t f p g+ YouTube icon

Introducing Ted Davis

Bookmark and Share

March 27, 2012 Tags: Lives of Faith
Introducing Ted Davis

Today's entry was written by Ted Davis. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: Today we welcome Ted Davis as the BioLogos Senior Fellow for the History of Science. This week, Dr. Davis begins his regular posts on the BioLogos Forum with a bit of personal background; next week, he outlines his plans for an informal on-line course in the history of the science and faith conversation, with an emphasis on the Bible and science in the United States. Future installments will (usually) come every other week. We at BioLogos are honored to have Ted joining the team, bringing both his expertise as a historian and his remarkable sense of civility (and even humor) to what can too-often be a contentious debate.

As the late musician Karl Haas used to say at the start of his radio program, “Hello, everyone!” Although a handful of my columns have appeared here, I’m mainly new to BioLogos. Nevertheless, since my interest in the general topic of science and Christianity is keen, when Darrel Falk asked me to consider making regular contributions as an historian, how could I object? So today, let me introduce myself with a bit of personal history:

I came to history relatively late. When I started college, I wanted to be an astrophysicist, and things went very well in that direction when internships were arranged for me at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. They were exciting experiences—quasars and pulsars had only recently been discovered, and NRAO was in the process of designing and building the Very Large Array telescope. I ended up working for several different astronomers, including the late Donald Backer (who discovered the first millisecond pulsar), NAS member Morton Roberts, and Seth Shostak, who later became a leading participant in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (in those days, he focused on galactic astronomy). On one particularly memorable weekend, I got to decide which galaxies needed a second look with the old 300-foot radio telescope. Ironically, seeing cutting edge science up close showed me that I probably didn’t want to do it for a living. I decided to try my hand at teaching high school science and mathematics, partly because I thought I might like teaching (I did), and partly as a way of keeping my hand in science while I sorted out my career plans.

Three things happened in the next few years that still influence my life profoundly. First, I got married to a wonderful woman who has always encouraged me to be true to myself. Second, I became interested in the relationship between Christianity and science and joined the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of Christians in the sciences that owns the oldest journal of science and faith published in the United States. Through the ASA, I met some fascinating people and discovered some wonderful books. Any Christian with scientific training—or even any Christian who wants to think hard about science—should consider joining the ASA.1 My involvement with the ASA soon led to my third decision: to do graduate work in the history and philosophy of science at Indiana University. There I had the great privilege of studying with the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton and a leading expert on the Scientific Revolution—the period from Copernicus to Newton, when modern science was born.

Westfall’s lectures are legendary, even many years after his death. They were mainly read from a prepared text, his slightly scratchy voice rising and falling dramatically, such that (as a fellow student quite fittingly said) it was like hearing a fine sermon in church. Several other scholars at Indiana also influenced me, especially Edward Grant, a specialist on medieval science and the universities where it flourished. Grant’s excellent course on the history of science and religion was my first formal introduction to the topic, although I had been reading about it extensively for several years at that point.

Westfall and Grant both provided timely and very helpful comments on my dissertation, which examined the influence of theological ideas about God, nature, and the human mind on conceptions of scientific knowledge during the Scientific Revolution. Focusing on four of the most important figures from that period—Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, and Newton—I argued that an emphasis on divine freedom (in which God’s acts do not always conform to “rational” expectations) was closely linked with the development of modern science. Those thinkers who emphasized God’s freedom (sometimes scholars call these folks “voluntarists”) saw nature as a “contingent order” (to borrow a term from Thomas Torrance) that could be studied only through a combination of reason and experience—a method that Reijer Hooykaas called “rational empiricism.” In short, if God created nature freely, not from rational necessity, then we need to discover how it works by actually studying it, not by dictating what it must be like from pure reason.

Some of my earlier publications developed these ideas more fully. Others focused more narrowly on Boyle, a great chemist who contributed fundamentally to the development of laboratory science and the philosophy of science. For many years I worked with an English historian, Michael Hunter, on a complete edition of Boyle’s works. That is undoubtedly the project with which I am most often associated. More recently I’ve been studying aspects of science and religion in modern America, especially the religious lives and ideas of several scientists who were prominent in the period between the two world wars. The two most famous scientists in this project were both Nobel laureates for physics: Robert Millikan, the person who was mainly responsible for making Caltech such a great university, and Arthur Holly Compton, whose famous experiment with x-rays and electrons is crucial to wave-particle duality, an idea at the core of modern quantum theory.

The people I’m now studying were all almost all Protestants who identified with the “modernist” side during the famous “fundamentalist-modernist” controversy of the 1920s (the only exception, Columbia physicist Michael Idvorsky Pupin, was Serbian Orthodox). We know a great deal about fundamentalist views of science and religion, but very little about modernist views. The more I’ve learned about the modernists, the more I’ve been struck by the magnitude of the gap between these two camps in the decade surrounding the famous Scopes trial of 1925. The fundamentalists rejected evolution and upheld orthodox Christian beliefs, while the modernists embraced evolution but rejected the deity of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection. There was virtually no middle ground; the historian looks in vain for leading Protestant scientists who accepted both evolution and the Resurrection—someone like Francis Collins, William Phillips, or Joan Centrella. Nothing like BioLogos existed in the 1920s, a fact that (in my opinion) had a deleterious effect on American conversations about science and religion for several decades and still has a sizeable impact today.

Overall, my scholarly work aims to debunk the now-common view that the history of science and Christianity is one of ongoing, inevitable conflict—with science winning a bitter war against religion. Although this view is still widely held by scientists and science journalists, historians of science (the relevant group of experts in this case) have given up this myth in the past two generations. However, the message has been slow to get across to the general public. Not only do I try to dismantle that myth, I do what I can to help replace it with more accurate historical work. Many others in my field are doing similar things, though each of us has something unique to contribute.

Anyone who wants to hear more about the warfare view and its problems, or more of my views on evolution and Christian faith, is invited to listen to an interview that was kindly and expertly done by Michael Dowd. Dowd is not a theist (at least not a theist of any traditional sort), and his idea of “Evolutionary Christianity” is in my view nothing like Christianity, but he let me speak for myself. The result is the best summary of my ideas that you can get in one sitting. I hope that many readers will listen to it—and make comments or pose questions for me in the comments section here. I’ll respond to as many as I can.

Finally, let me tell you where this column will go in the next few months. Does anyone remember the Monty Python film, “And Now for Something Completely Different”? In that spirit, I’ll offer an online course on “Science and the Bible” for several weeks, interspersing informational columns with “assignments” to read a few things by other authors (among them Galileo) that we can discuss here. I leave it to each reader to decide whether or not the “assignments” are worth the time of doing them (some are short, others are longer), but those who do them will probably get more out of the course than those who don’t. And, if this experiment turns out well, I’d like to do more online courses on other aspects of science and religion. Let us know what you think: we’ll be listening.

Next week, Ted gives an overview of and ground-rules for the course: Science and the Bible: Five Attitudes & Approaches.


1. The American Scientific Affiliation is not connected with BioLogos and, unlike BioLogos, it does not endorse a specific view of evolution and Christian faith.

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

Next post in series >

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
paul.bruggink1 - #68730

March 27th 2012

Welcome to BioLogos, Ted. 

p.s. One thing Ted failed to mention was that his involvement with the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) led to serving that organization as president for a year recently.

p.p.s.  The ASA journal “Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith” is available on-line at http://network.asa3.org/?page=PSCF and is well worth checking out.

beaglelady - #68731

March 27th 2012

Welcome aboard, Ted Davis! Looking forward to your online course.  Putting courses online is all the rage these days, even with large universities!

Merv - #68744

March 28th 2012

I’ve appreciated your contributions to ASA venues and was there when you visited and gave a lecture at K-State a couple years back.  I was wondering when you would make an appearance here.  It will be good to follow your on-line assignments and learn more.  I’m glad you were invited here.

—Merv Bitikofer

Ted Davis - #68747

March 28th 2012

Thank you for the warm welcome. If you have a spare hour, please listen to the interview. Then, if you have any questions or comments, please put them here and we can converse.

HornSpiel - #68751

March 28th 2012

I look forward to your contributions and insights. I think an informed historical perspective is so important since there is alot of folk history out there that is the basis of peoples views on science and theology.

In listening to your interview of Michael Dowd I get the impression that the enlightenment as a whole is not as hostile to religion as some make it out to be. (I think in particular of Francis Schaffer who paints the Enlightenment as completely negative.) I had never heard of the term “volunterism,” or that that view of the freedom of God in relation to creation had been articulated at that time.

So thanks for coming on board.

Ted Davis - #68757

March 28th 2012

Did you mean Francis Schaeffer?

If you are interested in “voluntarism” and want to read more, try to get a copy of a chapter I wrote about this; for details, go to http://home.messiah.edu/~tdavis/Foster.html

Generally I’m ambivalent about the Enlightenment; like most things historically, it’s a mix of the good and the bad. The period I was talking about, however, was the Scientific Revolution, which most scholars see as coming before the Enlightenment.

HornSpiel - #68760

March 28th 2012

Thanks for your response.Yes I did mean Schaeffer. not sure why BL #####ed it. Maybe I misspelled it.

Thanks for the link. I will try and get ahold of the article.

I guess I was mixing up the Enlightenment with the Scientific Revolution. I guess my history is a bit muddled.

In your interview with Dowd I was particualrly intrigued by your discussion of Newton who is often portrayed as a kind of mystic and berated for suggesting that God keeps the planets correctly in orbit. You seem to suggest that Newton’s ideas were not much different than what many Chistian scientists today would say: That scientific theories are descriptions of God’s normal way of working. Ultimately gravity is predictable and constant because God exists and sustains it. Just because we have an equation that allows us to accurately predict how gravity works, does not rule out God or even mean we have plumbed the depths of Nature in that area.

Ted Davis - #68761

March 28th 2012

Francis Schaeffer influenced me greatly in my teenage years. I found a discarded copy of “The God Who Is There” in a high school classroom, and I attended the L’Abri Lectures at the University of Virginia while I was working at NRAO. Schaeffer showed me what it means to have a Christian worldview, and my interest in art history (which I mention in the interview) came about as a result of hearing Hans Rookmaaker’s lectures. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Rookmaaker

If I had never encountered Schaeffer, I might not have become a scholar at all. So, I owe him a considerable debt. At the same time, as a scholar now I usually find Schaeffer’s analyses pretty shallow and even wrong. For example, I don’t blame Thomas Aquinas for the faith/fact dichotomy in modern Western thought; nor do I think that the faith/fact dichotomy is altogether an innappropriate way of thinking—indeed, the “complementarity” model of science and Christian faith that is popular with many evangelical scientists and scholars is (IMO) a very appropriate one to consider.

Ted Davis - #68762

March 28th 2012

As for Newton, your understanding here is on target. If you’ll be headed to the library to look into that other book I mentioned, look up this as well: “Newton’s Rejection of the `Newtonian World View’: The Role of Divine Will in Newton’s Natural Philosophy,” Science & Christian Belief 3 (1991), 103-117.

Or, look up this, which might be easier to obtain but is not nearly as detailed about Newton’s theology of nature: “That Isaac Newton’s Mechanistic Cosmology Eliminated the Need for God.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers (Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 115-22.


beaglelady - #68752

March 28th 2012

This is off-topic ( and I apologize),  but the founder of BioLogos, Francis Collins, will appear tonight on Nova in a show called “Cracking your Genetic Code” 


Ted Davis - #68753

March 28th 2012

“personalized medicine,” based on your own genetic code, is one of Collins’ favorite topics. I heard him explain this at an ASA meeting, actually—people who attend those meetings hear a lot of cutting edge science. It isn’t simply “science and religion” that we do.

Ashe - #68754

March 28th 2012

Welcoem Ted

Bozzie61 - #68759

March 28th 2012

Welcome to Biologos ,,,, from Perth Australia, I listen to you on Michael Dowd broadcastes.  I have spent my time since on the interection of Christianity and science.  It made me feel like a warrior against modern atheism.  Maybe a little more depth interaction between science and religion.


I will try to do the course.

Merv - #68765

March 28th 2012

Ted you mentioned in your interview that the book “Human Quest” by Richard Bube was the best explanation you had seen up to that point of how theology has a two-way dialogue with science, and not just a monologue (where theology is only informed by science and never vice versa.)  Or at least these are my paraphrase words for what I remember hearing.

Would his book still remain your top recommended reading for someone interested in that question?  Or did your “up to that point” imply that you have since encountered other works (perhaps Polkinghorne?) that managed to cover the same question in a more thorough or updated manner?


Ted Davis - #68772

March 29th 2012


It’s very good to have you part of this conversation; I hope you’ll follow along with the upcoming “course” and bring your insights and questions into it.

What I meant in talking about Bube is that he, more than anyone else I had read at that point, was about integrating science and Christianity into a coherent larger picture. I say a little more about early influences on my thinking at http://biologos.org/blog/top-list-survey-with-ted-davis-question-1

When I said that he let theology pose questions to science, I really meant that quite literally. Each of the chapters in “The Human Quest” ends with several well formulated, thought-provoking questions. In some of them, theology does pose questions to science. Here is a nice example (p. 251): “How can scientists make their own humanity and the human factors in science more evident to the public?” Here’s another (p. 66): “Is it possible to rationalize the exercise of scientific faith by an atheist?” another: (p. 158): “If the brain is likened to a switchboard, is there a switchboard operator? Who or what is it?” Likewise (159): “Describe the difficulties a man can get into if he beleives that he is not a machine.”

For background on Bube go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_H._Bube.

He is perhaps best known for his pungent critique of the “god of the gaps” idea. This is briefly discussed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_of_the_gaps. There is no substitute, however, for reading Bubes himself: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/14/14-4/14-4-pp203-220_JETS.pdf. That article on Bonhoeffer is brilliant, but for our purposes the best thing to read is a shorter, somewhat different version: Richard H. Bube, “The Failure of the God-of-the-Gaps,” in Horizons of Science, ed. Carl F.H. Henry (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 21-35.

Ted Davis - #68773

March 29th 2012

The “god of the gaps” idea has been scrutinized by many others recently, and with some good reasons. I don’t mean to suggest that Bube had the last word—one rarely does have the last word concerning fundamental ideas such as this. I think Bube’s concerns were generally well placed; we don’t want to use “God” as a substitute for a scientific explanation that we simply haven’t found yet. At the same time, it would not be good to assume that a scientific explanation for a given fact (say, the Resurrection or the fine tuning of the universe) must necessarily exist, when in fact it might not. That attitude has sometimes been called “naturalism of the gaps.” One needs to avoid both traps; one needs to remain genuinely open-minded.

For helpful critiques of Bube’s views, by Robert Larmer, a leading Canadian philosopher of religion, see http://www.newdualism.org/papers/R.Larmer/Gaps.htm. My own very limited study of Isaac Newton (cited already above) leads me to see Gottfried Leibnitz as an early source of the attitude that God mustn’t ever meddle with nature (an idea that is often expressed in terms of avoiding a “god of the gaps”), and Newton as an early example of asking, why not? why can’t God design a world in which God deliberately intended to act miraculously from time to time?

Merv - #68775

March 29th 2012

Thanks for your insights; I look forward to doing a lot of your homework, though as I quickly post this between classes, I do have the quick comment to make about Newton.


A recent poster here gave Newton as an example of religion stopping science when he attributed orbital perturbations to God instead of investigating them mathematically as he could have.  It sounded like a reasonable assessment to me, but is that oversimplistic given what you know of Newton?


Jon Garvey - #68779

March 30th 2012

Merv - on the face of it, “Newton founded Newtonian physics but stopped science” seems a non-starter of a position!

beaglelady - #68780

March 30th 2012


I believe that in that one particular example of planetary orbits, attributing it to God’s intervention certainly stopped Newton from investigating the matter further.  After all, what else could you do after that?     

Ted Davis - #68783

March 30th 2012


BioLogos has a nice account of this already: http://biologos.org/questions/god-of-the-gaps. Actually, I was one of the people who contributed background information for it. Let me add that the story about Napoleon and Laplace is often stated in somewhat legendary terms, but there is hard evidence that they did talk about this. No less than the great astronomer William Herschel is the source: he was there when the conversation happened, and he wrote about it at the time in his diary. To follow this up, borrow a copy of this book: http://www.williamherschel.org.uk/herschel chron.htm and turn to pp. 308-310.

Instead of saying more about this myself, I’ll do what teachers like to do. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader.    If someone takes me up on this, please report back here or in the comments to a subsequent column.

beaglelady - #68786

March 30th 2012

Here’s a bit more on Newton thoughts, taken from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s article “The Perimeter of Ignorance” from “Natural History” magazine:


Newton’s law of gravity enables you to calculate the force of attraction between any two objects. If you introduce a third object, then each one attracts the other two, and the orbits they trace become much harder to compute. Add another object, and another, and another, and soon you have the planets in our solar system. Earth and the Sun pull on each other, but Jupiter also pulls on Earth, Saturn pulls on Earth, Mars pulls on Earth, Jupiter pulls on Saturn, Saturn pulls on Mars, and on and on.

Newton feared that all this pulling would render the orbits in the solar system unstable. His equations indicated that the planets should long ago have either fallen into the Sun or flown the coop—leaving the Sun, in either case, devoid of planets. Yet the solar system, as well as the larger cosmos, appeared to be the very model of order and durability. So Newton, in his greatest work, the Principia, concludes that God must occasionally step in and make things right:

“The six primary Planets are revolv’d about the Sun, in circles concentric with the Sun, and with motions directed towards the same parts, and almost in the same plane. . . . But it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions. . . . This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

Merv - #68792

March 30th 2012

Thanks, all of you for your comments.  Jon, you’re right that it would be ludicrous to denigrate Newton for non-contribution, but the commenter I was referring to wasn’t trying to do that.  He used Newton as an example of how someone might have been able to go even just a bit farther yet had they not simply fallen back on a “God did it” position.  Nobody was disputing Newton’s status as a scientific giant.

While I tend to agree with the cautionary tales of gappish thinking, I nevertheless think it fine and appropriate to attribute the unknown to God AS LONG AS one makes it very clear that God is responsible for everything including what we understand so well.  The division between known and unknown is a fluid human boundary, not a defining boundary for Divine activity.  With our 21st century hindsight we could have warned Newton against any implicit acceptance of Leibniz’ more deistic mechanically run universe.  And it appears to me that Newton at least implicitly—even unintentionally went that direction by invoking God as he did.  Not to impugn Leibniz’ motives & mode of praise for a craftsman style creator, but beyond its emotive value, it doesn’t hold any deep water theologically speaking.  I will look corrections here if I misunderstand Leibniz or Newton in this.


Ted Davis - #68794

March 31st 2012

Thank you for this reference to Tyson’s article, which I’ve just read. Forgive the bluntness: I’m not impressed. I understand that Dr Tyson has been billing himself lately as an expert on science and religion, but I haven’t seen much evidence that he really knows very much about this. From the various things I’ve seen (in print) and heard (on television), the extent of his familiarity with these issues seems to be very limited—find something that someone said about God and science that you can use to make your point, quote it, show that the person was just arguing from ignorance, and conclude by stating how stupid religious believers are to think this way.

I’m afraid that, at least in Dr Tyson’s case, there is plenty of ignorance on his part. In each case, as far as I can tell, he is leaving so much unsaid that would help us understand what was really going on. For example, Robert Boyle discoursed extensively on the mechanism that results in choking—in the context of talking about the beneficial design of the body. Tyson seems clueless about this; he seems to think that no one has thought about this before, even though Boyle raised the issue more than 300 years ago. He speaks about Newton, the great empiricist, discovering things that “conflicted with prevailing articles of faith,” clearly implying that Newton saw his science as conflicting with received faith, when nothing of the sort was true. Yes, Newton did “discover” things in theology that directly confuted the Trinity, but Tyson doesn’t want us to draw that sort of inference in this passage; he wants us to draw a completely incorrect inference about his work in science. If the truth be told, one can make a pretty strong case that Newton believed that God himself was the direct cause of universal gravitation—how else could there be action at a distance between bodies that have no knowledge of each other’s presence?

In the passage you quote above, beaglelady, Newton is talking about (A), the orignal formation of the solar system as a unified set of planets in roughly coplanar orbits moving in the same direction. That’s paragraph 3. In paragraphs 1 and 2, Tyson is talking about something entirely different, (B), the fact that Newton believed the long term stability of the solar system depended on occasional miracles. Now Tyson knows a great deal of physics, far more than I do, but he’s confusing (A) and (B) because he’s simply quote mining (as far as I can tell). I don’t think he knows very much about Newton at all, far too little for him to be using examples like these to argue blindly for an anti-religious viewpoint that he holds strongly on a priori grounds.

I know that’s blunt. But, I believe, it’s both accurate and (in this place) appropriate to point out. Please don’t rely on Tyson when it comes to science and religion. He doesn’t know the first thing about it.

beaglelady - #68796

March 31st 2012

I don’t “rely on Tyson for science and religion.”  I was merely pointing out an example of  God-of-the-gaps thinking. Tyson is not a believer, but I am.  

“I don’t think he knows very much about Newton at all”

What??? He considers Newton to be the greatest scientist who ever lived!  He is very familiar with his works!  He is Newton’s biggest admirer! 

(I don’t rely on BioLogos so much for science and religion) 



Ted Davis - #68799

March 31st 2012

beaglelady—I’m glad you don’t rely on Dr Tyson for understanding science and religion. I should have worded that differently, to make it clearer that I intended my point to be addressed to everyone with an interest in the subject, not simply to you as it appears from what I wrote. I am sorry to have implied otherwise.

In the article you quoted, Dr Tyson exemplifies the “warfare” view of science and religion—his title alone indicates that, let alone the content. This is unfortunately an all-too-common approach for scientist who dabble in the history of science, as Dr Tyson does there. That’s why I jumped all over it—in a column that will be devoted to getting the history right (as far as I am able to), I want to make sure that readers will begin to understand some of the differences between what I’m trying to accomplish here and the approach Dr Tyson took in that article. I don’t want anyone to see his approach as very reliable—even when it comes to Newton.

Newton has had many, many admirers. I’m sure that Dr Tyson is one of them; so am I. There is much to admire, especially the incredible depth and breadth of Newton’s natural philosophy.

I simply mean, beaglelady, that (like a large number of people, including many scientists), Dr Tyson isn’t very knowlegeable about Newton, apart from knowing about the details of his physics (which is certainly relevant to understanding Newton). I don’t see evidence that he knows enough about Newton to comment reliably on Newton’s approach to issues in science and religion—issues which go well beyond how to calculate a planetary orbit.

Let me illustrate. If you google “Tyson Newton,” one of the first things you find is this: http://bigthink.com/ideas/13154. He offers very good reasons for his view (which I share) that Newton was the greatest of all physicists, but he does so in a way that muddles the historical facts rather badly, presenting the classic (but not very accurate) view that Newton’s great work in the physics of motion (gravitation and the calculus) was all done before he was 26 (Tyson should have actually have 24, not 26, since the period he is thinking of was 1665-66, but that’s obviously not very important), and that all he had to do when Halley asked him about planetary motion in 1684 (when Newton was 41) was to consult his files and write it up. In fact, it took Newton two years of heavy duty work, much of which he had not previously done (as far as we can tell from the many manuscripts he left us), to answer Halley adequately.

I don’t want to make too much of this particular example. For the point Dr Tyson is making in that column, it’s not very important to get the historical details right. Newton’s discoveries were simply amazing, regardless of whether or not they were all worked out in his 24th year. I simply note that it is one thing (A) to be familiar with a scientists’s work in general—to have good ideas of what she or he was about as a physicist or a biologist (and Dr Tyson certainly does). It’s another thing (B) to be familiar with a scientist as a thinker about God and nature—the topic of that other article you quoted. Here we’ll be focusing on the latter general topic (though Newton probably won’t come up very much henceforth), not the former. There are certainly notable exceptions (the late Stephen Jay Gould comes to mind), but all too many scientists (in my experience) seem to think that expertise in (A) translates into expertise in (B). It doesn’t. Despite this, I suspect that many in the general public assume that it does, and they are probably more likely to pay attention to what Carl Sagan (for example) said about a given historical instance than what historians say. It all contributes too readily to general mythmaking about both the history of science generally and the history of science and religion specifically—especially the latter, I’m afraid.

beaglelady - #68800

March 31st 2012

Okay, but what you said was

“I don’t think he knows very much about Newton at all”

Don’t know if I can find out exactly what Tyson knows about Newton’s religious views. 

Newton himself is not a good model of orthodoxy.

Steven Curry - #68805

April 1st 2012

“In the passage you quote above, beaglelady, Newton is talking about (A), the orignal formation of the solar system as a unified set of planets in roughly coplanar orbits moving in the same direction. That’s paragraph 3. In paragraphs 1 and 2, Tyson is talking about something entirely different, (B), the fact that Newton believed the long term stability of the solar system depended on occasional miracles. Now Tyson knows a great deal of physics, far more than I do, but he’s confusing (A) and (B) because he’s simply quote mining (as far as I can tell).”

Quote-mining is a pretty strong charge, and I fail to see anything that justifies it. For Newton, God created and sustained the planetary paths,

“This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

How exactly has Tyson misrepresented Newton?

“I don’t think he knows very much about Newton at all, far too little for him to be using examples like these to argue blindly for an anti-religious viewpoint that he holds strongly on a priori grounds.”

Frankly this looks like an attempt to discredit Tyson by calling him a bigot. It’s an old creationist ploy to dismiss scientists by saying that they merely hold a priori anti-religious views. On what grounds do you make that claim with regard to Tyson? Has it occurred to you that non-religious scientists have *reasons* for being non-religious?

Ted Davis - #68812

April 2nd 2012


I suspect (and please note that my wording translates into “suspect”) quote mining here, b/c the quoted passage is simply dropped into the text at that point and is not related to the aspects of Newton’s physics that Dr Tyson just explained. It’s not about the idea “that God must occasionally step in and make things right” (Tyson’s words immediately before the passage he quotes from Newton). It’s another matter entirely. If he really understood Newton’s thought well, I don’t think he’d make such a fundamental mistake. It looks to me as though he wanted to use that quotation to make a certain point, but the point Newton was making isn’t the point Tyson makes. This doesn’t necessarily equate to quote mining, but it does make me a bit suspicious.

If Dr Tyson knew more about Newton’s thought as a whole (his religious thought as well as his scientific thought), he would probably know that Newton’s attitude toward gravitation itself was highly consistent with his theological views on God and nature—in short, they were not in tension (as Dr Tyson seems to think). My articles on Newton, cited above, are one place in which that argument is presented. Several scholars who know far more than I do about Newton have gone into this in much greater detail, especially Stephen Snobelen (who strongly agrees with the claims I made in my two essays on Newton), the scholar who probably knows more than anyone else about Newton’s theological views. Snobelen has made quite a bit of his work available at http://www.isaac-newton.org/ . It’s hard to say which of his essays is the best one to read, but the one about the “General Scholium” (from which Tyson quotes) is one of his very best: http://www.isaac-newton.org/pdf/Snobelen Theology of General Scholium 2001.pdf

More coming…

Ted Davis - #68815

April 2nd 2012


This is continued on the second page of comments. I must have done something wrong when I entered part two. Please find it below, with my apology for the inconvenience.

tgrosh4 - #68776

March 29th 2012

Dear Ted,

I’m really looking forward to the upcoming on-line offering. Earlier today I shared the opportunity with members of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network via Facebook.

In Christ,

Thomas B. Grosh IV

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Graduate & Faculty Ministry/Emerging Scholars Network


Ted Davis - #68784

March 30th 2012

Thank you so much, Tom. I hope to have several of your friends join in.

beaglelady - #68806

April 2nd 2012

I’d be interested in  a discussion about  Muslim philosopher/theologian  Al-Ghazali’s role in  bringing about the disastrous collapse of the scientific enterprise in Islam.  They once were far, far ahead of us during the Golden Age of Islam.  It would be a good cautionary tale for us Christians! 

Ted Davis - #68810

April 2nd 2012

That’s a fascinating topic, beaglelady, but well outside the scope of this “course.” We’ll have to leave that one alone here.

paul.bruggink1 - #68817

April 2nd 2012

Someone needs to pick up on beaglelady’s thought as a dissertation topic (assuming it hasn’t already been done somewhere).

paul.bruggink1 - #68822

April 3rd 2012

. . .  or apply for a BioLogos Evolution and Christian Faith Research Grant, as recently announced.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #68809

April 2nd 2012

Welcome, Ted.  (I have another friend named Ted Davis.)

I quite agree that the warfare view of religion against science is wrong, but there does seem to be a conflict, esp today.

I do not want to argue against what you want to say in advance, but I do want to tell you where I am coming from.  It seem to me that the traditional Western dualistic understanding of the world, mind/body, is under serious attack from science.  In as far as theology is based on Western dualism, then it is also under attack, but the problem is the traditional philosophical world view, which can not be substantiated today.  This opens the door to monistic scientism, which is also false. 

Scientific methodological “naturalism” is either true or false, and I think that it is basically false.  Still there is no intellectual world view to replace Western dualism or reductionistic, materialist naturalism.  Like it or not scientism has a point of vieww which its people uphold.  Most people who hold on the the traditional dualist view do so by default, or because it is the worst except for all others stance. 

Actually we have two partial truths struggling for dominance and the problem is that we cannot just combine them by cutting and pasting, but need a new model or framework to replace the old ones.           



Ted Davis - #68811

April 2nd 2012

Roger—thank you for the welcome.

I hope your friend doesn’t always have to apologize to people—no, I’m not *that* Ted Davis. What a burden to have to carry through life. Ah, well, life is not always fair.

I agree that there is currently quite a bit of genuine conflict involving “science” and “religion,” especially when “religion” functions as “science” (for example, “scientific creationism”) and when “science” functions as “religion” (as we find with a number of the New Atheists). Unfortunately, however, mind/body issues are largely outside the scope of this series of columns. I’m not trained in the relevant disciplines—philosophy of mind, neuroscience, or psychology. I am familiar with some of the literature bearing on that topic, but not enough to enter into it substantively. The most I will say with any confidence is this: neuroscientists are begging some fundamental philosophical questions when they claim that science “proves” that there is no “mind” that needs to be described at a level “above” complex biochemical pathways. We’ll have to leave this issue out here, as well.

Ted Davis - #68813

April 2nd 2012

Later on, Dr Tyson says this:

“But in the absence of data, at the border between what he could explain and what he could only honor—the causes he could identify and those he could not—Newton rapturously invokes God: ‘Eternal and Infinite, Omnipotent and Omniscient; . . . he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done. . . . We know him only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes; we admire him for his perfections; but we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion.’”

He gives readers no clue that Newton believed that it was *the data* that led him to those conclusions. Newton’s approach to natural theology was not the a priori approach taken by Descartes (among others), according to which God must exist as a ground for perfect knowledge. Rather, Newton took an *evidentialist* approach to natural theology: God is known by “his most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes.” That’s an empirical argument, based on data, not an a priori argument. I don’t think Dr Tyson has any idea that this is what Newton was getting at in this passage.

To describe this attitude as based on “ignorance” is simply to be ignorant of what Newton was doing.

Ted Davis - #68814

April 2nd 2012

NOTE: This is intended as a continuation of my reply to Steven (above). I thought it would go with the other one, but apparently I don’t understand the mechanics of this interface as well as I should. Apologies to Steven and other readers.

Ted Davis - #68816

April 2nd 2012

The quotation Snobelen has at the top of his web site is dead on target here: “God is known from his works.” The English words “data” and “facts” come from the Latin participles for “given” and “done.” That is, we do science with what we are “given” (by the creator) and what has been “done” (by the creator) in nature. That was Newton’s attitude to a tee. Dr Tyson seems entirely unaware of this.

Steven Curry - #68885

April 5th 2012

Ted Davis said:

“I suspect (and please note that my wording translates into “suspect”) quote mining here, b/c the quoted passage is simply dropped into the text at that point and is not related to the aspects of Newton’s physics that Dr Tyson just explained. ...”

No, it is absolutely related, as I tried to point out.

“This most beautiful System of the Sun, Planets, and Comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

Counsel and dominion. Newton’s God not only started the planetary orbits but sustained them. The overall point Tyson was making is that an interventionist conceptions of God tend to hinder scientific discovery, as it presumably did for Newton, who had all the brains and mathematical tools to discover perturbation theory.

The God that Newton describes in the quote is the interventionist God to which Tyson refers. Even if, for the sake of argument, we somehow construe “counsel and dominion” to ONLY mean the creation of the solar system, as you are wont to do, then it’s still not a quote mine. That God is still the interventionist God, which supports Tyson’s point. That it happens to be an older intervention is beside the point.

This is not a case of Tyson jumping to conclusions, inferring wrongly from the passage alone that Newton believed in ongoing interventions of planetary motion. Newton in fact did believe that. The passage is consonant with that God and that line of thinking.

I wonder if you understand what quote-mining means? Tyson has not misrepresented Newton. He has not taken a quote and twisted it into the opposite of what Newton would have intended. For a real example of quote-mining, see William Dembski’s quoting of Peter Ward,


Ted Davis - #68908

April 6th 2012

Hi, Steve,

Quote mining is defined by wikipedia here: “The practice of quoting out of context, sometimes referred to as “contextomy” or “quote mining”, ... in which a passage is removed from its surrounding matter in such a way as to distort its intended meaning.” It doesn’t need to involve an opposite meaning, simply a meaning that wasn’t intended. Some consider quote mining to be equivalent to lying, but I think that’s way over top and usually not appropriate to say. I don’t think any deliberate misinterpretation was involved here, simply picking out a quotation that meant something different than he thought.

Tyson’s quotation comes from Newton’s General Scholium. That passage simply says that the solar system couldn’t have happened by accident. If that had been the case, the orbits wouldn’t be so regularly arranged. It couldn’t (say) be the case that the Sun simply captured bodies and dragged them into place—they wouldn’t be so nicely arranged.

The idea that God “must occasionally step in and make things right” (as Tyson puts it) certainly applies to the example Tyson had just given (about the long term stability of the solar system). Newton absolutely believed in a God who governed the world actively, including on rare occasions by acting miraculously. We agree about that. But the passage he quoted, which is introduced by the words I just quoted, is not about “intervention.” It says just that the initial conditions were designed accordingly, just as God had “placed those systems [the fixed stars] at immense distances from one another, so that the universe would not collapse.

Yes, Newton undoubtedly believed that God had created the universe in a specific form—God had set up the initial conditions—but this passage is not about a God who “must occasionally step in and make things right.” It’s about getting it “right” from the start.

Ted Davis - #68909

April 6th 2012

Let me add something else, picking up on your point “interventionist conceptions of God tend to hinder scientific discovery, as it presumably did for Newton…” We agree partly here—let science go as far as it can; don’t appeal to God arbitrarily. However, Newton’s conception of an “interventionist” God was closely related to his “voluntarist” God, and that in turn can’t be separated from his theory of matter and gravitation. It was by using voluntarist theological arguments (in which God is free to “intervene” or act in any way he pleases) that Newton rejected Descartes’ ideas about matter being eqivalent to extenstion (taking up space), in favor of atoms moving through space. It was by using voluntarist attitudes that Newton advanced the idea of gravitation acting on bodies without intervening matter—as Descartes had required. Leibniz claimed that Newton’s idea of gravity was a “perpetual miracle,” and he was absolutely right: for Newton, God acted all the time, in any way he wanted to, and was not bound to act only in ways that Leibniz regarded as acceptable. In short, the grand scheme Newton puts forth in the General Scholium, of bodes moving through empty space under the influence of gravitation (without intervening matter), is closely tied with his “interventionist” God.

This doesn’t seem to have hindered scientific discovery, and doesn’t seem like it’s an argument from ignorance. I doubt Tyson knows any of this, or he would probably present Newton quite differently.

I don’t have more to say about this aspect of Newton here, but I’ll read further comments by you and others.

Ted Davis - #68910

April 6th 2012

I forgot to point out that the General Scholium begins, “The hypothesis of vortices is pressed with many difficulties.” That is a clear reference to Descartes’ theory of celestial motion. There are other implicit references to Descartes elsewhere, including “blind metaphysical necessity.” This is why I contrasted Newton’s “interventionist” God with Descartes’ views, and underscored the significance of Newton’s theology for understanding what he is saying in the General Scholium as a whole.

For example, when he says later, “Hitherto we have explained the phenomena of the heavens and of our sea by the power of gravity, but have not yet assigned the cause of this power. This is certain, that it must proceed from a cause that penetrates to the very centres of the sun and planets, without suffering the least diminution of its force,” he may very well be referring to the omnipresence of God, since at that point in his life he probably believed that God caused gravitation directly (action at a distance), by moving bodies around in his “Sensorium” (as he said elsewhere). In short (again), his very active, “interventionist” God was closely linked with his most important scientific contribution. Not exactly a science stopper.

beaglelady - #68887

April 5th 2012

Everyone can learn about Tyson’s admiration for Newton as a scientist here (it’s short):


Page 1 of 1   1