Some Eighteenth Century Views of the Relationship of Science to Religion

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During the scientific revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the western world began to perceive reality as, in some way, separate from the self. The kind of truth that was sought prior to Descartes differed from that generally sought afterward. Explanations of why things were as they were became less interesting, while people became preoccupied with explanations of how they happened. Nevertheless, some theologians and "natural philosophers" of eighteenth century Britain were able to blend elements of these different viewpoints, combining differing world views. John Wesley, for example, genuinely respected and eagerly utilized scientific advances and new philosophical ideas, yet he used many of the thought forms of his day to create new syntheses. Marrying empiricism and rationalism in such as way as to inspire human imagination to an understanding which cannot be attained by rational calculation or logic in and of itself, Wesley and others like him were able to preserve a place for humanity in the larger context of the universe in which humans were neither mere machines nor objects. They thus did much to avoid bifurcation between such polarities as subject versus object, faith versus reason, or teleology versus ontology.


The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries constituted a period of momentous transitions in world view. These transitions have been described in various ways, often beginning with Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), who for many historians were among the major instigators of modernity. These three people differed greatly philosophically. For example, Descartes was a rationalist while Bacon was an empiricist. Nevertheless, each contributed to the development of certain aspects of modernity.

Bacon advocated collecting observations and using experimentation in order to gain power over the forces of nature. His utilitarian understanding of natural philosophy became an important part of the mindset of the scientific revolution. He was convinced that knowledge of natural phenomena was the key to power over nature for the good of humanity. For this reason, he advocated scientific experimentation under "vexations" or controlled conditions, as opposed to merely observing nature as it takes its own course. In his New Organon, he wrote that "the secrets of nature reveal themselves more readily under the vexations of art than when they go their own way." (1)

Descartes, with his famous dictum, cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am"), (2) made what some postmodern interpreters feel is a false distinction between the individual and the outside world. (3) His premise that reason is the principal method of determining truth was used by others, such as Spinoza, to discredit the authority of the scriptures. (4) His insistence upon clear and distinct ideas as necessary for knowing truth seemed opposed to maintaining doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation, which could not really be explained on rational grounds.

Several other key theses of Descartes were of enormous consequence for subsequent thought. According to Descartes, mankind was unable to know any of God's purposes, and because man is unable to discover the purposes or ends of the creator, philosophy must exclude the search for final causes. (5) Thus, Descartes' understanding was that philosophical (scientific) explanations should be entirely mechanical, (6) with final causation totally excluded. (7) Descartes was therefore more interested in how one knows than in what one knows, and because of his influence, for philosophers from his time onward knowing, or epistemology, was considered to be prior to being, or ontology. (8) Because of its exclusion of teleological explanations, Cartesianism emphasized fact to the exclusion of value. (9) Descartes also defined matter as extension, (10) helping to pave the way for materialism. …