The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science

Peter Harrison, 2007. Cambridge University Press. 300 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0521117296

This scholarly book argues that the rise of modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries was stimulated by developments in Christian, especially Protestant, theology, not by a supposed release from the alleged constrictions of religious dogmatism. The common view of Christian faith as the enemy of scientific progress is replaced with the view that Christian faith motivated scientists to pursue progress in understanding nature. Questions about the implications of the Biblical teaching of the Fall of Adam provided the motivation to develop better tools for studying nature. Scholars in the sixteenth and seventeenth century debated the question of how fallen humans can obtain reliable knowledge of a corrupted world. How reliable is the human mind, and is the world understandable? Their skepticism of human reason led them to attempt to reduce the effects of the Fall by developing what are now the methods of modern science - experimentation, working in community, and regarding knowledge as probable rather than absolutely certain. Instead of science rising as the triumph of reason over a religiously hostile culture, religious themes strongly contributed to the development of modern science.

The author, Peter Harrison, Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, has written extensively on the history of religion and the development of modern science. The book consists of five chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. It is well documented, with 33 pages of references including more than 800 titles. It will be of greatest interest to those studying the history and philosophy of the influence of the Bible in the development of modern science. Some of the major themes are described below.

In the introduction, Harrison sets out the scope of his book, tracing the influence of the story of Adam’s fall on the development of “experimental philosophy” during the 16th and 17th centuries. The idea that the Fall resulted in deterioration of knowledge produced a skepticism in human reason, raising doubts that certainty of knowledge was possible. The author identifies four aspects of the response to this problem. First, the goal of science was to restore knowledge and partially reverse the effects of the Fall, such as errors in thinking. Second, the way to knowledge is best attained by understanding exactly how Adam’s mind had been affected by the Fall and then taking steps to mitigate these effects. The third point is that one’s religious background shaped the type of prescription offered to solve the problem of knowledge. Protestants tended to think the mind was depraved and knowledge was difficult to obtain, while Catholics proposed that the mind was not much affected by the Fall and a more perfect knowledge was possible. Fourth, two competing philosophies developed, pitting the pessimistic views of human nature held by Aristotle and Augustine against the more optimistic views of Plato and Thomas Aquinas, although each person held their own unique combination of ideas. Descartes held a position similar to the former and Kant the latter.

“Adam’s Encyclopedia” is the title of the first chapter. Adam’s ability to name the creatures was taken as implying his knowledge of their natures, so he must have been created with perfect knowledge. For Christians, that knowledge was lost at the Fall. Plato knew nothing of the Fall, but considered that immortal souls lost their previous knowledge upon embodiment. Aristotle thought the human propensity to error was simply the natural state of human beings. Augustine taught that human reason was depraved, but the image of God included gifts that can help humans obtain knowledge. Our knowledge depends on God. Aquinas claimed that humans have a natural light that enables them to obtain knowledge apart from God. An important question was whether our inclination to base knowledge on sense perception was evidence that God intended us to do that, or was it an indication of our corrupted nature?

The second chapter is titled, “Augustine Revived.” Martin Luther, an Augustinian friar, tended to the Augustine view of the depravity of human reason. John Calvin extended this further, that human nature is entirely depraved. The Protestant reformers insisted that questions about knowledge should be settled from considerations of the biblical teachings on the nature of man, in other words, theological anthropology. The fact that the Fall resulted from Eve’s curiosity was taken to mean we should avoid the temptation to curiosity and rely only on God’s word for knowledge. This skepticism of human reason differed from the ancient skeptics such as Socrates, who saw ignorance as the natural condition of man. In contrast, the Reformers saw ignorance as not natural, and hence favorably viewed the quest for knowledge as helping to reduce the ill effects of the Fall. One response to the situation was to trust those human gifts thought to have remained uncorrupted by the Fall, including reason, math, and logic. Another response was to distrust even reason and to seek truth by revelation or personal inspiration. A third response was that reason had been weakened, so it takes a lot of work, such as experiments, to find truth. All of this discussion is based on the idea that Adam represents what humanity was and what it might become.

“Seeking Certainty in a Fallen World” is the theme of chapter three, which describes the influence of the Fall of Adam on science in the 16th century. Luther proposed that the corruption of the world did not extend to the heavens, so knowledge of astronomy is possible. This leaves the question of whether fallen humans retain the ability to comprehend nature. This was resolved in part by noting that mathematics is independent of human thinking, and we do understand it. Further, we were created in God’s image, so our mind must be patterned after His and we should be able to understand something from His creation. Since God had used mathematics in designing the cosmos, mathematical descriptions could be a reliable representation of reality. All these discussion assumed the Aristotelian concept of science as representing certainty of knowledge, but this conception began to change under the influence of Francis Bacon.

Chapter Four, entitled “Dethroning the Idols,” focuses primarily on the development of experimental science in the 17th century, particularly in England and especially under the influence of Francis Bacon. The importance of knowledge of the self, especially the nature of the human mind, led to increased attention to human anatomy and health. Death is the most obvious sign of our fallen condition, and extending human life would be the greatest goal of a science that intends to reverse the effects of the Fall. Francis Bacon regarded the human mind as corrupted. Knowledge depends on senses, memory, and reason, which he called the idols of the mind. Yet there was hope for the pursuit of knowledge. The senses could be helped with instruments such as microscopes and telescopes. The memory could be supplemented with writing. Reason could be improved by careful methodology, including experimentation, accumulation of organized sets of observations, and guided communal endeavor. Aristotle considered the world to be in its natural state, but the Christian view of the fallenness of the world justified Bacon in taking a more active and aggressive style of experimentation in an attempt to repair the effects of the Fall.

Restoring the lost knowledge is the theme of the fifth chapter, “The Instauration of Learning.” The Protestant Reformation challenged traditional sources of authority and led to exploration of new methods of obtaining knowledge. Some efforts were made to recover the lost language of Adam, but without success. Formation of the Royal Society in 1662 fulfilled Bacon’s call for communal efforts in the sciences. As the paid curator of experiments, Robert Hooke was the first professional research scientist. Robert Boyle denied Adam’s perfection of knowledge, but argued he learned in the same way we do today. With Boyle, John Locke seems to have regarded human shortcomings not as due to a Fall, but to the natural position of humans in the great chain of beings. Isaac Newton, although deeply religious and committed to scripture, opposed the idea of the Trinity, and seemed uninterested in the Fall or its effects. Thus, he was not concerned with the traditional contrast between obtaining knowledge by reason or by experience. In fact, he combined the two methods, the use of reason, as in mathematics, and the use of experiments. Together, Newton, Locke, and Boyle were part of a gradual movement away from theological anthropology towards a more design-oriented pursuit in science. This is an important theme in the development of modern science. Another theme, articulated by Charles Webster, is the influence of Protestant eschatology. In this volume, a third theme is proposed – the influence of theological anthropology.

In the Conclusion, Harrison summarizes his arguments that questions over the extent and effects of Adam’s Fall resulted in a focus on the limits of the human mind and guided the search for solid foundations upon which to build knowledge. Ironically, the Darwinian theory senses the same problems, but offers an alternative explanation. Defects in human knowledge are not due to a Fall, but are due to our ancestry from beasts. Our minds do not function primarily for identifying truth, but for individual survival and reproduction. These ideas parallel the issues of the effects of the Fall and original sin that drove the concerns of many of the pioneers of science. If the thesis of this book is basically correct, modern experimental science does not owe its origin to a new awareness of the powers of human reason, but the opposite. It was a consciousness of the deficiencies of the human mind and the limited scope of knowledge that led to the development of the science we practice today.

Review by Jim Gibson, PhD
Geoscience Research Institute