William Whewell, Polymath

By: Jim Virkler; ©2009

One definition of Renaissance man is “one who has a wide range of accomplishments and intellectual interests.” The seldom used term polymath conveys a much stronger meaning: a very learned person with broad and comprehensive knowledge in many fields. In our day of narrow academic specialization, rare is the modern person worthy of such a description.

William Whewell (1794-1866) was a true polymath. A priest in the Anglican Church, he was better known for achievements in fields other than theology. He possessed expertise in mathematics, architecture, educational reform, moral philosophy, astronomy, mineralogy, and history and philosophy of science, to name a few. In the latter area he is known for defining what he termed “fundamental ideas,” supplied by our own minds. Scientists formulate such ideas midway between the purely ideal (mind) and the purely empirical (experience), drawing upon both.

An important historian of science, Whewell, an early advocate of design theory, has received less attention than he deserves. His writing reminds us of better-known modern science philosophers such as Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi, and Thomas Kuhn. Whewell coined the terms “scientist” and “physicist” as well as other well-known science terminology. He consulted with famous science figures as diverse on the theological spectrum as Charles Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell.

He used the term “colligation” to describe the bringing together of isolated facts to form a unified concept or relationship and coined the term “consilience” to mean a joining together of concepts in order to achieve an even broader conceptual framework. These are terms used by today’s science philosophers to describe how the discipline of science works.

Within his concept of natural theology Whewell described our human ideas about the world as “shadows” of Divine ideas. Our explanations of nature’s laws, therefore, should preclude seeing those laws as “an accident on a cosmic scale.” Many of Whewell’s proposals may qualify him to be recognized as the originator of intelligent design theory, a term formally in use only in the last several decades.

Whewell was commissioned, in 1839, to write one of the eight Bridgewater treatises. These were scientific writings which purposed to speak “on the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as manifested in the Creation.” His standout treatise was titled “Astronomy and General Physics, Considered with Reference to Natural Theology.” Each treatise was book-length, suffused with arguments to demonstrate design in nature. In just a few introductory pages, Whewell used dozens of poetic terms for God, including Divine Governor, Intelligent Author, and Supreme Ordainer.

A reading of several dozen pages demonstrates the enormous changes in scientific writings from the early 19th century to the early 21st. This change is a mirror of the secularism progressively imposed upon our society beginning in the 19th century and accelerating in the 20th and 21st. Whewell wrote, “It may be interesting…to show how the views of the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, which natural science opens to us, harmonize with our belief in a Creator, Governor, and Preserver of the World.”

Whewell’s theology leaned toward Christian universalism. As such, it differed from the orthodox views of brilliant contemporary scientist James Clerk Maxwell. But his concepts of a Creator/Sustainer were, nevertheless, very strong, as evidenced in this statement: “It will, we trust, be difficult or impossible to exclude from our conception of this wonderful system, the idea of a harmonizing, a preserving, a contriving, an intending Mind; of a Wisdom, Power, and Goodness far exceeding the limits of our thoughts.” Most of the treatise was purely scientific without additional devotional statements. The scientific concepts of his treatise were far more advanced than one would think possible for that generation.

One may only imagine what sort of reaction would greet the submission of a similar scholarly scientific article to a popular publication in the 21st century. I found Whewell’s Bridgewater treatise to be inspirational. But while reading most of today’s science writings, we must remember that seeing overlap of the domains of science and religion is an application we, as readers, must make on our own.


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