Kepler, Science and Atheism

This is from a somewhat older perspective: I doubt that young scholars are much enamoured of Atheism any more.

Not that they are Christians, far from it. But the Old Order is a dying thing: a vague Eastern spirituality is a far better fit with the current cultural zeitgeist.

Still… it pays for Christians to have the facts at hand. You never know when the murderous, dehumanizing Old Order will try to make a reappearance.

“But Christians are the Old Old Order!”

“Christianity as the original foundation of science? You know that, I know that, Kepler knew that… but you can be certain that no run-of-the-mill Public School student has ever been taught that. The truth gets in the way of the Narrative, after all…”

From New Book: For This Scientist, Science Did Not Point to Atheism by Stephen C. Meyer

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“Well, of course you’re an atheist, but what else are you that makes you interesting?” The question was posed to an acquaintance of mine by a faculty member at Cambridge University. At the time, we were sitting together in a pub, relaxing after an intensive seminar. My acquaintance was a fellow graduate student who had wanted to curry favor by boasting that he had thrown off his religious upbringing and now considered himself an atheist. But the faculty member at our table was unimpressed. Of course intelligent people are atheists. Why point out the obvious?

This exchange is anecdotal, but hardly isolated. In fact, it is illustrative of a wider mindset in the Western world. To be rational — and scientific — is to be atheistic or naturalistic. The ascendancy of atheism (or naturalism) has long since been decided. There is no need to restate the obvious. 

This view, like all myths, has its own origin story. It arises from many sources, which collectively span an array of academic disciplines, historical contingencies, and human experiences. But perhaps most prominent among these is a certain narrative — a particular story — about the history of science. The story is one of emancipation, of breaking the ecclesial chains of dogma and superstition, so that an unencumbered study of the natural world may rise triumphant. John William Draper famously captured the spirit of this narrative in his 1874 book, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science: “Christianity and Science are recognized by their respective adherents as being absolutely incompatible; they cannot exist together; one must yield to the other; mankind must make its choice — it cannot have both.”1 Science runs contrary to biblical religion. Over time, atheism and naturalism become the default, the baseline commitment of learned, intelligent people. 

So, is there anything else about you that is interesting?

The Conflict Myth Unmade 

Yet this narrative is false. A new book by Center for Science & Culture Fellow Melissa Cain Travis, Thinking God’s Thoughts: Johannes Kepler and the Miracle of Cosmic Comprehensibilityprovides a clear, thorough, and thoughtful analysis of one of the leading pioneers of modern science, Johannes Kepler, and the deep role of faith and theology that undergirded his scientific research — and that persists to the present day. 

Kepler was not alone. Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, and many others who established modern science were deeply religious thinkers. They saw no conflict between science and religion. On the contrary: they thought that by doing science, they were discovering God’s design and revealing it to humankind. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Judeo-Christian religious tradition led directly to modern science.

To back up this claim, Cambridge University historian of science Joseph Needham posed a famous “Why there? Why then?” question. Why there — in Europe? Why then — in the 16th and 17th centuries? Why didn’t modern science start somewhere else before then? After all, the Egyptians erected pyramids. The Chinese invented the compass, block printing, and gunpowder. 

Romans built marvelous roads and aqueducts. The Greeks had great philosophers. Yet none of these cultures developed the systematic methods for investigating nature that arose in Western Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

This realization led Needham and other historians of science to look for some other “X factor” to explain why “the scientific revolution” occurred where and when it did. Here is the conclusion they reached: only the Judeo-Christian West had the crucial ideas that enabled the invention of science. As historian Ian Barbour says, “science in its modern form” arose “in Western civilization alone, among all the cultures of the world,” because only the Christian West had the necessary “intellectual presuppositions underlying the rise of science.”2

So, what were those presuppositions? We can identify three. As Melissa Cain Travis shows, all have their place in Kepler’s seminal works. More generally, all find their origin in the Judeo-Christian idea of a Creator God who fashioned human beings and an orderly universe. 

Intelligibility

First, the founders of modern science assumed the intelligibility of nature. They believed that nature had been designed by the mind of a rational God, the same God who made the rational minds of human beings. These thinkers assumed that if they used their minds to carefully study nature, they could understand the order and design that God had placed in the world. As the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously argued, “There can be no living science unless there is a widespread instinctive conviction in the existence of an Order of Things. And, in particular, of an Order of Nature.”3 Whitehead particularly attributed this conviction among the founders of modern science to the “medieval insistence upon the rationality of God.”4 It was God’s own rationality that undergirded both the human intellect and an orderly world — and the deep affinity between them. 

This meant that the world was intelligible. It was created for human discovery, and these discoveries pointed humans back to the Creator. As philosopher Holmes Rolston III states, “It was monotheism that launched the coming of physical science, for it premised an intelligible world, sacred but disenchanted, a world with a blueprint, which was therefore open to the searches of the scientists. The great pioneers in physics — Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus — devoutly believed themselves called to find evidences of God in the physical world.”5

As Melissa Cain Travis amply documents, Kepler himself spoke in much the same way. For example, he wrote:

For [God] Himself has let man take part in the knowledge of these things and thus not in a small measure has set up His image in man. Since He recognized as very good this image which He made, He will so much more readily recognize our efforts with the light of this image also to push into the light of knowledge the utilization of the numbers, weights, and sizes which He marked out at creation. For these secrets are … set out before our eyes like a mirror so that by examining them we observe to some extent the goodness and wisdom of the Creator.6

The Contingency of Nature

Second, early pioneers of science presupposed the contingency of nature. They believed that God had many choices about how to make an orderly world. Just as there are many ways to design a watch, there were many ways that God could have designed the universe. To discover how He did, scientists could not merely deduce the order of nature by assuming what seemed most logical to them; they couldn’t simply use reason alone to draw conclusions, as some of the Greek philosophers had done. For example, the Greeks thought that since the most perfect form of motion was circular, they assumed that the planets must have circular orbits — something Kepler later refuted by calculations based on careful observations. As Melissa Cain Travis puts it, Kepler “emphasized… the primacy of empirical data over philosophical precommitments,” including “the circular orbits of the Aristotelian-Ptolemic model.”

Instead, scientists like Kepler thought that the order in nature was the product of divine deliberation and choice, what the Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance calls “contingent rationality.”7 Indeed, because of this theological belief, these scientists assumed they would have to observe, test, and measure in order to understand God’s design. As historian of science Ian Barbour succinctly notes, “The doctrine of creation implies that the details of nature can be known only by observing them.”8

Kepler championed this foundational element of modern science. As historian of science Michael Keas explains: 

Kepler proposed that among the mathematical ideas that exist in the divine mind, God freely selected some of them to govern his creation. Because God has the freedom to make many possible universes consistent with his eternal attributes, one cannot simply deduce from prior principles a single way that God must have created the world. Consequently, detecting likely truth in scientific ideas requires testing, sometimes with experiments, so as to reveal the virtues and vices of theories.9

Like other pioneers of modern science, Kepler’s theology provided fertile soil for an empirically rich approach to nature. 

The Fallibility of Human Reasoning

Third, early scientists accepted a biblical understanding of the power and limits of the human mind. Even as these scientists saw human reason as the gift of a rational God, they also recognized the fallibility of humans and, therefore, the fallibility of human ideas about nature. As Steve Fuller explains: 

Research in the history and philosophy of science suggests two biblical ideas as having been crucial to the rise of science, both of which can be attributed to the reading of Genesis provided by Augustine, an early church father, whose work became increasingly studied in the late Middle Ages and especially the Reformation. Augustine captured the two ideas in two Latin coinages, which prima facie cut against each other: imago dei and peccatum originis. The former says that humans are unique as a species in our having been created in the image and likeness of God, while the latter says that all humans are born having inherited the legacy of Adam’s error, “original sin.”10

Such a nuanced view of human nature implied, on the one hand, that human beings could attain insight into the workings of the natural world, but that, on the other, they were vulnerable to self-deception, flights of fancy, and prematurely jumping to conclusions. This composite view of reason — one that affirmed both its capability and fallibility — inspired confidence that the design and order of nature could be understood if scientists carefully studied the natural world, but also engendered caution about trusting human intuition, conjectures, and hypotheses unless they were carefully tested by experiment and observation.11

In astronomy, for example, skeptical thinkers argued that humans could not know the true motions of heavenly bodies. At best, they could merely “save the appearances” — invent fictional theories that were meant to capture the empirical data without ever discerning the true causes of things. Yet Kepler demurred. He regarded astronomy as a search for the truth about heavenly motion, a genuine “celestial physics.” As Travis observes, Kepler “was the first [natural philosopher] to develop a true physica coelestis and to search for a universal law to account for celestial mechanics.” Yet Kepler also knew that such a goal required very careful thinking. Travis explains that Kepler’s pioneering work on epistemic virtues and theory choice reflects this nuanced, attentive care. Like others, Kepler knew that God’s design of the human mind allowed great discoveries, but only if the fallibility of human nature could be carefully constrained.

The Telos of Science

So, the Judeo-Christian worldview provided crucial foundations for the rise of modern science. And Kepler was in the middle of it. But while a biblical view may be the basis of science, just what was the end of it all? That is, what was the deeper purpose of the study of nature? As Thinking God’s Thoughts demonstrates, the study of things below was originally meant to point humans to the splendor of things above. Moreover, Travis’s application of Keplerian insights to contemporary discussions shows that the true telos of science is still to point to God. 

Perhaps Kepler said it best in his prayerful reflections about his astronomical demonstrations in The Harmony of the World: “O Thou who by the light of Nature movest in us the desire for the light of grace, so that by it thou mayest bring us over into the light of glory… be gracious and deign to bring about that these my demonstrations may be conducive to Thy glory and to the salvation of souls, and may in no way obstruct it.”12

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Dr. Meyer’s Foreword to Thinking God’s Thoughts: Johannes Kepler and the Miracle of Cosmic Comprehensibility, by Melissa Cain Travis.

Notes

  1. John William Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (New York: Appleton, 1874), 363.
  2. Ian Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 27.
  3. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Free Press, 1925), 3-4, original emphasis.
  4. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 12.
  5. Holmes Rolston III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 39.
  6. Johannes Kepler, Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, as cited in Max Caspar, Kepler, trans. C. Doris Hellman (New York: Dover, 1993), 381.
  7. Thomas F. Torrance, Divine and Contingent Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 3.
  8. Barbour, Religion and Science, 28, original emphasis.
  9. Michael Newton Keas, Unbelievable: Seven Myths about the History and Future of Science and Religion (Wilmington, DE: ISI Press, 2019), 163.
  10. Steve Fuller, “Foreword,” in Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique, edited by J.P. Moreland, et al. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 30, original emphasis. 
  11. See Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  12. Johannes Kepler, The Harmony of the World, E.J. Aiton, A.M. Duncan, and J.V. Field, eds. (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1997), 491.

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