Sunday, December 03, 2006

Quakers, Science, and Knowledge II: Some Intellectual History

It is very interesting to note that Quakerism arose at the same time as the rise of modern science. So, during this time and place (17th century England), there was a lot of enthusiasm about the new experimental science. The experimental method was being developed as an exciting new approach to gaining knowledge -- an approach that at least in theory was accessible to everyone and thus was beginning to break down the view that knowledge was the special domain of an elite few, and needed to be channeled through designated social networks of authority.

From this description of the rise of modern science, we can already see affinities with how Quakers were describing their approach to "seeking." The Quakers, too, articulated a process that was accessible to everyone and did not require being mediated through designated religious-knowledge authorities. And note the language George Fox himself used: "This I knew experimentally" (from his Journal).

Another important comparison between Quakerism and science is that both are non-creedal. Even today, what we most prize about science and what most gets emphasized in science education (and scrutinized in peer-review of scientific findings) is method. The findings of science change over time: it is important to let the findings change if new observations or data indicate that revision is needed. While current scientific knowledge is taught as a basis for future research, it is not taught as doctrine or as infallible truth. Again, it is research methods that are emphasized above all in science education.

Quakerism shares this kind of openness about belief. Quakers do not have to agree to a statement of beliefs before being accepted into membership. What is important is engaging in a continuing process of seeking after truth or spiritual insight.

Furthermore, like science, Quaker practice involves a dialectic between individuals and community. In science, the work of individual scientists or research groups is valued and respected, but their findings do not count as "knowledge" until they have been processed through a community discernment process called "peer-review." It is only after others have reviewed the scientist's or research group's work and found the methods and conclusions to be sound that the results get published in respected journals and the findings now count as knowledge.

In the Quaker world, the dialectic between individuals and community is somewhat different, but still involves a similar balance, for similar reasons: On the one hand, individual experience and individual discernment are valued. But, on the other hand, individuals hone their beliefs in community (e.g., discussion groups), and bring some of their most important decisions to the community for the community's assistance in discernment (e.g., clearness committees).

This shows some of the resonances between science and Quaker seeking. Next time, I will write about some of the important and striking differences between how science is currently understood in mainstream academic thought, and the interpretation of science that is embedded in the Quakers' implicit theory of knowledge.


  1. CS,

    This all sounds right to me. I'm waiting for the third installment.

  2. Whew! [Wipes brow. Continues to work feverishly on installment III...]