The Last Magician

I was going to save commentary for this Jeff Jacoby column for the next Wisdom of Doubt post — which I anticipate will be on scriptural literalness — but it’s gotten some buzz today so I will do a short take on it and elaborate later.

Jacoby speaks of a “religious fundamentalist” who wanted to teach at Cambridge University. The would-be teacher believed the world began about six thousand years ago. Yet Cambridge named the guy to the prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics. WTF, you say? Relax; this happened in 1688. The teacher was Sir Isaac Newton.

I don’t have much to add to James Kirchick’s comment.

Not for nothing did John Maynard Keynes remark, upon examining Newton’s large collection of papers relating to alchemy, that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians…” Indeed, the logical conclusion of Jacoby’s argument is that university physics departments should teach students how to convert lead into gold.

The scientific revolution began in the 16th century, but even in Newton’s time science was not exactly science yet. Newton lived in a time suspended between pre-modern and modern thought, between mythos and logos. Human consciousness was moving away from a world of mystical revelation, but hadn’t yet fully entered the Age of Reason. Nor was Newton a true fundamentalist as we understand the word today. Fundamentalism wouldn’t be “invented” for a couple more centuries.

What I found most annoying about Jacoby’s column is his implication that if fundamentalists and creationists are shut out of teaching science, this is only because people are prejudiced against religion.

… the National Science Education Standards issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 1995 classified religion with “myths,” “mystical inspiration,” and “superstition” — all of them quite incompatible with scientific study. Michael Dini, a biologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, made headlines in 2003 over his policy of denying letters of recommendation for any graduate student who could not “truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer” to the question of mankind’s origin. Science and religion, he said in an interview at the time, “shouldn’t overlap.”

But such considerations didn’t keep Cambridge from hiring the theology- and Bible-drenched individual described above.

As far as education is concerned, science and religion shouldn’t overlap. Science classes are for teaching science. Math classes are for teaching math. History classes are for teaching history. If I signed up for a language class, and found that most of the class time would be spent teaching me to dance, or draw, or some other thing beside language, I would be highly annoyed. Some disciplines do overlap — science and math do, at many points. But I say this as a person with a deep regard for both science and religion: it does neither any good to mix them up. I wouldn’t ask Richard Dawkins to teach theology, for example.

If a biology graduate student cannot “truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer” to the question of mankind’s origin, then he should not be awarded with a degree. Biology is what it is; it is not whatever Jeff Jacoby wants it to be. If a language major cannot conjugate verbs, he or she shouldn’t get a degree. If a math major can’t do algebra, he should not get a degree. If an English major doesn’t know Shakespeare from spinach, he should not get a degree. Exactly what’s so outrageous about that is beyond me.

In fact, I intend to argue in the next WOD that biblical literalism of the sort Jacoby approves is killing religion. This argument will lean heavily on Joseph Campbell. Stay tuned.

8 thoughts on “The Last Magician

  1. If you make even a casual look at Albert Einstein, you will find a profound philosopher and humanist, who never let his devotion to science eclipse his conscience, or allowed his personal beliefs to affect his mathematics. The realms of science & spirit are not exclusive – but dogma… that has been a casualty of science on more than one occasion.

  2. This is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

    The U.K. was not at the time, nor is it still, organized on the principles of the separation of church and state. We are.

    Newton kept most of his alchemical thinking deeply hidden; it didn’t come out till long after his death, when that collection of papers was found. In any case, he was appointed the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (the current holder is Stephan Hawkings, by the way), and one of the criteria was that the holder could not be active in the Church. Newton used that to appeal to Charles II that he not be required to take Holy Orders, his appeal was accepted, and he never did. So, while he had his mystical side, when the state tried to make a him a man of the cloth, he refused.

    Newton’s laws did more than other single intellectual act to bring on the enlightenment, by removing the need for an interventionist God. He did more to rid the world of superstition than probably any other person.

    As Warden of the Royal Mint, he had his share of experience with conmen and grifters; he had several convicted, drawn, and quartered. While he did try and find hidden messages in the Bible, this too he tried to do with intellectual rigor, and his purpose was at least partially “to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.” I have a feeling that he would have a lot to say about our current batch of ecclesiastical grifters, and that it would not be very complementary.

  3. Newton actually was extremely intolerant when it came to religion. He cut his teeth politically fighting against a royal order to seat a Catholic member of the faculty at Cambridge.

    Of course, his own brand of Protestantism is also rather unorthodox. He was a Unitarian (although not in the contemporary sense of Unitarian Universalism), convinced that the trinity was an error introduced by Augustine. This held out a bit of a problem when he was being considered for a chair at Trinity College…

  4. If Newton came up for a position today and claimed that his Newtonian physics was the be all and end all of physics he wouldn’t be hired either. That was a sensible view in his day (after he’d formulated it) and for a long time after, but it just isn’t now. And Newton, if he lived now, would know that — he wasn’t stupid.

    There are many people from the past, genius-level people in their fields, who would have many forehead slapping moments as they learned what their fields had found out since their day. We’ve simply learned as we went along through the centuries — is this really so unbelieveable? Is it really such a hard concept for rightwingers to understand?

  5. Ya know, I don’t think there is a problem with granting a degree to a student who can’t ““truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer” to the question of mankind’s origin” as long as that student can explain in detail the workings of that answer in a provisional and theoretical sense.

    If they can do the work, whether they believe it is based on observable truth or a lie or an illusion is not really relevant.

    The sanity or motives of a student who claims to be dedicating his or her life (or a big chunk of it, anyway) to a system of thought that he or she considers an error at best and a demonic lie at worst are another story.

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