Pierre Duhem, Entropy, and Christian Faith

  • Article
  • 18 pages
  • Level: university

In this 2008 article published in the journal Physics in Perspective, historian of science Helge Kragh discusses Pierre Duhem and the status of science and religion in the second half of the nineteenth century, when developments in the science of thermodynamics challenged the idea of an eternal, unchanging or cyclic universe. Kragh writes:

The French physicist and polymath Pierre Duhem was strongly devoted to Catholicism but insisted that science and religion were wholly independent. In an article of 1905 he reflected at length on the relationship between physics and Christian faith, using as an example the cosmological significance of the laws of thermodynamics. He held that it was unjustified to draw cosmological consequences from thermodynamics or any other science, and even more unjustified to draw consequences of a religious nature. I place Duhem’s thoughts on “the physics of a believer” in their proper contexts by relating them to the late-nineteenth-century discussion concerning the meaning and domain of the law of entropy increase. I also consider Duhem’s position with respect to Catholic science and culture in the anticlerical Third Republic….

Duhem was a scientist and scholar of unusual breadth whose contributions ranged from the history of medieval natural philosophy to mathematical physics. He began his academic career in the 1880s with works in chemical thermodynamics and continued over the years to develop this branch of science, intermediary between physics and chemistry, into still more general formulations….  Duhem counts as one of the pioneers of physical chemistry.

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