Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Science and religion

In this video you'll be introduced to the often controversial and complex relationship that links science and religion in the early modern period.
Science aims to achieve knowledge about the natural world. However, science also takes place in particular historical and socio-political circumstances, which, in turn, affect scientific practises and the circulation of scientific ideas. In this video, we try to better understand the different ways in which socio-political factors and broader metaphysical and religious worldviews affect the emergence of further modern science. In particular, we focus on the relationship between science and religion. The relationship between early modern science, religious beliefs, and institutions has been problematic. You might have heard, for instance, about the Church condemnation of Galileo Galilei 1633.
Galileo was condemned for having defended the heliocentric system, namely the theory according to which it is the earth that rotates around the sun and not vice versa. Brought to trial by the inquisition, Galileo publicly rejected these views. The legend tells, however, that after the trial, he whispered, and yet, it moves– referring to the fact that the earth moves around the sun. This suggests that in certain cases, socio-political factors might force scientists to endorse certain views or refrain from defending certain positions, even against their genuine beliefs. In this sense, these are external pressures that come from the outside of the scientific discourse.
However, this kind of social pressure is not the only way in which science is affected by the broader cultural context in which it grows. Consider now a somehow different case that shows a more internal way in which science can integrate religious and theological concepts. Descartes is one of the first early modern philosophers to use the notion of the laws of nature to describe universal regularities that define basic features of the natural world. According to Descartes, laws are absolutely general, and they uniformly apply to the whole universe. But how can we know such general and universal laws if we only experience an extremely limited fragment of the universe.
According to Descartes, we can answer this question only if we reflect on God. If one accepts that God is the creator of the universe, and if one accepts because of theological and metaphysical considerations that God is immutable, then one can deduce, as Descartes does, that God’s operation is always constant and uniform. This point has very important consequences for Descartes’s physics. You might remember from week 1, that according to Descartes’s mechanical philosophy, all phenomena in nature can be explained in terms of minute particles exchanging motion in impacts like billiard balls. However, Descartes’s physics would not work without assuming that the quantity of motion in the universe is constantly conserved.
Descartes argues that the quantity of motion remains in fact constant because motion is created by God. And since God is immutable, it constantly conserves the same quantity of motion he created in the beginning. The principle of conservation of the quantity of motion is Descartes’s first law of nature, the cornerstone of his mechanics. The way in which Descartes derives this law shows the conjunction between Descartes’s metaphysical foundation of physics and his account of the laws of motion. Although Descartes’s deduction of the laws of nature is controversial, one point seems clear. God’s role in this deduction is not a mere homage to some extrinsic system of beliefs. But it does play a crucial internal concept of role in shaping Descartes’s physics.
If we drop this reference to God’s immutability, the whole foundation of Descartes’s physics collapses. It is often difficult to sharply distinguish between internal and external ways in which science is affected by broader religious and theological issues. However, we can imagine a sort of thought experiment to determine whether a certain element played an internal conceptual role in shaping a scientific theory. We can imagine what this theory would look like without that element, and if that theory would still make sense. Consider Galileo’s case again. The heliocentric theory can be discussed, of course, in relationship with biblical and religious authorities.
However, if we omit these references and consider it in purely astronomical terms, little seems to change concerning the content and the consistency of the theory. Compare this case with that of Descartes. If we omit Descartes’s discussion of God’s immutability, Descartes can no longer support his account of the laws of nature and conservation of the quantity of motion, which in turn underpin his physics. From this point of view, Descartes’s reference to God seems to play a crucial conceptual role in Descartes’s physics. To sum up, in order to understand the relationship between science and religion, we need to distinguish as far as possible between external pressures and internal conceptual determinations.
While both these elements influence the relationship between science and religion, they did so in different ways. In the next steps, we’ll try to focus on the conceptual connections between science and religion. We’ll try to understand how concepts can be transferred between different domains, and how these exchanges shaped the emergence of further modern scientific theories.

In this video Andrea Sangiacomo will introduce you to the complex (and often controversial) relationship that links science and religion in the early modern period. You’ll learn how to distinguish (insofar as it is possible) between ‘external’ social pressures and ‘internal’ determinations that shape the interplay between science and religion.

If you’re curious to learn more about the details of Descartes’ account of the Law of conservation of motion, please consult the Standford Encyclopedia entry devoted to Descartes’ physics.

This article is from the free online

The Scientific Revolution: Understanding the Roots of Modern Science

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now