Saturday, December 02, 2006

Quakers, Science, and Knowledge I: Some Social History

Rather than share my whole paper here (which is kind of long), I thought I would share some of the ideas -- and not try to do it all at once.

One of the central points of my presentation was to argue (using both historical and philosophical evidence) that while the trajectory in mainstream Western thought has been for science and religion to split apart over time, within Quakerism it is possible to trace an alternative historical story: a community that never constructed science and religion as being at odds with each other, but managed to keep them integrated until the present day.

On the historical side, I drew a lot from Geoffrey Cantor's work, outlining his analysis of why Quakers were open to science from the very beginning. Here are some of those reasons:

  • When William Penn established Pennsylvania, this opened up trade routes. Some of the Quaker merchants who traveled back and forth also collected botanical samples -- they were well-respected amateur botanists.
  • Science was seen as an acceptable occupation even during the Quietist period. Studying God's creation was regarded as spiritually valuable, and as having practical and moral value.
  • Science was given an important place in Quaker schools, because of its spiritual, practical, and moral value. The skills learned and the moral discipline cultivated by careful and systematic study were seen as useful for a variety of occupations.
  • While Quakers' opportunities for higher education were limited because of the religious requirements for admission to Oxford and Cambridge, scientific societies such as the Royal Society of London did not exclude anyone from participation on religious grounds. So the Quakers' scientific work was welcomed and appreciated in these settings.
So all of this meant that science was an acceptable intellectual engagement. One could participate in it in a way that maintained spiritual centeredness and a focus on its practical value, and without indulging in the frivolous system building, detached from real experience, that some other intellectual pursuits are guilty of doing!

Part of the story then is that there were these good reasons in the early days for Quakers to educate themselves in and participate in at least certain sciences. Because they cared about maintaining the proper attitude towards participating in science, they then did write about the nature of scientific knowledge in relation to their more general views about knowledge. This now leads to the philosophical side of the discussion, which I will write about in the next installment.

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