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By design: James Clerk Maxwell and the evangelical unification of science

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 February 2011

MATTHEW STANLEY
Affiliation:
Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University, 1 Washington Place, New York, NY10003, USA. Email: matt.stanley@nyu.edu.

Abstract

James Clerk Maxwell's electromagnetic theory famously unified many of the Victorian laws of physics. This essay argues that Maxwell saw a deep theological significance in the unification of physical laws. He postulated a variation on the design argument that focused on the unity of phenomena rather than Paley's emphasis on complexity. This argument of Maxwell's is shown to be connected to his particular evangelical religious views. His evangelical perspective provided encouragement for him to pursue a unified physics that supplemented his other philosophical, technical and social influences. Maxwell's version of the argument from design is also contrasted with modern ‘intelligent-design’ theory.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2011

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References

1 Paley, William, Natural Theology, Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1872 (1802), p. 6Google Scholar.

2 Paley, op. cit. (1), p. 12. Paley did not think Christianity could be proven by natural theology, and thus recommended also reading his Evidences.

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4 Behe, Michael, Darwin's Black Box, New York: Free Press, 1996Google Scholar; and idem, ‘Molecular machines: experimental support for the design inference’, in Robert Pennock (ed.), Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001, pp. 241–256.

5 Behe, Darwin's Black Box, op. cit. (4), pp. 39–45.

6 For example, see the decision Tammy Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, 66 (2005).

7 Maxwell's theological views are discussed in Theerman, Paul, ‘James Clerk Maxwell and religion’, American Journal of Physics (April 1986) 54, pp. 312317CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jordi Cat, Land, Lines, and Toys: Becoming James Clerk Maxwell (forthcoming); Thomas Torrance, ‘Christian faith and physical science in the thought of James Clerk Maxwell’, in idem, Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, Belfast, 1998, pp. 214–242; and Smith, Crosbie, The Science of Energy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, Chapter 11Google Scholar.

8 On the development of Maxwell's theory overall see Harman, P.M., The Natural Philosophy of James Clerk Maxwell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 98124Google Scholar; Siegel, Daniel, Innovation on Maxwell's Electromagnetic Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991Google Scholar; idem, ‘Thomson, Maxwell, and the universal ether in Victorian physics’, in G.N. Cantor and M.J.S. Hodge (eds.), Conceptions of Ether: Studies in the History of Ether Theories 1740–1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 239–268; Crosbie Smith, op. cit. (7), pp. 218–238; Wise, M. Norton, ‘The mutual embrace of electricity and magnetism’, Science (1979) 4387, pp. 13101318CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, ‘The Maxwell literature and British dynamical theory’, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences (1982) 13, pp. 175205CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Darrigol, Olivier, Electrodynamics from Ampère to Einstein, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 149155Google Scholar; Jed Z. Buchwald, ‘Modifying the continuum: methods of Maxwellian electrodynamics’, in P.M. Harman (ed.), Wranglers and Physicists: Studies on Cambridge Physics in the Nineteenth Century, Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1985, pp. 225–241; and Simon Schaffer, ‘Accurate measurement is an English science’, in M. Norton Wise (ed.), The Values of Precision, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 135–172.

9 Maxwell to Michael Faraday, 19 October 1861, in P.M. Harman (ed.), Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (hereafter SLP), 3 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, vol. 1, pp. 685–86.

10 Maxwell, MS of ‘On the physical dynamical explanations of electric phenomena’, University Library, Cambridge, Add. MS 7655/Vc/10i.

11 Maxwell, ‘On Faraday's lines of force’, in Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (ed. W.D. Niven), 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1890, vol. 1, pp. 156.

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13 Kargon, Robert, ‘Model and analogy in Victorian science: Maxwell's critique of the French physicists’, Journal of the History of Ideas (1969) 30, pp. 423436CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Siegel, ‘Thomson, Maxwell, and the universal ether’, op. cit. (8), p. 243.

14 Olson, Richard, Scottish Philosophy and British Physics 1750–1880, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975, pp. 290292Google Scholar. Jordi Cat argues for a variety of sources for Maxwell's reliance on analogies. See Cat, op. cit. (7), Chapter 7.

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18 Maxwell, , ‘Analogies’, SLP, vol. 1, pp. 381382Google Scholar, original emphasis.

19 Maxwell, , ‘Inaugural lecture at King's College, London’, October 1860, SLP, vol. 1, p. 670Google Scholar. ‘Unsearchable wisdom’ is probably a reference to the Westminster Confession of Faith 5.4.

20 Maxwell Papers, Cambridge University Library, Add. MS 7655/Vh/1.

21 , Maxwell to John Ellicott, Charles, Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, 22 November 1876, SLP, vol. 3, p. 418Google Scholar.

22 Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 2:6, and Psalm 8, New International Version.

23 , Maxwellto John Ellicott, Charles, Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, 22 November 1876, SLP, vol. 3, p. 417Google Scholar.

24 James Clerk Maxwell, ‘Address to the Mathematical and Physical Sections of the British Association’, in Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1870, p. 224.

25 Despite his prominence, Paley's version of the design argument was certainly not the only one used in the Victorian period. For examples, see D.W. Bebbington, ‘Science and evangelical theology in Britain from Wesley to Orr’, in David N. Livingstone, D.G. Hart and Mark A. Noll (eds.), Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 120–141, 133; Jonathan Topham, ‘Science, natural theology, and evangelicalism in early nineteenth-century Scotland’, in Livingstone, Hart and Noll, op. cit., pp. 142–174; Yeo, Richard, ‘The principle of plenitude and natural theology in nineteenth-century Britain’, BJHS (1986) 19, pp. 263–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar; as well as Topham's unpublished PhD dissertation, ‘An infinite variety of arguments’, Lancaster University, 1993.

26 Maxwell did make the case that science could not explain the beginning of the universe, but this was actually not distinctive of his design argument: this inability was agreed upon by agnostic and atheistic scientists such as T.H. Huxley and John Tyndall as well.

27 Maxwell, , ‘What is the nature of evidence of design?’, SLP, vol. 1, p. 228Google Scholar.

28 Maxwell, , ‘Analogies’, SLP, vol. 1, p. 382Google Scholar.

29 , Maxwellto John Ellicott, Charles, Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, 22 November 1876, SLP, vol. 3, p. 418Google Scholar.

30 Maxwell, , ‘Draft letter to Francis W.H. Petrie’, 15 March 1875, SLP, vol. 3, p. 194Google Scholar.

31 Different rates of change for particular elements of science are discussed in Peter Galison, How Experiments End, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987, pp. 246–57. In Galison's terms, Maxwell would say that science and religion should harmonize their ‘long-term constraints’.

32 Maxwell, ‘Aberdeen’, op. cit. (16), p. 71.

33 Brooke, John and Cantor, Geoffrey, Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 141246Google Scholar. Brooke, op. cit. (3), pp. 192–225. Stanley, Matthew, ‘A modern natural theology?’, Journal of Faith and Science Exchange (1999) 3, pp. 105112Google Scholar.

34 A useful start for understanding evangelicalism is Bebbington, David W., Noll, Mark and Rawlyk, George A. (eds.), Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond, 1700–1990, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994Google Scholar; and Bebbington, David W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On its relation to science see Livingstone, Hart and Noll, op. cit. (25).

35 Hilton, Boyd, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought, 1785–1865, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 8Google Scholar.

36 Bebbington, op. cit. (34), pp. 2–3.

37 Maxwell to Rev. Tayler, C.B., 8 July 1853, SLP, vol. 1, pp. 220221Google Scholar.

38 The role of the will in Maxwell's science and religion is discussed in Stanley, Matthew, ‘The pointsman: Maxwell's demon, Victorian free will, and the boundaries of science’, Journal of the History of Ideas (2008) 69, pp. 467491CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Maxwell's relationship with Maurice is discussed further in Stanley, op. cit. (38); idem, ‘The Working Men's College’, forthcoming; and Cat, op. cit. (7).

40 Maxwell to K.M. Dewar, 9 May 1858, in Lewis Campbell and William Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, London: Macmillan and Co., 1882, p. 311.

41 Maxwell to his wife, 23 June 1864, in Campbell and Garnett, op. cit. (40), pp. 338–339.

42 Maxwell to his wife, 22 June 1864, in Campbell and Garnett, op. cit. (40), p. 338.

43 There is an anecdote from Karl Pearson presenting Maxwell as a biblical literalist quoted in Smith, op. cit. (7), p. 307. This story is quite different from the other evidence we have about Maxwell's religious beliefs and outlook. I would infer that Pearson confused Maxwell's deep respect for scripture for a slavish literalism. Maxwell was certainly not averse to interpreting biblical passages (see Maxwell to Charles John Ellicott, Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, 22 November 1876, SLP, vol. 3, pp. 416–8).

44 See Livingstone, Hart and Noll, op. cit. (25), particularly Bebbington, op. cit. (25); and Topham, op. cit. (25).

45 Bebbington, op. cit. (25), pp. 120–122.

46 For example, Astore, William, Observing God: Thomas Dick, Evangelicalism, and Popular Science in Victorian Britain and America, Aldershot: Ashgate: 2001Google Scholar; Fyfe, Aileen, Science and Salvation: Evangelical Popular Science Publishing in Victorian Britain, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Bebbington, op. cit. (34), pp. 50–60, Wilson, David B., Kelvin and Stokes: A Comparative Study in Victorian Physics, Bristol: Hilger, 1987, Chapter 4Google Scholar.

47 John Hedley Brooke, ‘Introduction’, in Livingstone, Hart and Noll, op. cit. (25), pp. 23–29, 24–26. He of course cautions against taking too seriously the notion of such an archetype.

48 Brooke, John Hedley and Hookyaas, R., New Interactions between Theology and Natural Science, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1974Google Scholar.

49 Topham, op. cit. (25), p. 145.

50 Topham, op. cit. (25), pp. 165–167.

51 Bebbington, op. cit. (25), pp. 128–129.

52 Smith, op. cit. (7), pp. 18–21.

53 Hilton, op. cit. (35), p. 362.

54 Hilton, op. cit. (35), p. 21, original emphasis.

55 Hilton, op. cit. (35), pp. 21–22. Also Bebbington, op. cit. (25), p. 133.

56 Hilton discusses similar approaches to science, op. cit. (35), pp. 304–314.

57 Maxwell, ‘Aberdeen’, op. cit. (16), p. 78.

58 Maxwell, ‘Aberdeen’, op. cit. (16), p. 80; and Maxwell, , ‘Inaugural lecture at King's College, London’, SLP, vol. 1, pp. 662674Google Scholar.

59 Maxwell, ‘Aberdeen’, op. cit. (16), p. 77, original emphasis.

60 Maxwell, ‘Aberdeen’, op. cit. (16), p. 78.

61 I am indebted to an anonymous referee for this insight.

62 Salam, Abdus, Unification of Fundamental Forces, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 40CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

63 Lindley, David, The End of Physics, New York: Basic Books, 1993, p. 41Google Scholar; Falk, Dan, Universe on a T-Shirt, New York: Arcade Press, 2004, p. 86Google Scholar; such quotes could be easily multiplied. Morrison, Margaret, Unifying Scientific Theories, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000CrossRefGoogle Scholar, uses Maxwell's theory to examine some of the philosophical issues surrounding unification in science. For an overview of such issues see Jordi Cat, ‘The unity of science’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2007 edition) (ed. Edward N. Zalta), accessible via http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2007/entries/scientific-unity.

64 Salam, op. cit. (62), p. 12.

65 The ether did perform important theological functions for others, however. See Geoffrey Cantor, ‘The theological significance of ethers’, in Geoffrey N. Cantor and M.J.S. Hodge, Conceptions of Ether: Studies in the History of Ether Theories 1740–1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp. 135–156.

66 John Tyndall, ‘Address’, in Report of the Forty-Fourth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science Held at Belfast in August 1874, London: John Murray, 1875, pp. lxxxviii, lxvii.

67 Smith, op. cit. (7), Chapters 9, 11 and 12.

68 Smith, op. cit. (7), p. 216.

69 For more examples of how evangelical scientists of Maxwell's generation grappled with these issues see Livingstone, David, Darwin's Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1987Google Scholar.

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