10 Feb

Shedding epistemic modesty

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/10/16

Peter Harrison on the rise of confidence in scientific progress

In the seventeenth century, “Adam was thought to have possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world that was now lost as a consequence of original sin. While fragments of this knowledge have been passed on to his posterity, a complete reconstruction was thought to be impossible in the present postlapsarian estate. As the Protestant Reformers pointed out, Aristotle was ignorant of this event and as a consequence his optimistic philosophy had been constructed upon a false foundation. Subsequently, Aquinas had mistakenly assumed that key elements of this philosophical system could be indifferent to this central element of Christian anthropology, and (for his early modern critics) his enthusiasm for Aristotle had unintentionally introduced pagan presuppositions into medieval Christian thought. The early modern scientific project, then, was an attempt at a partial restoration of Adamic knowledge. . . . Many of those who sought to reconstruct a properly Christianized natural philosophy in the early modern period rejected the sanguine commonsense philosophy of Aristotle, and relinquished his aspirations to a demonstrative science. Natural history and experimental natural philosophy were regarded as fragmented and makeshift enterprises, their fragile status being understood as an inevitable consequence of the cosmic fall that had rendered the operations of nature opaque and compromised human cognitive capacities. As John Locke remarked, in our present condition we have at best ‘dull and weak’ faculties. Accordingly he concluded, ‘it appears not, that God intended we should have a perfect, clear, and adequate knowledge.’ The diffidence of seventeenth-century naturalists was lost in the nineteenth century, when the original reasons for their epistemic modesty were forgotten and the idea of progress became firmly embedded into the West’s self understanding.”

—from Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2015)

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