A 19th Century Attempt to Make Peace Between Religion and Science: Philosopher Herbert Spencer’s “First Principles” (1862)

Just three years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, in Part 1 of his First Principles, sought to make a truce between science and religion. His attempt began with this rather beautiful, open-minded, and calm appeal:

We too often forget that not only is there “a soul of goodness in things evil,” but very generally also, a soul of truth in things erroneous.

In other words, Spencer suggests that, as a general principle, there may be in things that appear erroneous some important grains of truth. From this Spencer insists that, when it comes to religion, the empiricist ought not to throw all the fanciful ideas born of religion out with the intellectual bathwater:

While many admit the abstract probability that a falsity has usually a nucleus of verity, few bear this abstract probability in mind, when passing judgment on the options of others. A belief that is proved to be grossly at variance with fact, is cast aside with indignation or contempt; and in the heat of antagonism scarcely any one inquires what there was in this belief which commended it to men’s minds. Yet there must have been something. And there is reason to suspect that this something was its correspondence with certain of their experiences: an extremely limited or vague correspondence perhaps, but still, a correspondence. Even the absurdest report may in nearly every instance be traced to an actual occurrence; and had there been no such actual occurrence, this preposterous misrepresentation of it would never have existed. Though the distorted or magnified image transmitted to us through the refracting medium of rumour, is utterly unlike the reality; yet in the absence of the reality there would have been no distorted or magnified image. And thus it is with human beliefs in general. Entirely wrong as they may appear, the implication is that they originally contained, and perhaps still contain, some small amount of truth.

Some small amount of truth. On this Spencer hangs his argument for the retention of at least some religion in a scientific age. For Spencer, beneath all the outward and diverse forms of religion there is a grappling by humans with an Ultimate Mystery that resists explication, and consists of only three possibilities, all of them equally mind-boggling: The universe is self-existent, and has always been here; the universe had a beginning, but it made itself; or something external to the universe made the universe. Religion, however complicated its forms, is a wrestling with this mystery, this truth. Here’s how Spencer puts it:

Respecting the origin of the Universe three verbally intelligible suppositions may be made. We may assert that it is self-existent; or that it is self-created; or that it is created by an external agency. Which of these suppositions is most credible it is not needful here to inquire. The deeper question, into which this finally merges, is, whether any one of them is even conceivable in the true sense of the word.

In other words, both science and religion come up against an impasse, an aporia , when it comes to comprehending certain ultimate things (one of them being the origin of the universe). In Part 1 of his First Principles, Spenser then discusses other conceptual impasses (or aporias) in turn (such as the relation of matter and consciousness). Science can reach only so-far when it comes to even comprehending, in any ultimate way, such impasses, and must therefore yield the field to religious representation at a certain point. This thus strikes me as an early formation of Stephen Gould’s notion of science and religion being two “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). In short, Spencer was one of the first intellectuals after Darwin to attempt a Gould-like move to reduce the tensions between science and religion.

To read the rest of Spencer’s humane and sensible arguments for making peace between science and religion, see here.

And I like this image of Spencer. He’s kind of interesting looking:


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to A 19th Century Attempt to Make Peace Between Religion and Science: Philosopher Herbert Spencer’s “First Principles” (1862)

  1. Veronica Abbass says:

    “He’s kind of interesting looking”

    George Eliot thought so too. Imagine if they had married. I remember reading/hearing somewhere that they didn’t marry because Spencer though Eliot was not attractive enough.

  2. santitafarella says:


    That’s interesting. I didn’t know that story. They would have complimented each other. Both very smart.


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