Long before the notorious trial of Galileo, the great twelfth-century philosopher and physician Ibn Rushd (Averroës) was banished from his home in Cordoba and saw all of his books banned and burned by the Islamic religious authorities, who denounced his belief in the existence of causality in the natural order—a causality he considered independent of God’s direct action in the world. As Edward J. Larson and Michael Ruse point out in their new book On Faith and Science, the clerics of Muslim Spain feared that, on their own, human reason, logic, and science could possess a power that threatened to make God seem unnecessary.
That fear remains widespread today among religious believers of all faiths—particularly so in the United States, where, for example, opposition to belief in evolution remains very high. But it has haunted the debate over the tension between religion and science for centuries. Ibn Rushd, who died just over a quarter-century before the birth of St. Thomas Aquinas, at least lived long enough to return home from his exile, but his work never attained the influence among Muslims that it did in Christian Europe, where it was translated and studied in the new medieval universities. Indeed, so great was Aquinas’s respect for Ibn Rushd’s explanations of the works of Aristotle, that Thomas always referred to him as “The Commentator.”
Science subsequently took root in Europe and blossomed during the Scientific Revolution, but not without casualties brought on by the same tensions that had plagued Ibn Rushd. The trial of Galileo haunted the Catholic Church for centuries—making it an easy target for Protestants attacking the popes after the Reformation, and for proponents of the Enlightenment who loathed any religious authority interfering with the progress of science.
In the view of Larson and Ruse, the longstanding debate has been ill served by the so-called conflict model that the Galileo case epitomizes, and their aim in this book is to argue that the relationship between science and religion is more complex than any notion of either conflict or simplistic complementarity allows. Larson, the Hugh and Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. Ruse, the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor and director of the history and philosophy of science program at Florida State University, was a Gifford Lecturer and is the author of several books on the interrelation of science and faith. A staunch evolutionist and gregarious public lecturer, Ruse has irked some in the scientific community for collaborating on a couple of books with the leading proponents of the Intelligent Design movement in the United States. But he also enjoys ribbing his religious readers. At a recent conference at Notre Dame, I saw him depart from his prepared text on evolution and Christianity to quip, “Look, Adam and Eve never existed. Get over it!”
In its nine chapters On Faith and Science ranges through the history of science and philosophy, singling out the discoveries that had particular impact on religious doctrine over the past thousand years of Christian and, to a lesser extent, Jewish and Muslim culture. At the outset of the book, the authors pick up where Ibn Rushd left off, with the idea of independent laws of nature—or, as the Scholastics referred to it, the doctrine of secondary causes, the primary cause being God. The notion was not without its critics among Aquinas’s contemporaries, and in 1277 the archbishop of Paris condemned a number of propositions associated with the new natural philosophy. The idea that the world operates according to its own laws and regularities remains controversial in the evolution debate today, as Intelligent Design proponents attack the consensus of science on Darwinian evolution and insist that God’s direct intervention in the history of life can be scientifically demonstrated.
But as Larson and Ruse show in the first two chapters covering the early development of astronomy and physics—from the Copernican Revolution to the Quantum Revolution—the notion bore fruit earliest in the science of the heavens and moving bodies. The Copernican Revolution is often described as the first great shock that science delivered to the Western religious mindset, with the heliocentric system demoting the earth from its central, privileged position in the cosmos, making it just another planet orbiting the sun. But Larson and Ruse argue that what really bothered traditionalists was that Copernicus used the natural circular motion of the planets (including the earth) around the sun to explain the retrograde motions of the other planets, which periodically slowed and reversed direction before resuming their course. Once you assumed the sun was at the center of the system, you no longer needed to cite special causes (for example, angels) to explain what had seemed to the ancients to be an arbitrary phenomenon. Retrograde motion followed naturally from the laws of circular motion in a sun-centered system.
Kepler, Galileo, and especially Isaac Newton improved on Copernicus’s great program, letting go of the insistence on perfectly circular orbits in favor of elliptical ones, and fully describing the dynamics of the planets with Newton’s laws of motion and universal gravitation. But even Newton, perhaps bothered by this self-sufficiency, insisted God was still necessary to occasionally tweak the motions of the planets if any threatened to wander off course.