Tyndall-Stewart-Tait debate

John Tyndall ns

Balfour Stewart nsPeter Tait ns2
John Tyndall

Balfour Stewart
Peter Tait
In 1874, a religion vs science debate erupted at the BAAS meeting between John Tyndall, who argued that religion needs to relinquish all control to science, and Balfour Stewart and Peter Tait, who argued that the two were compatible; with others, e.g. James Maxwell, on the fence.
In debates, Tyndall-Stewart-Tait debate was a heated engagement that erupted at the 1874 Belfast British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) meeting, continuing until at least 1878, on the question of teaching science in the context of the competing and conflicting views of religion, a dialog between primarily Irish physicist John Tyndall, who was under the view that religion must relinquish all control to science, and Scottish physicists Balfour Stewart a Peter Tait, who were of the view that the two could be integrated so as to explain morality, life, death, and immortality. The debate involved a number of high ranking scientists, some of whom were present at the meeting, such James Maxwell, and others such as William Thomson and William Clifford.

Repercussions of the debate include the 1875 book The Unseen Universe: or Speculations of a Future State, outlining a 'principle of continuity' theory of afterlife, harsh reviews of his work, e.g. one by Clifford in Nature, a followup novel Paradoxical Philosopher, by Tait and Stewart, involving a fictional character Hermann Stoffkraft, and a reaction response to this work, that being Maxwell’s last and final dying poem “A Paradoxical Ode” (1878), expressing his final enigmatic and riddled views life and death and religion and science; among other documented correspondences.

The debate stemmed from a growing controversy over the teaching of science at the Catholic University in Ireland, a subject about which Tyndall felt he needed to speak out about from a large platform and so accepted the presidency of the BAAS, whereas prior to this tension he had declined the offer of presidency three previous times. His opening statement is sharp and biting:

“All religious theories, schemes and systems, which embrace notions of cosmogony, or which otherwise reach into the domain of science, must, in so far as they do this, submit to the control of science, and relinquish all thought of controlling it.”

This statement is what launched the debate.

Tyndall stance
Tyndall employed the absurdity of the all terrestrial things or living agents (Joseph Butler, 1736) arising from "dead atoms" argument, so conclude that religion needs to step aside. [2] This, of course, is the correct argument (see: defunct theory of life).

Stewart-Tait stance
Stewart and Tait went on to argue the following: [3]

“We attempt to show that we are absolutely driven by scientific principles to acknowledge the existence of an unseen universe, and by scientific analogy to conclude that it is full of life and intelligence—that it is in fact a spiritual universe and not a dead one.”

1. Silver, Daniel S. (2007). “My Soul’s an Amphicheircal Knot: the Last Poem of James Clerk Maxwell”, SouthAlabama.edu.
2. Tyndall, John. (1874). “Address” (pg. 32), Delivered before the British Association assembled at Belfast. Longmans, Green, and Co.
3. Stewart, Balfour and Tait, Peter G. (1875). The Unseen Universe: or Physical Speculations on a Future State (pg. 5). Macmillan.

Further reading
‚óŹ Tyndall, John. (1874). “Address”, Delivered before the British Association assembled at Belfast. Longmans, Green, and Co.

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