The Science and Religion Dialogue as Natural Philosophy

The Science and Religion Dialogue as Natural Philosophy

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The Science and Religion Dialogue as Natural Philosophy

My topic today is “natural philosophy” and the various meanings associated with that term. Many will recognize the term natural philosophy from the history of science, for it is the name of the activity that the luminaries of the Scientific Revolution understood themselves to be undertaking. For instance, Isaac Newton’s crowning achievement (often referred to by its shortened Latin title Principia) is translated in English as “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.”

I will explore this history in the first part of my paper, for the transition to the term “scientist” is an important part of Western history, and it also helps to explain the fragmented nature of knowledge within the sciences today. In the second half of this paper, I will draw upon this history to argue that the term natural philosophy can still play a useful role in describing both the nature of science and the popularity of the religion and science dialogue over the past few decades.

Let me start with a question: when did science begin? For many scientists and the educated public, this question seems to have an easy answer: the Scientific Revolution. Was it not the Scientific Revolution that dispensed with the misguided notion that nature was best explained by appeal to ancient authorities? Was it not in the Scientific Revolution where we learned the value of careful observations and experiments?
However, if you read historians of science on this question, you will quickly discern unhappiness with this answer.1 In particular, the English word “scientist” was only invented in 1833,2 and the Latin term scientia could refer to any body of knowledge that contained necessary universal terms.3 Thus, many historians worry that using science and natural philosophy as synonyms unhelpfully places our categories unto persons of the past. We may mean something different by the word “science” than what was meant by natural philosophy.

As a result, the question “when did science begin” depends crucially on how one understands the relationship between natural philosophy and science. I will explore this issue now in more detail.

What is Natural Philosophy?
So what is natural philosophy, and when did it begin? As the historian Edward Grant has said, “Natural philosophy began with no name to designate it…”4 In a general sense, humans are born natural philosophers, for the ability to speculate about nature is perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of our species. Humans were able to survive not through brute strength, but because of our ability to anticipate and control nature. Language is especially important in this regard, for it has allowed the evolution and transmission of complex cultural systems that we use to navigate the world around us.

It is because cultural systems do so much to shape one’s view of the world, that ancient Greek philosophy remains relevant today. Medieval natural philosophy and modern science stand in a tradition of Greek speculation about the natural world. While the Greeks obviously did not invent nature, they did conceptualize nature and thus framed the way it is studied and interpreted. The Greek philosopher with perhaps the most influence was Aristotle, not because of his many observations but because of his philosophy of nature. Aristotle once said the Presocratics had studied nature without a good method, and Socrates and Plato had a good method but neglected the study of nature; Aristotle’s philosophy aimed to remedy these deficiencies by defining natural philosophy, laying its scope and proscribing its methodology.5

What did Aristotle understand the role of a natural philosopher to be? He divided the sciences—again science here defined as universal, demonstrable knowledge—into theoretical and practical sections. Aristotle further subdivided theoretical sciences into metaphysics, mathematics, and physics. What did physics involve for Aristotle? It covered the change and motion of inanimate and animate bodies; thus, the development of a tree from an acorn was as much a topic of Aristotle’s physics as the falling of a stone. The practice of an Aristotelian natural philosopher involved analyzing the causes behind phenomenon of nature.6 This is where Aristotle’s famous account of the four causes—material, formal, efficient, and final—becomes relevant. One has explained an object in nature once one has identified and explained the causes that underlie its motion and change.

When medieval Europeans discovered Aristotle via the Islamic world in the 12th century, they quickly incorporated his system into their general theological outlook because of its breadth and explanatory power. Aristotelian natural philosophy became the norm at the newly founded universities—hence the name Aristotelian scholasticism—and university curriculums were generally drawn along Aristotle’s guidelines.

The Latin phrase philosophia naturalis was used as a synonym for physica in the classification of the disciplines of the medieval university. As a result, scholars who studied the natural world came to be called natural philosophers. This is why natural philosophy takes a more restricted meaning within the history of science; it usually refers to the particular style of explaining nature associated with the medieval schoolmen. Overall, Aristotle’s natural philosophy framed the debates about the natural world from the end of the 12th century until the late 17th century.

The Nature of Natural Philosophy
For my purposes, there are two important aspects of Aristotelian science as appropriated by the medieval Europeans. The first is a separation of theoretical knowledge from practical knowledge. To use the Greek terminology, Aristotle made a distinction between techne (from which we get our word technology) and episteme (from which we get our word epistemology). The corresponding terms in Latin are ars and scientia, from which we get arts and sciences.

Techne refers to knowledge concerned with how to make or do things, such as building a house. By contrast, episteme was demonstrative knowledge of a theoretical kind.7 This distinction is represented within Greek social structures; whereas techne was the domain of the manual laborer, episteme was the domain of the free men of the city-state.8 This produced a natural philosophy that is different from modern science. Aristotelians were not interested in prediction and control but rather understanding, which meant placing the natural world in its proper context in the world system.

This dichotomy between explaining and manipulating nature created boundaries between disciplines that would surprise modern expectations. For instance, astronomy was not a part of proper natural philosophy during the medieval period, for it was merely concerned with the practical matters of creating calendars and tracking stars. Natural philosophical questions, by contrast, were concerned with what the heavens were made of and what moved the stars.9 Thus, when Francis Bacon in the 17th century complained that Aristotelian Scholastics were more interested in verbal arguments than changing nature for human benefit, he was attacking their very conception of scientia. For Aristotelians, once one intervenes in nature—and intervening includes experimentation—one has altered its “natural” state, and therefore it cannot be useful for natural philosophy.

A second feature of medieval natural philosophy is its tight integration with theology. In medieval Scholasticism there was a strict hierarchy of disciplines; truths of revelation were superior and more certain than the results of natural philosophy. But the structure of the medieval university meant that theologians were often well trained in natural philosophy before entering the theology faculty, and this was displayed in their work. As Aristotelian Scholasticism developed through the centuries, theologians often used their theological commentaries to answer natural philosophical questions.10

As a result, it is not surprising that theology and natural philosophy fit together in a harmonious view of the world. For natural philosophers of the medieval period, the world was to be analyzed in terms of perfections and purposes, where contemplation of the natural world yielded wisdom of God and God’s creation. Thus, natural philosophy and theology could never be separated entirely, for God’s perfection provided the metric against which objects in the world were judged.

Indeed, one historian of philosophy has argued that this theological outlook is the most defining feature of natural philosophy. Andrew Cunningham argues, “[Concern for God and God’s creation] was the central pillar of [natural philosophy’s] identity as a discipline, both with respect to its subject-matter and to its goals, its purposes, and the functions it served. This is what, more than anything else, distinguishes it from our modern science.”11 The theological content of natural philosophy again raises the problem of viewing natural philosophers and scientists as equivalents; for if one presents someone like Isaac Newton as a scientist, one is likely to overlook the theological context and content of his writings. To ask ‘how did Newton reconcile his religion with his science’ is to already misrepresent his work.

When Did Natural Philosophy End?
So when did natural philosophy end? The Scientific Revolution? It is more accurate to say that natural philosophy was not displaced but rather transformed during this period.12 Natural philosophy continues to be important during and after the Scientific Revolution, but it ceases to be in service to the contemplative ideal of medieval scholasticism.

The primary impact of the Scientific Revolution is a new ideal of knowledge. John Henry summarizes the changes, “The story [of the Scientific Revolution] is not primarily one of the invention of new techniques, or the discovery of new methods, it is a story of social and cultural changes which led to the rise in social and intellectual status of mathematical or craft practitioners, and allowed the amalgamation of what had previously had been humbler sciences and arts with the elite natural philosophy which had been developed in the medieval universities.”13 It is only with a more active conception of knowledge—techne is a marker of episteme—that mathematicians and skilled practitioners are seen as offering insight into the natural world.

After the Scientific Revolution, the mark of true knowledge becomes one’s ability to affect change in the natural world. Francis Bacon, who was the “philosopher of the new science” for most English natural philosophers, argued, “There is no sign more certain and more noble than that of fruits. In religion we are warned that faith be shown by works. It is altogether right to apply the same test to [natural] philosophy.”14 True natural philosophy now becomes concerned with actively intervening in nature, and as a result, scientific and technological achievements become intimately connected in the public mind.

While an active conception of knowledge is more in line with modern science, persons of this period are best seen as natural philosophers. For one reason, they were still motivated to provide comprehensive systems to replace the one of Aristotle. Aristotle’s natural philosophy just made sense, for it was a complete interdependent system that could account for the entire natural world. The natural philosophers of the Scientific Revolution were likewise concerned with explaining nature. For instance, the primary significance of Descartes’ philosophy is neither his method nor geometrization of nature, but “…constructing, from prime matter upward and from God downward, a functional equivalent to the Aristotelian philosophy of nature.”15 In a similar way, Francis Bacon set forth the New Organon, with its new conception of natural philosophy, as a replacement for Aristotle’s Organon within the university curriculum.

But the primary reason for seeing the Scientific Revolution as continuous with natural philosophy is that it was fundamentally religious in orientation. This becomes clear when examining the mechanical philosophy, which was the major new conception of nature of the 17th century.

What is distinctive about the mechanical philosophy? It replaced the dominant organic metaphors for nature with inorganic ones. In other words, nature was compared to a machine, which meant it was subject to the mechanist physics that engineers of the period applied to their technological innovations (e.g., fountains, pipe organs, etc.).16 This meant that mathematical models for nature could be treated realistically, a move that was ultimately vindicated in the work of Isaac Newton. Descartes’ version is perhaps the most well known example of the mechanical philosophy, but it is far from the only form. In England, Pierre Gassendi’s mechanical philosophy was more popular because it more closely fit the empirical orientation of their natural philosophy.17

While the mechanical philosophy introduced a strong emphasis on causal reductionism into Western science, many of its early advocates had strong theological reasons for supporting it.18 Some thought the mechanical philosophy could help distinguish between natural marvels and genuine miracles. Others believed that the mechanical philosophy provided a more secure foundation for belief in the soul and God than did the Aristotelian natural philosophy of the period: mechanisms, such as the human body, are not assembled by chance and thus testify to a Creator God.

A better candidate for the end of natural philosophy is the 19th century, and not simply because this was the period in which the word “scientist” was coined. First, during this period the study of the natural world became professionalized; it was no longer the province of the amateurish clergy-gentlemen but rather of the professional scientist centered at major research institutions. This change over the course of the 19th century rivals the Scientific Revolution itself. For instance, in early Victorian culture natural philosophy had little government support and was of limited significance in the clerically dominated universities and secondary schools.19 Yet as Frank Turner says, “From the 1840’s onward the size, character, structure, ideology, and leadership of the Victorian scientific world underwent considerable transition and eventually emerged possessing most of the characteristics associated with the modern scientific community.”20

The second reason for saying that modern science began in the 19th century is this is when methodological naturalism became established in the scientific community. While one could be a religious person and support methodological naturalism within science, one could not be a professional scientist and appeal to supernatural interventions when explaining natural phenomenon. Thus, the most common way to distinguish between the professional scientist and the older type of natural philosopher was that the former espoused methodological naturalism as the core of the scientific method. Methodological naturalism set the bounds for a professional scientist.

This emphasis on scientific naturalism helps to explain why the work of Charles Darwin was seen to be significant even when many of Darwin’s supporters did not accept the mechanism of natural selection. To quote the historian Jon Roberts, Darwin’s theory “…effectively cut the Gordian knot between science and supernaturalism and triggered the establishment of ‘methodological naturalism’ as the norm of scientific discourse.” Darwin’s hypothesis represented to many a general approach to scientific explanation, even if they disagreed with the details.

The transition from natural philosophy to modern science also helps to explain the fragmented nature of scientific knowledge. The institutionalization of science helped to divide problems into more manageable pieces, thus making piecemeal, instrumental problem solving central to the professional identity of many scientists.21 As the different disciplines have progressed it has become unclear how different research programs fit together, and disciplinary boundaries have formed that allow the avoidance of questions that would have concerned the natural philosopher. The complexity of local scientific problems usually prevents scientists from addressing inter-disciplinary problems.

Furthermore, the union between techne and episteme became more pronounced as science became more techno-centric in the capitalistic West. The fact that science was productive surely signified that it was gaining more accurate theories about the world, even if it was not apparent how those theories could be reconciled. In short, the loss of the category of natural philosophy is a major reason why conferences on the “unity of knowledge” are necessary.

Natural Philosophy and Modern Science
Now that I have given a brief history of the rise and fall of natural philosophy, I will now make an argument about the future of the term. Following a suggestion by the historian of science Peter Dear, I will argue that natural philosophy can still play a useful role in describing the nature of science.22

My case is directly related to the history that I have just presented. As I argued, one primary concern of natural philosophy is to make sense of nature. Aristotelians were suspicious of mathematics because they were unable to see why one should draw physical conclusions from mathematical models. Explanation differed from mere description in that it required one to give the causes underlying the phenomena in question.

The primary contribution of the Scientific Revolution is its new ideal of knowledge, where it was argued by Francis Bacon and others that the fundamental criteria for true knowledge is the ability to produce effects in nature. For the “new philosophers” of the 17th century, techne demonstrated episteme. This belief has continued through to modern science. When pressed as to why one should accept the truth of a particular theory, defenders of a theory will usually point to its practical efficacy. In other words, theories are true because they work.23

However, the combining of techne and episteme (i.e., technical control and philosophical understanding) creates a tension within modern science because they cannot be reduced to one another. Often the philosophical explanations that have led to technological achievements have undergone constant and sometimes drastic revisions.24 For instance, though Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic aether provided the prediction of radio waves, the technological achievement of the radio does not prove the existence of the aether. Or consider discarded theoretical entities from the history of science, such as caloric or phlogiston, which were empirically useful for a time. These and the numerous other examples from the history of science show that while technological achievements are cumulative and progressive, the explanations that undergird them are not necessarily so.

Since the 19th century there has been in Western culture a strong scientism that has not always appreciated the ambiguities of natural philosophy: as if the interpretation of data can be rendered with precisely formulated rules. For instance, there have been many debates in 20th century philosophy over whether observations are “theory laden,” meaning they are influenced by the beliefs of the person doing the observing. Now that most philosophers of science accept that there cannot be an absolute distinction between observation and theory, we should acknowledge that philosophical analysis can and does play an important role in assessing the reasonableness of theories. Why have we interpreted the data this way instead of that? By retrieving the category of natural philosophy, we draw attention to the more complex epistemological issues raised by modern science.

This proposal fits well with recent work in the history of science. Historians of science since Thomas Kuhn have produced remarkable studies showing how important context is for understanding the development and acceptance of scientific theories.25 From the perspective of natural philosophy, this is to be expected because we judge the reasonableness of any particular explanation on the basis of other beliefs that we hold. And these further beliefs reflect both scientific elements and the larger culture in which the scientist participates. Some day in the future, historians well write books and articles about the assumptions that influenced our scientific theories. This conception of reasoning need not be seen as undermining rationality, but rather as acknowledging that reasoning requires context to proceed.26

Another reason for the revival of the term natural philosophy is the fragmented nature of science today, which makes it difficult to reconcile different theories into a coherent picture of nature. Is it possible for all of natural science to be unified? For example, even if a scientist had a complete command of physics, does that mean that he or she is authorized to speak on behalf of nature? Does not the chemist or the biologist need a seat at the explanatory table as well? What is required is a clearing ground where multiple disciplines can negotiate the issues between them, and the category of natural philosophy helps to provide this.

This need for an interdisciplinary discussion is one reason for the explosion of interest among the science and religion community about the concept of emergence.27 While some have suggested there is a faddish element to its popularity, I think it represents a healthy move to question historical assumptions.28 After all, at one time the mechanical philosophy was also a fad. Causal reductionism has been part and parcel of natural philosophy ever since the rise of the mechanical philosophy, which was set forth as a metaphor to guide human understanding. Now that scientists have argued that the metaphor of mechanism for nature is misleading in many respects, we need to critically examine its alternatives.

Finally, the need for the term natural philosophy explains the popularity of the science and religion movement over the past several decades. Theologians generally have no desire to question the effectiveness of science; as a means of controlling and manipulating the world, modern science is without peer. But given the role of context in the way we explain the natural world, theologians will want to ask: are there alternative ways of construing the same scientific data? Must evolution imply a blind watchmaker? Or can theologians reconcile evolution with their own traditions? These fundamental questions have been a primary concern for the science and religion dialogue over the past few decades and demonstrate how scientific and religious quests to make sense of the world can and do overlap. I conclude that the science and religion movement is relevant not only to religious persons but to the science community at large because it draws attention to the more complex features (e.g., that it contains elements of both techne and episteme)of the human practice that is science.



Brooke, John Hedley. Science and Religion : Some Historical Perspectives, Cambridge History of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Clayton, Philip. Mind and Emergence : From Quantum to Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Cunningham, Andrew. “How the Principia Got Its Name; or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously.” History of Science 39 (1991): 377-92.

Dear, Peter Robert. “The Ideology of Modern Science.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 34 (2003): 821-28.

———. The Intelligibility of Nature : How Science Makes Sense of the World, Science. Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Des Chene, Dennis. Physiologia : Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

———. Spirits and Clocks : Machine and Organism in Descartes. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Grant, Edward. A History of Natural Philosophy : From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Henry, John. The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Jackelen, Antje. “Emergence Everywhere?! Reflections on Philip Clayton’s Mind and Emergence.” Zygon 41, no. 3 (2006): 623-32.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western Science : The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C.

To A.D. 1450. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990.

Peltonen, Markku. The Cambridge Companion to Bacon. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Shapin, Steven. The Scientific Revolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Turner, Frank M. “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension.” Isis 69, no. 3 (1978): 356-76.

Yeo, Richard R. Defining Science : William Whewell, Natural Knowledge, and Public Debate in Early Victorian Britain, Ideas in Context. New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1993.


1 Andrew Cunningham, “How the Principia Got Its Name; or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously,” History of Science 39 (1991).

2 Richard R. Yeo, Defining Science : William Whewell, Natural Knowledge, and Public Debate in Early Victorian Britain, Ideas in Context (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 5.

3 Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 6.

4 Edward Grant, A History of Natural Philosophy : From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 1.

5 Ibid., 42.

6 David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. To A.D. 1450 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

7 Peter Robert Dear, “The Ideology of Modern Science,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 34 (2003): 822.

8 ———, The Intelligibility of Nature : How Science Makes Sense of the World, Science. Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 9.

9 Ibid.

10 Grant, A History of Natural Philosophy : From the Ancient World to the Nineteenth Century, 273.

11 Cunningham, “How the Principia Got Its Name; or, Taking Natural Philosophy Seriously,” 381.

12 Ibid.

13 John Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 13.

14 As quoted in Markku Peltonen, The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 35.

15 Dennis Des Chene, Physiologia : Natural Philosophy in Late Aristotelian and Cartesian Thought (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 2.

16 ———, Spirits and Clocks : Machine and Organism in Descartes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 4.

17 Henry, The Scientific Revolution and the Origins of Modern Science, 74.

18 John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion : Some Historical Perspectives, Cambridge History of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 118.

19 Frank M. Turner, “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion: A Professional Dimension,” Isis 69, no. 3 (1978): 360.

20 Ibid.: 362.

21 Dear, The Intelligibility of Nature : How Science Makes Sense of the World, 175.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid., 5.

24 Ibid., 4.

25 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

26 This is a major emphasis of Alasdair MacIntyre’s tradition-based account of rationality. See Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990).

27 Such as Philip Clayton, Mind and Emergence : From Quantum to Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

28 Antje Jackelen, “Emergence Everywhere?! Reflections on Philip Clayton’s Mind and Emergence,” Zygon 41, no. 3 (2006): 624.