Core 4: The Scientific Revolutions and Modernity

Steve Smith (smithsg)
Office: Christian Center 11, 974-1334
Home: 1611 Edgewood St, 354-2290

IDS 2400 (02) Topics in the Modern World [Core 4]
Foci: Philosophy, Religion
Fall 2003

We speak of a “modern” period starting around 1600 because from that time forward European culture became extremely dynamic in ways that led to dramatic changes almost throughout the human world in just a few centuries. By 1600, European ships and guns had already forcefully projected a European presence around the globe, mainly for purposes of trade; what was still to come, and what was going to affect the thinking of a very high percentage of educated people in all societies by 1900–what was going to make the whole world modern in a fundamental way–was a revolutionary new scientific worldview.

The new European scientific worldview didn’t come out of nowhere. It has roots in various historic sources of Western culture, including the Hebrew Bible, Greek philosophy and science, and Christian and Islamic theology. So it is indeed a very “Western” phenomenon. At the same time, however, the scientific revolution makes a big break that divides all moderns from all premoderns. Thus, in a quite significant sense, modern Westerners have more in common with modern Chinese or Indians or Africans than with their own pre-1600 forebears or with their premodern-thinking compatriots.

There has actually been a series of scientific revolutions, and they haven’t stopped. Being a “modern” person, in fact, means being subject at all times to revolutionizing. It’s hard for us to adapt to this because scientific revolutions aren’t just intellectual parlor games, they change how we live. With the new physics of Galileo, for example, come space travel and nuclear power; with the new biology of Darwin comes genetic engineering. Do human beings have this much flexibility?

The scientific revolutions have a major impact on our religious orientation. They change the way we identify and locate ourselves in the universe; they change the way we understand our history and project our future; they change what we hope and fear. Possibly the most important cultural development to be studied in the period 1600-1900 is the break between what religion means to premoderns and what it means to moderns. Some people claim that religion itself is a premodern phenomenon, that genuinely religious thinking can’t tolerate (or survive) the new science. Others think that true religion is untouched by the scientific revolutions or that it has successfully evolved along with the new science. We are still having this debate; we have to figure out what we think about the relationship between science and religion, about the standards by which we are prepared (or not) to accept claims that are put forward as scientific and religious. A hypothesis that will be seriously considered in this course is that there are modern forms of religion coordinate with modern forms of science. This implies that the “religion and science debate” is not simply a debate between “traditional” religion and “today’s” science; it’s more complicated than that.

We’re going in! Using philosophical methods of clarifying concepts, arguments, and assumptions, we’re going to learn more about science and religion than even most people who think they pay attention to these things are aware of. And certainly if you haven’t paid attention before, now is the time to do so: otherwise you will remain a sleepwalker (to steal the title of our Arthur Koestler book) in the midst of ideas and ideals that profoundly shape you and your fellows. This course is a special opportunity for you to establish what you really think and what your real questions are about the nature of the reality you live in. For you are a modern person–aren’t you?


This course will be very informative, I trust, but there is more to it than that. The course is an exercise machine to strengthen your thinking, speaking, and writing powers so that you can enter more fully into the life and fellowship of the mind. Like other Millsaps core courses, this one promotes certain broadly relevant abilities:

Reasoning. This is your ability to keep track of differences and similarities, of evidence and lack of evidence, and of your own acts of acceptance and rejection, so that you can draw conclusions about what is true or false, likely or unlikely, consistent or inconsistent. The coursework will challenge and lead you to reason in a sustained way.

. Learning does not take place only in a private laboratory in your head. It depends on conversation. This course will ask you repeatedly to weave your thoughts together with other people’s thoughts by oral and written presentation and (most importantly) by response.

Historical consciousness. Besides gathering information about how important elements of human culture have come into existence and spawned consequences, we will strive to understand more substantially how our lives belong to a historical-cultural continuum and how our perceptions, desires, and choices relate to the raveling and unraveling of this larger fabric. We are “modern” people–aren’t we? What does that involve, especially in our standards of knowledge and value?

Aesthetic judgment
. We will examine and assess some notable artistic interpretations of the meaning of the changed worldviews associated with Galileo and Darwin, as in the poetry of Donne and Tennyson. We will seek evidence of how the scientific revolutions continue to reverberate in contemporary arts and discuss what this implies about our culture.

Global and multicultural awareness. It has long been recognized that our so-called Western culture has been mixed out of culturally very diverse sources, including Hebrew and Greek. Some interpreters have seen a flaring up of rivalry between these sources in the scientific revolutions–specifically, between a Hebraic priority of unconditional obedience to a transcendent God and a Greek priority of rational knowledge of the world. In our own time, the plot thickens further as a global culture is being formed from a still wider diversity in which Chinese elements (to be considered at the end of the course), among others, are bound to be important, partly as challenging Western assumptions and partly as complementing them.

Valuing and decision-making
. This course is historical, but even moreso it is philosophical, for its ultimate concern is not with what certain people once thought about scientific and religious truth but with what scientific and religious truth are. So each of us is faced with live philosophical and religious questions, and our work consists of experiments in answering these. You will be asked to articulate your own understanding of these matters and to refine it critically in conversation with the historical sources and your fellow learners.


Course readings will be drawn from these required books (plus handouts, often to be distributed by e-mail):

Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers
Philip Appleman, ed., Darwin, 3rd ed.
Langdon Gilkey, Creationism on Trial

Highly recommended course companion:
Ian Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues


Grading will be based on shorter writing assignments (25%), an Inquiry Paper (25%), two short sectional exams (15%, 15%), and a final exam (20%). A class participation grade will be factored in on top of all that: your course grade will be raised a third of a letter grade for very good participation, or a third of a letter grade will be taken off if you show little evidence in the classroom of engagement with the course. Homework paragraphs and short writing assignments will be graded “check” (possibly “check plus” or “check minus,” if they excel or fall short in significant ways). I’ll tell you at midterm how your grade is looking in that area. The Inquiry Paper will be letter-graded. (Note: the Inquiry Paper is the one that you can add to your Writing Portfolio.) We’ll be talking all along about how to approach writing assignments and exams.


The READ assignments are placed on the day on which they are due. Several times during the semester I will ask you to turn in a PARAGRAPH responding to a question I will pose about a reading assignment. There are also six WRITE assignments announced in the schedule below. For these I ask for a certain length, measuring by typed pages. A typed page is 250-300 words. Typing is not required, however.

Although this schedule doesn’t list class meetings during our fourth hour, Thursdays at 8:00, we will use this time on occasion for special help and make-up sessions.

Week 1: Introduction to course issues. Ancient perspectives on science and religion.

W 8-27 What is science? What is religion?
F 8-29 Ancient Greek science and cosmology.
READ: Koestler, The Sleepwalkers I/1-3 [i.e. Part I, Chapters 1-3]
WRITE: Definitions of science and religion (2 pp.)

Week 2: Ancient perspectives on science and religion, cont.

M 9-1 Plato’s and Aristotle’s metaphysics.
READ: Koestler I/4; Plato, Aristotle (handout)
W 9-3 Ptolemaic astronomy.
READ: Koestler I/5
F 9-5 Neoplatonism.
READ: Plotinus, from Enneads; Augustine, from Confessions (handout)

Week 3: Medieval perspectives on science and religion

M 9-8 Augustine.
READ: Origen on allegory; Augustine on Genesis (handout)
W 9-10 Medieval religious philosophy.
READ: Ibn Sina; al-Ghazali; Aquinas (handout)
F 9-12 The impact of the Reformation.
READ: Luther on how to read Genesis (handout)
WRITE: Assessment of the relevance of premodern views (1-2 pp.)

Week 4: Prophets of Modern Science

M 9-15 1600: What’s happening? (Modern History Fair #1)
WRITE (if assigned): One-paragraph report on a significant historical development ca. 1600
W 9-17 Bacon, the empiricist.
READ: From The New Organon and The New Atlantis (handout)
F 9-19 Descartes, the rationalist.
READ: From Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason (handout)
WRITE: On what it means to be “rational” (1-2 pp.)

Week 5: The First Revolution: astronomy and physics.

M 9-22 The astronomy of Copernicus and Kepler
READ: Koestler III/2
W 9-24 Galileo’s discoveries.
READ: Koestler IV/8, V/1-2
F 9-26 Galileo’s cosmology and theology.
READ: Galileo, Letter to Grand Duchess Christina; from Dialogue on the Two Chief World-Systems (handout)

Week 6: The Galilean controversy; Newton

M 9-29 Responses to the Galilean worldview
READ: Donne, Herbert (handout)
W 10-1 Roman Catholic responses to Galileo
F 10-3 Newton’s physics and theology.
READ: Koestler V/3

Week 7: The Second Revolution: biology.

W 10-8 Biology before Darwin
READ: Darwin, pp. 33-39
F 10-10 Geology before Darwin.
READ: Darwin, pp. 49-52

Week 8: Darwin’s world.

M 10-13 1800: What’s Happening? (Modern History Fair #2)
WRITE (if assigned): One-paragraph report on a significant historical development ca. 1800
W 10-15 Natural theology: Paley’s design argument.
READ: Paley, Hume (handout)
F 10-17 Victorian views of nature.
READ: From Tennyson, In Memoriam; Mill, “Nature” (handout)
WRITE: Your characterization of nature (2 pp.)

Week 9: Darwin.

M 10-20 NO CLASS (Fall Break)
W 10-22 The voyage of the Beagle.
READ: Darwin’s journal (in Darwin), pp. 67-81
F 10-24 The Origin.
READ: The Origin of Species (in Darwin), pp. 95-135

Week 10: Darwin, cont.

M 10-27 The Origin, cont.
READ: The Origin of Species, pp. 158-174
W 10-29 The Descent and the question of human nature.
READ: The Descent of Man (in Darwin), pp. 175-194
F 10-31 Humans and nonhuman mental powers compared.
READ: The Descent of Man, pp. 213-222
WRITE: Your definition of humanity (1-2 pp.)

Week 11: Darwin, cont. Responses to Darwin

M 11-3 Sexual selection and character.
READ: The Descent of Man, pp. 230-243
W 11-5 Evolutionary theory debates
F 11-7 NO CLASS (Instructor out of town)

Week 12: Responses to Darwin, cont.

M 11-10 Religious responses to Darwin
F 11-14 The evolution controversy in our time: the Arkansas creationism trial.
READ: Gilkey, Creationism on Trial, Chapters 1-2 and pp. 260-265 (Arkansas Act 590 of 1981)

Week 13: Ways of relating science and religion today.

M 11-17 The Arkansas creationism trial, cont.
READ: Gilkey, Chapters 3-6
W 11-19 Gilkey’s conclusions about our society
READ: Gilkey, Chapter 7
F 11-21 Gilkey’s conclusions about the religious understanding of creation
READ: Gilkey, Chapter 8

Week 14: Ways of relating science and religion, cont.

M 11-24 NO CLASS (Instructor out of town)
WRITE: Response to Gilkey (1-2 pp.)
W 11-26 Contemporary approaches.
READ: Ian Barbour (handout)

Week 15: Critical assessments of the effects of the scientific revolutions

M 12-1 The alternative of perennial wisdom.
READ: S. H. Nasr (handout)
W 12-3 An alternative rooted in Chinese culture.
READ: Holbrook, The Stone Monkey (handout)
F 12-5 Conclusion



The purpose of this paper is to fashion an insight into the nature of modern science and/or religion by following the general approach that we take in this course, that is:

(1) choose a historical reference point in the work of one or more modern (between 1600 and 1900) thinkers;

(2) seek to understand the issue that thinker (or those thinkers) faced and how the issue still faces us; and

(3) resolve this issue in a reasonable way, in awareness of significant assumptions behind ideas and connections between ideas.

For example:

(1) Darwin in The Descent of Man (1871) faces the issue of how general differences between men and women can be explained as the product of evolution.

(2) What did Darwin think is the phenomenon that needs to be explained? What is the phenomenon that needs to be explained? Are we talking about that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” stuff? How might biology be relevant to this?

(3) What is a reasonable way to understand the biological basis of sex and/or gender difference?

We will tackle this issue in class, up to a point, but you are welcome to take it on, or any of a wide variety of other writers and issues. I will suggest possibilities to you.

Before you turn in your paper, you and I will have a philosophical consultation on the main issue and argument of your paper. You will also get a peer review of a complete first draft of your paper. The first draft and peer review will be turned in with the final submission on Nov. 26.

This is the paper in this course that you can add to your Writing Portfolio.


1. Class Attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence.
One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the fourth absence. (For example, someone who missed class 8 times would thereby lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in class inquiry is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

3. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgement that is, passing them off as your own is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. Plagiarized work will receive no credit and will be referred to the college Honor Council.

4. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.

5. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.