Ghent University organizes all these interesting events. Just now, I have returned from a conference on Leonhard Euler, the 18th-century mathematician and physicist. Enlightenment philosophy and the early history of science are not my field, but I was intrigued by Euler’s combining the scientific outlook with a serious commitment to the Christian religion. He polemicized a lot with the encyclopédistes and other deists and atheists in defence of his old-time religion.
My suspicion, fostered by the sight of contemporary polemic between the “new atheists” and the diehard Christians, is that the exact sciences don’t foster critical thinking about human topics such as religion. The humanities, starting with philological criticism of the Bible, then psychology (Sigmund Freud: Religion, the Future of an Illusion) and sociology, reduce religion to a human artifact. They really deconstruct actually practiced religion. By contrast, till today, the faculties of science comprise numerous professors who have compartmentalized their thinking: critical when doing science, naïve when doing religion. All the time, you see Evangelical polemicists bring up the names of scientists who were also, after hours, believing Christians. Thus, Isaac Newton was a great aficionado of Biblical chronology, predicting the time of the Second Coming (he reassured his contemporaries that they would not live to see it; if anything, it was only for the 21st century). Among contemporary scientists, we hear of neo-Darwinian atheists like Richard Dawkins, but many more of his colleagues line up on the side of his Christian opponents.
In his time, Leonhard Euler defended religion against a rising tide of skepticism and was derided by icons of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Frederick the Great. These incidents in his admittedly weird biography gave me the impression that, in spite of his sophistication in science, he was very rustic in matters of religion. At the same time, his Briefe an eine deutsche Prinzessin (“Letters to a German Princess”) show that he was also an anti-fundamentalist: the only way to do science after Copernicus was to interpret the Biblical passages about nature symbolically, e.g. about the sun moving and the earth standing still. No special pleading to save the letter of the Bible from the challenge of science. His Protestant outlook on the Bible also made him less respectful of the elements of Greek philosophy that had entered Catholic theology. Thus, a rare case of that overrated influence of theology on physics is how he could criticize the notion of “emanation” (stemming from Neoplatonic philosophy, which greatly influenced Christian thought) when encountering it as a proposed explanation of the phenomenon of light.
Euler set the precedent of how modern believers could reconcile their religion with the findings of science. Till today, Christian apologetic works keep on reproducing his approach: sacrifice the elements from the Bible that cannot be saved, but stand fully by the core of the Christian religion and declare it off limits to science. Some Christians go all the way and try to defend a literal reading of the Bible (with the world created in six days), but they don’t follow Euler’s approach. He, at any rate, did not see science as a real challenge to the truth of the Bible, moderately interpreted.
It had seemed to me, until this conference, that Euler was a prototype of the believing scientist. However, the debates he waged against the ideas he encountered were far better informed than the naïve religious discourse you hear from the token Christian scientists today. Whereas nowadays you can build an academic career as a scientist without ever having to deal with the great questions of metaphysics and religion, back then it was the done thing for fledgling science to address these fundamental questions. The basic concepts of science still had a theological component. Thus, Newton brought God into His creation by understanding space as an emanation of God.
It is said that Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, ca. 1700 (or Johann Wolfgang Goethe, ca. 1800), was “the last man who knew everything”, i.e. who had a command of the state of the art in all sciences of his day. Today, this has become impossible. In this age of specialization, it is even frowned upon if you speak out on a matter outside your competence. That is another reason for the naïveté of today’s scientists: a physicist is not supposed to “meddle” in a metaphysical debate. Back then, it was still possible to be at the forefront of natural science and be competent on the ultimate questions of being as well.
There is also a simple fact that helps explain the religious naïveté of most contemporary scientists as well as the sophistication of the scientists in Euler’s day. Now, scientists are immediately thrown into a bath of nothing but science, in which they can develop and show their proficiency. They have to master Euler’s theorems but also the findings of Albert Einstein, of the quantum physicists and so much else that has been developed since. By contrast, in Euler’s day, science was far more limited and left more leisure for other pursuits. Moreover, students of science first had to study philosophy, typically for two years, often after they had had a religious upbringing far more thorough than anything we are used to now. So, they were far more aware of the extra dimensions of their scientific discoveries.