Science, formerly ‘natural philosophy’, has always been a dynamic part of
culture; it is affected by culture and has effects on culture; thus, science and
worldviews (or Weltanschauungen) are interrelated, and a decent science
education should give students some appreciation of this interrelationship.2
Hugh Gauch, an agricultural scientist, wrote the lead essay in a thematic
issue of Science & Education (2009) dedicated to Science, Worldviews and
Education (Matthews 2009b), where he averred that questions about science’s
relation to worldviews, either theistic or atheistic ones, are among the most
significant of contemporary issues for scientists, science teachers and culture
more generally (Gauch 2009). Many people are vitally interested in questions
such as whether God exists, whether the world has purpose, whether there
are spiritual entities that have causal influence on the world, whether humans
have spiritual souls that distinguish them from the animal world, whether the
world is such that prayers can be answered and natural causal processes
interrupted and so on. It is surely important for students and teachers to
know if science can give answers, one way or the other, to these questions,
or whether science is necessarily mute on the matters. Presumably, knowledge
of the nature of science should shed some light on whether science can or
cannot answer such questions. Gauch surveys opinions of scientists, philosophers and educators and, predictably, finds disagreement within each group
on the question of the legitimate purview of science.
Importantly, Gauch carefully reports what position papers of the AAAS and
the US NRC say about the defining characteristics of science and, thus, what
they say about worldviews and science. He identifies seven ‘pillars’ of the
scientific enterprise that the AAAS and the NRC endorse. These are:
• Pillar P1: Realism. The physical world, which science seeks to understand,
• Pillar P2: Presuppositions. Science presupposes that the world is orderly
• Pillar P3: Evidence. Science demands evidence for its conclusions.
• Pillar P4: Logic. Scientific thinking uses standard and settled logic.
• Pillar P5: Limits. Science has limits in its understanding of the world.
• Pillar P6: Universality. Science is public, welcoming persons from all
• Pillar P7: Worldview. Science, hopefully, contributes to a meaningful
Gauch sees these seven pillars as, in part, amounting to the popular view
that investigation of the supernatural lies outside the domain of science; this
is the widely held NOMA position put forward by the late Stephen J. Gould
(Gould 1999). However, Gauch also finds an inconsistency with the AAAS
position, because, at the same time, the AAAS asserts that, ‘we live in a
directional, although not teleological, universe’. For Gauch, this is a denial
of the fundamental worldview of the Judaic–Christian–Islamic traditions for
which the world is neither purposeless nor ultimately unguided, and it is thus
a statement that, contra NOMA, science is not worldview-independent. He
advances and defends the related thesis that:
Science is worldview independent as regards its presuppositions and methods, but
scientific evidence, or empirical evidence in general, can have worldview import.
Methodological considerations reveal this possibility and historical review
demonstrates its actuality.
(Gauch 2009, p. 679)
The following fundamental questions arise for science teachers and
curriculum writers, and have been addressed by educators and by historians
and philosophers of science:
• What constitutes a worldview?
• How do worldviews impinge upon, and in turn be modified by, ontological, epistemological, ethical and religious commitments?
• What worldview commitments, if any, are presupposed in the practice of
• What is the overlap between learning about the NOS and learning about
worldviews associated with science?
• What is the legitimate domain of the scientific method? Should scientific
method be applied to historical questions, especially to historical questions
concerning scriptures and sacred texts?
• To what extent should learning about the scientific worldview be a part
of science instruction?
• Should science instruction inform student worldviews or leave them
untouched? Should students be just ‘border crossers’, moving from their
own culture with its particular worldviews to the science classroom in
order to ‘pick up’ instrumental or technical knowledge and then back to
their ‘native’ culture, without being affected by the worldviews and
outlooks of science?
• What judgement do we make of science-education programmes where the
scientific view of the world is not affirmed or internalised, but only learned
Science, Worldviews and Education 351
for instrumental or examination purposes; where learning science is akin
to an anthropological study where students are not expected to believe
or adopt what they are learning, but merely be able to manipulate
formulae and give correct answers on exams?
As with all topics covered in this book, it is clear that the answers to these
questions do not come from learning theory, classroom management skills or
most of the standard content in teacher education programmes, but rather
they require historical and philosophical competence.
Science, Philosophy and Worldviews: Some
The celebrations in 2009 of the 150th anniversary of the publication of
Darwin’s The Origin of Species generated wide recognition of the interplay of science, culture and worldviews. Internationally – by dint of popular
journals, academic symposia, newspaper articles, museum displays, books and
television documentaries – the general public came to see what scholars have
long recognised, namely that the Origin not only provided a novel account
of the origin of species by natural selection, but it also initiated a transformation of modern worldviews and a new understanding of the place of human
beings in the natural world.3 Versions of Darwin’s evolutionary naturalism,
reinforced and strengthened by modern genetics,4 have entered into most
modern worldviews, excepting those of Christian fundamentalists, Muslims
and many indigenous cultures.5
Earlier, in 2005, with the celebration of the centenary of Einstein’s annus
mirabilis, the public also saw and appreciated the contribution of science to
worldviews. People knew, perhaps less clearly and dramatically than with
Darwin, that something important began to happen in 1905 with the
publication of Einstein’s three papers; there was some appreciation of what
physicist–philosopher Fritz Rohlich wrote:
The development of quantum mechanics led to the greatest conceptual revolution
of our century and probably to the greatest that mankind had ever experienced.
It most likely exceeded the great revolutions in our thinking brought about by
the Copernican revolution, the Darwinian revolution, and the special as well as
the general theory of relativity. Quantum mechanics forced us to reconsider our
deepest convictions about the reality of nature.
(Rohrlich 1987, p. 136)
The Ancient World
Although Darwin and Einstein are the most recent and most widely known
cases of science impacting on philosophy and culture, these impacts go
right back to the very cradle of Western natural philosophy; there has been
352 Science, Worldviews and Education
a continuous interaction between science, philosophy, metaphysics and,
ultimately, worldviews. The ‘science’ (natural philosophy) of the classical
and Hellenic materialists and atomists – Thales, Anaximander, Leucippus,
Democritus, Epicurus, Anaxagoros and others – was in constant struggle with
the dualist, finalist, teleological purposeful worldviews of Platonists and
Aristotelians. Karl Popper (Popper 1963, Chapter 5) drew attention to this
‘struggle’ between the early naturalist and materialist scientific tradition among
the pre-Socratics and its dualist, teleological, philosophical opponents, chiefly
Plato and Aristotle. The latter pair won, and the former group were, for nearly
2,000 years, relegated to being just ‘pre-Socratics’, or the philosophical ‘warmup’ or targets for the main Athenian adventure. However, to a small extent,
their reputation has been recovered, with one representative historian of
Greek philosophy writing of the atomists Leucippus and Democritus that:
In their atomism, their theory of motion, their distinction between primary and
secondary qualities, and most of all, in their insistence that explanation of natural
processes shall be mechanical, the atomists anticipated much in the world view
of modern science.
(Allen 1966, p. 15)
Anaximander’s explanation of thunder as noise created, not by heavenly
gods or spirits, but by the rubbing together of wind particles, well represents
the division between materialist or naturalist explanatory systems and ‘prescientific’ ones.6 However, in saying this, it needs to be remembered that the
materialist programme of Leucippus, Democritus, Epicurus and other ancient
atomists was hard to reconcile with the daily observation of animal life and
of human experience, for both of which intention, purpose and teleology
seemed pervasive. Whatever the strengths of the ancient (and modern)
materialist programme, it just did not seem to easily encompass animal and
human life; the system and categories of Aristotle seemed much more
appropriate and satisfying. As one contemporary geneticist observed:
The demolition of Aristotelism as a scientific system started in the Renaissance,
and was successful in the physical disciplines. In biological sciences, however,
Aristotelism lasted until the Darwinian revolution, which is still in progress in
our days. . . . In fact, the Aristotelian viewpoint in biology still has a good number
of supporters among modern biologists.
(Montalenti 1974, p. 4)
For Popper, and many others, the scientific revolution was a ‘return to the
past’, a recapturing of materialist ontology and non-teleological, mechanical
causal relations (Vitzthum 1995, Chapter 2). Wallis Suchting has described
these struggles in the cradle of Western science and philosophy as follows:
Despite all the differences between Plato and Aristotle the latter carried on the
work of the former in essential ways, like that of offering a metaphysical
Science, Worldviews and Education 353
‘foundation’ for the sciences and a teleological view of the world. Christianity
took up elements of Platonic thought . . . but, its philosophical high-point, in
Thomism, mainly appropriated Aristotle. Atomism carried on a basically marginal
existence . . . till it was recuperated by Galileo.
(Suchting 1994, p. 45)
Atomism and the Scientific Revolution
The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century occurred in a Europe
whose cultural, scholarly and religious life was permeated by Aristotelian
philosophy, by convictions about ontology, epistemology, ethics and theology
that were informed and judged by the texts of Aristotle.7 Neo-Aristotelian
scholasticism, although not monolithic in its interpretation of Aristotle,8
dominated medieval and Renaissance universities.9 Scholastic philosophy was
intimately connected with the Catholic Church, but it also held sway in
Protestant seminaries and universities (Dillenberger 1961, Chapter 2). As one
commentator has observed:
The Middle Ages mean simply the absolute reign of the Christian religion and of
the Church. Scholastic philosophy could not be anything else than the product
of thought in the service of the reigning Credo, and under the supervision of
(De Wulf 1903/1956, p. 53)
In scholastic ontology, things were constituted by form and by matter; this
was the doctrine or principle of hylomorphism, and it was fundamental to
the Aristotelian tradition. Fredrick Copleston has rightly noted that Aquinas,
the greatest of the scholastics,‘took over the Aristotelian analysis of substance’
(Copleston 1955, p. 83) and:
According to Aquinas, therefore, every material thing or substance is composed
of a substantial form and first matter. Neither principle is itself a thing or
substance; the two together are the component principles of a substance. And it
is only of the substance that we can properly say that it exists. ‘Matter cannot be
said to be; it is the substance itself which exists’.
(Copleston 1955, p. 90)
It was the ‘new science’ that led eventually to the unravelling of this settled,
medieval, philosophical–theological worldview. This began with the publication, in 1543, of Copernicus’s astronomical work On the Revolution of the
Heavenly Spheres (Copernicus 1543/1952).10 However, it was almost a
century later that the unravelling took dramatic shape, with the publication
in 1633 of Galileo’s Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems
(Galileo 1633/1953) and, 50 years later, Newton’s Principia Mathematica
354 Science, Worldviews and Education
(Newton 1713/1934). These last two books, separated by a mere 50 years,
embodied the intellectual core of the scientific revolution; they constituted the
Galilean–Newtonian Paradigm, a GNP far more influential than any economic
GNP has ever been.
The new science established the Copernican, heliocentric account of the
solar system, which removed humans from their religiously and culturally
privileged place in the centre of the universe; it introduced a mechanical and
lawful account of natural processes; it challenged and, in many places,
overthrew the long-dominant Aristotelian philosophical system that was,
among other things, intimately tied up with Roman Catholic theology and
ethics; and, famously, the GNP caused a reassessment of the role of religious
authority in the determination of claims about both the natural and social
The new science (natural philosophy) of Galileo, Descartes, Huygens, Boyle
and Newton caused a massive change, not just in science, but also in European
philosophy, that had enduring repercussions for religion, ethics, politics and
culture. As was outlined in Chapter 2, early modern philosophers – Francis
Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, George Berkeley, René
Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, up to Immanuel Kant – were all engaged with,
and reacting to, the breakthroughs of early modern science,12 as, of course,
were the later philosophers of the French, English, German and Scottish
Enlightenment; seventeenth-century science was the seed that bore eighteenthcentury philosophical and worldview fruit. With the inevitable exceptions and
qualifications required when talking of any large-scale transformation or
revolution in thought, it can be said that all the major natural philosophers
of the time rejected Aristotelianism in their scientific practice, their theorising
and their enunciated philosophy. Overwhelmingly, the new philosophy
to which they turned was corpuscularian, mechanical and realist – it has
rightly been called the ‘Mechanical World View’ (Dijksterhuis 1961/1986,
In this new worldview, there was simply no place for the entities that
Aristotelianism utilised to explain events in the world: hylomorphism,
immaterial substances, unfolding natures and potentialities, substantial forms,
teleological processes and final causes were all banished from the philosophical
firmament. Much can be said about atomism and the new science, but, for
current purposes, it suffices to repeat Craig Dilworth’s observation that:
The metaphysics underlying the Scientific Revolution was that of early Greek
atomism. . . . It is with atomism that one obtains the notion of a physical reality
underlying the phenomena, a reality in which uniform causal relations obtain.
. . . What made the Scientific Revolution truly distinct, and Galileo . . . its father,
was that for the first time this empirical methodology [of Archimedes] was given
an ontological underpinning.
(Dilworth 1996/2006, p. 201)
Science, Worldviews and Education 355
The Catholic Church’s Condemnation of Atomism
The rise and fall of atomistic philosophy provides an example of the
intertwining of science, philosophy and culture – an intertwining that students
of the humanities can learn about and science students can appreciate. Many
of the major seventeenth-century contributors to the new science – Galileo,
Descartes, Boyle, Newton – were Christian believers, although in somewhat
tense relations with their respective established churches (Roman Catholic for
the first two, Anglican for the second two). Some believers rejected the new
science; some wanted the new science, but not its associated metaphysics; and
some, such as Joseph Priestley, embraced both the new science and its atomistic
metaphysics and adjusted their religious ontology accordingly. When the
seventeenth-century natural philosophers and the Enlightenment philosophers of the eighteenth century stressed the materialism, mechanism and
determinism of the new science, they brought upon themselves the ire of most
contemporary religious figures, who saw the emerging new worldview as
anti-Christian and atheistic.13 The historian Richard Westfall summarises the
general situation well:
Natural science rested on the concept of natural order, and the line that separated
the concepts of natural order and material determinism was not inviolable. The
mechanical idea of nature, which accompanied the rise of modern science in the
17th century, contradicted the assertion of miracles and questioned the reality of
divine providence. Science, moreover, contained its own criteria of truth, which
not only repudiated the primacy of ancient philosophers but also implied doubt
as to the Bible’s authority and regarded the attitude of faith enjoined by the
Christian religion with suspicion.
(Westfall 1973, pp. 2–3)
And Westfall goes in to say:
Every one of the problems could be resolved in a variety of ways to reconcile
science with religion. But the mere fact of reconciliation meant some change from
the pattern of traditional Christianity.
These ‘grand historic’ reconciliations between science and religion are repeated
at the personal level for many science students; analysis and knowledge of the
historical reconcilations can only be beneficial for students and teachers.14
Although Galileo was, in 1615, warned not to hold or teach the Copernican
doctrine of a moving Earth, it was only after The Assayer, with its endorsement
of atomism, was published in 1623 that he faced serious theological charges
(Redondi 1988). There was a move by opponents, from general disquiet to
Atomism presented particular and grievous problems for Christian belief,
but the most basic and important one was the central Roman Catholic, Greek
356 Science, Worldviews and Education
Orthodox and Eastern Uniate teaching on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist,
or the doctrine of transubstantiation. The Eucharist was the sacramental
heart of the Catholic mass, and the mass was and is the devotional heart of
the Church. Belief in the Real Presence of Christ, brought into being by the
priest’s consecration of the communion host, has underwritten devotional
practice and doctrinal authority for centuries. In centuries past, denial of the
Real Presence was a capital offence; it was a litmus test in the Inquisition,
where failure to affirm the belief meant a horrible and painful death.
Scholastic philosophy, with its Aristotelian categories of substance,
accidents and qualities, could bring a modicum of intelligibility to this central mystery of faith, as it could also bring a modicum of intelligibility to
doctrines such as the Incarnation, the Trinity and immortality of the soul.
Scholasticism held that, at consecration, the substance of bread changed to
the substance of Christ’s body, but the accidents remained that of bread. So
Christ became truly present, even though no sensible, observable change was
Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), in his prodigious Summa Theologica (Third
Part, ‘Treatise on the Sacraments’, Question 75, Article 4), formulated the
orthodox doctrine as follows:
Since Christ’s true body is in this sacrament, and since it does not begin to be
there by local motion, nor is it contained therein as in a place, as is evident from
what was stated above . . . it must be said then that it begins to be there by
conversion of the substance of bread into itself. . . . And this is done by Divine
power in this sacrament; for the whole substance of the bread is changed into
the whole substance of Christ’s body, and the whole substance of the wine
into the whole substance of Christ’s blood. Hence this is not a formal, but a
substantial conversion; nor is it a kind of natural movement: but, with a name of
its own, it can be called ‘transubstantiation’.
This Thomist formulation, along with the Aristotelian philosophical apparatus
required for its interpretation, was affirmed as defining Catholic orthodoxy
at the Council of Trent in 1551.
John Hedley Brooke, a historian sympathetic to the positive contribution of religion to science, recognised the problem that atomism posed,
‘especially for the Roman Catholic Church, which took a distinctive view of
the presence of Christ at the celebration of the Eucharist’ (Brooke 1991,
p. 141). He writes:
With an Aristotelian theory of matter and form, it was possible to understand
how the bread and wine could retain their sensible properties while their substance
was miraculously turned into the body and blood of Christ. . . . But if, as the
mechanical philosophers argued, the sensible properties were dependent on an
ulterior configuration of particles, then any alteration to that internal structure
Science, Worldviews and Education 357
would have discernible effects. The bread and wine would no longer appear as
bread and wine if a real change had occurred.
(Brooke 1991, p. 142)
The atomists held, on philosophical grounds, that all legitimate explanation
had ultimately to be in terms of the properties of atoms and of their movements
and interactions. Their science was constrained by their philosophy. Clearly,
the nineteenth-century addition of forces and fields to the ontology of science
was not done on philosophical grounds, but on scientific grounds; it seemed
that only recourse to the latter entities enabled consistent scientific explanation
and progress. Some of this subsequent history of atomism was discussed in
Philosophy as the ‘Handmaiden’ of Religion and
The history of philosophy has been a long dialogue with the history of science;
both grow and learn from each other, as was well recognised by Einstein:
The reciprocal relationship of epistemology and science is of noteworthy kind.
They are dependent upon each other. Epistemology without contact with science
becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is – insofar as it is
thinkable at all – primitive and muddled.
(Einstein 1949, p. 683)
However, also accompanying the dialogue from the beginning has been a third
partner: mostly religion or politics. A constant issue has been the right of the
third partner to intrude in, correct and direct the primary dialogue.
Contemporary debate in the US and Islamic countries about the status of
evolution and what science does or does not say about human origins, the
soul, the authority of revelation and so forth is a clear case of the entry of a
third partner into the philosophy/science dialogue. Likewise, of course, was
the intrusion of the Soviet state into the formulation of philosophy consistent
with Lysenkoist genetics, and the contemporary strait-jacketing of Chinese
science into dialectical garb by the Chinese Communist Party (Guo 2014).
The Roman Catholic Tradition
The Roman Catholic Church has been guided by the medieval view that
‘philosophy was the handmaiden’ of theology; philosophy was to be subservient to religious and theological purposes. This was the import of the
sixteenth-century Tridentine decrees and curial decisions right through to the
twentieth century. Pope Leo XIII (1810–1903) promulgated his encyclical
Aeterni Patris, which gave the name philosophia perennis (perennial
philosophy) to Thomism and directed Catholic educational institutions to base
358 Science, Worldviews and Education
their philosophical and theological instruction upon it. In 1914, Pius X
(1835–1914) issued his Doctoris Angelici decree, stating that:
We desired that all teachers of philosophy and sacred theology should be warned
that if they deviate so much as an iota from Aquinas, especially in metaphysics,
they exposed themselves to grave risk.
(Weisheipl 1968, p. 180)
It was only in the final years of the twentieth century, with Pope John Paul
II’s 1998 encyclical, Fides et ratio, that the Catholic Church relaxed its
attachment to Thomism as official Church philosophy.15
The Thomist tradition had enormous cultural and personal impact in
Catholic Europe (especially Ireland, Portugal, Poland, Spain, Italy), Latin
America, the Philippines and elsewhere. For centuries, Thomism was
marshalled to support Church teaching on a wide spectrum of sexual matters,
including contraception, masturbation, bestiality and homosexuality.
Where the Church exercised political power and influence, these teachings
transferred into national law, with the supposed immoral acts becoming
illegal acts and punishable by the state, and not just for Roman Catholics,
but for all citizens. In all these cases, the reason for condemnation was that
the activity was ‘unnatural’, this whole conceptualisation coming from
Aristotle’s understanding of objects and actions as having natures that, left
alone, unfolded ‘naturally’ and, when interfered with, unfolded ‘violently’ or
‘unnaturally’.16 Science played a role in the demise of the power and scope
of Thomism and, consequently, the moral and legal edifice built upon it.
This is a clear example of the impact of science on philosophy and culture
and the deleterious effect of third-party intrusion into the philosophy–science
The Islamic Tradition
The same dynamics have played out in the Islamic world, where the medieval
view of philosophy as the servant of the Koran still holds.18 It is very difficult,
if not impossible, for a Muslim to entertain or commit to any philosophical
system that cannot be reconciled with the assumed ontology, epistemology,
politics and ethics of the Koran. The project of ‘Islamisation of knowledge’
is widely accepted as simply a part of Islam and of being a Muslim. Its purpose
is to counter the humanistic and secular foundation of Western education and
culture, which it sees as based on five core principles:
1 the sovereignty of man, as though supreme (humanism);
2 basing all knowledge on human reasoning and experience (empiricism);
3 unrestricted freedom of thought and expression (libertarianism);
4 unwillingness to accept ‘spiritual’ truths (naturalism);
5 individualism, relativism and materialism.
Science, Worldviews and Education 359
A representative Islamic appraisal of the scientific revolution is Seyyed
Nasr’s claim that the new science of Galileo and Newton had tragic
consequences for the West, because it marked:
The first occasion in human history when a human collectivity completely replaced
the religious understanding of the order of nature for one that was not only
nonreligious but that also challenged some of the most basic tenets of the religious
(Nasr 1996, p. 130)
Nasr repeats Western religious and Romantic criticisms of the new science
when he writes:
Henceforth as long as only the quantitative face of nature was considered as real,
and the new science was seen as the only science of nature, the religious meaning
of the order of nature was irrelevant, at best an emotional and poetic response
to ‘matter in motion’.
(Nasr 1996, p. 143)
These and other considerations have led to agitation for ‘Islamic Science’
(Hoodbhoy 1991), a programme that has received state support in Pakistan
and some other Islamic countries. For such science, metaphysics is outside and
above science; the external Koran-based metaphysics judges science and
determines the acceptable ontology and epistemology of science and, of course,
it dictates the content and ethos of school science.
Third-party intervention is especially fraught when the party is tied to political
and institutional power, as Thomism has been with the Roman Catholic
Church, Islam in Muslim states, Marxism in the Soviet Union and notionally
in China,19 Hinduism in different Indian states and at different times in the
national government20 and National Socialism in Hitler’s Germany.21 The
same situation pertains when custodians of traditional belief systems control
what can be thought and taught in traditional indigenous cultures. In such
cultures, the free exchange and dialogue of philosophy and science simply
cannot be practised, certain subjects are off limits, and certain methodologies
are demanded while others are proscribed.22
In all of the above cases, local science and philosophy were made to answer
to the dominant, institutionalised religious or political worldview, and
educational bodies were forced to accept such ‘direction from above’ as being
in the interest of the nation, religion, culture or economic advancement. The
360 Science, Worldviews and Education
John Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ of 1925 in Tennessee is perhaps the best-known
occurrence of this intrusion of outside metaphysics into science education
(Larson 1997). In the US, the Scopes trial has been rerun at regular intervals
– the Little Rock, Arkansas, trial of 1981 and the Dover, Pennsylvania, trial
of 2006 are two recent well-publicised cases. These stand out as intrusions,
but such intervention or control is simply institutionalised in many countries,
especially Islamic ones. Evolution and other religion-unfriendly topics are not
on the curriculum; they are not allowed to be taught. There is no apparent
or dramatic outside intrusion; it is just the normal state of affairs.
This cultural–political circumstance poses acute questions for the classroom
science teacher: should teachers try to teach current best science and foster
independence of thought in their students, or should they be functionaries
of whatever the dominant ideological power might be? Can education be
legitimately shaped from within, or must it always just take the shape of
the last ideological or political foot that trod upon it? These are matters
requiring a thoughtful and informed philosophy of education – unfortunately,
something mostly ignored in contemporary science-teacher education, where
not only philosophy of education, but most foundational subjects have been
progressively removed and replaced with training in pedagogical technique
and classroom management; the ‘apprenticeship’ model of teacher education
allows little opportunity for ‘reflection on principles’ or for understanding the
history and philosophy of the discipline being taught.23
Science and the Spirit World
The world’s major religions have had an ongoing engagement with science,
investigating how their own ontological, epistemological and ethical
commitments – their worldviews – are to be reconciled with both scientific
findings and scientific worldviews. Sometimes, the engagement has been
mutually productive; at other times, it has been destructive of one or other
of the participants. Religion is the most publicly discussed and debated
aspect of the science and worldview interaction, and the one that most often
occupies politicians and educationalists, from their framing of national
constitutions, through Supreme Court rulings, writing national and provincial
curricula, arguments about multicultural and indigenous science and textbook
selection, through to classroom teaching and teachers’ interactions with their
students. The arguments and adjustments between Christianity and science –
over creation, evolution, providence, miracles, revelation – have been long
debated24 and will be the focus of this chapter. Debates about the teaching
of evolution are legend and make their way into newspaper columns some –
where around the world on an almost daily basis. This section of the chapter
will deal with just one of the many issues and debates that have arisen in the
field: the putative existence and powers of spiritual agencies, spirits, ghosts,
poltergeists and angels; inhabitants of what John Wesley, the founder of
Methodism, called the ‘Invisible World’.
Science, Worldviews and Education 361
Belief in a spirit-filled world is fundamental to the Judaeo–Christian–Islamic
tradition. Jewish society simply took over the heavily populated world of
demons that the Mesopotamian and Hellenic worlds also recognised, with
their ontology of beings intermediate between gods and men: these were the
daimones. The Judaeo–Christian explanation of this realm of troublemakers
and evil-inducers was, of course, the expulsion from heaven of Satan and his
fallen angels (Genesis 6:1–4). The heavens were heavily populated: in the
prophet Daniel’s vision, ‘A thousand thousand waited on him, ten thousand
times ten thousand stood before him’ (Daniel 7:10). Jinn, or spirits and angels,
were an integral part of the Judaic tradition; everyone in pre-Islamic Arabia
believed in them; they lived in a world unseen to humans; they ate and drank
and procreated; some were righteous, whereas others were evil. Illness, unusual
events, misfortunes, catastrophes and so on were attributed to this host of
otherworldly ne’er-do-wells. Belief in such a rich, spirit-populated world, an
‘invisible world’, is a requirement for the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims: belief
in angels is the fourth of Islam’s six Articles of Faith.
The New Testament and the early Christian Church, being a sect of Judaism,
simply carried on belief in the reality and powers of demons, or ‘unclean
spirits’ as they are also called. These demons were responsible for false teaching
(1 Timothy 4:1); they performed wonders (Apocalypse 16:14); they rule the
kingdom of darkness (Ephesians 1:21, 3:10); and so on. Of particular account
in New Testament demonology is the widespread and frequent occurrence of
possession of people by the devil or evil spirits. This continued a Judaic and
Mesopotamian belief in diabolical possession, one that routinely attributed
psychic illness (as now understood) to such a cause (Matthew 8:16, 12:27;
Mark 1:34; Luke 7:21, 11:19; Acts 19:13–16). The apostles exorcised evil
spirits where they could, with the most graphic instance being the exorcism
in the Gerasa cemetery, where the demons fled the person and possessed the
herd of swine that they then drove to their death in the Sea of Galilee. Converts
such as Paul also had such powers and exercised them effectively, such as when
he drove the evil spirit from the girl from Philippi (Acts 16:16). Sometimes,
they were not successful, as with the boy now seen to be most probably an
epileptic (Matthew 17:14–21; Mark 9:14–29; Luke 9:37–43).
As one Catholic commentator, John L. McKenzie (from whom the foregoing
textual references are taken) has written: ‘The belief in heavenly beings thus
runs through the entire Bible and exhibits consistency’ (McKenzie 1966,
p. 32). McKenzie further adds:
But while the use of popular imagery should be understood to lie behind many
details of the New Testament concept of demons, the Church has always taught
the existence of personal evil spirits, insisting that they are malicious through their
own will and not through their creation.
(McKenzie 1966, p. 194)
362 Science, Worldviews and Education
The Protestant tradition holds comparable views. Martin Luther maintained
that demons lived everywhere, but were especially common in Germany; John
Wesley wrote in his Journal in 1768 that: ‘The giving up of witchcraft is in
effect the giving up the Bible.’ He regarded witchcraft as ‘one great proof of
the invisible world’.
It is hardly surprising that, 500 years later, half of all Americans tell pollsters
that they believe in the Devil’s existence, and 10 per cent claim to have
communicated with him (Sagan 1997, p. 123). The extent of such belief has
been more recently documented in the findings of the large-scale 2008 Pew
Report on religious belief and practice in the US.25 This survey of 35,000
US adults, most of whom would have completed the high-school science
requirement, found that belief in some form of God was nearly unanimous
(92 per cent), and that this God was not the remote, untouching God of
eighteenth-century Deists, but a God who was actively engaged in the affairs
of people and of processes in the world. Nearly eight in ten American adults
(79 per cent) agree that miracles still occur today, as in ancient times. Similar
patterns exist with respect to beliefs about the existence of angels and demons.
Nearly seven in ten Americans (68 per cent) believe that angels and demons
are active in the world. Majorities of Jehovah’s Witnesses (78 per cent),
members of evangelical (61 per cent) and historically black (59 per cent)
Protestant churches and Mormons (59 per cent) are completely convinced of
the existence of angels and demons.
The whole constellation of traditional religious beliefs, especially those
affirming an active, ongoing engagement of God, angels and spirits with
human affairs, requires that the world, including human beings, be constituted
in certain ways; that the world has a certain ontology, and that the human
beings are so constituted that they can know of and interact with these
supernatural agencies. All of this amounts, in part, to a religious worldview,
a view about how the world and human beings need to be constituted so as
to enable, or ground, religious belief, experience and practice. As is well
known, Thomas Aquinas, the imposing intellect of the Middle Ages, devoted
energy to determining the properties and numbers of angels, and ‘Whether
the Angels Differ in Species?’ (Aquinas 1270/1920, Part 1, Question 50,
Article 4). Henry Gill, a Catholic priest, philosopher and physics lecturer, gave
succinct expression to the kind of worldview held by many religious believers:
It will be useful to recall briefly the Catholic teaching as to the existence of spirits.
The Scripture is full of references to both good and bad spirits. There are good
and bad angels. Each of us has a Guardian Angel, whose presence, alas, we often
forget. Angels, as the Catechism tells us, have been sent as messengers from God
(Gill 1944, pp. 127–28)
In traditional or indigenous cultures, convictions about the ‘invisible world’
and interactions between this supernatural world and the everyday world are
Science, Worldviews and Education 363
usually bolstered with animist beliefs, where plants and natural objects are
endowed with intelligences and spiritual attributes, and where natural
processes can be swayed by rituals, incantations, charms, potions, magic,
sorcery and spells. In most such cultures, spirits are everywhere and have
immense powers; they feature in traditional stories, legends and myths and
underwrite a wide variety of social and especially medical practice.
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a representative case. In the early months of
2013, a series of horrific, gruesome, sorcery-related murders were committed.
In January, outside Mt Hagen, the capital of the Western Highlands, a 20-yearold mother was accused of sorcery, doused in petrol and burned alive atop a
pile of rubbish and car tyres. She supposedly had used her powers as a witch
to kill a boy who had been admitted to hospital with chest pains. In March,
a Highlands man ate his new-born son in order to bolster his sorcery powers.
The same month, in the Southern Highlands, six supposed witches were
tortured with hot irons, and one was roasted to death. In April, in Bougainville,
two elderly women, accused of being witches and causing the death of a
schoolteacher, were tortured for three days and then beheaded in front of
a large mob that included police officers. In just one Highland province,
Simbu, there are 150 sorcery-inspired and justified attacks per year.26 At the
same time, the PNG government released a report on the AIDS epidemic in
the country, detailing the prevalence, and uselessness, of traditional treatments,
such as having sufferers sit atop huts inside which are burned ‘special fires’,
in expectation that the rising smoke would carry off the evil spirits inhabiting
the person and causing the sickness. A long-time PNG Roman Catholic priest,
Philip Gibbs, touched on the major issue of scientific and biblical worldviews
when he described PNG culture as having a ‘pre-Enlightenment, or Biblical,
worldview. . . . They don’t believe in coincidence or accidents. When something
bad happens, they don’t ask what did it but who did it’ (Elliot 2013, p. 18).
The reality and efficacy of sorcery are recognised in the 1971 Sorcery Act.
A 1977 PNG Law Commission study on Sorcery in PNG concluded:
We have written some general ideas about sorcery we know from our own
experience as Papua New Guineans. In order to get a balanced view of sorcery
we would like to say that sorcery is very much a matter of the innermost belief
of the people. Fear of, or the practice of sorcery or various occults is a worldwide phenomenon. Sorcery or black magic exists in Europe, in Asia, in Africa
and in North and South America as well as the Pacific.
Major world religions claim the reality of forces or personalities greater than
the human and animal powers. Whether these powers or personalities can be
shown to exist is often quite irrelevant to the belief. From these beliefs many
practices and procedures follow.
(Narokobi 1977, p. 19)
The 2013 revision of the legal code is moving to deny the reality of such
powers and make supposed Sanguma bashings, torture and killings criminal
364 Science, Worldviews and Education
offences. The situation with PNG traditional society is repeated in sometimes
more and other times less extreme forms in many other traditional societies,
and also other societies where the spirit world looms large, and where
thousands of years of tradition, folklore and superstition are embedded.
Although some NOMA-aligned and postmodernist commentators maintain
that science cannot disprove the existence of such spirits, the revised PNG
legal code appeals to modern science to assert that spirits do not exist, and
so cannot be used as a defence in homicide or assault cases; purveyors of ‘spirit
medicine’ and cures will be charged with fraud. Revision of the Sorcery Act
requires rejection of the ‘science is neutral’ position.27
Of course, these beliefs and practices are not just those of ‘traditional’
societies: the Vatican’s official exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, who has
conducted 70,000 exorcisms, claimed that many paedophilia cases were the
direct work of devils who possessed or otherwise influenced the offending
priests (Amorth 2010).
Education and the Spirit World
Despite being everywhere, being endowed with amazing powers and being
credited with causing tsunamis, AIDS, schizophrenia, adultery and much else,
such angels and spirits do not show up in laboratories or scientific texts; they
have not gained a place in the scientific understanding of the natural, social
or personal worlds. No spirits have been identified by science as having any
causal interaction with the world, and those who supposedly had such
interaction have been in full retreat as alternative scientific explanations
become established. This gives rise to a certain disconnect. Such claims are
then either discordant with, or orthogonal to, the worldview and conduct of
science. Denying the efficacy or existence of ‘bad’ spirits or devils involves
proto-science. The basic claim is that, ‘there is no evidence’ for such possession
by bad spirits, and that the evidence (paedophilia or children dying) can be
accounted for by other (natural) causes. This basic claim moves discussion
into the field of science and evidence appraisal. However, once that move is
made, then why not extend the examination to the efficacy or existence of
‘good’ spirits and angels?
The educational question is what to do about such beliefs? Should nothing
be done, and the cultural status quo be retained unaltered? Should students
be encouraged to believe just in good spirits and not in bad ones? And, if
good spirits, to believe for ontological reasons (there actually are such things)
or for instrumental reasons (such belief is harmless, it encourages good
behaviour and is part of the cultural or religious tradition)? Or not believe in
spirits at all? The last was the choice of Joseph Priestley, the famed eighteenthcentury English scientist, historian, philosopher, theologian and Dissenting
The notion of madness being occasioned by evil spirits disordering the minds of
men, though it was the belief of heathens, of the Jews in our Savior’s time, and
Science, Worldviews and Education 365
of the apostles themselves, is highly improbable; since the facts may be accounted
for in a much more natural way.
(Rutt 1817–1832/1972, Vol. 7, p. 309)
For Priestley, Jesus was simply mistaken when he attributed the cure of
madness to driving out evil spirits, because subsequent science and philosophy
had shown there were no such things to be driven out.28
Traditional Non-Western Metaphysics
Olugbemiro Jegede, a leading African science educator, elaborates the
worldviews that ‘all African communities’ have in common and that science
education must be ‘rooted in’. These are:
1 the belief in a separate being whose spiritual powers radiate through gods
(of thunder, fire, iron) and ancestors;
2 reincarnation and the continuation of life after death;
3 the human as the centre of the universe in traditional African thought;
4 the theory of causality (Jegede 1989, p. 193).
Jegede cites the work of thirteen anthropologists and educators who ‘now
confirm the position that the African [view of nature] is anthropomorphic as
opposed to the mechanistic view of nature of Western science’. In a later
publication, Jegede provides the table of ‘some distinguishing characteristics
between the foundation of African and Western cultures’, shown in Table 10.1
(Jegede 1997, p. 7)
Table 10.1 represents a clear dichotomy between African indigenous science
and orthodox science. The educational and philosophical task is to work out
how to deal with the dichotomy: retain the first, or the second, or both? And,
for each choice, what is the intellectual, cultural and social cost? And is it
worth paying? It is Jegede’s view that:
366 Science, Worldviews and Education
Table 10.1 Traditional African and Western Science
Traditional African Science Western Science
Anthropomorphic Mechanistic, exact and hypothesis-driven
Monistic–vitalistic and metaphysical Seeks empirical laws, principles, generalisation
Based on cosmology interwoven with Public property, divorced from religion
Orally communicated Primarily documented via print
The elders’ repository of knowledge is Truth is tentative and challengeable by all
truth not to be challenged
Learning is a communal activity Learning is an individual enterprise
From this can be seen the need to design science education that satisfactorily meets
with the needs of Africa in such a way that the African view of nature, sociocultural factors, and the logical dialectical reasoning embedded in African
metaphysics are catered for within a changing global community.
(Jegede 1997, p. 15)
To deal intelligently with these issues requires more than the usual teachereducation curriculum focused on classroom-management skills and learning
theory; the resolution of the issues requires informed historical and philo –
sophical input, something conspicuously lacking when the Portland School
District adopted the The Portland African–American Baseline Essays as a
guide to its science programme (Adams 1986, Martel 1991).
This is not the place to canvass the myriad non-Western worldviews that
activate contemporary cultures and inform their sciences.29 Nor is it the place
to canvass the detailed and rich empirical knowledge of animal life, astronomy,
horticulture and technology that traditional societies possess. Rather, it is
important to concentrate upon the worldview, or ‘theoretical’ aspects, of
traditional belief systems and how to recognise and deal with them in science
teaching. The observations of Jegede are sufficient to illustrate the threads of
the argument to be advanced, namely that some core epistemological and
ontological assumptions of Western science are in objective conflict with core
assumptions of some traditional belief systems. If this is so, then thoughtful
educational responses are required.
The matters of ontological contention are the following:
1 Is the world constituted in such a way as to serve human interests?
2 Are processes in the world teleological? That is, do events and behaviours
occur in order to bring about some fitting end state?
3 Are inanimate and nonhuman animate processes activated and controlled
by spiritual influences?
The Western scientific tradition, after centuries of investigation and tumultuous debate, answers ‘no’ to each of the above questions, whereas many
traditional belief systems affirm some or all of the propositions. One can
recognise among the pre-Socratic philosophers the slow, awkward attempts
to distance their thought about the world from the mythical worldviews that
were characterised by the above anthropomorphic, animistic and teleological
dimensions. Western science has slowly continued this process of jettisoning
The basic matters of epistemological contention are the following:
1 Does knowledge come from the observation of things as they are in their
2 Are knowledge claims validated by successful predictions?
Science, Worldviews and Education 367
3 Do particular classes or authority figures define knowledge or become the
custodians of knowledge?
4 Is knowledge a fixed and unchanging system?
As with the ontological questions, the Western scientific tradition answers ‘no’
to each of these questions, whereas traditional societies affirm some or all
of them. Of course, there is some debate about these questions of natural
states, prediction, the institutionalisation of knowledge, and accretion versus
revolutions in knowledge. However, even with more nuanced elaboration,
the conflict between scientific ontology and epistemology and numerous traditional ontologies and epistemologies is still apparent. This was the view of
Robin Horton, in his classic study of African and Western science. After
outlining many points of similarity between African and Western science, he
concluded by drawing attention to deep differences. For Horton:
The key difference is a very simple one. It is that in traditional cultures there is
no developed awareness of alternatives to the established body of theoretical
tenets; whereas in scientifically orientated cultures, such an awareness is highly
developed. It is this difference we refer to when we say that traditional cultures
are ‘closed’ and scientifically oriented cultures are ‘open’.
(Horton 1971, p. 153)
One of the reasons for concern about teaching Western science in traditional
societies is that this conflict very quickly spills over into other domains. Almost
all commentators make the observation that traditional science is much more
integrated with other important cultural systems than is usually apparent in
the West. Traditional science is connected with religion, with health, with
politics, with social structure and cultural customs. The fear is that Western
science will not only subvert traditional science, but that it will, as a
consequence, subvert a range of other significant social institutions and beliefs
and contribute to the destruction of traditional culture.
This fear of Western science’s possible disruption of culture and traditional
institutions is often misplaced and, indeed, often indicates a paternalist
attitude, an assumption that other cultures are so feeble that they cannot make
intelligent and sensible decisions about what accommodations to make and
not to make in the light of modern science. Members of the Papua New Guinea
Law Commission do not cease to be members of PNG culture by virtue of
declaring that the evil spirits energising sorcery do not exist. Papua New
Guinea adjusts, grows and modernises. South Africans did not cease to be
members of their culture when they affirmed that viruses, not evil spirits, were
responsible for the crippling AIDS epidemic in the country.
Multicultural Science Education
Examples of spirit-laden cultures and traditions holding decidedly nonWestern metaphysical and epistemological commitments have been given
368 Science, Worldviews and Education
above. The teaching of science in such cultures and societies raises important
matters about the purposes of science education and the distinction between
understanding science and believing science. Some maintain that science
education should leave cultural beliefs untouched; that students should
simply leave their culture’s worldview (ontology, epistemology, metaphysics,
authority structure, religion) at the classroom door, enter inside to learn the
instrumentally understood content of science, then go back outside and
become again fully believing participants in their culture. This is close to
advocating an anthropological approach to learning science. Just as anthropologists can be expected to learn about the beliefs and practices of different
societies without any expectation that they adopt or come to believe them,
some say that students can learn science in the same way – a sort of ‘spectator’
learning, where one learns but does not believe or internalise.30 It is the
learning that anthropologists and historians have when studying other cultures
and periods: they learn what others have believed, without any requirement
for themselves to believe.
Glen Aikenhead, in a much-cited paper, has advocated such a strategy, calling
it ‘border crossing’ (Aikenhead 1996). Just as tourists, when they cross
borders, do not lose their cultural identity, even though they temporarily
adopt foreign customs about driving, eating, dressing and language, so also
science students should not lose their cultural identity (as a traditional Roman
Catholic, a fundamentalist Christian, an Intelligent Designer, a PNG highlander, and so on), just because the science laboratory has no place for their
own rich beliefs. The students are tourists in ‘scienceland’, not immigrants.
This is a form of pedagogical NOMA; it gets its intellectual sustenance from
Kuhnian–Feyerabendian incommensurability claims served up with liberal
doses of social constructivism; it is profoundly at odds with the Enlightenment
tradition that hoped for the internalisation of the scientific outlook.
The contrast between the aspirations of the Enlightenment philosophers and
contemporary ‘border crossing’ science educators is profound and speaks to
a major divergence in each one’s appreciation of science. This indeed is the
case. Consider the claim that educators have to learn,
how to deprivilege science in education and to free our children from the ‘regime
of truth’ that prevents them from learning to apply the current cornucopia of
simultaneous but different forms of human knowledge with the aim to solve the
problems they encounter today and tomorrow.
(Van Eijck & Roth 2007, p. 944)
And the assertion that ‘the social studies of science’ reveal science as:
‘mechanistic, materialist, reductionist, empirical, rational, decontextualised,
mathematically idealised, communal, ideological, masculine, elitist, competitive, exploitive, impersonal, and violent’ (Aikenhead 1997, p. 220).
Science, Worldviews and Education 369
This claim is more than puzzling. Is this meant to describe the work of
Galileo? Newton? Huygens? Priestley? Darwin? Mendel? Faraday? Mach?
Thompson? Lorentz? Maxwell? Rutherford? Planck? Einstein? Bohr? Curie?
Does it describe the work of Edward Jenner in developing the smallpox
vaccine? Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin in developing the polio vaccine? We are
not told whose science warrants the description. It is clearly a composite or
collage that requires unpicking, but this is not done. From Aikenhead’s
description, it is doubtful whether science should even be in the curriculum;
it certainly should be rated X, with even border crossing being dangerous.
Other prominent and influential science educators share Aikenhead’s
unfavourable estimation of science. Consider, for instance, claims made in a
contribution to a current major science-education handbook:
One of the first places where critical inquirers might look for oppression is
positivist (or modernist) science . . . modernist science is committed to
expansionism or growth . . . modernist science is committed to the production of
profit and measurement . . . modernist science is committed to the preservation
of bureaucratic structures. . . . Science is a force of domination not because of its
intrinsic truthfulness, but because of the social authority (power) that it brings
(Steinberg & Kincheloe 2012, pp. 1487–88)
It is not clear what is being asserted here. Such statements demonstrate the
need for science educators to be well informed, careful and considered in their
approach to HPS; casual reading hardly suffices. The above accounts, apart
from being confused and contradictory, cannot be sustained. Taking the
subject out of the picture and relying on measuring instruments (rulers, scales,
thermometers, barometers, clocks) instead of subjective appraisals of length,
weight, temperature, pressure and duration; utilising mathematics; introducing
idealisations and abstractions; valuing objective evidence; being public,
communal, publishing, criticising and debating – are all the things that enabled
the scientific revolution to occur in seventeenth-century Europe and progress
to its current international status. And, of course, Copernicus and Galileo had
no social authority enforcing their heliocentricism, on the contrary; whereas
Lysenko had all the oppressive, overwhelming authority of Stalin behind his
non-Mendelian genetics, ultimately this authority counted for nothing. This
understanding is missing in the unsupported criticisms of science given above.
The conduct of Western science presupposes at least methodological naturalism (MN). This is the view that, when doing science, whatever occurs in
the world is to be explained by natural mechanisms and entities, and that these
entities and mechanisms are the ones either revealed by science or in principle
discoverable by science. This methodological presupposition does not rule out
miracles or divine interventions or other non-scientific causes; it just means
370 Science, Worldviews and Education
that such processes cannot be appealed to while seeking scientific explanations.
There has been, historically, a transition from a more open, mixed or relaxed
methodology to having MN function as a defining principle of scientific
investigation. As Robert Pennock states the matter:
Science has completely abandoned appeal to the supernatural. In large part this
is simply the result of consistent failure of a wide array of specific ‘supernatural
theories’ in competition with specific natural alternatives.
(Pennock 1999, p. 282)
The US National Academy of Sciences affirmed just such a position:
Science is limited to explaining the natural world through natural causes. Science
can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question
about which science is neutral.
(NAS 1998, p. 58)
This seems like a nice division of territory, a live-and-let-live outcome, but
this ignores the obvious question of whether science can say anything about
putative evidences for God’s existence. Many such evidences (design, efficacy
of prayer, mystical experience) are in the purview of science, and science need
not be neutral about them.
A stricter version of naturalism is ontological naturalism (ON), which is
sometimes called metaphysical naturalism. This is the view that there is a
scientific explanation for all events, that supernatural explanations (e.g. divine
interventions, miracles) simply do not occur. Many see ON as pure dogmatism, and it can be if it is held in advance as a philosophical principle – who
is to say in advance of evidence how the world works or what is in it? But it
can be held on less dogmatic, two-step grounds:
1 Thus far, no credible evidence has been advanced for the existence of any
putative non-natural entity, or entity not within the scientific realm.
Many, of course, reject (1), and that is a whole separate argument. However,
some accept (1) and nevertheless say that ON does not follow from it, or only
follows dogmatically, as no one knows what evidence might turn up. But the
non-dogmatic holder of ON can add a second step to their argument:
2 Do not believe things for which there is no evidence.
If (2) is granted, then ON does indeed follow. Then, the dogmatism claim
moves back to belief in (2) rather than belief in ON. However, belief in (2)
need not be dogmatic; it can be the ‘default’ position, and its opposite, namely
the holding of beliefs for which there is no evidence, is dogmatic. The latter
beliefs can be entertained, that in part is what hypothesis creation is about,
Science, Worldviews and Education 371
but they cannot be held without evidence. This was, in essence, Bertrand
Russell’s ‘tea-pot’ argument:
I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist.
I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the
existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration:
nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot
revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken
into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.
Both science-informed methodological and ontological naturalists admit the
existence of whatever kinds of entity (e.g. atoms, fields, forces, quarks, bosons,
fermions, dark matter) science postulates or reveals as having regular causal
relations with the rest of nature. However, ontological naturalists do not admit
the existence of spiritual or divine entities, or any kind of entity that does not
enter into scientifically demonstrated, lawful and causal relations with nature.
Although often confused, there is a difference between realism and
naturalism (including materialism). Realism simply asserts that there is a
world independent of human thought. Such an independent world might
include spirits, minds, universals, mathematical objects, forms or any other
independent existent. Realism neither rules in nor rules out any particular kind
of putatively existing being. A theological realist about angels believes that
angels exist; a theological instrumentalist believes that the word ‘angel’ is
shorthand for ‘makes people behave’ or ‘strengthens our cultural bonds’.
Naturalism is a subspecies of realism; it asserts that the only existing things
are the things that science postulates and incorporates into successful and
mature theories; materialism, in turn, is a subspecies of naturalism. Traditional
religious believers must reject ON, but, of course, religious scientists routinely
adopt MN in the laboratory; to do otherwise would put them outside the
Materialists are a subspecies of ontological naturalists, but they are less
relaxed about what can exist. Basic or ‘old-fashioned’ materialists grant
existence only to material, physical, ‘three-dimensional’ objects, the kinds of
thing that can be tripped over. They reject the postulation of non-material
scientific entities, believing that such postulation is a failure of scientific nerve,
and it is the slippery slope to idealism. This is clearly as much an a priori
metaphysical position as it is a deduction from scientific practice. Emergent materialism is a more sophisticated version, where the world is seen as
material, but stratified. The properties of material aggregations are greater
than, and different from, the properties of the building blocks. So cells have
different kinds of property to molecules, brains have different properties to
neurons, societies have different properties to individuals and so on. For
emergent materialists, the world is changing and evolving, and new properties
emerge as material formations become more complex; for this reason,
emergent materialism is in principle anti-reductionist.32
372 Science, Worldviews and Education
Scientism is a subspecies of naturalism; many hold the latter position, without
commiting to the former.33 Like positivism, scientism has had a bad press in
social science, in ‘critical’ and postmodernist philosophy, and especially in
constructivist science education. In these circles, ‘scientism’ is regarded as a
synonym for reduction-ism, closedminded-ism, shallow-ism, cultural imperialism and most other -isms with which no sensible, well-educated, sensitive
person would wish to be associated. But is scientism so bad, or so obviously
beyond the intellectual pale?
As outlined in Chapter 2, the beginning of scientism can be seen in the oncerevolutionary claim of Newton, Condorcet and the early Enlightenment
philosophers that the methods and outlook of the new science should be
applied outside the laboratory; they should be harnessed in understanding and
solving other pressing social and cultural problems, including ones associated
with superstitions and the exercise of unjustified ecclesial and feudal powers.
Three hundred years later, as documented in Chapter 1, this ‘proto-scientism’
has been repeated by the AAAS, which maintained that:
The scientifically literate person is one who is aware that science, mathematics,
and technology are interdependent human enterprises with strengths and limitations; understands key concepts and principles of science; is familiar with the
natural world and recognises both its diversity and unity; and uses scientific
knowledge and scientific ways of thinking for individual and social purposes.
(AAAS 1989, p. 4; italics added)
In its Benchmarks for Science Literacy, the AAAS says that science education
has to ‘prepare students to make their way in the real world, a world in
which problems abound – in the home, in the workplace, in the community,
on the planet’ (AAAS 1993, p. 282). The unique contribution of the science
programme to this more general problem-solving and society-improving
educational goal is the cultivation and refinement of scientific habits of mind.
This is where the move from proto-scientism to scientism begins.
Scientism is the view that only the methods of natural science are capable
of providing knowledge of the natural, social and personal worlds; there are
no other routes to such knowledge. Listening to gurus, holding Ouija boards,
invoking mediums, remembering dreams, reading sacred texts or consulting astrologers simply gives no knowledge of nature (earthquakes), social
circumstances (collapse of economies), public events (the outbreak of war) or
personal physical episodes (sudden illness or death), or even personal psychic
episodes (delusions, emotional states and so on). Such sources might provoke
hypotheses or ideas to be tested, but they do not provide knowledge. Thus
stated, scientism is not as ‘beyond the pale’ as it is usually taken to be.
For at least a century, one challenge for scientism has been the possibility
of a scientific social science. An illustrious tradition – Nicolas Condorcet, Denis
Diderot, Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Auguste Comte, Otto Neurath, Emile
Science, Worldviews and Education 373
Durkheim – thought social science had to be scientific, but this tradition has
been dismissively charged with ‘aping the sciences’ (von Hayek 1952), and
various kinds of non-scientific social science have evolved – Verstehen,
hermeneutical, humanistic and so on. This is not the occasion to settle this
argument, but it is by no means obvious that the non-scientific social sciences
have shed light on, much less explained, major historical, economic or social
structures or events – the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the invasion
of Iraq and so on.
Mario Bunge, a defender of scientism, has illustrated his position using the
accompanying ‘ecology of progressive science’ diagram (Bunge 2010) (Figure
10.1). For Bunge, science requires, and can only flourish in, social and
intellectual environs characterised by the following political, ethical and
• Humanism: scientists need to promote human welfare, not misery,
business advancement or political advantage. The latter purposes more
easily lead to corruption of science (witness Nazi Germany, Stalinist
Russia or current ‘big business’ science). There can and should be applied
science, but it ought be for human welfare and improvement.
• Systemism: scientists need to recognise that there are no isolated events,
mechanisms or problems in the world. Structures and events are parts of
systematic, causal wholes, or, as John Donne famously wrote, ‘no man
is an island’. Thus, good science generates cross-disciplinary research
374 Science, Worldviews and Education
Figure 10.1 Bunge’s Ecology of Science
fields: geophysics, astrophysics, biochemistry, social psychology, molecular biology, psycholinguists and so on. And it rules out such hybrids as
astropsychology or creation science.
• Materialism: scientists need to seek for causes and explanations in the kinds
of thing that are within the accepted ontology of science. Naturalism can
satisfy this requirement, but evocation of spiritualism or supernaturalism
or traditionalism violates it. To the degree that a society believes that the
gods or spirits are responsible for earthquakes, then money for geophysical
research will be limited.
• Realism: scientists need to recognise that there is an external world
independent of human consciousness or experience, and that science
attempts to provide knowledge of such a world. The external world
passes judgement on scientific efforts to understand it.
• Scientism: scientists need to hold the conviction that scientific methods
are applicable outside the laboratory and are the only way in which
knowledge of the world and society is attained. Without this commitment,
social and cultural problems are addressed in wholly ineffective ways;
praying for the end of Middle East conflict can be a nice cultural engagement, but it can shed no light on the conflict or its remediation.
For Bunge, to the degree that one or more of these elements is missing from
the ecology or cultural envirnons of science, the science is constrained, com –
promised, misdirected, or becomes pseudoscience.
Compatibility of Science and Religion
The compatibility or otherwise of science and religion is an enduring issue
for educators; it bears on the interaction of schools with their society and on
school life, curricula and classroom teaching. When considering the question,
we need to distinguish between a number of sometimes-conflated issues.34
First, do religious claims and understandings have to be adjusted to fit
proven scientific facts and theories? There really is no longer any serious
debate on this issue; sensible believers and informed theologians acknowledge
that religious claims need to be modified or given a non-literal interpretation
to fit with proven or even highly probable scientific claims. Joseph Priestley,
the eighteenth-century enlightened believer, told the story of one of his
A good old woman, who, on being asked whether she believed the literal truth of
Jonah being swallowed by the whale, replied, yes; and added, that if the Scriptures
had said that Jonah swallowed the whale, she would have believed it too.
Priestley thought that such convictions simply indicated that the term ‘belief’
was being misused in the context: ‘How a man can be said to believe what
is, in the nature of things, impossible, on any authority, I cannot conceive’
(Rutt 1817–1832/1972, Vol.6, p. 33).
Science, Worldviews and Education 375
Since Saint Augustine, all serious thinkers on the topic agree with Priestley.
There has been debate about just what degree of proof a factual scientific claim
needs to have before it triggers a revision in a competing factual religious
claim – Augustine thought revision was needed only in the face of absolutely
proven ‘scientific’ claims. The details of this debate do not bear on the present
Second, can religious believers be scientists? Again, at one level, there is no
debate on this matter. As a simple matter of anthropological and psychological
fact, there have been and are countless believers of all religious stripes who
are scientists. John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest, could be picked out as
an exemplar of a research physicist and believer (Polkinghorne 1991, 1996).
Many such individuals can be found contributing to journals such as Zygon:
Journal of Religion & Science. For just one compilation of contemporary
Christian scientists, see Mott (1991). There are comparable compilations of
Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist, Mormon and Jewish scientists. These lists are
relevant to the question of the psychological compatibility between scientific
and religious beliefs, but in themselves the lists do not bear on the philosophical or rational compatibility of science and religious belief; that such lists
can be compiled might incline a person to the compatibility postion, but extra
argument is required. Some scientists are astrologers, others channel spirits,
some think they are Napoleon reincarnated, some are racist and others are
sexist, and so on for a whole spectrum of beliefs that, as a matter of fact, have
been held by scientists.
No one doubts that science, as a matter of anthropological fact, is compatible with any number of belief systems – recall that the Nobel laureates Philipp
Lenard and Johannes Stark were both Nazi ideologues. Scientists are humans,
and humans notoriously can believe all sorts of things at the same time,
but such psychological compatibility has no bearing on the rationality or
reasonableness of their beliefs, nor on the philosophical compatibility between
science and belief systems; much less are the latter rational simply in virtue of
one or more scientists believing them. The rationality is a logical or normative
matter. The philosophically interesting questions are whether a scientist can
be a rational religious believer (or astrologer, diviner, re-incarnationer, racist,
sexist, Nazi, etc.) and what are the arguments for so being.
Third, is religion compatible with the metaphysics and worldview of
science? Where there is incompatibility between scientific and religious
metaphysics and worldviews – as in the case of atomism and traditional
Roman Catholic doctrine developed above – the options usually taken to
reconcile the differences are to claim that:
1 Science has no metaphysics; it deals just with appearances and makes no
claims about reality. This is the option made famous by the Catholic
positivist Pierre Duhem.36 It is the claim made by many fundamentalists
who say, specifically of evolution, that ‘it is just a theory’ (Ben-Ari 2005).
2 The metaphysics of science is false, at least any such purported metaphysics that is inconsistent with religious beliefs. This is the option
376 Science, Worldviews and Education
advocated by the scholastic tradition discussed above, by Claude resmontant and Seyyed Nasr, who are quoted above, and by philosophical
theologians such as Alvin Plantinga (2011), E.L. Mascall (1956) and
3 There can be parallel, equally valid, metaphysics. This is an old option
given recent prominence by Stephen Gould in his NOMA formulation
(Gould 1999). Gould’s much-repeated claim was that:
The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is
made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium
of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.
These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry
(consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).
(Gould 1999, p. 6)
The problem for NOMA is that, apart from classical deists for whom God
stays remote in His heaven and has no dealings with His creation, the core
conviction of religious traditions is that the two realms overlap: that the
supernatural has engagement with the natural; that God engages with His
creation; that certain texts (Torah, Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon, Sikh
scriptures) are divinely inspired, if not divinely written; miracles occur; prayers
are answered; and so on. If something is claimed to happen in the world, then
its causation can be investigated by science. There may be natural causes
identified for the event, as have routinely been established for momentous
events such as tsunamis and earthquakes and medical episodes such as epilepsy
and AIDS, where, previously, unnatural causes were invoked, or the current
failure of science to identify a cause can be acknowledged. However, the latter
does not entail the truth or even the reasonableness of the supernatural causal
hypothesis. Evidence needs to be adduced for the latter and indication given
of the conditions for its acceptance. These two requirements are open to
ordinary scientific investigation.37
As well as enabling our social and technical lives, science has contributed
immensely to our philosophical and cultural tradition – this is part of the ‘flesh’
of science; however, too often science teaching presents just the ‘bare bones’
of laws, formulae and problems, the ‘final products’ of science. This is one
reason why, notoriously, advanced ‘technical’ science is so often associated
with religious and ideological fundamentalism and bigotry.38 The cultural flesh
of science should be part of any serious science programme.
In a good liberal education, science students, and hopefully other students
as well, will learn about the philosophical dimensions of science, beginning
with routine matters such as conceptual analysis, epistemology, values and
so on. They will also learn about the metaphysical, especially ontological,
dimensions of science, some of which have been discussed above. They should
Science, Worldviews and Education 377
also be introduced to, and hopefully make decisions about, the constitution
and applicability of the scientific outlook, habit of mind or temper. They
should entertain questions such as: Is a scientific outlook required for the
solution of social and ideological problems? By reading about any number of
courageous scientists, beginning with Galileo and moving through Joseph
Priestley and on to Andrei Sakharov (Sakharov 1968), students can be
introduced to the issue of the social and cultural requirements for the pursuit
of science, the issue that so animated the Enlightenment scientists, philosophers
and social reformers.
In particular, students might think through the Enlightenment tradition’s
claims that, on purely epistemological grounds, science, and more generally
the pursuit of truth in all human domains, requires the legal protection of free
speech, freedom of the press and support for diversity, unhindered scholarly
publication and freedom of association. Students, in essays, debates, mock
trials or drama, can entertain questions such as: Does the promotion and
spread of science entail a liberal, secular, democratic, non-authoritarian state?
An engaging question in China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and many other
All of this makes science classes more intellectually engaging, it promotes
‘minds-on’ science learning and it enables diverse subjects in a school
curriculum (history, mathematics, technology, religion) to be related. The
introduction of history and philosophy to science lessons enables students to
better understand the science and the scientific methodology they are learning,
to better appreciate the role of science in the formation of the modern world
and contemporary worldviews, and perhaps to obtain the knowledge and
enthusiasm to support science and the spread of the ‘scientific habit of mind’.
Undoubtedly, such an education has an impact on, and contributes to, the
worldviews of students. So it is worth noting Frederick Copleston’s caution:
It must be recognized, I think, that the creation of worldviews is none the less a
pretty risky procedure. There is, for example, the risk of making unexamined or
uncritized presuppositions in a desire to get on with the painting of the picture.
Again, there are the risks of over-hastily adopting desired conclusions, and also
of allowing one’s judgements to be determined by personal prejudices or
(Copleston 1991, p. 71)
In the liberal tradition, science teachers are not so much creating worldviews
but rather encouraging students to identify and then to begin to analyse and
appraise aspects of worldviews. For educators, it is the student’s enquiry and
thinking that are important. A good science teacher can agree with Bertrand
Russell, who famously said in 1916, at the height of the Great War, when he
criticised the use of schools by both sides for nationalist indoctrination:
Education would not aim at making them [students] belong to this party or
that, but at enabling them to choose intelligently between the parties; it would
378 Science, Worldviews and Education
aim at making them able to think, not at making them think what their teachers
(Egner & Denonn 1961, pp. 401–402)
1 This chapter is dependent on research published in Matthews (2009a).
2 A classic account of the history of these interactions is J.D. Bernal’s four-volume study,
Science in History (Bernal 1965). See also Crombie (1994), Dewitt (2004) and Randall
3 Richard Attenborough’s 2013 television documentary series, The Galapagos Islands,
is promoted as: ‘The islands that transformed our view of life on Earth.’
4 Learning that homo sapiens shares 98.4 per cent of its genes with pygmy chimpanzees
can change a person’s views of their relationship to the animal world.
5 Of the voluminous literature on Darwinism and worldviews, see especially: Dennett
(1995), Greene (1981), McMullin (1985) and Ruse (1989).
6 Benjamin Farrington’s Science and Politics in the Ancient World (1939) is a classic
treatment of these themes.
7 An informative guide to the vast literature and debates about the scientific revolution
(including whether to capitalise the term) is H. Floris Cohen’s The Scientific Revolution
8 The varieties of medieval and renaissance Aristotelianism arose from efforts to
accommodate ever new developments and discoveries in natural philosophy. See Blum
(2012) and Schmitt (1983).
9 A classic work on the doctrines and history of scholastic philosophy is De Wulf
(1903/1956). See also Volumes 2 and 3 of Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy
10 For the background, context and impact of Copernicus, see Blumenberg (1987),
Gingerich (1975, 1993) and Grant (2004).
11 A classic discussion is Dijksterhuis’s The Mechanization of the World Picture
(1961/1986). On the wider impact of the Galilean–Newtonian method, see Butts and
Davis (1970), Cohen (1980), McMullin (1967) and Shank (2008).
12 Unfortunately, these early modern philosophers are frequently studied in isolation from
the contemporary science with which they were engaged; early modern philosophy is
presented to students as a drawn-out soliloquy, not the dialogue and debate with early
modern science that it was. This theme, with texts, is developed in Matthews (1989).
13 See, for instance, Brooke (1991, Chapter V), Israel (2001) and Porter (2000).
14 On this much-researched topic, see at least the following: Blancke et al. (2012), Lawson
and Worsnop (1992), Yasri et al. (2013), Martin-Hansen (2008), Sinatra and Nadelson
(2011), Smith and Siegel (2004) and Taber et al. (2011).
15 On John Paul II’s encyclical and how it reviewed and revised the status of Thomism,
see Ernst (2006).
16 An example of this reasoning and mindset is Aquinas’s view that sexual intercourse
was ‘naturally ordained for procreation’ (Sentences 184.108.40.206), so that even indulging
in coitus for reasons of health (a good purpose) nevertheless rendered the act unnatural
and thus sinful, as it was not done for its primary end. At the time, and right through
to the present, such reasoning convinced millions of sensible people. Most now see it
as plainly ridiculous. For the history, see Noonan (1965, Chapter 8).
17 The relationship of Thomism to science is a complex matter. Thomism has made
adjustments and, in many quarters, is still thriving (Ashley 1991, Lamont 2009). The
philosophy journal New Scholasticism was published from 1927 to 1989, The Thomist
journal has been published continuously since 1939, and The Modern Schoolman has
been published continuously since 1925. And, of course, numerous ‘scholastic’
philosophy journals are still published in languages other than English.
Science, Worldviews and Education 379
18 On the tensions and accommodations between science and Islam, see at least: Edis
(2007), Edis and BouJaoude (2014) and Hoodbhoy (1991).
19 For ‘official’ philosophy in the Soviet Union, and its contested relationship to science,
see Graham (1973); for Maoism and Chinese philosophy and science, see Chan (1969)
and Guo (2014).
20 See Nanda (2003).
21 See Beyerchen (1977, 1992) and Cornwell (2003).
22 This ultimate control was exercised in the Roman Catholic Church through the
requirement of all writers of history, theology and philosophy to obtain the Nihil
obstat certificate from the diocesesian censor and then the imprimatur from the bishop
that allows publication. Communist regimes have their own equivalents.
23 On philosophy of education in science education, see Schulz (2009, 2014); on the larger
issue of educational foundations, see contributions to Tozer et al. (1990).
24 Among a veritable library of relevant books, see Barbour (1966), Brooke (1991),
Haught (1995), Jaki (1978), Mascall (1956) and contributions to Lindberg and
25 The survey was conducted between May and August 2007 and published in June 2008
in the Pew Report at http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-studyfull.pdf
26 See accounts and interviews in Elliot (2013).
27 Postmodernists and NOMA advocates can, of course, claim that the PNG legislators
are mistaken in their claims about the reach of science. The first appeal against a
murder conviction will bring out philosophers on both sides of the courtroom, just as
was done in the 1981 Little Rock, Arkansas, case, where Judge Overton endorsed the
philosopher Michael Ruse’s argument that Creationism could be shown not to be
science. Larry Laudan subsequently argued that there could be no such demonstration.
Teaching Creationism in schools was thus deemed illegal, just as sorcery-informed
murder in PNG will be deemed illegal.
28 In passing, it is worth noting that every account of Priestley’s life shows that a calm,
considerate and deeply ‘spiritual’ life is possible without any belief in spirits.
29 A useful introduction to the literature is Selin (1997), and numerous websites are
devoted to this subject.
30 Jegede (1997) calls this ‘collateral learning’. The position is argued in Ogunniyi (1988)
and by others, although the usual option is to ‘skirt around’ it – to muddy the
31 On naturalism see: Devitt (1998), Fishman and Boudry (2013), French et al. (1995),
Mahner (2012, 2014), Nagel (1956), Rosenberg (2011) and Wagner and Warner
32 On emergent materialism, see Broad (1925), Bunge (1977, 1981, 2003, 2012) and
33 Two proponents of scientism are Mario Bunge (Bunge 2010) and Alex Rosenberg
(Rosenberg 2011). Tom Sorell articulates the anti-scientism argument (Sorell 1991).
34 Different taxonomies or ways of classifying science–religion relationships are developed
in Barbour (1990), Haught (1995) and Polkinghorne (1986). These, and other related
matters, are discussed in Reiss (2014) and Yasri et al. (2013).
35 For the arguments and literature, see McMullin (2005).
36 See extensive discussion and bibliography in Martin (1991).
37 The anti-NOMA view that science can test supernatural claims is argued by many,
including Boudry et al. (2012), Fishman (2009), Slezak (2012) and Stenger (2007).
38 That there is no connection between advanced technology and advanced thinking was
sadly demonstrated when scores of spectators at the Papua New Guinea witch burning
described above captured the event on their mobile-phone cameras and uploaded the
burning on to the Internet.
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Science, formerly ‘natural philosophy’, has always been a dynamic part of