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“Probably the most frightening thing anyone had said since the rise of Christianity”

Photo: Ben Vaughn/Unsplash

Do you believe in God or science? We often conceive of religion and science as antagonistic. But reason has played a big role in the three major monotheistic religions. In an interview with fortytwomagazine, Peter Adamson, Professor of late ancient and Arabic philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, takes us back to a time when science entailed more than an inquiry into the physical world. He explains how we arrived at our modern-day assumption that religion and science are diametrically opposed to each other and suggests a third alternative to answer some of our biggest questions about existence.

fortytwomagazine: Your primary fields of interest are late ancient and medieval philosophy. Bring us back! Which understanding of science did people have in those times? 

Prof. Peter Adamson: For most of them, science would be defined in the terms of Aristotle’s philosophy. There, you have science when you demonstrate the truth. And then, there are various constraints on what a demonstration would involve. Obviously, the demonstration needs to start with true premises and lead to true conclusions. To avoid a regress where you keep appealing to prior principles forever, you have the first principles which are supposed to be obvious or self-evident. Once you have these principles, you can use logic to turn out further demonstrations.

Also interesting is the way they viewed science. We think of science as a very narrow inquiry into the physical world. They saw science as being part of this much bigger enterprise which is all of philosophy. They didn´t distinguish between science and philosophy the way we do.

42: What was the relationship between science and religion?

Adamson: The first thing to say is that there wasn’t any general agreement on the question. But I think that most intellectuals who were interested in philosophy would not only say that there is no obvious tension between religion and science, but they would be really surprised that we assume there is. Because their first move would be to say: “Well, God gave us reason and the mind. And God made an intelligible universe that we can know. Why would you think there is a conflict between religion and science?”

When people attacked Aristotelian philosophy in the medieval period, they almost never said, you shouldn’t use reason at all and simply believe by faith – which we often associate with religion now in a polemical way. They would have thought that there were more specific problems. For example, Aristotle believed that the universe is eternal. Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that it is created. But the idea that the literally God-given gift of reason is thoroughly unreliable or a bad thing was not normal in the medieval period.

Probably the biggest difference between religion and science from the point of view of a religious philosopher in the Middle Ages is that there are some things that you know through revelation that you have not been able to prove using reason. However, that is religion giving you additional truths that you didn’t have access to. It’s not an idea that religion and science are completely at odds with each other.

42: Still, certain scientific ideas seem to contradict religious beliefs. You talked about the Aristotelian claim of the world being eternal and therefore not created by God. How did one reconcile such contradictions?

Adamson: Thomas Aquinas and others like the Jewish philosopher Maimonides said that actually reason can’t be used to show that the world is eternal, nor can it be used to show that the world is not eternal. Here you could only know that God created the world with the beginning of time because it says so in revelation. In the Islamic world, some philosophers accepted the eternity of the world, like Avicenna and Averroes. But they said it’s not in conflict with the Quran. So, either you adjusted the revelation to fit philosophy or you adjusted philosophy to fit the revelation, but you didn’t just admit that there is a clash that cannot be resolved. Someone had to give.

42: Where did the belief originate that religion and science are mutually exclusive?

Adamson: I think that the idea that religious belief is of a completely different kind than scientific belief is something that came into the European tradition to a large extent because of the Protestant Reformation. At that time some people were already inclined to be hostile to Aristotelianism for a variety of reasons. One is that they were worried about these anti-Christian Aristotelian beliefs like the eternity of the world. But their main reason was that they were sympathetic to Humanism. And the Humanists were the rivals of the Scholastics who were at the university. People like Martin Luther were in the same frame of mind as the humanists.

In addition, the whole point of the Protestant reformation is that everything you should believe as a Christian should be based solely on Scripture [i.e., the Bible]. With this claim, they were mostly rejecting the idea that you need the authority of the Catholic Church and its tradition, but philosophy and science got tarred with the same brush. They were saying: “I don’t need you, scientists and Aristotelians. All I need is the Bible.”

Some of the Protestants – though not all of them – also started to put forward teachings that are very hard to believe and accept. The most obvious example would be Calvin’s Theory of Double Predestination, where he basically seems to be saying that everyone is already predestined to go to hell or heaven. You don´t know which, and there is nothing you can do about it. That is probably the most frightening thing anyone had said in European culture since the rise of Christianity. When he told people why to believe this, instead of giving a rational argument for it, he said things like: “The fact that we can only believe this by faith is part of why we should believe it.” I think that that move, to endorse certain religious beliefs that seemed to fly in the face of reason, is really the ancestor of our modern-day assumption that religion and science are opposed to one another.

Think about [the later theologian] Kierkegaard saying that Christianity is about believing things because they are absurd. That’s a much stronger formulation than anything you would find in Calvin. But in a way, he was heading in that direction already. If you had said that to Thomas Aquinas, he would have had no idea why that would be a meaningful thing to associate with Christianity. It’s not just that he would disagree. He wouldn’t understand why anyone would think that.  

42: There are a lot of questions unanswered by science. For instance, why the universe seems to follow natural laws that can be discovered by us. Does religion provide answers that science can’t? 

Adamson: I think there are two kinds of questions that science can’t answer. There are some questions that science can’t answer, because it hasn’t managed to and maybe never will, even though it could do so in principle. To take a silly example: Science can’t tell anyone what I had for breakfast on January 1st, 1987. There is no data and you can’t use physics to figure it out. That information is lost, and we can’t get it back. That’s an unanswerable question to science, but not in principle.

But then, there is another kind of unanswerable question for science, which is unanswerable because science is not the right method for answering them. For example, it seems unlikely that science is fit for answering questions about morality because they are not empirical. And your example is something almost like “why is the universe the way it is?”. It’s not really an empirical question. So, either that question has no answer, or it does, and it’s an answer that can’t be given by science. It could perhaps be given by religion: it was created by a benevolent God.

Maybe religion offers good answers on some basis. But I think it would be a mistake to assume that by definition any question that’s not answerable to science in the second way is one that has to be answered by religion. It could be answered by philosophy instead; which would be my preference. But I’m a philosopher, so I would say that.


Interview by Til Antonie Wiesbeck

Photo courtesy of Professor Peter Adamson

About Professor Adamson:


Professor Peter Adamson chairs the Late Ancient and Arabic Philosophy Department at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. In his “History of Philosophy” podcast he recounts Greek, Arabic, European, Indian, and African philosophical thinkers and thoughts from Antiquity to modern times. To date, the series contains close to 600 episodes. 

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