Science and Human Values: An Interview with Peter Harrison

Peter Harrison in Conversation

Science is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, and it affects all of us. It has changed our world and in many ways created it. As part of its commitment to bringing the best ideas of scholars in all areas, including the sciences, to the public, Marginalia has launched The Meanings of Science Project, which, among other things, will feature interviews with leading experts. In this inaugural interview, Marginalia’s editor had the privilege to talk with Peter Harrison.

Peter Harrison is an Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland (UQ). Before coming to UQ he was the Idreos Professor of Science and Religion and Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre at the University of Oxford. He works in the area of intellectual history with a focus on the philosophical, scientific and religious thought of the early modern period, and has a particular interest in historical and contemporary relations between science and religion. He has been a Visiting Fellow at Yale and Princeton, is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, a founding member of the International Society for Science and Religion, and a corresponding member of the International Academy of the History of Science. In 2011 he delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, and in 2019 gave the Bampton Lectures at the University of Oxford. Author of over 100 articles and book chapters, his seven books include The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago, 2015), winner of the 2016 Aldersgate Prize. Peter was kind enough to sit down with Marginalia’s editor for an interview about science and its significance today.

Samuel Loncar: Hi, Peter, thanks so much for doing this interview. You’ve spent your life as a scholar thinking about science and its role in our culture. So my first question concerns how important science is. If we consider it, science is perhaps the greatest power in the world today. It boasts world-changing practical efficacy, has enormous prestige and cultural authority, and everyone wants to claim it for their positions and ideas. How did this happen?

Peter Harrison: Good to talk to you, Samuel. That’s an important and complicated question. We often assume that science presently wields cultural and epistemic authority because of its remarkable track record in offering theories that explain and predict what is going on in the natural world, and in providing us with technologies and affordances that improve our material welfare. Science, in short, has provided us with the means to master and manipulate the natural world in ways that seem to make our lives better. So that assumption seems perfectly reasonable.

Samuel Loncar: Right, that strikes me as the most common way of thinking about science, in the public and in the academy. But you’re thinking there’s more we need to consider?

Peter Harrison: Yes, there’s a prior question that we tend not to think about so much, and that is: why we do place such stock in the technological mastery of the world that science provides? The answer to this, I think, is less obvious, and this where the history of science can be enlightening.

If we go back to the seventeenth century, when modern science is getting off the ground, its advocates faced routine complaints that science (or “experimental natural philosophy” as it was then known) was pointless and undignified. The savage satire of the Royal Society’s experimental program in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a good example of this attitude. A standard objection was that science was completely useless, and there was some justification for this claim because its practical applications at the time were very modest. But even more damaging was the accusation that the practical benefits that science aimed at were not worth pursuing in the first place. This latter criticism was motivated by the common conviction that serious intellectual activity should be directed towards moral and religious formation, with the provision of material comforts being left to those engaged in more lowly and mundane occupations.

Samuel Loncar: We forget, as you’re saying, that for most of our history not just manual labor but labor in general was viewed negatively, and that it was a major transition, even revolution, in Western society when it began to honor labor as a good, not merely necessary, part of life.

Peter Harrison: That’s right. The story of how the fortunes of science changed is a complicated one, but as we can see from these complaints, it would require not only that science yield some practical benefits but that people would come to value those benefits over the less tangible goals of moral and religious edification. In England we see two distinct phases in these transformations. In the seventeenth century, science harnessed the legitimizing power of religion. It was suggested the science uncovered the wisdom and power of the Creator, and hence was still conducive to the contemplative life and to the moral and religious formation of the individual. Cutting in the other direction, an equally important religious argument sought to align a practical improvement in human welfare with Christian charity and with re-establishing a mastery over nature that had been lost at the time of the Fall. Francis Bacon sets this out with great clarity. After the fall, he says, human beings lost their moral bearings and their capacity to master nature. Religion helps compensate for our moral losses, and science for our material losses.

On the specific issue of labor, again, the Genesis narratives of creation and fall were influential. Protestant reformers pointed out that even in his original prelapsarian state Adam had been created to work in the Garden of Eden. Manual work, in short, was a sanctified activity. This led to a new idea of vocation that elevated the status of secular pursuits. Paralleling these transitions was a shift in emphasis from the contemplative life to the active life. A number of advocates of the new sciences would draw upon these ideas to argue that the pursuit of science was akin to a priestly calling. So science, or natural philosophy, consolidates its social legitimacy in Western culture by appealing to a set of widely held religious values.

Samuel Loncar: So religion turns out to have played in absolutely crucial role in the legitimation of science in this first phase. How does the second phase you mention change things?

Peter Harrison: In the second phase, which takes place from about the mid-nineteenth century, science establishes its independence from religion. It can do this because it was increasingly taken for granted that material welfare—now understood in purely secular terms—was a self-evident good to be pursued in its own right. Indeed, for some of its chief apologists, like Thomas Henry Huxley, science not only achieves independence from religion, but its legitimacy lies in its capacity to reform and reshape religion or even replace it. Taken together, these changes represent a modern shift of emphasis away from what we might call spiritual goods to material ones.

Samuel Loncar: That’s a really helpful overview of how science has come to be so important to us. It suggests not only the importance of historical research in understanding science, but particularly grasping its complicated relationship to religion, which is very different from what the popular, non-academic stories tell us. When you mentioned science even replacing religion, it made me wonder: what’s the proper way for people in general, the public, to relate to science, given how powerful it is as an authority?

Peter Harrison: Well, that question—the capacity of the public to engage with science—has significant practical implications in the present, owing to a what seems to be a growing skepticism about specific scientific claims in the West. Again, the reasons for this growing skepticism are complicated. What we know from empirical studies is that simply invoking scientific authority and providing people with scientific information does not mitigate their skepticism. It is more effective to give people an understanding of how science, as a human enterprise, actually works. And that means owning up to some of the limitations of science. It also importantly brings the question of values back into the equation, so that people can both understand the values that motivate scientists, and can make connections to their own moral commitments. And this again takes us back to this history, which makes it clear that the social status of science has always depended on its appeal to particular values (rather than just putative facts).

Samuel Loncar: So, we can’t really understand the importance of science if we think it’s “value free” – it’s precisely certain values, among the scientific community and the public, that give science its authority. The values dimension suggests that there could even be disadvantages to, for example, only focusing on some values and not recognizing how they implicate other things we care about.

Peter Harrison: Yes, it might also be said that the pursuit of material welfare alone has its downsides, and the unchecked impulse to exercise mastery over nature has had deeply concerning consequences. Technological mastery of nature, in short, is implicated in our present environmental predicament.

Samuel Loncar: That raises so many questions! But let’s just return to growing skepticism for a moment. What you say about science skepticism and a possible response hits at a crucial issue, which is that science is always connected to public concerns, even though much of it is not easily intelligible to the public. Do you worry that showing people how science is done could in fact exacerbate skepticism? My sense is that many scientists are aware of the limitations of science, but are afraid to “give comfort to the enemy,” as it were, by publicly discussing them. Before turning to the issues of material vs. spiritual values, which is so important, could you say more about what you think the skepticism about science means? It strikes me that one way to read it is as a quasi-religious crisis. Because science is the only public authority most of the world respects, a skepticism about it could suggest a kind of crisis of authority and trust at a deep level. What do you think?

Peter Harrison: Surveys show consistently that scientists and scientific institutions enjoy a high degree of trust, and in a variety of national contexts. In the West, scientists are certainly more trusted than political and religious leaders. At the same time, significant segments of the public resist well-attested scientific claims about evolution, vaccination, and climate change. One simple explanation of this situation is that given their generally positive view of science the public simply needs to be better informed about specific scientific facts, and that a top-down communication of facts from scientists to the general public will do the trick. This “deficit model” of science communication has a superficial appeal, but studies have convincingly established that it just doesn’t work. Indeed, as already mentioned, presenting the scientific facts on the effectiveness of vaccination, or the evidence for evolution, can often strengthen resistance in skeptical audiences. What is important are the values that people associate with particular scientific positions, whether consciously or otherwise.

As it relates to how science does work, effective public engagement with science requires an admission that science is human activity that, although fallible, is generally reliable. On the one hand, it’s important to acknowledge that science is fallible. Otherwise, when over-hyped and premature scientific claims are shown to be false or inaccurate, the credibility of the whole enterprise can suffer. On the other side, one way to demonstrate the general reliability of science is to show how scientists share many of the concerns and commitments of the general public, and to spell out the nuts and bolts of how they arrive at a scientific consensus. This latter approach to the study of science is associated with Science and Technology Studies (STS), which tends to eschew grand philosophical claims about truth, and focuses instead on the nitty gritty of how knowledge is actually produced.

Samuel Loncar: Not everyone agrees with that approach, I assume? What do its critics say?

Peter Harrison: Admittedly, there are those who have charged STS and “postmodernism” more generally with contributing to our slide into a “post-truth age.” For them, STS is the problem and not the solution. This is a long-standing position that goes back to the science wars of the 1990s, in which advocates of historical and sociological approaches to science were identified as the enemies of science and truth. Personally, I think it’s unlikely that Donald Trump and other exemplars of the post-truth era cut their teeth reading Thomas Kuhn and Bruno Latour, and I struggle to see the affinities between Young Earth Creationists and profound, if provocative, thinkers like Paul Feyerabend. It must be conceded that exaggerated claims have been made by over-enthusiastic advocates of STS and, similarly, there have been misunderstandings and distortions of STS on the part of its detractors. But I am confident that acknowledging the truth about how the sciences actually operate in practice will not be counterproductive in the long run. And part of that is to admit that the practices of science are not divorced from the realm of values.

In all of this what needs to be faced up to is that we live in a post-modern age, in which there is no overarching set of values or truth claims that is universally shared. (I offer this as a sociological observation, and not a normative claim.) This is another way of making your point that we face a crisis of authority. The “solution” is not to be imperialistic and invoke one single, supreme authority—science, religion, or whatever. But neither is it helpful simply to throw up our hands and say that it’s all relative. What is called for are practical ways forward that acknowledge the legitimacy and utility of scientific approaches while taking into account genuine differences and points of view, and recognizing the inherent limitations in our present state of knowledge. Those limitations are the flip-side of scientific progress.

Samuel Loncar: That’s incredibly helpful, Peter, as a way to think through the complexity of our moment. You and I are both involved in directing Marginalia’s Meanings of Science Project, which, with support from the Templeton Foundation, is working on a forum designed to implement the strategy you mention: explaining more to the public how science actually works, in part to reduce skepticism and enhance the public’s appreciation of science. Could you say a bit, as we wrap up the interview, about why you think such a forum is important and what you hope it could accomplish? I think this topic is a great place to give you the last word.

Peter Harrison: One of the most cited books of all time opens with the bold claim that if we only attended more closely to history we would see “a decisive transformation of the image of science by which we are now possessed.” Many readers will recognize this as the aspiration with which Thomas Kuhn began his classic Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That was almost 60 years ago, and it’s fair to say that we are still some distance from realizing Kuhn’s goal. My own hope for this forum is that it will move us closer to this mooted transformation by promoting a deeper understanding of the historical and social context of scientific activities.

Why is that important now? As we have already mentioned, there are presently a number of conflicting images of science. Some regard science as omnicompetent—as providing the sole path to genuine knowledge. On this view the only questions worth asking are the ones that the sciences, in principle, can answer. Others are skeptical about scientific claims, typically those concerning evolution, climate change, or the effectiveness of evidence-based medicine. Somewhere in the middle are those who remain deeply ambivalent about science. They recognize the contributions that the sciences have made to our material progress, and yet worry that the unchecked expansion of science-based technologies will lead inexorably to the kind of dystopian future that has become the staple of much science fiction. My hope is that our forum can help resolve some of these tensions, not least by reintroducing the human element back into science, and showing why the sciences and the humanities now more than ever need to be close conversation partners. 

Samuel Loncar is a philosopher and scholar of religion, and the Editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. He is also the host of  Becoming Human: A Podcast for a Species in Crisis.

Peter Harrison is an Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He is the Co-Director of Marginalia’s The Meanings of Science Project and the author of The Territories of Science and Religion.