Sunday, October 16, 2005


Science Without Theory; Theory Without Science

Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club is a joint biography of the four people, Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, John Dewey and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who are most associated with founding the American school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.

A contemporary of these men, and a personal influence on William James, was Louis Agassiz, probably the most famous scientist of his day. Agassiz, had studied with some of the best scientists of Europe, including Georges Cuvier, and was friends with such notable figures as Alexander von Humboldt (much admired by Charles Darwin) and Charles Lyell (later Darwin’s mentor). Agassiz’s availability to become a professor at Harvard University occasioned the founding of the Lawrence Scientific School at Harvard. Previously, scientific educations had to be obtained in Europe but the founding of the School marked the beginning of the professionalization of American science.

Agassiz, while not specifically a practitioner of Natural Theology, certainly was steeped in that tradition. He was an overt creationist, though not a Biblical one. He believed that the history of vertebrate life represented an unfolding of a divine plan leading to the human form. As Peter J. Bowler, in his Evolution: The History of an Idea, described Agassiz’s teleology:

God was a rational, almost an artistic, designer concerned more with the underlying symmetry of nature than with the details of adaptation.
In this, Agassiz’s views were all but indistinguishable from today’s Intelligent Design advocates, with the exception that Agassiz was more honest about who he thought "the designer" was. Needless to say, Agassiz was an opponent of naturalistic evolution. Indeed, he was probably the last holdout among major scientists, although there were some indications he had begun to change his mind just before his death.

With that introduction, Menand’s description of James’ reaction to Agassiz’s opposition to evolution is instructive and applicable to today’s Natural Theologians:

[F]or James, anti-Darwinian scientists like Agassiz were mistaken not because they ignored the facts in favor of preconceived theories, but for the opposite reason -- because they collected facts without a working hypothesis to guide them. When we look at Agassiz's work we think we are seeing a confusion between science and belief. But what we are really seeing is a disjunction between those things. This is what Asa Gray had meant when he said that Agassiz had no scientific explanation for the phenomena he observed; for Agassiz had only his observations on one side and his theory on the other. His science wasn't theoretical and his theory wasn't scientific. His ideas are edifices perched on top of mountains of data. Darwin’s ideas are devices for generating data. Darwin's theory opens possibilities for inquiry; Agassiz's closes them. (p. 141)
As Santayana said, "Those who do not learn from history . . . "

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