The Genius and Faith of Faraday and Maxwell

20141007_TNA41HutchinsonhomepageIan H. Hutchinson at The New Atlantis:

The religious commitments of the great scientists of history are today often dismissed as mere idiosyncrasies. Their beliefs are considered regrettable if understandable blemishes, the incidental flaws of great minds who helped advance civilization out of primitivism yet could not fully escape it. After all, is not science supposed to aspire to an understanding of the universe that is independent of the beliefs and opinions of scientists, whether religious, political, social, or aesthetic?

Yet, science does not exist in a vacuum, and studies in the sociology, history, and philosophy of science often emphasize how scientists’ broader beliefs and practices influence their work, and thus the way that science develops. Some scholars even argue (if not entirely convincingly) that scientists’ beliefs influence science’s settled content.

The strict separation we commonly observe between a researcher’s scientific ideas and his or her “personal beliefs” is a modern, and even recent, norm. From antiquity through the Scientific Revolution, science was viewed as a form of philosophy, and many of the thinkers we have retroactively dubbed “scientists” freely intermingled their speculation about the natural world with theological, philosophical, and mathematical writings, often expending a great deal of their scholarly time and energy on religious study. Kepler’s seventeenth-century laws of planetary motion, for example, seem to his modern readers like needles of scientific inspiration buried in a haystack of theological speculation. Newton and Boyle likewise intermingled physics and philosophical theology without apparent hesitation.

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