This article introduced Ted Davis as our Fellow for the History of Science when he began that position in 2012.
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.