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Fact, Faith and Fiction in the Development of Science

University of St. Andrews

Reijer Kooyhaas (1906–1994), a leading historian of science, delivered his Gifford Lectures – "Fact, Faith and Fiction in the Development of Science" – at the University of St Andrews 1975–1977.  The lectures were published posthumously by Kluwer Academic Publishers in 1999.


The leaflet for the lectures provides the following detail:




1. Introduction: Fact, faith and fiction

2. The search for harmony

3. The philosopher’s stone

4. From alchemy to chemistry

5. A tunnel through the earth

6. “And the sun stood still”

7. Old and New in Renaissance Science: (i) Fact against fiction

8. Old and New in Renaissance Science: (ii) Discovery or rediscovery?


These lectures are concerned with the historical interplay of three essential ingredients in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, which I have called ‘fact’, ‘faith’, and ‘fiction’. After a general Introduction, Lecture 2: “The search for harmony” will show how faith in a mathematical harmony behind nature has inspired numerical speculations – some fruitful, others wildly fanciful – from the time of Pythagoras to the present day.


In Lectures 3 and 4: “The philosopher’s stone” and “From alchemy to chemistry” we will look at a different approach which goes back to the naive realism of Aristotle. Instead of seeking a world behind the visible world, this attempts to build theory upon direct sensory experience. Taking an organic view of nature, it moves by subtle reasoning from sensed qualities to substances presumed to be responsible for them. 


In Lecture 5: “A tunnel through the earth” we shall follow the developing relation between mechanics and physics in the Middle Ages, which culminated in the shift from organic to mechanistic images of nature. Starting from Aristotle’s theory of motion, which was based on common earthly experience, we will investigate the efforts by mediaeval philosophers to put this into mathematical form. One of the most delightful examples of their reasoning concerns the problem of an imaginary tunnel through the earth.


Lecture 6: “And the sun stood still” will examine the case of Copernicus to show how he increased the unity of the world-picture while still clinging to dominant ‘fictions’ and to identify the main reasons for which his work was accepted or rejected.


The next two lectures will consider the new role of facts under the general title “Old and New in Renaissance Science”. Lecture 7: “Fact against fiction” examines the conflict of loyalties that arose in the rather dim period between the end of the Middle Ages and the rise of modern science in the 17th Century. In Lecture 8: “Discovery or rediscovery?” we will look particularly at the conflict between the notion then current, that the discovery of true knowledge was merely the return to the ‘knowledge of the ancients’, and the growing confidence that most truth lay still undiscovered in the future.




1. Thinking with the hands

2. Utility versus Reality: (i) In theories

3. Utility versus Reality: (ii) In classification systems

4. Nature and Art

5. Cleopatra’s Nose

6. Reconstructing the past

7. “Civil and Natural History”

8. The “thinking reed”.


The second part of this series will open with some methodological questions. Lecture 9: “Thinking with the hands” will deal with one of the most troublesome issues for the founders of modern science: Is it legitimate to experiment with nature? Can any worthwhile knowledge be gained by means of manual labour? If results do not fit with theory, which should give way?


In Lectures 10 and 11, on “Utility versus Reality” in theories and in classification systems respectively, we will meet another issue, which is still debated up to the present time. Is the purpose of scientific theory to represent reality, or is it only to offer a useful way of bringing phenomena together, without making any pretence at a realistic interpretation? A similar problem is presented by the distinction between artificial systems of classification, adopted merely because they proved useful, and those based on natural criteria.


The classical opposition between “Nature” and “Art”, a problem raised int he humanities by Peter Ramus, and in the Sciences b Francis Bacon, is discussed explicitly in Lecture 12. Was it perhaps impossible in principle to surpass or even to imitate nature successfully, as for example by chemical synthesis of minerals, or by making artificial models of natural processes?


In Lecture 13:”Cleopatra’s Nose”, the way in which a single ‘fiction’ can blind us to evident facts will be illustrated. We shall see how one of Newton’s very few “hypotheses” hindered the development of chemistry as late as the first half of the 19th Century.


Lecture 14: “Reconstructing the past” will take up the relationship between fact, faith and fiction in the hazardous business of inferring the past from its relics int he present. The 18th – 19th Century controversy between “uniformitarians” and “catastrophists” in geology raises the methodological issues in a particularly sharp form.


Lecture 15 will consider another aspect of this same problem. Under the title of “Civil and Natural History” I will point out some contrasts between human historiography, and the “historiography” of nature.


The final Lecture, entitled “The ‘thinking reed’”, will discuss the views of Pascal on science and faith. This will lead us to ask in retrospect what role – beneficent, harmful or harmless – has generally been played by Natural Theology in the development of science.


University of St Andrews/R. Hooykaas


Fact, Faith and Fiction in the Development of Science

Kluwer Academic Publishing
  • Christopher R. Brewer