Physico Theology and the New Science

Although today many think of science as a force that stands in total opposition to religion, the response of the eighteenth century — scientist and layperson alike — to the relation between the two was not as fraught as one might think. Certainly, as we have seen with Arbuthnot's initial ponderings, the new world-view posed problems; but in Britain the broad consensus saw science synthesized into an older religious discourse that gained new life via the discoveries of Newton and his ilk. The result of this combination was known as the "argument by design," or the idea that God manifested himself as the glorious creator through his sublime work of Nature, and that the mission of the scientist was to glorify God by revealing the complexity and magnificence of Nature to the rest of society. In this version of science, to be a scientist was to be pious: the New Science was actually providing proof of God's existence to those who might have any doubts at all. "Physico-theology" — as William Derham termed it — served to legitimate what might otherwise have been seen as an atheistic, secularizing mode of knowledge. Titles of works like the influential naturalist John Ray's Wisdom of God as Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691) announce their subordination of science to religion.

The source of physico-theology lay in the New Science of the previous two centuries. In the late sixteenth century the medieval world-view was undergoing a transformation: Galileo and Kepler consolidated the Copernican revolution in which it was shown that the earth was not the centre of the universe and that it in fact revolved around the sun, in opposition to the older Ptolemaic model. Francis Bacon's emphasis on the knowledge of nature through experimentation rather than untested hypotheses or unquestioning acceptance of the ancients' writings provided the methodology of modern science. Bacon's idea that knowledge needed to be shared because no single person could comprehend Nature's vastness led to the creation of the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge in 1662. Poets such as John Dryden and Abraham Cowley moved in the same circles as the members of the society — Cowley (1618—67) himself was medically qualified and a keen botanist — and were fully capable of expressing their sense of scientific modernity in verse, as indeed had many others, including John Donne and John Milton.

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