Religion and Scientific Change: The Case of the New Natural Theologies between the World Wars (2/2)

Today, July 4 2012, Cern announced the likely detection of the elusive Higgs boson – known by the popular press as the “God particle”.

Last installment of my lecture on “Religion and Scientific Change” closed by introducing three levels on which claims about relationships between religion and science should be analysed: the institutional, the socio-cultural, and the individual. I was going to wait a couple of days with releasing the rest, but since news headlines today have been all about the discovery of the “God particle” in the bowels of the Large Hydron Collider at Cern, it  seemed highly appropriate to continue. Why is it that such a (truth be told, rather ridiculous) religious pet-name has been put on the elusive boson? Read on, and you might find out. (And: happy Higgs boson day!)

The Institutional Dimension: Gifford Lectures

The institutional dimension plays an important role both in the death and the revival of natural theology. An important reason why natural theology went into decline during the nineteenth century was that science underwent a process of professionalization. It was moved from the hands of leisurely gentlemen, to the institutional setting of universities and laboratories, funded primarily by nation states and emerging industry. By the end of the century the place of science in society had radically changed. There now was the appearance of science being separate not only from theology, but philosophy as well. Scientists, in their professional capacity, were expected either to polemicise, or to stay out of religious matters altogether.

Lord Adam Gifford, founder of the influential Gifford Lectures.

The creation of new institutional spaces where academics were encouraged to speculate on religious implications of current science therefore made a major difference. One of the most significant examples is the Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology, established in 1888 through the last will of Lord Adam Gifford. Gifford was a barrister and judge based in Edinburgh who gave his inheritance to the five existing Scottish universities, to be used exclusively to fund, quote, ‘a Lectureship or Popular Chair for “Promoting, Advancing, Teaching, and Diffusing the study of Natural Theology”. The universities would invite major intellectual profiles to lecture on any topic related to this theme. Furthermore, money was set aside for dissemination, and lectures were printed as books, reasonably priced and reaching a large audience.

Lord Gifford’s will was a significant investment in natural theology, and the investment certainly paid off. The Gifford Lectures are still around in Scotland, and are considered highly prestigious. This prestige has been won by the number of academic superstars that were invited to give the lecture series during the first half century of its existence. The list includes famous philosophers,  theologians, and physicists. Some very significant works were produced as Gifford lectures, including William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, and Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality. In effect, institutions such as the Gifford lectures have had a deep impact on ideas about the relation between science and religion, particularly of the “unity” type.


Socio-Cultural Contexts: The Aftermath of the Great War

Let’s turn to the broader socio-cultural contexts. While it is obvious that science shapes the cultural repository, cultural discourses also help shape the values, expressions, and identity associated with scientific knowledge. Culture does not only surround science, but it interpenetrates it.

The interpenetration of science by culture particularly reveals itself during periods of scientific change. When old conceptual structures are rooted up, when “paradigms” are changing, an opportunity arises to rework science’s cultural embedding, reinvent its identity and position towards other activities, and ascribe new values to it.

An example of this is found in the development of quantum mechanics. This took place largely in the German cultural sphere during the Weimar era. After the Great War, modern science started to face certain image problems. In the popular mind, scientists were accomplices to the destruction that had hit Europe so hard. Furthermore, a wave of antimodernism spread across Germany, and science was pitted together with the “negative Others” of an authentic, primeval Germany. It was portrayed as materialistic and deterministic, as a force for the disenchantment of the world and the collapse of traditional values. Increasingly, it was also seen as Jewish.

On top of this, economic crisis troubled the country. In this difficult climate, scientists had to find new strategies to present their research. A German satire cartoon from 1921 ironizes on this situation [see image below]:[1] There is no longer any money for science, and the astronomer’s observatory is falling apart. The professor asks the government for funding, but is rejected. In desperation, he needs to think up a plan. The plan then follows: scientific astronomy may not be popular anymore, but astrology is more popular than ever! The professor sets up an astrological practice, sells horoscopes to war profiteers, and makes lots of money. Finally, he has the funds to rebuild his observatory and continue science as usual.

Cartoon published in the satire magazine Simplicissimus, 1921.

Astrology more profitable than astronomy?

The satire is certainly exaggerated, but it does capture something important: German physicists of this period show an astonishing tendency to portray their innovations in an “esoteric” light. While they generally remained allergic to astrology, references to “the question of the old alchemists”, “Pythagorean number mystics” and even “cabbalists” are found in public addresses by physicists.[2] These were quite obviously rhetorical, and rather superficial remarks, but interesting ones at that because they play on mystifying, esoteric imagery in order to exalt the status of the new science in the general population.

Too certain about uncertainty?

There is also evidence that some of the early quantum physicists were driven to take their own interpretations far longer than the actual data allowed them. For example, Werner Heisenberg was very quick to conclude his scientific paper on the uncertainty principle by claiming that causality had been once and for all abolished from the workings of nature.[3] Intriguingly, Heisenberg and many of his colleagues seemed to imply that the rejection of causality meant that the doctrine of determinism fails, and that free will is saved.[4] This is rather extraordinary, for a number of reasons – the most striking of which is that they failed to mention that in place of the old physics they had introduced a completely deterministic theory of probabilities.[5] The biggest achievement was not a demonstration of a universe left to chance, but rather that chance had been tamed by statistical predictions.

Physicists of this period tended to grossly overstate the philosophical significance of their discoveries, motivated, it seems, by attempts to create a more tolerable identity for science in troubled times. By doing this, they also laid the foundations for “quantum mysticism” – for the most part unwittingly.

Individual factors: “discovery enthusiasm”

Cultural and institutional factors are thus important, but cannot do the job alone. In particular, we should not miss the personal factor of the individual. Here I will mention only one kind of individual factor, namely what I propose to call “discovery enthusiasm”.

By discovery enthusiasm, I refer to a tendency on the part of some scientists to become overly enthusiastic about their own discoveries and hypotheses, finding in them the key to the greatest problems occupying humanity. I suggest that such enthusiasm often takes individual scientists to make claims of religious significance. This is fitting if we consider the etymology of “enthusiasm”: en theos originally referred to being possessed by a god. An “enthusiast” was someone who claimed personal ‘divine revelations’ or enjoyed a ‘special communication from God’.[6]

I will mention only a couple of cases that I think fall under this category. These should also demonstrate how the personal factor can play together with the institutional and sociocultural factors that we have already discussed.

Hans Driesch: Entelechy as revelation.

Consider, first, the case of Hans Driesch.  Driesch was a German embryologist, studying the earliest stages of cell division in sea urchin eggs. He found that if he punctured one of the two cells after the first cell division, then the surviving half would still develop into a full and proper organism, just slightly smaller in size than other sea urchins. This seemed mysterious, because the mechanistic theories available at that point predicted that the intervention would destroy half of the hereditary material and leave a dysfunctional half-organism.

Driesch saw his discovery as countering mechanistic models in biology. These needed to be replaced, he argued,[7] by a new form of non-mechanistic vitalism, some form of non-material force that guided the development of organisms from conception to death. This was a controversial, but still relevant, contribution to scientific embryology. But Driesch’s enthusiasm about his neo-vitalistic force, which he called entelechy, made him increasingly speculative. He would expand its area of application and speculate that entelechy may explain the phenomena of spiritualism. By holding life to be separate from the material body, there was a possibility for life after bodily death.

Meanwhile, his colleagues in embryology quickly solved the problem Driesch had originally been occupied with, by laying the foundation of modern genetics. Driesch was, however, still able to propagate his principle to the educated public, by being invited to give the Gifford Lectures in 1908. As late as the 1920s he continued to argue his case, now in the same anti-mechanistic cultural context that fostered quantum mechanics. Individual, institutional, and sociocultural factors thus come nicely together, while “pure science” disappears from view.

Returning to physics, we may finally consider the case of Niels Bohr. Bohr was the leader of the so-called Copenhagen school, which was incredibly influential in creating and spreading the first interpretations of quantum mechanics. He was a sort of god-father for Werner Heisenberg, and other main figures such as Wolfgang Pauli. In the mid-1920s Bohr had become increasingly frustrated, since quantum mechanics seemed so hard to pin down in coherent models that made any sense. Around the year 1927, he found that the solution was simply to embrace this frustration with enthusiasm: with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in place, and an emerging picture of wave/particle duality, Bohr enthusiastically embraced the paradoxical, the inconsistent, the unutterable and non-understandable. The result was the principle of “complementarity”.

Pauli and Jung: complementarities and synchronicities.

Bohr’s explanation of this concept was constantly changing, but it revolved around the central idea that the best one could aim at in quantum mechanics was complementary description: to grasp the whole picture of quantum mechanics, one needed to use models that mutually excluded one another. While this applied to physics, Bohr was more than happy to expand the scope significantly. Over the years, he would apply complementarity to argue the irreducibility of human experience, of biological organisms, to describe the relation between different cultures, and indeed to defend the notion of free will. Some of Bohr’s followers took complementarity even further. For example, Wolfgang Pauli brought the concept with him into the collaboration with Carl Gustav Jung, resulting in the concept of “synchronicity”. According to Pauli and Jung, the relation between “causality” and “non-causal” meaningful connections was precisely a complementary one.


I will conclude this brief sweep over an incredibly complex matter by summarising two points:

1)     One must be suspicious of all claims stating that some new discovery vindicates certain spiritual truths, or stands in a certain relationship to some religious doctrine, moral principle, or statement of value – even when this claim comes from scientists.

2)     The appropriate attitude to all such claims, whether they state science and religion to be in harmonious or conflict, is to ask questions: who is making this claim, and for what reasons? Furthermore, is the claim truly philosophical, or rather a literary or rhetorical ploy?

Clinton announces that God’s language of life has been revealed. The head of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins (an Evangelical Christian), smiles contently in the background.

These questions remain equally important today, when we are flooded by contradictory messages about science. Why was it that Bill Clinton, upon the completion of the first phase of the Human Genome Project in 2000, chose to speak about the uncoding of the DNA in terms of ‘learning the language of God’?[8] There were no doubt sociocultural reasons for veiling the discovery in religious semantics – especially since religious communities continue to supply the strongest moral opposition to biotechnology. This is not so different from the physicists of the Weimar republic. Similarly, what do we make of the fact that the Higgs particle has been dubbed the “God Particle”? It certainly makes the particle sound very significant, and probably helps to legitimize spending billions of euros on the Large Hydron Collider in order to find it. But this particular sacralisation of physics seems to have an even more mundane explanation. The authors of the book The God Particle, Dick Teresi and Leon Lederman, write:

the publisher wouldn’t let us call it the Goddamn Particle, though that might be a more appropriate title, given its villainous nature and the expense it is causing.[9]

And with that, I close this goddamn lecture, hoping to have sufficiently confused you with the elusive nature of science-religion debates once they are put under the microscope of the suspicious historian.

[1] Published in the satire magazine Simplicissimus.

[2] Citations of Richard von Mises’ introductory lecture at the Technische Hochschule in Dreseden in 1920, quoted by Forman, ‘Weimar culture, causality, and quantum theory’, 49.

[3] Heisenberg, ‘The Physical Content of Quantum Kinematics and Mechanics’, 83.

[4] See e.g. Arthur Eddington, Nature of the Physical World, 331-332.

[5] Cf. Forman, ‘Kausalität, Anschaulichkeit, and Individualität’, 337.

[6] Online Etymology Dictionary, “enthusiast”.

[7] Driesch, Die Lokalisation morphogenetischer Vorgänge.

[8] Cf. von Stuckrad, ‘Rewriting the Book of Nature’.

[9] Dick Teresi and Leon Lederman, The God Particle, 22

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This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] in space, Larry Moran on Stephen J Gould, Berfois on Hugh Everett, the BBC on Peter Higgs, Egil on religion and scientific change between the wars, and finally Nuclear Secrecy on the Hair of […]

  2. Very interesting article. Do you have any more material written about Jung, Pauli and synchronicity?

    And about astrology and science? Or the materialistic/mechanical paradigm of science?

    • Thanks, Lina. Not much more on the blog I think, ut you could always try the search button and look around for keywords of interest. There will be quite a lot of all this in my dissertation when it gets published: “The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900-1939”.

  3. […] the soul, and the philosophy of life. Both Sheldrake and Driesch are  good examples of what  I call “discovery enthusiasm”: scientists who think they have made a revolutionary break-through, follow up by expanding the […]

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