Can Science Be Consistent with Faith and Virtue? Roger Bacon, the originator of the Scientific Method thought so…

In Special Topic on October 15, 2012 at 7:12 am

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It would seem that virtue and faith are really not that important to science.  Such ideas seem to be guided by a much more simple time, the Middle Ages perhaps or earlier, but it seems that many Modern scientists couldn’t imagine being encumbered by the principles of a religious institution or the societal cultural mores thereof.  So, it wouldn’t seem likely that Modern science wouldn’t have any future interest in faith or virtue either because it appears irrelevant now.  Rather, it seems that what drives science’s success sometimes is its “cutting edge” research and venture capital occasionally led by the pragmatic maxim that “If it is possible, then it is necessary, therefore moral.”  Faith and virtue would seem contrary to and obstructions to these goals of science.

Science and Virtue?

Well, Roger Bacon, the 13th Century English theologian, philosopher and scientist had a different notion of how science should progress.  Firstly, Roger Bacon, who is considered the earliest founder of the scientific method based upon Aristotle’s logic, said the following in his Sixth Part of the Opus Majus on Experimental Science “For this reason true philosophers have labored the more in morals for their integrity of virtue, concluding among themselves that they can not see the causes of things unless they have souls free from sins.”(Selections From Medieval Philosophers Vol II. Ed. Richard McKeon.  Charles Scribner’s Sons: NY. 1930. p.76)  Bacon thought it essential for the philosopher-scientist to be free from faults, free from vices, free from selfishness or evil, in a word: holy.  Why?  Well, he said, “Virtue, therefore, clarifies the mind that man may understand more easily not only moral things, but scientific things.”(p.77)  A clear mind, a mind that is able to apprehend the truth in moral reasoning spiritually, will have an advantage discerning the truth in scientific reasoning mentally about what he is sensing in his judgement in the world.  Bacon said, “For this reason the Scripture says, Wisdom will not enter into an ill-disposed soul.  For it is impossible that the soul repose in the light of truth while it is stained with sins, but it will recite like a parrot or a magpie the words of another which it learned by long practice…”(p. 77) In other words, the character, the disposition, the virtue of the scientist matters to his science.  He is not a disembodied objective Cartesian mind without a body, soul and personality, but a whole person.  The Presocratic philosophers or “philosophers of nature,” from Thales, Democritus, Pythagoras, and Anaxagoras, among many others, were really the first Western scientists, but it was common for most of them to have works on the nature of the soul, ethics and religion, and this certainly continued into the Middle Ages in Europe.  Roger Bacon is an example of this tradition.

Science and Faith?

What about science and faith?  These two things are often considered inconsistent with each other today and therefore incompatible.  Well, Roger Bacon says that “…[scientific] experience does not suffice man, in that it does not certify fully concerning corporeal things because of its difficulty, and it touches on nothing at all of spiritual things.”(p.75)  In other words, when the scientist wonders about nature and attempts to understand the essence or nature of a thing, he encounters various difficulties intellectually, resources, time among other material needs.  But, the scientist is also a person, and experimental science has nothing to say about “spiritual things” to him.  What Bacon seems to be implying in the coupling of these two shortcomings of science is that the scientist not only has to overcome his material difficulties in his research but also needs the help of faith to answer his wondering.  He says, “Therefore it is necessary that the understanding of man be aided otherwise, and therefore the holy patriarchs and prophets who first gave the sciences to the world, received interior illuminations and were not dependent only on sense.  For the grace of faith illumines greatly and divine inspirations likewise not only in spiritual but in corporeal things and in the sciences of philosophy, according to what Ptolemy says in the Centilogium, that the way to come to a knowledge of things is twofold, one by the experience of philosophy, the other by divine inspiration, which is far the better he says. (p.75)  Bacon suggests that from the earliest times in history, the holy patriarchs and the prophets, who also practiced science, did not depend solely on their external senses for knowledge but actively sought it out spiritually in their contemplative prayer.  The famous Second century astronomer and geographer, Ptolemy, thought that divine inspiration was a superior source of knowledge of things,  not to the exclusion to the experience of scientific knowledge, but in addition to it.  Bacon said wisely, “And, therefore, he who acts contrary to the truth, must necessarily be ignorant of it, although he may know how to put together very elegant phrases and to quote the opinion of others…”(p. 76) In other words, the inspiration from faith and scientific reasoning together stretch the imagination of the mind in order to discover the creativity and complexity of nature in a way that is not possible when they are separated from each other.  If the scientist does this, he’ll have new ideas, new knowledge, new discoveries, breakthroughs, instead of parroting back his teachers’ teachings.

Roger Bacon, the preeminent theologian, philosopher and scientist, laid the foundation for the modern Scientific Revolution with his contributions to the establishment of the scientific method from his study of Aristotle 400 years before Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes’ refinement of the method.  It is ironic that the most prestigious prize in all of science, The Nobel Prize, only exists because the preeminent scientist who invented dynamite, Alfred Nobel, at the end of his life really regretted the possibility of having an immoral legacy for inventing the very thing that would cause so many people to die.  Instead, Nobel changed his life and left his immense earnings in a trust to be conferred as prizes for those scientists who would create a new legacy in science (among other fields) for discoveries and inventions with the greatest benefit of mankind.  It seems that if every scientist is truly concerned about his or her own legacy as well, he or she would consider seriously how faith and virtue informs their science and life, for the benefit of all mankind.


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