Practical Mystic: Religion, Science, and A. S. Eddington.
Anyone who has ever read a book on the relationship of science and religion will appreciate the novelty and detail in this reading of the scientific and religious life of Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944). This is no abstract discussion of theological presuppositions versus scientific claims, no continuation of the sterile debate of the warfare thesis of science and religion, nor even a sustained defense of the harmonization of these two. Rather it is an effort to situate the interrelation of science and religion in the life of a single individual living in a particular time and place. What is new about this approach, even extraordinary, to use an overused word, is the argument that a prior commitment by Eddington to uphold values, nurtured by his Quaker upbringing and the so-called Quaker renaissance, infuses Eddington's pioneering work in astrophysics (and relativity) and his efforts to popularize science. In short, the book is a reading of scientific practice through the eyes of religion. One will have to judge how successful the author, Matthew Stanley, has been in this endeavor. Presently an associate professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University, he has both an M.A. in astronomy and a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard University.
When H. E. Armstrong described the doctrine of valence in his entry in the eleventh edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1911), he defined valence as "the doctrine of combining power of the atoms or elementary radicles of which compound molecules consist." Stanley uses the notion of valence to discuss values as the combining power or bridging element between religion and science. The subject is Sir Arthur Eddington, a practicing Quaker and renowned English astrophysicist, living in interwar Britain. At the time, a debate raged between those who advanced a sustained assault on religion and the promotion of scientific materialism, and those who advanced a natural theology harmonizing theology with the latest scientific findings, i.e., socialists versus the Anglican elite. Eddington sought to forge his own way and was strongly criticized by both camps for his efforts.
The first chapter describes the Quaker renaissance which energized the generally quietistic Quaker community to take a more active role in the world. The chapter details the making of Eddington as a religious scientist and his acquisition of "valence values," values which, although contested by others, help illuminate the complexity of the historical issues involved. Subsequent chapters are devoted to one of these critical "valence values" preeminent in Eddington's life: mysticism (chap. 2), internationalism (chap. 3), pacifism (chap. 4), experience (chap. 5), and the place of religion in modern life (chap. 6). These contested values structure and shape the argument of the book. One should not expect a straightforward biographical exposition. In chapter 7, the final chapter, Stanley reflects on the role "valence values" can play in the historiography of the interaction of science and religion. These values ground science and religion in history and overlap in interesting and stimulating ways, but mark well, in Stanley's "central methodological claim," these values are localized in time, form and place. Values are not transcendental, but provide an avenue for "seeing the invisible common ground between apparently separate spheres" (p. 242).
Perhaps one example may whet the reader's appetite. In chapter 2, "Mysticism: Seeking and Stellar Models," Stanley describes Eddington's take on religion: religion is a matter of continually seeking for spiritual truth. The contemporary Quaker emphasis on mysticism and religious experience functions as "the root of true religion." This seeking does not require either the dogmatic certainty offered by proofs of God's existence or a final appeal to inspired Scriptures. Rather it is a continual search for meaning and truths. Stanley argues that Eddington's commitment to the valence value of mysticism translates into a particular scientific methodology. In Eddington's search for stellar models one discovers a pragmatic search for functional models rather than a mathematically deductive approach in which models are derived from first principles, as advocated by his contemporary rival James jeans who held a mathematical model of truth. For Eddington, both scientific practice and religion are never ending processes. "Seeking, not finding, was the essence of science" (p. 74) and of religion.
By all means, read this fascinating, finely-crafted book.
Reviewed by Arie Leegwater, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI 49546.
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|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2009|
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