Augustinian Optimism and Modern Science

Augustinian Optimism and Modern Science December 12, 2016

Peter Harrison points out in his The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science (10–11) that the Reformation coincided with the rediscovery of ancient skepticism. While the Reformers were undermining traditional Catholic sources of authority from one side, Montaigne and others were corroding certainty from the other. Descartes took this skepticism as a starting point to reconstruct the foundations for knowledge.

This is the thesis of Richard Popkin, and not far from Harrison’s own thesis. But Harrison thinks another factor is important: the Reformation’s revival of Augustinianism. On the one side, the Augustinian emphasis on the epistemological effects of the fall of Adam could reinforce skeptical philosophies. On the other hand, Augustinians believed that ignorance and uncertainty were contingent, not woven into the nature of things. And if contingent, then resolvable.

Harrison writes, “both scepticism and Augustinian anthropology lead to doubts about the reliability of human knowledge, but they offer quite different prescriptions. For the sceptics, our ignorance is not the consequence of a cosmic catastrophe precipitated by human disobedience; rather it is intrinsic to human nature and is thus to be accepted with equanimity. Accordingly, the appropriate response lies not in attempting to remedy the operations of the mind (which were naturally limited), but in accepting the inevitable, suspending judgement, and cultivating an inner peace. For those who attributed our current state of ignorance to the Fall, the figure of Adam had a dual significance. On the one hand, the Fall provided an explanation for human misery and proneness to error; on the other, Adam’s prelapsarian perfections, including his encyclopaedic knowledge, were regarded as a symbol of unfulfilled human potential. It is this hopeful, forward-looking element that is absent from scepticism in either its ancient or its modern formulations. The sceptical prescription, moreover, is consistent with the classical ideal of the philosopher as one who adopts a life of contemplation. Those who took seriously the reality of the Fall, by way of contrast, were often motivated to reverse, or partially reverse, its unfortunate effects, and this required a commitment to the active life and an energetic engagement with both social and natural realms.”

This optimism took a particular eschatological form in mid-seventeenth century England, as Charles Webster argued in The Great Instauration (a title taken from Bacon). In Harrison’s summary, “Webster has argued that one of the most significant periods in the development of English science took place during the period between 1640 and 1660, when Puritan millenarianism provided the inspiration for a range of revolutionary scientific projects. This millenarianism was inspired in part by the prospect of restoring to humanity the perfections once enjoyed by Adam in Eden, including his vast scientific knowledge, thus establishing a state of affairs that was thought to be a necessary precondition for the onset of the millennium. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the radical aspects of this vision were viewed with disfavour, but significant elements of it were taken up by the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians.”

Harrison accepts much of Webster’s argument, but reorients it again toward questions about the effect of the Fall and the possibility of its overcoming: “Rather than emphasising the discontinuities between revolutionary and Restoration science, and indeed between Puritan science and the science associated with other confessional groupings, [I seek] to show how their differences are to be understood in terms of varying assessments of the Fall, and of the extent to which prelapsarian conditions might be re-established in the present world” (13).

Augustinian anthropology had an impact on the methods of knowing. While some retained their confidence in human capacity to reason to the truth, early scientists presupposed the “inherent weakness of fallen human minds” (14). For the latter, the halting, probabilistic and fallibilistic knowledge that could be derived from experiment made a neat fit with the capacity of fallen human beings.

Puritan Augustinianism, in short, proved more optimistic than skepticism, and more activist. “Augustinian optimist”: That’s a combination of terms nearly as rare as “Augustinian activist” and “Augustinian science.”

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