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Toulmin on Cosmology and the “Theology of Nature” December 4, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Natural Philosophy/Anthropo-cosmology.
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In April I finished up a series of posts on the anthropological concept of “cosmology” (meaning a coherent system of thought), and the relationships historians of the 1980s were able to draw between it and the historical practice and fate of natural philosophy — including scientific cosmology — in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (See especially Simon Schaffer’s clear 1980 argument on this point.)

In my last post in that series, I noted that in seeking to ground Michael Faraday’s (1791-1867) physical convictions in his Sandemanian religious beliefs, Geoffrey Cantor used the term “theology of nature” to distinguish ideas implicit in Faraday’s thought from a contemporaneous, but more explicitly reasoned “natural theology”.  To quote the subtitle to William Paley’s (1743-1805) 1802 book, Natural Theology, natural theology sought “evidence of the existence and attributes of the deity” in the study of nature.  For Faraday, though, only the certain revelation of the Bible could produce knowledge of God, making it necessary for historians to excavate his personal theology of nature.

Some time later, it occurred to me it might not be a bad idea to chase down this “theology of nature” term, which led me directly to Stephen Toulmin’s 1982 essay collection, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature.  Aha.  Since today marks the first anniversary of Toulmin’s death, I thought it might be a good time to try to type something up that helps put Toulmin, a student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, into our history of the history of science of the 1980s.

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned Thony C’s post on the place of Galileo’s Dialogo within a whole range of what I intentionally called “astronomical-cosmological” ideas.  Thony presented Galileo as being somewhat disingenuous about the number of competing systems that astronomers were then considering and those systems’ relative status in contemporaneous astronomical thought.  The implication is that the only thing going on in the Dialogo was a sort of popularization of that thought.  What Thony knows but left unsaid was that astronomers were not the sole players in the cosmology game in the early 17th century.  

Religious cosmology — using philosophy and literature to situate heaven, hell, earth, and their respective inhabitants and their physical and moral relation to each other — was intricately developed at that time, answered questions about where all the important stuff fit in, and doubtless held wider interest than astronomy.  In much popular and theological thought, Dante’s cosmology, to take one example, was doubtless seen as of a kind with Copernicus’s, and probably as more intuitive.  As I understand it, Dante was likewise controversial among Church authorities during the Counter-Reformation.  The Church, of course, was centrally concerned with preserving the rectitude of public thinking, and not with splitting hairs between literary, theological, and mathematical genres of cosmology when it came to censoring dangerous ideas available to the literate public.

As Toulmin has it, it was a “historical accident” in Hellenistic thought that combined theological and physical speculation (he calls it “astrophysics”) with Babylonian predictive astronomy — a combination that remained more-or-less quiescent until Renaissance thought opened up the tensions inherent in it. However, the onset of natural philosophical reform did not break the link cleanly.  Toulmin observes that 17th and 18th-century natural philosophers’ reorganization of the cosmos retained earlier religious cosmologists’ requirement that theological and ethical considerations feature in any philosophically satisfactory cosmology.  This marked the rise of “natural religion”.

Thus, the role of God in the cosmos remained an important problem for Newton and later thinkers: “The subtle balance of between inertia and gravitational attraction manifested in the stability of the solar system was only one of the many respects in which, as Newton saw it, the operations of nature testify to the rationality of nature’s Creator.”  Natural religious interest in the ethical order of the cosmos then persisted uninterrupted through the Bridgewater Treatises of the 19th century before finally petering out after Darwin.  (More recent historians would doubtless extend the timeline to many more recent figures.)  Toulmin’s ideas here find dramatic confirmation, for example, in Schaffer’s early analysis of the role of fire in maintaining the ethical acceptability of evolutionary cosmologies like Kant’s.

However, Toulmin’s central concern was not historiographical but philosophical: what were the implications of the final separation of natural thought from natural religion for our own ethical order?  He argued that scientific investigation of the natural world was beset by disciplinary specialization, which sought certainty in closely circumscribed problems, associating science ever more closely with instrumental technologies, and ever less with the integrative criticism of philosophy and ethics (p. 235):

Within a situation in which intellectual efficiency had decreed the subdivision of science into independent disciplines, the instrumental rationality of Max Weber’s bureaucracy simply wiped out the former responsibility that natural theologians had accepted to the common enterprise on which they and the scientists had earlier collaborated….  In short, the disciplinary fragmentation of science during the nineteenth century seemingly made the integrative function of natural theology seem quite unnecessary.

Stephen Toulmin (1922-2009)

Toulmin did not think this was a good thing.  What he felt scientists thought they had achieved through discipline and the rejection of natural theology was “objectivity”, which meant they attained a status as a removed “spectator” to timeless truths — a position he associated with the dualism of Rene Descartes.  “Even today,” Toulmin argued, “[the Cartesian commitment to the intellectual superiority of objective, universalizable knowledge] remains strongly influential: for instance, in Noam Chomsky’s scorn for anthropological linguistics, which he regards as intellectually shallow by comparison with the general theories of transformational grammar, and in those bitter methodological rivalries over the respective claims to ‘scientific objectivity’ and ‘personal understanding’ which split (and sometimes destroy) departments of psychology in American universities” (245).

Toulmin regarded specialization and the attendant pretense to objective knowledge to have enormous consequences.  It created what Francis Bacon called an “Idol”, which, Toulmin thought, had come to govern the modern world — a point he was to develop further in his 1992 book Cosmopolis.

This view sets the stage for a recitation of a well-worn theodicy of modernity: the idea that scientific progress had outstripped moral progress, leading to the incidence and prospect of various evils (p. 252):

Ours is a time when the problems of natural resources and energy utilization, environmental insults and endangered species — all those attentions on which the ecology movement is focusing attention today — have ceased to be merely transient and local, and have become continuing and worldwide problems….  Far from being free to sit in the stands and watch the action with official detachment, like the original theoroi at the classical Greek games, scientists today find themselves in the dust of the arena, deeply involved in the actual proceedings.  They have thought of themselves as spectators; but they have been forced to double, at the very least, as team trainers and physicians.

It was the scale of the evils of the modern world that, for Toulmin, required a “postmodern” re-synthesis of scientists, their epistemology, their social role, the objects of their investigation, and the ethical consequences of their work back into a unified “cosmos”.  He claimed that “some first movement toward a revival of ‘natural religion,’ and a reunion of science with ‘natural theology,’ is already underway, though not necessarily under explicitly theological colors” (261).

He very explicitly understood this movement to be a restoration of the lost traditions of cosmology, albeit in drastically modified form: “No doubt, the new philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were right to condemn the unity of older astrocosmology … as a specious unity; but that did not rule out all possibility of finding some alternative and sounder basis for seeing all things in the world — human, natural, and divine — as related together in some orderly way, that is to say, in a cosmos” (226).

What was ultimately called for was a new criticism that could develop ideas about the physical-ethical cosmos.  Existing gestures (as in ecological and psychoanalytical thought) were incomplete, but they could “give useful pointers toward the issues that will need to be addressed by any future ‘theology of nature,’ and toward the problems that must be analyzed if such a new cosmology is to stand up to criticism, and carry conviction, after three hundred and fifty years in limbo” (265).


Reading Toulmin I am struck, first, by the ingenuity of certain points in his historico-criticism, and second, by the banality of his diagnosis and periodization of the source of modern evil.  By placing responsibility for evil in the hands of a Cartesian-instrumental rationality, supposing the marginalization of critical philosophy, and declaring a need for critical philosophers to reintegrate scientific and ethical thought, he followed in a long line of anti-Enlightenment and anti-Vienna Circle thought.

The argument, for example, is central to the World War II and Cold War-era critical theories of totalitarianism of Friedrich Hayek (1899-1922), Karl Popper (1902-1994), and Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), as well as to the critical program of the Frankfurt School.  Toulmin’s Guardian obituary even notes his agreement with Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) on just this point.   (Thanks to Chris Donohue for much of this intellectual history; I retain responsibility for its use here.)

Of course, one should also understand Toulmin’s strategy of re-situating “science” within a social and ethical framework as of a piece with many strands of science-studies criticism taking place from the 1970s onward.  One should likewise recognize the influence of anthropologist Mary Douglas’ insistence on the inevitability of cosmology as a crucial spur to science-studies-inspired historical investigations of the “cosmos” surrounding epistemology within times and places where Toulmin’s periodization insists it was absent.

The entente Schaffer forged between his early studies of cosmology and the critical thought of Joseph Priestley and William Whewell, and his investigations of more exact sciences testifies to this last impetus.  As does Cantor’s search for Faraday’s “theology of nature” in his scientific work.  As do Steven Shapin’s brash periodizations of the moral life of scientists.  As do (what I gather to be) Lorraine Daston’s attempts to rediscover the moral and aesthetic aspects of allegedly rationalist Enlightenment epistemology.  As do many historians’ identifications of technological “enthusiasm” and “skepticism” in 20th-century scientific and engineering practice.  As does a general historiographical preoccupation with locating cultural “ideals” governing day-to-day scientific work in any given time and place.

What unites all of this literature (except perhaps Shapin’s most recent work) is a historical assumption that, somewhere along the line, scientists, and, consequently, historians who followed scientists’ histories, became oblivious to the social and moral cosmos surrounding science.  They trust in the objectivity of scientific methods, and in the self-evident power of these methods to dictate action.  This returns the literature to the theodicy of modernity that grants it cogency.  The ability of science and a science-permeated society to proceed absent a fully integrated and self-conscious realization of their epistemological and moral cosmos is thought to be precarious and fraught with controversy.

Thus, it is understood as incumbent on a new generation of critics and historians to reveal and explicate the invisible assumptions and socio-epistemic structure of scientists’ “cosmos” by establishing a much-enriched portraiture of current and historical scientific work, thought, and, above all, controversy.  By this reasoning, for example, Daston and Peter Galison’s investigation of the aesthetic and moral dimensions of epistemically valid, i.e. “objective” representation is deemed a viable and valuable project.

I find the entire program untenable, because it shares a critical assumption that it is, in fact, objectivity, which modern thought has seen as a crucial source of authority and justification for action.  Lose the assumption that objectivity, discipline, authority, and action are so intimately linked — and introduce an assumption that the legitimacy of actions and institutions is based on the sufficient agreement between vague subjective assessments that institutions and actions are desirable and efficacious — and the cogency of this critical program and the sufficiency of the history it produces become difficult to uphold.



1. John S. Wilkins - December 4, 2010

I’m totally with you on the untenability of that claim for objectivity (although I have read Daston yet). It seems to me that apart from that period where philosophers of science and those scientists who followed them were seeking a post-operationalist definition of knowledge, scientists always knew they operated under uncertainty and fallibility, and objectivity was that heaven that exceeded a man’s grasp.

So the objectivity of science is an asymptote that each practitioner strives to reach but never quite achieves. The achievement is seen as a group event: the body of science knows what no individual can (unless they are a Hero like Newton or Dalton or Darwin). I think we have read back into the older literature views and distinctions that are not there.

2. Theological cosmology | The Renaissance Mathematicus - December 4, 2010

[…] Thomas at Ether Wave Propaganda has posted an excellent piece on the cosmological ruminations of Stephen Toulmin1 in which he links to my most recent Galileo post and writes the […]

3. Christopher Donohue - December 6, 2010

As Will has brought me out of my dogmatic slumber, it is also worth noting that this critique of science, instrumental rationality,and the separation of technology and ethics is key feature of the anti-Enlightenment critique of the European right as well. For figures as diverse as Burke, Maistre, Oswald Spengler, Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Celine, Taine, technology, scientific rationality, “the machine,” were all accidents of a cataclysmic revolutionary substance, where the reign of philosophers, scientists, or engineers, would bring into being a barbaric, atheistic utopia like that of the French Jacobins.

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