NH Notes: The Scientific Enterprise and Paradise Gained

In "Paradise Lost" John Milton explores the significance of the fall of Adam on his descendants.   That effect was much on th mind of those that were asking what man could know and how he could improve his condition in the 17th century.  If paradise could be lost could it be gained if only partially here on earth?

In “Paradise Lost” John Milton explores the significance of the fall of Adam on his descendants. That effect was much on th mind of those that were asking what man could know and how he could improve his condition in the 17th century. If paradise could be lost could it be gained if only partially here on earth?

I’m sitting in the Boston Airport on my way to a conference at Gordon College but I have enough time for a natural history note while I wait for a colleague to arrive.  On my flight from Ohio I read the last chapter of the Peter Harrison’s “The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science” (2007, Cambridge University Press).   I was especially interested in this chapter entitle “The Instauration of Learning”  (yeah, I had to look up that word too; it means “the action of restoring or renewing something”), because it examines the early 1600s debate in western Europe, and England in particular, about the purpose of education and how to reform the educational enterprise and the teaching of natural history in particular.  Here Harrison proposed that views about the significance of the fall of Adam played a strong role in shaping this debate and eventually setting the foundation of much of our modern scientific enterprise.  In particular, Harrison argues that scientific methods were originally devised as techniques for overcoming the generally accepted and perceived handicaps to our cognitive abilities caused by Adam’s sin and the continued sin of man.  Harrison begins his chapter with a few quotes including the following by Robert Hooke (of microscope fame) which sum up the state of thought in the first half of the 17th century very well:

And as at first, mankind fell by tasting of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, so we, their Posterity, may be in part restor’d by the same way, not only by beholding and contemplating, but by tasting too those fruits of Natural knowledge, that were never yet forbidden.  Robert Hooke, Micrographia (London, 1665, Preface).

Theologians and natural historians (natural theologians at the time), hotly debated the question of just how much Adam knew, how much knowledge he lost after the fall, and equally as important, how much we are capable of reclaiming that which was lost.   Fascinating stuff in this chapter as every page reminds me that many of the same questions that consumed the attention of theologians and philosophers of the day are in many ways the same questions that underlie science/faith debates today.

Robert Hooke, Francis Bacon, John Wilkins and others that founded the Royal Society in England all worked under some form of thinking that believed that the fall had corrupted man’s ability to understand his world but that they had a duty to discover as much as could be known.  He was not be simply “beholding and contemplating” the world (philosophy to them) but because the senses had been dulled the use of instruments could gain us access to abilities that Adam at one time had.   Joseph Glanvill another early fellow of the Royal Society is said by Harrison to have believed that “Our ‘deceitful and fallacious’ senses ‘must be assisted with Instruments, that may strengthen and “rectifie” their operations.”  (p. 203).  Thus the telescope, microscope, thermometer, barometer and air pump, all new technologies of the day were instruments that allowed us to regain some of Adams innate knowledge.

The new views of Bacon and others which were rooted, in part, in the new puritan view of the reformation which Harrison says Glanvill saw as “deliberately distinguishing between an ‘experimental’ philosophy, which in his view was grounded in a realistic estimate of human capabilities, and a ‘dogmatic’ philosophy, identified with the Aristotelian tradition which was presumed to have vastly overestimated the powers of the human mind.”  So the early 1600s saw the rise of experimental philosophy as a necessary way to understand a world which our capacities had trouble conceiving properly.  Or, as Harrison says about Hooke:

“Hooke found himself agreeing with Bacon that the immediate representations made by a fallen nature to human senses are deceptive.  Nature seemed ‘to use some kind of art in endeavoring to avoid our discovery’.  For this reason nature was to be investigated when ‘she seems to be put to her shifts, to make many doublings and turnings’.  Nature, in short was to be put to the test under the more stringent conditions of experiment. In addressing the need to reform the senses, Hooke stressed far more than Bacon the importance of instruments.  By means of the use of ‘artificial instruments’, Hooke thought, there may be ‘a reparation made for the mischiefs, and imperfections which mankind has drawn upon itself’.”

To this I wrote this interpretation in the margin “so scientific study helps to sort through the variation or perturbations in nature that have been caused by man’s sin allowing some baseline evidence of the ‘good’ creation to be revealed.”   The hope seems to be that in this world of great variability that we live in we can find standard functions and truths that are common features of this world.

Really fascinating stuff in this whole book and although it is quite dense at points, I find that studying the history of ideas to be greatly rewarding and humbling because it makes me realize all the more that many or our squabbles today are simply a recapitulation of arguments that have already been waged in the past and from which we have apparently not learned.


  1. Another interesting article! Thanks.

    After studying Genesis for 30+ years, I am convinced that it is the most influential book of the whole Bible. It has influenced thought in biology, philosophy, linguistics, educational theory, theology, astronomy, geology, and anthropology.

    That said, I believe that unless we understand the material in its original cultural context we will continue to force this ancient material into interpretations that are quite foreign to the original people from whom we receive it. You have cited an example here. When we read the text carefully we note that the eating of the fruit had two effects. The first is death, and this warning comes from the Creator. The second effect is to become like God, knowing all things. This comes as temptation from the serpent. We note also that it is the woman who is urged to eat, not the man. She was the last created, and in the minds of the ancients, she was the crown of creation. In their view, the creation had a hierarchy with the Creator at the top of the pyramid and the woman and man immediately ranked under the Creator, being the most like God. At the bottom of this hierarchical order were those creatures that slithered along the ground. By obeying the serpent, rather than the Creator, the pyramid was inverted. The order of creation was corrupted.

    I have written about this here: http://biblicalanthropology.blogspot.com/2010/12/hierarchy-in-creation-biblical-view.html

    Also here: http://biblicalanthropology.blogspot.com/2010/12/biblical-meaning-of-eve.html


  2. Re “instauration,” of course this brings up Bacon’s essay The Great Instauration, which is his outline for the rejuvenation of knowledge, which he dealt with fully in the 6 subsequent books (to match the 6 days of creation.) There is also a modern book by that name by Charles Webster from 1975, with the subtitle Science, Medicine and Reform, 1626-1660. I stumbled on the latter decades ago in the library of the med school where I was working and read part of it. It was reissued a few years ago, but is rather expensive. In it Webster shows that the new science was embraced by the Puritans in a spirit of reform in a variety of areas. Their success in the Civil War had made them very optimistic about the prospect of progress and development in many areas including science. Many of them saw this as part of the beginning of the Millennial Kingdom, which would see improvement in society in all areas, including science and technology, culminating ultimately in the Second Coming. Of course reality intruded, as it always does, on the apocalyptic fervor, with the collapse of the Cromwellian government after his death. Science did advance, but hopes for the Kingdom of God on earth were delayed until their temporary rejuvenation in the American colonies after the Great Awakening. Incidentally, Bacon died several decades before the Royal Society was founded and so had no role in that.


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