Classic Revisited: Whitehead, “Science and the Modern World”

Alfred North Whitehead was an important philosopher of science and metaphysics writing primarily in the early twentieth century.  Here is an interesting section from his book, Science and the Modern World (1925), dealing with the conflict between religion and science.  We are sometimes deceived into believing that these disputes are only quite recent, but of course they are not.  They are old tensions, and many writers have had provocative things to say about them.  Here is a bit of Whitehead:

The conflict between religion and science is what naturally occurs to our minds when we think of this subject.  It seems as though, during the last half-century, the results of science and the beliefs of religion had come into a position of frank disagreement, from which there can be no escape, except by abandoning either the clear teaching of science, or the clear teaching of religion.  This conclusion has been urged by controversialists on either side . . . .

When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.  We have here the two strongest general forces (apart from the mere impulse of the various senses) which influence men, and they seem to be set one against the other — the force of our religious intuitions, and the force of our impulse to accurate observation and logical deduction.

A great English statesman once advised his countrymen to use large-scale maps, as a preservative against alarms, panics, and general misunderstanding of the true relations between nations.  In the same way in dealing with the clash between permanent elements of human nature, it is well to map our history on a large scale, and to disengage ourselves from our immediate absorption in the present conflicts.  When we do this, we immediately discover two great facts.  In the first place, there has always been a conflict between religion and science; and in the second place, both religion and science have always been in a state of continual development . . . .

[A]ll our ideas will be in a wrong perspective if we think that this recurring perplexity was confined to contradictions between religion and science; and that in these controversies religion was always wrong, and that science was always right.  The true facts of the case are very much more complex, and refuse to be summarised in these simple terms.

Theology itself exhibits exactly the same character of gradual development, arising from an aspect of conflict between its own proper ideas.  This fact is a commonplace to theologians, but is often obscured in the stress of controversy . . . . Science is even more changeable than theology . . . . In both regions of thought, additions, distinctions, and modifications have been introduced.  So that now, even when the same assertion is made today as was made a thousand, or fifteen-hundred years ago, it is made subject to limitations or expansions of meaning, which were not contemplated at the earlier epoch.  We are told by logicians that a proposition must be either true or false, and that there is no middle term.  But in practice, we may know that a proposition expresses an important truth, but that it is subject to limitations and qualifications which at present remain undiscovered.

It is a general feature of our knowledge, that we are insistently aware of important truth; and yet that the only formulations of these truths which we are able to make presuppose a general standpoint of conceptions which may have to be modified . . . .

We should apply these same principles to the questions in which there is a variance between science and religion . . . .

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