The Penultimate Curiosity: How Science Swims in the Slipstream of Ultimate Questions
by Roger Wagner and Andrew Briggs. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016, 468 pp.
In 1831, Michael Faraday discovered magnetic induction, where a magnet moving in a coil of wire produces an electric current. Faraday’s insight eventually led to both electric power generators and motors. When viewed through the lens of our secular age, the relationship between electricity and magnetism seems devoid of metaphysical speculation and religious sentiment: scientific discovery proceeds through data and empiricism alone. Luckily for us, Michael Faraday didn’t view the world in such simplistic terms. His Christian faith was at the center of everything he did, including his science. Rather than impeding his science, a profound religious sentiment enhanced it.
Just as it did for William Harvey, who first described the circulation of blood. And Francis Bacon as he developed the modern scientific method. And Robert Boyle when he refined experimental methods. And countless scientists throughout history who were motivated to study nature because of—not despite—their faith.
Why do we see this sort of entangling of science and religion throughout human history and continue to see it today? The Penultimate Curiosity, by the artist Roger Wagner and Oxford scientist Andrew Briggs, aims to answer this question.
Humans, according to Wagner and Briggs, have always tended to “explorations and engagements with the natural world.” Even prehistoric hunter-gather tribes may have participated. Remains from an 11,000-year-old fishing village in Equatorial Africa suggest its inhabitants may have been tracking the lunar cycle. At the very least, the carefully imprinted grooves on a piece of bone imply an external memory system. “The penultimate curiosity” refers to this insatiable desire to study and understand the physical world. Modern science is the culmination of thousands of years of people following their penultimate curiosity.
But note that as important as science is, Wagner and Briggs deem it our penultimate—that is, second-most important—curiosity. Why does it not qualify as number one? Well, it turns out that many of our scientific investigations were ultimately motivated by a “strong religious impulse.” Referencing scholarship from anthropology and archeology, Wagner and Briggs conclude that “almost all human societies have organized themselves around stories and practices which in different ways focus attention on something beyond the horizon of the visible world.” This religious dimension influences almost everything that humans do. The curiosity that led to science thus overlaps with and is ultimately derived from the type of curiosity that led to religion.
Wagner and Briggs analogize this interaction to a slipstream, where an object can move more easily if it travels behind something else. Think of a small child following a parent on a windy day, fish swimming in a school, or cyclists traveling in a peloton: those behind the lead can move at the same speed while expending less energy.
So it is with science and religion. The earliest human societies devoted energy to what we would now call religion. Prehistoric art focused on ritual functions and early human writing addressed creation stories. These ultimate curiosities pulled exploration of the physical world into their slipstream: ancient paintings, though primarily devoted to ritual, also recorded close observations of animal anatomy. In places as diverse as China, India, South America, and the Middle East, we have evidence of people studying physical phenomena alongside and because of their ultimate curiosity. To “make sense of the world as a whole” required us to entangle our study of the natural world with our supernatural concerns. In many cases, science benefited most when it closely followed humans’ ultimate curiosity.
Consider the ancient Greek city of Ionia, which flourished around 500 BCE. Ionians strongly believed that a divine source ordered and steered the universe. This conviction led the philosopher Anaxagoras to study “the sun and the moon and the heavens.” When subsequent Greek astronomers proved that planetary motion could be predicted by mathematics, they confirmed the religious belief that the world was “formed on a rational design.” Plato himself insisted that religious understanding, ethics, and science should form an integrated intellectual enterprise. His dialogue, Timaeus, pictured the “maker and father of the universe” as a geometer and presented an argument that God’s existence is an eikos logos—a likely account.
Fast-forward about 1,100 years and consider the Islamic empires. The Koran instructs Muslims on when they should pray and which direction to face when doing so. The injunction to point to Mecca required Muslim astronomers to solve difficult geometric problems and make accurate astronomical observations. Before the existence of clocks, the command of five daily prayers also resulted in advances in astronomy and mathematics. This idea that we should study science for the sake of God permeated the work of some of the greatest Islamic scientists. Ibn al-Haytham, whose study of optics helped establish the importance of systematic experiments in science, believed there was “no better way [to get close to God] than searching for knowledge and truth.”
Early Western scientists followed a similar script. Despite his image as a champion of secular reason, Galileo Galilei believed “divine grace” helped him “philosophize better,” and that the “love of the divine Artificer” was the “ultimate end of [his] labors.” Isaac Newton studied physics to “glorify God in his wonderful works to teach man to live well.” Roger Bacon, Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and James Clerk Maxwell also blended their science and faith to the benefit of us all.
Wagner and Briggs believe that the existence of such examples across cultures and throughout history proves that humans have a need to address both our spiritual and worldly concerns. This need forms a core part of the human experience. The yearning to “make sense of the world as a whole” implies that science and faith will always be entangled in some way. The penultimate curiosity will thus continue to swim in the slipstream of ultimate questions.
The authors have amassed a staggeringly diverse body of scholarship to show that almost all human societies have mixed the ultimate and penultimate curiosities. Unfortunately, the volume of information they present is often distracting and does not connect to their central thesis. In a mere five-page stretch, for example, Wagner and Briggs introduce the reader to Plato’s disciple Xenophon, the ancient Christian Justin Martyr, the mathematicians Archytas and Eudoxos, the philosopher Simplicius, and the writer Sosigenes. In addition to this eclectic cast, these same pages also discuss Socrates and The Republic.
Similarly, Wagner and Briggs spend too much ink on involved descriptions of specific scientific developments that do not always connect to their main topic. Though James Clerk Maxwell’s discoveries are fascinating, Wagner and Briggs did not have to detail the particular mathematical and experimental techniques he used.
The book would have been strengthened considerably with less content: The Penultimate Curiosity is filled with too many historical vignettes that could have been eliminated. If the authors themselves say that several chapters can be skipped, perhaps that’s a sign they should not have been included in the first place. Instead of a better understanding of the entanglements between science and religion, their approach can leave readers feeling overwhelmed by the breadth of knowledge and number of historical figures introduced.
Despite these shortcomings, Wagner and Briggs should be commended for the key observation that science and religion are entangled ultimately because human beings themselves are entangled. To reiterate their elegant phrasing, making “sense of the world as a whole” often requires people to mix their spiritual and earthly concerns. Although Wagner and Briggs are not the first to note how many scientists were motivated by faith, and the book is bogged down by many tangential ideas and facts, the sheer breadth of their evidence powerfully demonstrates how universal this sentiment is. It is a fundamental part of our humanity.