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


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.

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

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.

3 Brooke John Hedley, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 198203.

4 Behe Michael, Darwin's Black Box, New York: Free Press, 1996; 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. 312317; 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 11.

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. 98124; Siegel Daniel, Innovation on Maxwell's Electromagnetic Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991; 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. 13101318; idem, ‘The Maxwell literature and British dynamical theory’, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences (1982) 13, pp. 175205; Darrigol Olivier, Electrodynamics from Ampère to Einstein, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 149155; 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.

12 Maxwell , ‘Are there real analogies in nature?’, SLP, vol. 1, p. 376.

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. 423436; 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. 290292. Jordi Cat argues for a variety of sources for Maxwell's reliance on analogies. See Cat, op. cit. (7), Chapter 7.

15 Maxwell , ‘Analogies’, SLP, vol. 1, p. 380.

16 James Clerk Maxwell, ‘Inaugural lecture at Aberdeen’, in Jones R.V., ‘James Clerk Maxwell at Aberdeen, 1856–1860’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (June 1973) 28, pp. 5781, 80–81, original emphasis.

17 Maxwell , ‘Analogies’, SLP, vol. 1, pp. 376377.

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

19 Maxwell , ‘Inaugural lecture at King's College, London’, October 1860, SLP, vol. 1, p. 670. ‘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. 418.

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. 417.

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. 263–82; 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. 228.

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

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

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

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. 141246. Brooke, op. cit. (3), pp. 192–225. Stanley Matthew, ‘A modern natural theology?’, Journal of Faith and Science Exchange (1999) 3, pp. 105112.

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, 1994; and Bebbington David W., Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989. 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. 8.

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

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

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. 467491.

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: 2001; Fyfe Aileen, Science and Salvation: Evangelical Popular Science Publishing in Victorian Britain, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, Bebbington, op. cit. (34), pp. 50–60, Wilson David B., Kelvin and Stokes: A Comparative Study in Victorian Physics, Bristol: Hilger, 1987, Chapter 4.

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, 1974.

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. 662674.

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. 40.

63 Lindley David, The End of Physics, New York: Basic Books, 1993, p. 41; Falk Dan, Universe on a T-Shirt, New York: Arcade Press, 2004, p. 86; such quotes could be easily multiplied. Morrison Margaret, Unifying Scientific Theories, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, 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

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, 1987.

This paper was written with the support of the Mellon Foundation while in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA. Special thanks to Heinrich von Staden, Michael Gordin, Myles Jackson, Simon Schaffer, Geoffrey Cantor and the anonymous referees.

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