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Science and Religion

Science and Religion

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Science and Religion

Course No. 4691
Professor Lawrence M. Principe, Ph.D.
Johns Hopkins University
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Course No. 4691
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring around 60 portraits. These portraits include those of individuals who've profoundly shaped the relationship between science and religion, including Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

Two crucial forces, science and religion, helped shape Western civilization and continue to interact in our daily lives. What is the nature of their relationship? When do they conflict, and how do they influence each other in pursuit of knowledge and truth? Contrary to prevailing notions that they must perpetually clash, science and theology have actually been partners in an age-old adventure. This course covers both the historical sweep and philosophical flashpoints of this epic interaction.

Professor Lawrence M. Principe unfolds a surprisingly cooperative dynamic in which theologians and natural scientists share methods, ideas, aspirations, and a tradition of disputational dialogue.

St. Augustine warned that it is dangerous for religious people to ignore science: "Many non-Christians are well versed in natural knowledge, so they can detect vast ignorance in such a Christian and laugh it to scorn." He added that interpretation of biblical passages must be informed by the current state of demonstrable knowledge.

On the other hand, Sir Isaac Newton freely discusses the attributes and activities of God in Principia Mathematica, which sets forth his theory of gravity and laws of motion.

These examples represent the traditional relationship of science and religion that is too often obscured by the divisive, hot-headed rhetoric and the gross oversimplifications we often see in today's headlines. Long before the shouting and the sloganeering, scientists and theologians pursued a unity of truth, and most theologians have agreed with the advice of Galileo's colleague, Cardinal Baronio, that the Bible "tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."

Once we understand this, we have a new perspective on many present-day controversies. The current antievolution furor, for example, centers on the fixation that Genesis 1 should be taken literally, an issue that had been resolved by theologians long ago. Professor Principe deems it "astonishingly trivial" and guides you through far more interesting arguments of advanced theology about powers and limits of human knowledge—the difficulty of identifying causation, and the means by which God acts in the world. He shows how science gives theologians powerful tools for enriching, not contradicting, their understanding of ultimate truths.

The Search for Answers

You will explore questions that are important to all religions, but the focus is on interactions in the "Latin West" where modern science largely took root. This includes formerly Latin-speaking Western European and Mediterranean regions, and the offspring of European culture, North America. The course spotlights the predominant religion of these lands: Christianity.

Our search is punctuated by Professor Principe's wit and passion. In a review of one of his previous courses, AudioFile magazine acclaimed him as "clearly a master of his subject. Equally clear is his passion for teaching it." With fluency in three ancient languages, Professor Principe is a student's living link to the primary sources he has read and studied in their original languages. Through his reading of such texts as the original minutes of the Inquisition, for example, he is able to grant you the rare opportunity to read between the lines of what was written. In addition, the professor holds faculty appointments in three diverse fields—history of science, philosophy, and chemistry—which allow him to synthesize materials across disciplines and convey the big picture with stunning clarity. His lectures are colored with the passion of someone who has devoted a lifetime to exploring the interaction of science and religion.

Moving from the early centuries of the Christian era and the Middle Ages to our own day, he exposes the truth about the Galileo Affair and provides a revealing picture of the circuslike Scopes Trial.

You will share St. Augustine's profound ideas about reason and faith. Follow St. Thomas Aquinas's exploration of miracles—the need to identify them is one example of how scientific and theological inquiry overlap. Meet a 19th-century writer whose anti-Catholic diatribe spread myths that persist today.

Learn about the courage (and stubbornness) of Galileo, the unexpected rationality of his accusers, the inspiration of Darwin's natural selection, and the religious implications of Lemaître's Big Bang.

As Professor Principe claims, the solution to this modern conflict is easy—it is the study of history. Such study will equip you to join that partnership with a vocabulary of ideas and a clear, historical perspective on the science/religion relationship. These tools will help you participate more effectively in a dialogue that is as immediate and thought-provoking today as it was hundreds of years ago.

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12 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
  • 1
    Science and Religion
    In this introductory lecture, we define the basic terms of the course, its content, methodology, and focus. This course deals with the interactions of Christianity with science in the Western world over a long time span. We look closely at the words science and religion to prepare for consistent discussions in subsequent lectures. We look at models for the interactions of science and religion, critique them, and provide pointers for engaging with the balance of the course. x
  • 2
    The Warfare Thesis
    We examine one form of historical relationship between science and religion—the warfare or conflict thesis. Advanced in the late 19th century by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, it has continued strong in popular thought to the present day. We create a catalogue of methodological errors and fallacies for all readers of history to guard against. x
  • 3
    Faith and Reason—Scripture and Nature
    In this lecture, we confront some basic concepts in the science-religion question: What are legitimate means of acquiring sure knowledge, and where can we can obtain such knowledge? We examine approaches to means and sources in the Christian tradition, in St. Augustine's 5th-century writings, and more recently in the important 1998 papal encyclical Fides et ratio. x
  • 4
    God and Nature—Miracles and Demons
    This lecture approaches the nature of causation and our ability to identify it accurately. A crucial point of contact between science and religion is the question of the extent of God's involvement: naturalistic explanations versus divine intervention. Views of the state of the spiritual world influence and form one's views toward the natural world and science. x
  • 5
    Church, Copernicus, and Galileo
    We look at the "Galileo affair." Far from being a simple case of science versus religion, however, it is extremely complex and brings up a host of important philosophical, scientific, and other issues that must be understood in context. x
  • 6
    Galileo’s Trial
    This lecture examines the latter phase of the Galileo affair, presents explanations of the events, and looks at how these events have been used, abused, and re-examined to the present day. Of particular importance are the arguments made on both sides about the relative intellectual roles of science and faith and the levels of certainty we can have about each. x
  • 7
    God the Watchmaker
    The 17th-century idea of a mechanical universe functioning like a great clockwork implied creative actions of a divine mechanist but simultaneously distanced him from creation. Natural philosophers had to deal with deep-seated fears over the new growth of irreligion, and atheism provided a new context. This lecture surveys some of the means used to address this idea by Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and others. x
  • 8
    Natural Theology and Arguments from Design
    Some authors have used the natural world to argue for the existence of the deity. This lecture examines the emergence and content of natural theology. Recently, intelligent design has appeared as a further step in the track of natural theology. This lecture looks at historical features of both approaches and their limitations. x
  • 9
    Geology, Cosmology, and Biblical Chronology
    How old is the Earth and the universe? This lecture looks at attempts to date the Earth, the hints that it is vastly older than the Bible implies, and the responses from religious figures to this dating. Historical "battle lines" between rival interpretations of both the Earth's and the universe's ages and origins do not map out on simple religion/science lines but, instead, reveal a more complex picture rooted largely in social and professional differences. x
  • 10
    Darwin and Responses to Evolution
    Like Galileo, Charles Darwin occupies a central position in discussions of science and religion. This lecture looks at Darwin's theory of evolution and its complex reception in context. Darwin's natural selection and common ancestry ideas provoked a range of responses from religious and scientific figures. x
  • 11
    Fundamentalism and Creationism
    Despite acceptance of evolutionary ideas by naturalists and prominent theologians in 1900, those ideas have also marked the 20th century with strongest-ever science-religion conflict. This lecture looks at the 1925 Scopes Trial, a high point in the fundamentalist crusade against evolution, and the invention of creation science and flood geology. There's an analysis of the background and social foundations of American fundamentalism, a force that still plays an adversarial role with modern science. x
  • 12
    Past, Present, and Future
    In this concluding lecture, we survey the course and place our own times in historical context. No single description can aptly describe the complexity of science/religion interactions in Christianity over time. Most current clashes occur between extremists—religious and scientific fundamentalists. A historical perspective is the best way to transcend and defuse such clashes. x

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Your professor

Lawrence M. Principe

About Your Professor

Lawrence M. Principe, Ph.D.
Johns Hopkins University
Dr. Lawrence M. Principe is Drew Professor of the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University. Professor Principe earned a B.S. in Chemistry and a B.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Delaware. He also holds two doctorates: a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, and a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Johns Hopkins University. In 1999, the Carnegie Foundation chose Professor Principe as the...
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Also By This Professor


Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 113 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Prepare to be Surprised My background is in philosophy and languages, so I thought I came to this course with minimal preconceptions. Not so! Professor Principe demonstrated again and again certain erroneous ideas that I'd picked up somewhere, and that other moderately or well-educated customers probably have as well. Points on which I was enlightened included: * For much of Western history, science and religion were intertwined rather than at odds. * Theologians have used sophisticated and intellectually respectable forms of reasoning in support of the intertwining of science and religion. * Protestantism and Catholicism have had very divergent responses to Darwinism and other scientific work. * Historically, most Bible interpretation by theologians did not take Biblical statements as literally true. * It's easy to misunderstand the meaning of "miracles" and their relevance to science. * When you place the Argument from Design in historical context, you understand it differently from the way it's presented in the field of philosophy. * Darwinism has been used to support both the common heritage of mankind and racist views about human differences. * And more. His lecturing style was fluent, intelligent, grounded in specific sources and consistently engaging, On the negative side, I wish he hadn't limited his scope to Christianity. I also wish he wasn't so snide about fundamentalism. September 10, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Changed my views I am not particularly religious so I suppose I had a bias that science and religion were opposed to one another. I was delighted to find that this is not necessarily the case. The historical evidence presented refuted my bias. Of course, there is some clash of world views; this is one ramification of modernity. Still, much or most early science was done under the auspices of clerics. The lecturer was very good, moved fast, spoke cogently... one of my favorites. Highly recommended. September 5, 2015
Rated 3 out of 5 by Too close to Christian apologetics This course should be titled Science and Christianity since Prof. Principe confines the discussion to that religion. This is not a criticism, but a caveat for those expecting a broader scope. As for the content, I think there are many problems with this series of lectures. I will only address a few here. First, there is Professor Princepe's claim that faith and reason have roughly the same relationship to one another in modern science as they do in Christianity. Of course this begs the question, "What exactly is meant by faith and reason respectively?" Whole careers have been spent tracing disputes within Christianity and science regarding the meanings of these terms. The definitions given by the lecturer are far from being univocally held in science or Christian Theology. But what I want to emphasize is the Professor's misuse of the term faith *given his own definition* as applied to modern science as an institution. The lecturer defines faith as a "method of gaining knowledge which involves either holding a belief or suspending disbelief." He anchors this in Augustinian theology. We take something on faith in order that we may come to truly understand it. For example, if we do not accept the existence of God on faith, for Augustine, then we cannot come to understand Him. Likewise, a scientist must take on faith various background assumptions and beliefs such as the reliable functioning of his/her senses, or the belief that the technology used to conduct experiments is reliable. I object to this analogy. Prof. Principe fails to mention that a working scientist has to be prepared to forfeit any such belief just in case it comes into conflict with evidence to the contrary. If there is reason to doubt the reliability of sensory reports (e.g. intoxicants, lack of sleep) then scientists will--in principle-- do so. Our senses tell us that hard objects are solid and impenetrable. Modern physics tells us that they contain mostly empty space and that our senses deceive us in this regard. Scientific beliefs and knowledge-claims are provisional; absolute certainty is denied. Individual scientists may have strong personal attachments ( e.g. Einstein was very reluctant to accept indeterminism in quantum mechanics), but science has no equivalent article of faith to those found in, for example, the Nicene Creed affirming the one God, the Trinity, the Virgin Birth etc. For Augustine, you must take these as non-negotiable, unconditional starting points for the acquisition of further or deeper knowledge. They are incorrigible (cannot be corrected). Science does not function in that way. The putative truths of science are not to be treated as eternal, but as strongly confirmed at some particular time and within some particular theoretical framework. In terms of historical analysis, Princepe's treatment of the Galileo Affair seems to concentrate on irrelevancies and details that cloud the real issue, i.e. the long- term history of the Church's official position regarding Heliocentrism, and not simply one particular author or version of that theory. Princepe characterizes the Galileo Affair as an "Italian Soap Opera" and focuses largely on the personalities of those involved-- the Pope's big ego, Galileo's lack of tact etc. I would rather establish the more enduring facts of the matter which ought to be well known by all concerned. In 1616 the Catholic Church declared "Copernicanism" (i.e. Heliocentrism) to be a heresy. Copernicus' book, De Revolutionibus, was placed on the index of prohibited books. It was said to have no value as an explanation of natural events or actualities. No one (not just Galileo) was to teach "Copernicanism." Kepler's Astronomia Nova (1611) was also placed on the index, although Kepler was Protestant and thus continued working on the system.The Church ban on Kepler in 1616 is not mentioned in the course, yet Kepler's work was pivotal in vindicating the theory, and by 1617 he had published the Epitome Astronomiae Copernicae which presented his system and was immediately placed on the index. Thus, even before the famous trial and punishment of Galileo in 1633, the relevant writings of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were ALL banned, and "Copernicanism" declared a heresy. The trial of 1633 which resulted in the arrest of Galileo had more to do with whether or not he had disobeyed the Church orders than it did the already established heresy. What is important above all is the long term historical record. Copernicus' and Galileo's books were not removed from the index until the 1820s and 30s. As recently as 1990, the Church (Cardinal Carl Ratzinger later Pope Benedict XVI) made arguments about the soundness of the 1616 decisions; arguments similar to those in this course. He supported his argument by reading a passage from the well known critic of rationality, method and realism, Paul Feyerabend (strange bedfellows indeed!) In 1992 Pope John Paul II, breaking from Cardinal Ratzinger, gave Galileo some long overdue credit by stating that the "error of the theologians of those times was to think... the physical structure of the world was in some way imposed by the literal sense of the Sacred Scriptures." The fact that the Church elites in the 1990s were still unsure about which way to lean on these matters is more telling than either statement taken alone. It is important to note that Princepe's analysis of the Galileo affair is in keeping with those of Catholics (including Carl Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI) who argue that the Inquisition's reasoning was scientifically sound, and arguably superior to that of Galileo who was right about Heliocentism but lacked good evidence at the time. It is true that he lacked good evidence and made mistakes, but again this doesn't explain the dismissal of Kepler's work on the subject as heresy. Obviously it was Heliocentrism and not just Galileo that was on trial. But returning to the claim that the Church position exhibited greater scientific rigor than Galileo, the argument proceeds on 3 fronts: 1) from anti-realism in philosophy of science (i.e. astronomy at the time was seen more as useful supposition for things like calendar-fixing than as a path to knowledge about the world) 2) a defense of literal interpretations of scripture (e.g. Joshua made the Sun stop moving) as having the overriding force of established knowledge in the absence of "proof" to the contrary. 3) the use of alternative systems that did not contradict scripture to make the point that Galileo's theory was unnecessary and sloppy (e.g. statements like "Even Tycho Brahe's system could save appearances better than Galileo's while keeping the Earth motionless"). But long after Tycho Brahe's system had importance, the Church refused to remove the books from the index or acknowledge Heliocentrism . Thus from 1616 to the 19th century the Church maintained a ban on seminal books that had introduced Heliocentrism which was now all but universally accepted by scientists and educated laypersons. Indeed Newton's system presupposed the works of Galileo and Kepler who were still banned by the Church. It is quite a stretch to say that in the early 19th century the best scientific evidence was still in the hands of geocentrists! Why not admit the obvious, i.e. that there was excessive institutional resistance to the theory for for centuries, to the point that some Catholics are still wont to play defense on the whole affair today! These and a few other problems bedevil this short course. Though I cannot go into the intricacies of the Evolution/Design debates here, it is worth mentioning that Princepe blames the "low-level theology" of the fundamentalists for the conflict. Increased public awareness of "superior" theology (such as the Augustinian approach he adopts in this course) is encouraged as an antidote to the ongoing conflicts. I'm not convinced that any form of theology can show that the existence of a creator god is necessary at all for explaining the emergence and transformations of species on Earth. The theory of evolution as it stands does not require any theological commitments one way or the other. There is no need for "superior" or any other theology in order to account for the evolution of life-forms. Faith is a matter of conscience, not, as Prof. Princepe holds, a method for arriving at scientific knowledge. In sum, there are too many unwarranted assertions, convenient definitions and instances of selective history to make this a solid and even-handed review of the interaction of Christianity and science in the West. Finally, though you may learn a thing or two about how inquisitors and Church theologians reason, you will not learn very much about the manner in which Galileo and other scientists labored and arrived at the theories now associated with the Scientific Revolution. That's a missed opportunity. In short, this course comes too close to apologetics. (2 1/2 stars) August 19, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Science and religion have benefited each other For the past few years, when people ask my religion I tell them "I'm a humble materialist." By this I mean, there are many religions, many gods, and each of their believers believes with the same sincerity. It clearly seems reasonable to many people that a God of some type exists. So, while I tend to assume that there is a materialistic explanation for unexplained events, I also recognize that there are many explanatory gaps yet to be filled and maybe someone's god will fill that gap. Further since most thoughtful people will arrive at similar decisions most of the time, and agree on more than they disagree, I find it more informative to find where people agree and then explore why they disagree. I often learn there is more than one way to answer moral questions, and the truth of the expression that if one cannot imagine how someone believes something then you don't understand it. It is with that in mind that I highly recommend this six hour audio course. It systematically dismantles the idea that science and religion are at war with each other, and is a great reminder that for most of history science and religion have been intimately intertwined. They have informed and motivated each other. There isn't one "religious" perspective, there isn't one Christian perspective, and there isn't one monolithic voice of science. Science is a method, one that allows a common ground for people of different religions. We may disagree on the primary cause of an event, but we can agree on the secondary causes. As a side note, I asked a friend with a very different life if he would take this course with me. He's married, with kids, a musician, one the most eloquent Catholics, and a man I deeply respect for his perspective. I highly recommend asking a friend to others. I've come to understand natural law and Catholic reasoning much better. We may not agree, but I would never insult him by yelling across a picket line that he's an idiot. Just as no one insults the _Iliad_, so I would never again endorse the extreme Fundamentalism on either side which uses derision in place of discussion. I'd also suggest asking a friend because it just feels great when two people have a respectful exchange of ideas and understand another way to live. We need more of these conversations to defuse the false dichotomy and war between science and religion, and religion and religion. June 23, 2015
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