Kerry Magruder, The Integration of Faith and Science (part 1)

Kerry Magruder is Curator of the History of Science Collections, Associate Professor of Bibliography, and Associate Professor of the History of Science at the University of Oklahoma. He has a Ph.D. in the History of Science from the University of Oklahoma, 2000. In this episode of You’re Included, Dr. Kerry Magruder discusses the intersection of faith and science.

Edited transcript

GD: Kerry, thanks for being with us here for this segment of You’re Included.

KM: It’s a delight.

GD: I know a little about your passion and your current responsibilities as a curator of the history of science and collections at the University of Oklahoma, and also you do some teaching there, so you’re on the faculty – that’s an interesting combination. How did you pick up that job?

KM: It was a bolt from the blue, not something I deserved. I went through the graduate program in history of science at the University of Oklahoma, and it’s unusual to be hired by the institution where one graduates from, but the curator at that time, Marilyn Ogilvie, the second curator, asked me if I would be interested in being her assistant. That seemed like an unexpected dream come true. It was a joy to work with her under her mentorship for about nine years until she retired in 2009, and for some reason they gave me the curator position after that.

GD: Fantastic. You must have had an interest in science somewhere early on in your life.

KM: Oh, yes. My father taught chemistry and science education at Truman State University [in northern Missouri]. My mother, education. I grew up in an environment surrounded by science, hanging out in the science division, getting to know all the professors, visiting all the labs, and being surrounded at home with educators who in their spare time would just be dropping by the house. It was an exciting environment to grow up in — a climate that emphasized both the beauty and creativity of science, within the context of the human side that you get with the focus on education. I treasure that heritage very much.

GD: So, science was not just in the lab, but in an educational setting. The two elements working together.

KM: That’s right. The educational side shows the creativity and resourcefulness that is far more part of the scientific method than the way it’s usually presented in the textbooks. I remember being carted off to science education conferences and seeing that kind of perspective on science, being around people who wanted to impart that to students in their classrooms at all levels – elementary and middle school not just the high school. I’m certain that that played a role in my eventual turn to the history of science.

GD: At some point along the way, you gained an interest in seeing the connection between science and faith. That’s been a long debate, and I don’t know whether your home was caught up in that, or your church or whatever. But somehow that came together for you. Why don’t you tell us about that?

KM: My parents are of very devout faith, and we’ve always been church-goers, but we valued the family as the locus of our faith. Probably because of that environment of being around scientists and science educators, I was never in a church environment where the crisis was felt acutely. So, I had leisure.

For some reason a seventh-grade English teacher, just before we were learning how to diagram sentences, gave me a copy of Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, with permission to read it, I guess so I wouldn’t be a bother in class. And from Lewis I got this perspective of all of culture being connected to faith. Not long after that, a college friend pointed me to the writings of Francis Schaeffer, and the concept of Jesus as Lord of all of life – including nature and history and culture – seemed natural to me.

By the time I entered high school, I used to go over to the university library and watch over and over again, the [BBC] video series The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski. I became thoroughly familiar with the book, and I was enchanted by the perspective on science that a cultural history of science could offer. It was also clear to me that that would be a place where a more rigorous exploration of the issues of science and faith might take place.

GD: So, we’ve got science, we’ve got education, we’ve got faith. Now we’ve added in the history of science, because not all scientists take such an interest in the history of science. They’re more focused on just their own discipline, but somehow you saw the historical element being important as well.

KM: That’s right. I think that was common to the scientific culture that I grew up in, as represented by the educators and by Jacob Bronowski’s humanist perspective on science. I say humanist, not in a disparaging way, but in a very human-affirming way. When one steps back and takes a look at science over the course of history, one immediately sees how creative it is, how human it is, how determined and resourceful individual scientists had been and communities are as well. That’s something that you don’t sense from the textbooks that makes it look like a story of inevitable progress.

GD: I was thinking as you were talking that often you get the picture of a scientist in a laboratory working with things, and often by themselves – they may have an assistant or something like that. What I am getting here is [that] the human element is often screened out, and yet it’s very much an actual part of the process; of course there is a history there. That’s a much bigger picture.

KM: I love hanging out in the labs. My father let me assist in chemistry lab while I was still in high school, and I think my first love is biochemistry. I was set on pursuing a doctorate in biochemistry before I made a professional turn to history of science. There was a historian of science at what’s now Truman State University; he let me sit in on his classes the summer between my Junior and Senior years.  

I loved it, but I still didn’t realize that was a field one could enter, until many years later I was back in my hometown and I ran into him at a Dairy Queen and he said, Why don’t you check out the University of Oklahoma? They have a great collection of books. I think you would really enjoy that combination of academic inquiry and the original books. He was not an alumnus of Oklahoma, but he sent me that way. That’s when I made the decision to change to history of science.

GD: That’s an interesting story; people are involved there, kind of step-by-step guiding. Now at some point you ran into the writings of Thomas F. Torrance as a kind of a well-known theologian but he also had an interest in science, especially Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell and others. How did you cross paths with Thomas Torrance and his writings?

KM: It was very late in my development of as a historian of science. While even as early as those high school years I was aware of the work of Michael Polanyi and others in the ambit of Thomas Torrance, I had not heard of his name until I went to a history of science or science and religion conference held in Ontario in the early ’90s.

I had invested nearly a year working on a dissertation topic. I had finished my preliminary curriculum in History of Science and I was focused on chance in [William of] Occam’s physics, which I thought was a remarkably interesting topic. After a lecture that [Torrance] gave, I was blown away by what he said. I went down to talk to him and asked him a simple question.

He leaned back in the communion of saints and he was in the company of Duns Scotus. He recited in Latin a paragraph of Scotus critiquing Occam. A moment later, his eyes were piercingly upon me and he showed me that I needed to go back and rethink my fundamental categories, that everything I had learned from Aristotle and the scholastics was on shakier ground that could be reframed in a way that matched the vision of science as a human endeavor involving commitment that I’ve imbibed from Polanyi.

I knew I had to rethink everything and I just said, I’m going to read your books. So a year later, I switched my dissertation topic as a result of beginning to process Torrance’s critique in less than five minutes. But it took time to process it, and I turned to the development of the historical sciences such as geology because of what Torrance through Duns Scotus challenged me in thinking through the consequences of divine freedom for contingent order.

GD: That was a big shift in many ways. For many PhD students it’s a frightening thing to set your thesis and to follow through, but to work it through, and to change directions not only just on a topic but kind of the whole approach, that’s a big paradigm shift.

KM: It certainly was.

GD: That’s a great story. I first ran into you (indirectly of course) because I, being interested in Thomas Torrance and having studied with James Torrance his younger brother, I ran into “Kerry’s Loft.” Well, I had no idea who Kerry was (and here we are years later), but anyway I was fascinated. I said, I don’t know who this is, and I’ve never seen him in an academic conference, but this is one of the most amazing lists of sources of Torrance that I’ve ever run across. There are shorter lists here and there, and I had my own shorter list. How did Kerry’s Loft come about?

KM: Ever since that initial encounter with Torrance… (because I came to Torrance and Trinitarian theology though academic inquiry in the history of science, not through theology), after that initial encounter, when he had challenged me to completely reframe my approach to the history of science, I knew that when the time would come, as soon as it would be appropriate, he would do the same thing for my theological outlook.

So, after I had a job and had published several articles and at a more stable point in life, I felt it was time. It was the time to read Torrance systematically, his theology as well as the writings on science. I knew that was going to be an endeavor (I thought a five-year endeavor – haha, that’s much longer than that – a life-long endeavor). So I started the blog in order to be a personal not a professional outlet for my processing of Torrance.

That’s what it quickly became, because shortly after that I discovered the You’re Included series, and that provided me with the sense I’m not alone on this quest. There are all these amazing scholars, pastors, theologians, those in other disciplines represented in You’re Included series, who could be a reading list to help me in that journey to begin to assimilate Torrance in a more holistic way.

GD: Interesting.

KM: It’s an attic. Kerry’s Loft is an attic – it’s not a professional job. History of sciences is not a major theme there, although there are some talks that I’ve given on Copernicus or Babylonian astronomy or the nature of a university etc., but it’s meant to be a personal scrap book.

GD: Well, it’s been helpful to others; there have been others as well who referred to that; it’s a delight to meet you later in person. Another interesting element of your journey is the inter-disciplinary aspect of it. You can think of theology, of science, biology or physics, very discreet focus for study … And there’s the legendary split in the university between the humanities and social sciences [and what is] sometimes called the hard sciences. Somehow what caught your attention is the interdisciplinary nature of that. Can you tell us about how that wrapped in there?

KM: This is one of the central themes that intrigues practically everyone drawn to the study science over its history. It’s how disciplines are not set in stone, but they are braided streams, and they are reconfigurations. The study of disciplinary interrelations is front and center in the history of science. I view it as an outgrowth of the liberal-arts tradition, where our study of any particular subject on its own terms is nevertheless informed by its relationships with other disciplines.

Or maybe to put it this way – I’ve always thought of science as a way of entering into an objective world. The study of nature draws me out for myself, so it becomes an act of love to try to understand a field of science. As the love grows, there’s a passion to understand multiple fields, and they, neither historically nor by nature exist in isolation. So out of love, as we try to live in a full circle of reality, then we’re committed to that interdisciplinary liberal-arts vision.

One of the chief challenges faced by a modern research university – like the University of Oklahoma – is that every interesting problem on an emerging research frontier is a multi-disciplinary problem. It’s not puzzle-solving within the areas of specialization, but the really challenging work occurs where many people from different disciplines work together to forge new methods, new kinds of questions. They have to adjust their expectations on the types of evidence that they will prioritize, and so science in real time is an interdisciplinary endeavor on its own. Perhaps the educators see that more clearly, and that’s what we historians love to study.

GD: I would think so. I also know you have an interest in Galileo, and my own background, years ago, in terms of dipping into the history of science, had a lot to do with Galileo. As a kid, I was into telescopes and things; if you go that direction, you got to run into him sooner or later, right? (KM: Right) Not that you get the whole story. That’s part of the problem, I think. Tell us about your interest in Galileo. Some of your curating work has had to do with that as well. How would Galileo fit into all this?

KM: In graduate school (and I might mention that back in those days, the Oklahoma graduate program required four years of general study before beginning specialized dissertation work), a hot topic of research at that time was the connection between Galileo and his medieval scholastic forebears. In the 1200s but especially in the early 1300s, theologians were using mathematics in order to chart how a person grows in grace – over time, through the means of grace, like participating in the sacraments. They came up with a formula, and a way to chart it that is formally identical to Galileo’s law of free fall.

Much of this thinking in terms of logical, causal categories still persists in theological traditions. It was characteristic of this medieval 14th century tradition. But it soon became generalized, not just to growth in grace but change in equality, and eventually change in location or motion as well. That happened before Galileo; Galileo was aware of these discussions. He did not discover the law of free fall through the experiments using the inclined plane. He already knew it from his theological tradition. He verified it experimentally with the inclined plane, but he did not come up with it.

Exploring this connection was a central area of discussion in the discipline back in the ’80s and ’90s during my graduate study. When I had the privilege of returning to OU as a curator, OU happens to hold an amazing Galileo collection. Galileo wrote (depending on how you count them) about 12 books. It’s rare for a major library to hold more than two or three; six might be exceptional. OU holds all 12. Four of the OU copies contain Galileo’s handwriting. And then there are the books in multiple editions, and the books by his friends and collaborators, so it’s a remarkable Galileo collection.

So, being the custodian of that collection, I quickly started to receive invitations to talk about the life and works of Galileo – at Fermi Lab in Chicago or NASA headquarters in Virginia and universities across the country. To me, the more one is aware of all his works, the more one can see… Galileo becomes more human and less of a caricature. He’s not a point in some argument – he becomes someone of interest in his own right. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my work on Galileo.

GD: Let me ask one more question about that. In popular circles, it’s always the Church versus Galileo, Galileo versus the Church. That’s all you hear. I think there is more to that story. Is there some aspect of that (I know you can’t tell us the whole story, but there’s some aspect of that you think is kind of the missing piece) it would be helpful to hear for us to hear?

KM: In a nutshell, what I often explain to the public, or students or campus guests who wish to see certain items from the Galileo collection, a point I try to make is that many of Galileo’s strongest supporters were in the church – especially the Jesuits early on, because the Jesuits were trained in mathematics, so they recognized what Galileo was doing, and they were very sympathetic.

On the other hand, many of Galileo’s strongest opponents were the physicists in the universities who were paid three times as much as the mathematicians. The physicists were not trained in mathematics; they used qualitative principles and Aristotelian logic to tell you the truth. Mathematicians only did calculations. Galileo was part of the generation saying we mathematicians can do physics better than the physicists. It was a turf war. Just that is enough to substitute a perspective of complexity for an oversimplified conflict thesis.

I love the way that the director of the Vatican Observatory (yes, the Vatican has an observatory, and it’s been active for hundreds of years), Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit, a noted meteorite specialist, begins many of his talks on this topic with just a brilliant sentence; it summarizes everything exactly: “Everything you think you know about Galileo is wrong. But the truth won’t make the church look any better.” It’s complicated. That’s the message I try to get across.

GD: Thanks so much. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.

KM: Thank you.

 

And thank you to our volunteer transcriber, Johnny Logroño!

Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2022, 1:22 PM