gowan Dawson and Bernie Lightman’s Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Community, Identity, Continuity (2014) only to be side-tracked by references to Frank M. Turner’s Between Science and Religion (1974). Indeed, the volume is dedicated to Turner. I had picked up Turner’s book some months back, made copies of the introduction and conclusion, and quickly paged through it. Over the weekend I decided to give Turner a closer look.

Turner focuses on six, nineteenth-century thinkers: Henry Sidgwick, Alfred Russel Wallace, Frederic Myers, George Romanes, Samuel Butler, and James Ward. These were men of alternatives. They lived between scientific naturalism and religious orthodoxy. Abandoning the Christian faith, they could not replace it with the new naturalism. Indeed, they recognized that the scientific naturalism of Huxley, Tyndall, Spencer, Clifford, and others smacked of religious sentimentalism, that it purported to be a new guide to life. Science, according to these men, were merely “mechanical aptitude.” Sidgwick et al. were not alone. These six figures, Turner contends, were part of a larger contingent protesting the “pretensions of science to dominate thought and culture.” But they could not simply return to orthodoxy either. Thus they rejected both naturalism and Christianity. As a result, they existed in some sort of intellectual limbo. Myers summarized the middle position: “There are still those who, while accepting to the full the methods and the results of Science, will not yet surrender the ancient hopes of our race,” the “ancient hope” being “a final reconcilement of spiritual needs with intellectual principles,” the “capacity to lead rational lives, a potential for transcendental knowledge, immortality, and a destiny that partook of a divine or transcendental purpose.”

Sidgwick et al. questioned the “integrity of the naturalistic interpretation of man and nature,” “challenged the philosophical foundations of scientific naturalism,” and “contended that the theories and methods of scientific naturalism failed to deal logically, rationally, or adequately with certain inevitable human questions.” In short, scientific naturalism failed to “fulfill the much-vaunted promise of its adherents to provide a complete guide to life.”

Scientific naturalism was the “cult of science that swept across Europe” during the second half of the nineteenth century. Huxley and company were rarely in complete agreement with one another. However, what bound them together was a conviction that “in the struggle of life with the facts of existence, Science is a bringer of aid; in the struggle of the soul with the mystery of existence, Science is a bringer of light.” Holding strongly to a triad of doctrines—atomic theory, the law of conservation of energy, and evolution—they maintained that science had revealed the “uniformity of nature.” This, of course, was a metaphysical doctrine, and many contemporaries criticized the scientific naturalists for presupposing it without the verification of the scientific method.

According to Turner, naturalistic writers established their position on an epistemology founded on the positivism of Auguste Comte and the empirical philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Yet both were problematic, forcing the scientific naturalist to oscillate between an idealism and naive realism. This resulted in the appeal to agnosticism. But Turner calls this agnosticism “self-serving.” That is, it wasn’t an “honest doubt,” but rather the deliberate negligence of ontological issues.

It is interesting how the scientific naturalists portrayed themselves to the public. Their public persona was often arrogant, overly-confident, metaphysically reductionistic. At the same time, in private letters and diaries, they revealed much doubt in their own ideas. Thus we may suggest that Huxley and company were the most Janus-faced thinkers of the century.

Criticism came, of course, from Christians; but the non-Christian voice, such as Sidgwick et al., was even more pointed and pervasive. And as Turner points out in his conclusion, “what each man had hated most about the Christian faith reappeared in secular guise within the context of scientific naturalism.” Scientific naturalism ultimately proved “incompatible with the life of the mind.” In summarizing their view, Turner says

“that they have outgrown the church as exemplified in Christianity, but who have not therefore been brought to deny the fact that a religious attitude to life is as essential to them as a belief in the authenticity of science. These people have experienced the soul as vividly as the body, the body as vividly as the soul. And the soul has manifested itself to them in ways not to be explained in terms either of traditional theology or of materialism.”

In short, Sidgwick et al. sought a synthesis between science and religion.