James Clerk Maxwell and Religion

I argued in Genesis and Genes that many people make a crucial mistake when they confuse Nature with Science:

It happens because many people confuse science with nature. Judaism cannot countenance a contradiction between God and nature. God created the universe and its laws. We don’t think that God is schizophrenic, so there cannot be inconsistencies between Him and His creation. The proposition that there is a contradiction between the Torah and nature would invite the suggestion of multiple deities. But nature is not the same as science. Nature is God’s creation, with its laws and processes. Science is the attempt by human beings to understand these laws and processes. Being a human endeavour, it is not infallible. There is no reason why there should not be contradictions between Torah and science, just like we can expect there to be contradictions between Torah and any other human endeavour.

Insisting, as a matter of principle, that there cannot be contradictions between Judaism and science can have insalubrious consequences. As I wrote in my last post (Concordism and String Theory):

If you handcuff the Torah to some contemporary theory in physics, what will happen if that theory sinks? Retro-prophecy begets quickie emunah – flimsy and fragile. If the science fails – and science is a human endeavour with prominent historical failures – the Torah falls too.

I have now come across a fascinating statement in this context. It appears in a biography of the 19th century physicist James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest scientists of all time. His biographer relates that “He summarised [his approach] many years later when replying to an invitation to join the Victoria Institute, an eminent organisation specifically set up to establish common ground between Christianity and science. Over the years he had turned them down several times, but they were so keen to have him in their number that in 1875 the President and Council sent him a special request to join.” In declining the request, I believe that Maxwell, who was a pious Christian, was making the same point that I am making:

“I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonise his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself, and to him only for a time… For it is in the nature of science, especially those branches of science which are spreading into unknown regions, to be continually changing.” The Man who Changed Everything – The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, Basil Mahon, Wiley, 2004, page 37.

“For it is in the nature of science… to be continually changing.” What Maxwell realised is that science is not reliable when it addresses the most profound questions. As I explained at length in Genesis and Genes, science is not a monolith, all of whose results carry the same credibility. Science is strong – though never infallible – in elucidating phenomena which are repeatable, observable and limited. Its credibility rapidly diminishes when it confronts phenomena which stray beyond those parameters. So much so that Maxwell felt that because it is “continually changing”, it would be folly to commit to a particular viewpoint in science – say, when it discusses the origin of life or the age of the universe or whether Adam and Eve could have been real people – and try to pigeonhole his religion into that viewpoint.

I argued in Genesis and Genes that one cannot formulate Torah positions in response to the latest consensus position in science:

When Torah sources clearly and consistently describe a position about the physical universe, then that is the Torah position, whether one finds it conveniently modern or not.

If Maxwell were Jewish, I think he would concur.


4 Responses to “James Clerk Maxwell and Religion”

  1. Menachem Mevashir Says:

    I would say your claim that God is not schizophrenic might be more a process of wish fulfillment and projection than objectively true. Many people say that we seek constantly to make sense of an essentially random world.

    Your statement about God may be a perfect example of this!

    It also reflects man’s innate desire to deify himself, by projecting his own thoughts, expectations and desires onto “God”.

  2. Maurice Skikne Says:

    What is Nature? You have not explained it ever in your musings.
    As a trained scientist, I cannot visualise what you iterate about Nature. If you say that Nature is NOT the same as Science, then you are implying that Nature has no oganised system. Nature is Gods creation? Then Science is also God’s creation! Why because science is an organies system of disciplines. Science, the title man gives to the way the
    Universe is organised, is composed of numerous disciplines which attempt to explain how the Universe functions. One needs to rethink the manner wherein you contantly harp on Science and that its principles cannot be correct! You are being a little naieve in my opinion. If some of the ideas in science no longer hold, it does not necessarilly mean that a, theory is wrong. It means that more research is required to better explain an idea.

    Maxwell lived about 150 years ago, thus without the technology of today, how would one want him to think other than the way he thought then?

  3. Jason Says:

    In much the same way, I think one should make a distinction between science assumed to be derived from scripture and nature derived from scripture. The opinion of religious authority is, occasionally, evidently based on the scientific knowledge of the time.

    In the words of Rabbi Hirsch:
    In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of God’s law – the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His Torah, His mitzvot, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine – except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai… We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own.

    A notable example of this is how some of Chazal thought the Earth was flat (Pesachim 94a). Indeed if one were to read rabbinic scholarship literally, it would imply the Earth is not only flat, but actually has a physical Garden of Eden. These statements are either metaphorical or based on the reigning paradigms of the time.

    So it is correct that science can’t be trusted unquestionably. However, this doubt applies at least equally, and sometimes to a greater extent, to science (not nature) apparently derived from scripture.

    Now I can’t see any reason to completely favour the science known to the sages of the past over the science of the present. As our telescopes and microscopes become more refined, so too does our approximate knowledge of nature. We may never fully know what nature is, but we can say, with great certainty, what nature is not. Old paradigms never fully resurface. I believe Creationism to be the case in point.

    This is a matter which lies at the heart of the debate and yet Yoram has seemingly failed to comprehensively address it. All that he writes seems to hinge on whether the sages were omniscient in matters of science or not. To me, it seems obvious they were not, but a counter argument would be interesting and am always willing to learn something new.

  4. Jason Says:

    Whoops, my memory failed me. Make that Pesachim 94b.

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