We live in an odd little window in time in which reasonably educated people can doubt the sweet harmony of faith and science. Reasons for this historical anomaly abound, as do exemplars. On the one hand we have modern evangelicals who have largely replaced theology with psychology, and who consequently seem indifferent to debates about the Bible’s historical accuracy. On the other, we are greeted with the modern defenders of “science” whose zeal and intolerance would embarrass the local mullah.
We cannot roll the calendar forward to a future time in which the harmony of faith and science is once again assumed by all reasonable people, but we can do the next best thing. History is replete with examples of great men and women of science who recognized not only natural revelation that we find in the world around us, but also the special revelation which we find only in the Word of God. They studied the creation with a sense of purpose, and a sense of awe. The world had meaning, and consequently their lives had context.
With such a worldview, it is small wonder that a scientist would write a treatise on mathematics, and then on botany, followed by a design for a practical mechanical device of some sort. It was God’s world, and everything was connected. That world gave us men such as Charles Babbage, whose brilliance in matters of math and science was accompanied by a naiveté that left him occasionally baffled by the actions of the crowds around him. I have read recently where Babbage was claimed by the creationists as one of their own, and given the low threshold such groups establish for inclusion, he certainly passes muster, but that is not to say that Babbage’s views were always viewed as orthodox, for he was often found wandering in fields of study where no theologian had yet to go. To set the mood, think League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, part of their age, and yet not.
Born in 1791, the son of a well-to-do banker, young Charles was like several people I have known who seemed to soak up everything in the classroom with ease, but were less concerned with their grades. For young Master Babbage, that would certainly describe his love affair with mathematics, a discipline in which he was essentially self-taught. After encountering Charles Simeon and his evangelical followers, Babbage sought to enter the ministry. The Church of England considered his views liberal (not theologically, but politically), and he was rejected. He then turned to mathematics in earnest. In time, despite his inattention to taking tests, he would occupy the same chair at Cambridge as Isaac Newton (an honor he only accepted at the strenuous urging of his friends). He had not taken his exams when attending Cambridge earlier, but they awarded him a graduation certificate nevertheless in 1814. He was the kind of student you wanted to take credit for. A year later, he was lecturing the Royal Institution on astronomy and the year after that he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.
Still, it would be a shame to get bogged down in honors, dates and places when there are so many wonderful inventions to talk about! For Babbage, it was all in the understanding and the doing. Later, however, he would become something of a polemicist, writing to reform organizations and institutions that he felt were impediments to genuine progress. After reading a paper on polynomial calculations, he proposed building a “difference” machine. Funded by a grant from parliament, the project seemed doomed by the irregular availability of funding. Even with the addition of his own funds, the project was eventually abandoned by parliament.
Babbage was immediately intrigued by anything mathematical which could be skewed by human error. At a dinner party, Babbage discussed his ideas for an “analytical Engine,” that caught the imagination of the young Ada Byron Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron. Ada had been raised entirely by her mother, who had worked assiduously to keep Ada from falling into the bad habit of poetry, encouraged her in mathematics. Ada, though highly competent in mathematics, had a creative mind that led her to exchange numerous letters with Babbage on matters of science and math.
In Babbage’s machines, she saw not just a mechanism for calculating, but a glimpse of the future we live in today. She spoke of calculating machines that would not only sort and predict, but which could be designed to act on those predictions, machines that could write music and create graphics. It was Ada Byron who suggested to Babbage that he use his machine to calculate Bournouli numbers, which resulted in the world’s first computer “program”. (Some may recall the Department of Defense computer language “Ada” developed in 1979, and named in her honor).
Ada would write a paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, published fully five years before George Boole’s Laws of Thought, realizing that Babbage’s machine wasn’t just a numbers machine, but a logic machine, arguing for the symbolic use of mathematics when it was, well, pretty incomprehensible. [For those who can’t get enough of this duo, they are teamed up as crime-fighting comic book heroes in the soon-to-be-released graphic novel, Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.
With great fortunes being wagered on the risks of insuring both properties and lives, a machine that could compute actuarial tables would not only reduce risk for all concerned, but have the added benefit of making enterprises thought to be too risky, insurable. Babbage had great confidence in the project because he believed in an orderly world that operated according to divinely created and sustained laws.
It would be easy to try and draw Babbage into the modern debates over geology, natural law and evolution, but it would also be unfair. The issues were different then, and given what people knew or didn’t know, even the right presuppositions might lead to conclusions less satisfying than later generations might desire. Suffice it to say, Babbage usually saw things with remarkable clarity, informed as he was by an abiding faith that the God of the Bible was exactly who he said he was.
Modern readers might presume that when Darwin published his Origin of Species that everyone had to drop what they were doing and rethink their worldview, but such was not the case. Darwin’s views were inherently materialistic and, therefore, dismissed by many, and ignored by even more. Darwin’s theory logically implied that there was no “end game,” no purpose to history, and of course, no God, though Darwin would remain ambivalent over owning that conclusion.
Rather, it was a letter quoted in passing by Babbage that may have inadvertently settled Darwin on his course. Babbage was a man whose understanding of science, nature and philosophy was both wide and deep. He, no doubt, would have applauded Charles Darwin’s copious and careful note keeping. After all, Babbage once authored a paper entitled a “Table of the Relative Frequency of the Causes of Breakage of Plate Glass Windows” (it turns out of the 464 broken panes catalogued, the proximate cause of fourteen of them was “drunken men, women or boys”).
Assuming a unified field of knowledge, he easily passed from discipline to discipline, a notion that fell out of favor but has recently seen a revival of sorts. Today, it would not be unusual for botanists, mathematicians and musicologists to get together in cross-disciplinarian studies. In that sense, we are returning to Babbage’s world, (although moderns are often handicapped by an aversion to embrace a principle of order lest it suggest a personal Creator God).
Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology set the stage for Darwin, but the notion of new species springing forth from “intermediate causes – well, someone else had to say it first, and that someone was John F. W. Herschel. James Lennox explains:
As noted earlier, Darwin had been deeply impressed by Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy when it first appeared a year before the Beagle set sail, and in his private journal he referred to his meetings with Herschel during its week long stop in Cape Town in June of 1836 as among the most profound events of the entire voyage. Just five months before meeting Darwin, Herschel had finished reading the 2nd edition of Lyell’s Principles. He sent Lyell a long letter filled with detailed constructive commentary. The letter opens by praising Lyell for facing the issue of the ‘introduction of new species’ — which Herschel calls ‘that mystery of mysteries’ — scientifically, and for advocating that we search for ‘intermediate causes’ to explain these ‘introductions’—code for natural, as opposed to ‘miraculous’, causes.1
Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise is a case in point about the need to judge men’s ideas within their historical context. While the original eight “Bridgewater Treatises,” authored by men such as Thomas Chalmers, set out to push back against the materialist and mechanistic worldview of the likes of Darwin, Babbage would have none of it. Babbage saw the hand of the Creator in every discipline and, fascinated as he was by clockwork order, he argued for a God who very well could have, and did, plan for the introduction of different species when God saw fit. This “uniformitarian” view is quite at odds with the Darwinists, no matter how much they may wish to lay claim to his brilliance.
The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1837), though fragmentary in parts, is Babbage’s most philosophically rewarding work. Eight Bridgewater Treatises were officially commissioned under the terms of the will of the eighth earl of Bridgewater. The purpose of the essays was to close the widening rift between rational science and natural theology. Babbage’s Ninth was a supernumerary offering, not an official commission. In it he argued against William Whewell’s assertion that scientific and religious modes of thought were incompatible and that mathematicians and mechanists were therefore disqualified from theological debate. This was anathema to Babbage, who set out to reconcile rational science with deism.
One of Babbage’s more intriguing arguments involved an explanation of miracles. He argued that just as programmed discontinuities in a sequence of numbers generated by his calculating engine were not a violation of computational rule, so, by analogy, miracles in nature were not a violation of natural law but a manifestation of a higher law—God’s law, as yet undiscovered. In the pre-Darwinian decades there was major scientific opposition between uniformitarians who held that geological changes and by implication natural law were essentially gradual, and catastrophists who posited that extreme and comparatively sudden phenomena were responsible for geological discontinuities.2
To paint Babbage in sharp relief, we can say that his science was much bigger than that of the mere materialists, because it was backed by a God of infinite intelligence who displayed His handiwork in creation. Things worked because they were meant to work. Things fit because they were designed to fit. Moderns may mistake this for a sort of Deism, and it does sound like it at times, but a more apt comparison might be to today’s “Intelligent Design” proponents (who often sound a lot like Deists, themselves). Like Babbage, Ada Lovelace would argue passionately for the proposition that religion and science were inseparable;
“I am more than ever now the bride of science. Religion to me is science, and science is religion. In that deeply-felt truth lies the secret of my intense devotion to the reading of God’s natural works… And when I behold the scientific and so-called philosophers full of selfish feelings, and of a tendency to war against circumstances and Providence, I say to myself: They are not true priests, they are but half prophets — if not absolutely false ones. They have read the great page simply with the physical eye, and with none of the spirit within. The intellectual, the moral, the religious seem to me all naturally bound up and interlinked together in one great and harmonious whole… There is too much tendency to making separate and independent bundles of both the physical and the moral facts of the universe. Whereas, all and everything is naturally related and interconnected. A volume could I write on this subject…”3
One encounters a wide variety of highly individualistic theological opinions in this period of history, perhaps, because the Christian mathematicians and scientists were often working far beyond the myopic sightlines of their era’s theologians. Or, in the case of Ada Lovelace, the influence of Babbage may have informed her worldview during her life, though she did not embrace the Christian faith until stricken with cancer and near death.
Still, it is an engaging exercise to imagine, if one will, what kind of fertile mind would not only invent “difference machines,” count broken windows and rewrite the actuarial tables of Europe, but also do, as Babbage did, the following:
Cofounded the Astronomical Society in 1820.
Implemented the survey of Ireland.
Calculated how much a letter should cost to mail, and proved why a single postage cost would work best. This practice became universal for most modern postal systems.
Translated, wrote and published groundbreaking ad-vances in differential equations and calculus.
Led a campaign against street musicians which, predictably, failed to catch on, but which resulted in many sleepless nights for Babbage as he was serenaded by off-key singers with squeaky violins for weeks on end. He reserved his most painful laments for the scourge of organ grinders for the “misery inflicted upon thousands of persons.”
Also failed to outlaw the children’s game Tip Cat, in which a rounded stick on the ground is slapped with another stick, sending it flying off a distance. From that point, a wager was proffered as to how many steps or leaps it might take to reach the stick. In Babbage’s orderly world, frightened horses, and overturned apple carts resulting from such borderline criminality was too much to handle.
Literally world-changing work on defining the relationship of wages and profits which spurred the development of piece-work and the factory system.
During the Crimean War, Babbage broke the enemy’s cypher code, al-though the fact was kept secret until the Royal Society broke the story in the 1980s.
In short, he was a man of wide-ranging interests and talents, but despite his attempts to articulate a philosophy that embraced creation and science, like the modern Steampunk enthusiasts [see sidebar article] who revere him, his philosophy is inherently anachronistic. We simply cannot know where he would have fallen out in our modern debates and I suspect it is unwise to try to shoehorn him into one camp or another.
1 Lennox, James, “Darwinism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2010/entries/darwinism/>.
2 Doron Swade, ‘Babbage, Charles (1791–1871)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/962, accessed 7 March 2014]
3 Letter of Ada Lovelace, quoted in Betty A. Toole’s Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers: A Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron’s Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer (Strawberry Press; 1st edition, March 1998)