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William Whewell

1794 - 1866

What is a “scientist”?  Why not ask the man who invented the word?  William Whewell (pronounced Hyool) coined the term scientist as a replacement for natural philosopher in 1833.  He himself was a scientist and a philosopher – and a theologian.  He had, furthermore, a most interesting interaction with Charles Darwin.

For centuries, most natural philosophers had been theologians, professors and amateurs.  By the 1830s, science was coming of age.  A new class of career professionals involved in the study of nature was arising.  A new title describing these full-time investigators of natural science was desired, and Whewell’s word scientist stuck.  He proved a clever wordsmith whenever fellow “scientists” needed a new term to describe something they were investigating.  For chemists like Michael Faraday, he coined the words ion, anion, and cation; for physicists, the title physicist; and for geologists, the term catastrophism – which he defended against the views of Charles Lyell, which he called uniformitarianism.  A respectful critic of Lyell, Whewell pointed out the lack of evidence for his geological and evolutionary views.

William Whewell earned the title Second Wrangler in the formidable math tripo exams at Cambridge.  He remained a leading Cambridge don in the decades that followed.  A founding member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the Royal Society, Whewell was in the inner circle of the leading scientists of the day and was well respected by them.  Though twice married, he left no descendents when he died after falling from his horse in 1866.

As a scientist, William Whewell had wide-ranging interests.  He published work on the tides, named the geological strata Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene, was a professor of mineralogy, and invented the anemometer – a device for measuring wind speed.  He also dabbled in mechanics, economics, architecture, history, poetry and astronomy – this was surely a period when a scientist could still be a generalist!  When not doing science himself, he was closely involved with those working in the lab.  He stimulated Faraday to perform key experiments.

Whewell is more remembered today, however, for his philosophy of science.  His two leading works on this important subject were History of the Inductive Sciences (1837) and The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences, Founded Upon Their History (1840, revised up to 1860).  He saw himself as a renovator of Francis Bacon’s method of induction.  In this, he gave induction a new meaning: it is not mere reasoning from objective facts that could be performed by a machine.  Instead, human creativity and presuppositions join with the observations in leaps of insight that make scientific discoveries a mix of objectivity and creativity.  For instance, elliptical orbits did not “jump out” of Tycho’s observations; the genius of Kepler was to creatively impose this as a solution to bring order out of the observations.  This view has implications about the objectivity of science.  In an age when the aura of “progress” was permeating British society, and when scientific knowledge was usually assumed to correspond directly to external reality, Whewell put forward some surprisingly modern ideas that would cast doubt on these assumptions.

Whewell argued that science was a historical activity by the human mind.  Its “truths,” therefore, could change over time.  He cast doubt on the strict correspondence theory of scientific truth.  Instead, he argued that scientific results are tentative and are judged by their utility, not their inherent objectivity.  In this, his views differed sharply from those of the astronomer John Herschel who, like Bacon, envisioned science as a march of progress toward the light of truth.  Whewell argued that the subjective human dimension of science can never be divorced from the objective, because everyone operates with presuppositions.  He called these fundamental ideas and argued they are supplied by the mind itself – not received from experience.  (These differed, however, from the “intuitions” of Immanuel Kant.)

As a consequence, scientific explanation is “idea-laden” – not purely objective.  Though confirmation of a hypothesis can be strengthened by a “consilience of inductions” from many angles, it is impossible to remove the human term from the equation.  For a summary of these views, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Whewell.  Of note for our purposes is this excerpt: “we are able to have knowledge of the world because the Fundamental Ideas which are used to organize our sciences resemble the ideas used by God in his creation of the physical world.  The fact that this is so is no coincidence: God has created our minds such that they contain these same ideas.”  Our ideas, therefore, are mere shadows of those in the mind of God.  The late philosopher Greg Bahnsen has further argued that a scientist needs Christian presuppositions to do science.  Without the core presuppositions of Christianity, science, rationality, and logic are impossible.

Regarding the issue of objectivity, therefore, Whewell is an important thinker in the long debate about the “knowledge problem” in science: i.e., is scientific knowledge true with a capital T (something that is universal, timeless, necessary, and certain), or is it just useful?  To what extent are our scientific musings reflections of what is “out there” in the world, and to what extent are they constructions of our own minds?  Is science discovery, or is it sophistry?  Though as old as ancient Greece, this debate has been waged through the centuries.  It flared up in the 20th century with increased intensity – and remains unresolved.(1)

Most schoolchildren learn a simplified Baconian science of induction: gather lots of observations, make generalizations, formulate a hypothesis, and test it with experiments.  This sounds so intuitively obvious few pause to question the assumptions involved.  It may be adequate to get a middle school student through a science project, but a lot has happened since Bacon (and this short description of Baconian method does injustice to Francis Bacon’s own views about science).  It is far from clear that such a method of science will lead to objective facts about the real world.  Huge issues have been raised between rationalists (who think science is an activity of the mind), empiricists (who think scientific reasoning is limited to sense impressions), and others who doubt the validity of induction, deduction, or the reliability of our senses at all.

Those interested in investigating these deep and critical issues in philosophy of science should listen to two college-level lecture series from The Teaching Company, Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It by Steven L. Goldman (Lehigh University), and Philosophy of Science by Jeffrey Kasser (North Carolina State University).  Both of them mention William Whewell in this regard.  Goldman points out that Whewell emphasized the creative nature of scientific reasoning and discounted the ability of the scientist to separate his reasoning from his ideology.  In this, his views differed sharply from those of John Herschel and John Stuart Mill, who both debated against Whewell’s views, because they “call into question the objectivity, and the ultimate rationality, of scientific reasoning, theories, and knowledge claims” (Goldman).

Whewell was ahead of his time with these ideas.  For most of the 19th century and early 20th century, objectivism and progressivism reigned supreme.  Debates over these issues erupted in a major way after World War II when logical positivism, an extreme belief in scientific objectivity, collapsed.  By the 1950s, its own adherents recognized that logical positivism is inherently self-refuting and logically untenable.  Then when Thomas Kuhn published his work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1960, all hell broke loose.  Charges and counter-charges flew between scientists and philosophers.  A plethora of books and articles were published.  Paul Feyerabend and others were almost reckless in their critiques of scientific reasoning.

In the 1990s, the social constructivists tossed even more fundamental challenges against the objectivity of science.  Some contended that science was a mere human tradition no different in principle from the rites of savages.  Much of this debate has cooled off for the time being.  “Big Science” has pretty much dominated the debate with a view of scientific objectivity that is more enforced than warranted.  The mainstream journals and scientific societies make it sound self-evident that scientific explanations, if not perfect, are the “best we have” for explaining the world (see best-in-field fallacy).  The wounds of the science wars, however, are still smarting.  Knowledgeable scientists realize they can no longer simply assume neutrality, objectivity, and correspondence with reality.

The ghost of Whewell is still with us, in other words.  He warned scientists to be cautious about their truth claims and to be cognizant of their presuppositions.  There is more of a social and historical element to scientific reasoning than most people realize.

Whewell was an Anglican clergyman almost all his life.  One of his books argued against the existence of extraterrestrial life, contrary to popular assumptions at the time.  He also authored one of the eight Bridgewater Treatises that were commissioned to demonstrate how scientific evidence supported natural theology.  His work, Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, was published in 1833.  Like many of the earlier natural theologians, he argued that the study of the laws of nature gives us confidence in the existence, wisdom and goodness of the divine Law-giver.

Charles Darwin cited a quote from this work in the frontispiece of The Origin of Species in an attempt to add credibility to his theory of natural selection.  He quoted Whewell saying, “But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.”  In Janet Browne’s extensive biography of Darwin, she claims that this quote was “audaciously taken out of context… suggesting that God worked through general scientific laws rather than through direct intervention” (Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, p. 80).  The clear inference is that Whewell would never have condoned what Darwin was implying.(2)

In fact, on page 107, Browne refers to a contemporary anecdote that Whewell refused to allow The Origin in the Trinity College library.  She mentioned this in a section about all the sharply critical reviews of Darwin’s book that were circulating by “men who were highly regarded in their own fields.”  The story of how Darwin’s book went from initial notoriety to calm acceptance within 10 years is an important lesson in history of science – a study that confirms Whewell’s own views about the historical and social nature of scientific reasoning.

Whewell, of course, was well aware of the trends in thought during the Darwinian revolution.  In 1836 he had invited Darwin to be Secretary of the Geological Society.  Browne mentions that he was reading Lyell’s latest work on evolution and geology nearly 30 years later in 1864.  (Unfortunately, she does not discuss his response).  Whewell clearly investigated opposing views and did not hide himself from controversies that were raging.  He was also a consummate gentlemen (3).  No fanatic, he was learned, reasonable and cautious.  But he was not a reductionist like Darwin.  Whewell criticized the view that nature could be reduced to particles in motion acted on by impersonal laws.  He believed that 18th century materialism was a failure, unable to account for man’s moral sense – whether or not man’s physical nature is similar to that of the animals.  And he criticized views of “transformism” (evolutionary common ancestry) and uniformitarianism based on the evidence.

It is not clear to what extent Whewell defended the Bible, other than that he was an Anglican priest (which implies very little).  Much of his writing seems to focus on the undefined Artificer of the natural theologian.  Though we might wish in hindsight that he and other British scientific theists had been more adamant in their criticisms of Darwin and defense of the Scriptures, they could not have foreseen the damage that would be done in Darwin’s name in the 20th century.  From Whewell’s writings, it does appear certain he would have opposed the unquestioned dogmatism that characterizes much of Darwinian science today.  He would strongly dispute the “warfare hypothesis” between science and religion.  And he would recommend science as a means to glorify God and stimulate appreciation of His handiwork.


(1) Consider, as a simple example, Newton’s ideas about space.  Newton did not “discover” that “absolute space” is uniform and unaffected by objects within it.  These were stipulations of his theory.  It would be impossible to observe that space behaves this way, and as it turns out, Einstein came up with a very contrary view, that space is affected by matter.  Newton also stipulated concepts like gravity, mass, and inertia without explaining (or empirically discovering) what these were.  Later physicists used the same words to mean different things.  To what extent are our concepts observed rather than assumed by definition?  Saying that they produce useful formulas is not a proof of scientific objectivity: it is utilitarianism.

(2) What Whewell said about natural law applies in general.  Whewell was not addressing special creation or the miracles in the Bible.  Even the Bible itself (Genesis 8:22, Job 38:33, Ecclesiastes 3:1) speaks of the uniformity of natural processes – that’s why miracles, when they occur, are so extraordinary and generate astonishment.  No reputable Bible-believing creationist has claimed that nature requires ongoing intervention by God.  They recognize He operates primarily through the natural laws He set up at the Creation.  It was a non-sequitur, therefore, for Darwin to take Whewell’s statement and use it as support for an undirected, natural process leading from bacteria to man.

(3) Notice, for instance, Whewell’s gracious tone (despite disagreement) in an 1860 letter to Darwin after receiving a copy of The Origin: “I have to thank you for a copy of your book on the ‘Origin of Species’.  You will easily believe that it has interested me very much, and probably you will not be surprised to be told that I cannot, yet at least, become a convert to your doctrines.  But there is so much of thought and of fact in what you have written that it is not to be contradicted without careful selection of the ground and manner of the dissent, which I have not now time for.  I must therefore content myself with thanking you for your kindness.”  (Emphasis added).  Unfortunately, the Darwin Correspondence Project lists no subsequent letters between Darwin and Whewell.

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