It can be argued that history as an academic discipline, itself one of the oldest human and social sciences, can never provide a true reflection of events it claims to investigate. By ‘true’ I mean here ‘objective’ and by this I mean an account that is free from the influence of the personal interests of the author, collective interests of the respective author’s socio-cultural environment (e.g., broadly accepted values), or both. Beyond stating bare facts, such as dates, history is a narrative and, therefore, an interpretation of the meaning of the facts. This quality can even be observed in the fact that several European languages have only one word to denote both history and story (e.g., Latvian, Russian, German).
However, although it is worth keeping this feature of history in mind, I think it can prove advantageous when the object of study is itself a complex socio-cultural process. Recognizing the interpretative nature of history allows us to be aware of the possibility of multiple interpretations of the same processes and think about the reasons that motivate each of those different interpretations. The history of the relationship between science and religion as it unfolded in Europe is, in my view, an excellent example of such an exercise. Not only is it a much more complex picture than any straightforward interpretation might offer (no doubt, based on its own agenda), it is also highly instructive to investigate this relationship from the perspective of the dominant motivations and interests of the time, in short – worldviews.
For example, popular opinion nowadays still portrays the Scientific Revolution (roughly 150 years during the 16th/17th centuries) as a straightforward opposition between science and religion where science was finally “liberated” from the “oppressive” clutches of the Christian Church. Reality is much more complex than this. On this more nuanced and less polemical view, Scientific Revolution can be regarded more like a push against accepted positions in the prevailing Aristotelian worldview rather than a push against religion or religious faith as such. The revolutionary aspect of this change process was the innovation compared to the orthodox Aristotelian approach to studying and understanding nature. A paradigm shift within the knowledge-generating project itself. Religious belief and faith remained highly relevant and present in people’s lives. Most if not all of the new scientists (natural philosophers as they were called) were devout believers.
Example: voluntarism vs intellectualism in theology and science
If science is to be understood as an effort to continually improve our understanding of the workings of nature, then such a project would profit most from open-ended underlying commitments about the nature of the world and our capacity to understand it. Open-ended commitments imply that the goal of our scientific project cannot (and should not) be complete and certain knowledge of nature, but rather a continuous growth of understanding nature’s processes and phenomena, based on a step-by-step, trial-and-error approach. This is compatible with voluntarist theological commitments that hold God’s power to be truly unrestricted, not even by rationally fundamental principles that we might discover in our inquiry. Only such perfectly omnipotent God can create completely voluntarily – i.e. His will is not bound by anything (or at least, presumably, not by anything that a human mind can grasp). It is because such commitments do not offer the possibility to rely on the certainty of rationally deduced universal principles that voluntarist theology is more compatible with science as an open-ended project focused on continuous improvement of understanding based on close observation and experimentation.
If, however, complete and certain knowledge is the goal of the scientific project – i.e. establishment of logically necessary, immutable, universal principles that underpin all of nature and can therefore be deduced by the power of reason, a closed-ended project – then it is compatible with intellectualist theological commitments (indeed, it is incompatible with voluntarist theology). From a theological perspective, this means accepting that God is not truly omnipotent – i.e. there are universal principles that determine the limits of His creative power which He cannot transgress. What’s more, these universal principles are accessible to the human intellect by means of deductive reasoning and their eternal, immutable existence ensures that the world can function properly without God’s intervention, at least after its initial creation. This could suggest a very different understanding of science than the one we are used to today – this science could aim to establish the eternal and unmoving principles that delineate all potential and actual possibilities of God’s power. Something that a devout 17th century Christian with voluntarist commitments would most likely hold as tantamount to atheism (e.g., “A world running on its own, with an absentee God, was for Newton and others, to all intents and purposes, an atheistic world picture.” [my emphasis] John Henry*).
*John Henry “Science and Religion in the Scientific Revolution” in John Hendley Brooke “Science and Religion: some historical perspectives” (2014), Cambridge University Press