The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science

  • Peter Harrison
  • Mar 10, 2009
  • Series: Volume 12 - 2009

book-Fall of Man

Peter Harrison, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 313 pages with index. £50.00, hardback.

Most standard historical accounts attribute the origins of experimental science to a new and unmitigated confidence in the powers of human reason that emerged in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to this view, as intellectuals were increasingly freed from the confines of religious dogma, new epistemological theories could be fashioned to buttress the burgeoning field of knowledge. For many historians of science, this was the first stage in the inevitable march of secularization and scientific progress that would culminate in the Enlightenment of the 18th Century.

Recent scholarship in the field, however, is revising this account. By focusing on the social interactions and authoritative structures that affected the production of early modern knowledge, many scholars now emphasize the contingent nature of science's origin. Among these revisions are new assessments of the role that Christianity played in the birth of science, many of which seek to destabilize the connection between science and the rise of secularism in Europe. It is within this current movement that Peter Harrison's new book, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science, is situated.

For Harrison, science finds its beginnings in Christian theology. He contends that the religious upheavals and disputes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries precipitated a crisis of confidence in traditional knowledge which coincided with a revival of Augustinian anthropology that "emphasized the corruption of human nature and the limitations of the intellect" (3). Scholars who were influenced by this rejuvenated Augustinianism began to voice reservations about the innate human capacity for reasoning in a fallen world. Harrison takes as his primary evidence the theological pronouncements and disputations around which these uncertainties crystallized into new ways of thinking. His primary aim is to "illustrate the ways in which the myth of the Fall informed discussions about the foundations of knowledge and influenced methodological developments in the nascent natural sciences" (3).

Harrison's assessment also departs from the traditional narrative of the history of philosophy. He makes this clear by his contention that epistemology was a secondary consideration in early modern science-human nature was the primary focus. This viewpoint modifies the account which claims that the foundations of knowledge shifted from metaphysics to epistemology beginning with Descartes, whose rationalist project helped establish the modern trajectory in which reason overcomes faith and sets up the conditions for a secular enlightenment. According to Harrison, Descartes is atypical, and thus not a good archetype of the seventeenth century philosopher. For the overwhelming majority of important thinkers, such as Nicolas Malebranche, Josef Glanville, Robert Hooke, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and others, the first step toward gaining knowledge was figuring out the extent of physical and cognitive impairment suffered by humans as a result of Adam's original transgression.

These new proponents of Augustinian anthropology thought the Scholastics had minimized the consequences of the Fall because they relied too heavily on Aquinas, whose teaching was often considered mere Aristotelianism reconfigured and glossed over with religious terminology. As a pagan who had never heard the biblical account of Creation and Fall, Aristotle could not possibly have understood the true limits of human reasoning. Harrison acknowledges that these new anthropological problems were dealt with differently among Protestants, Catholics, and Jansenists, but maintains that, regardless of their solutions, the question of human fallenness had become a necessary consideration which had to be dealt with before any solid system of thought could be established.

The strength of Harrison's argument is his insistence that experimental science grew out of the acute awareness that attaining knowledge is not an easy, natural process. In a postlapsarian world, strategies must be devised to overcome the inherited infirmities of original sin, as well as circumscribe the difficulties of apprehending nature, which had become less intelligible since the Fall. A scientist would have to create controlled environments so that experiments could be performed and repeated, and naturalia observed and described. As Harrison points out in the first chapter with numerous cited examples, many of these early modern scientists wanted to recreate the approximate conditions of the Garden of Eden, which had allowed Adam full and unobstructed knowledge of the natural world. He quotes many important thinkers of the time, like Francis Bacon, who reasoned that Adam had been able to name every creature in the Garden because he had known, a priori, the essential nature of each one.

According to Harrison, early modern scholars could not have imagined the type of authoritative and objective status that science would assume in the twentieth century. Bacon and most other early modern scholars thought of "scientific" knowledge as a kind of calculated judgment or opinion, a makeshift knowledge that would help humans eliminate the negative effects of the Fall until a future time when God would redeem the earth from its corruption. Again, Harrison quotes directly from the writing of these scholars, to show that their religious viewpoints were not separated from their science. Unlike many of today's scientists and historians, he takes the arguments and beliefs of early modern thinkers at face value, without trying to read modern scientific notions back into them. He demonstrates that the path of science might have veered in another direction had these theological disagreements and reformulations never occurred.

The only significant drawback in Harrison's book is that it focuses almost entirely upon early modern England. While he does mention a few German and French thinkers (Pascal is dealt with extensively), he is particularly lacking in his assessment of the Italians and the Dutch. In his conclusion he even acknowledges that the Dutch experience could pose a problem for his theory-the Calvinism of the Low Countries was not identical to that in England-and he urges for more research on the revival of Augustinian thought among Dutch Calvinists. Furthermore, the book would have especially benefited from a brief chapter on the correspondence between scientists in England and the rest of Europe. How wide-ranging was the English influence? To what extent did scholars from other countries influence the English? How did scholarly networks of communication impact the development of experimental science?   

Regardless of this minor limitation, The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science provides an original contribution to the study of the relationship between Christianity and the birth of science, and is essential reading for advanced students and scholars of early modern history and philosophy. With exceptional clarity, Harrison restores theological anthropology back to the center of debates surrounding early modern science. In today's academic climate, in which secularized science has forgotten its religious roots and continues to ignore its inescapable duty to deal with the metaphysical implications of human nature, Harrison's book is a timely call for historical and philosophical reflection. Science and religion have not always been irreconcilable discourses; acknowledgment of this historical fact might help alleviate the hostility between them today.    

Jedd McFatter, MA
Denver Seminary
March 2009

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