Natural Philosophy: Recovering a Natural Science and Christian Pedagogy (with Ravi Jain)

When one of the authors of your favorite book on Christian Classical education agrees to come on the podcast, it just might be the most exciting moment of the year! Ravi Jain joins us this week to discuss a distinctively Christian classical perspective on natural philosophy and how it relates to the liberal arts. It’s filled with challenging ideas and practical application. If you are at all classically-curious, this is a homeschool conversation you won’t want to miss!

Be sure to check out all the other interviews in our Homeschool Conversations series!

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Who is Ravi Jain

Ravi Scott Jain, is a graduate scholar in science and religion at Oriel College, Oxford University pursuing his doctorate in Theology. He has coauthored The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education (also in Chinese and Portuguese) and A New Natural Philosophy: Recovering a Natural Science and Christian Pedagogy. His third book The Enchanted Cosmos: Mathematics and the Logos who is Love (also in Chinese) is due to be released in 2023. He taught Calculus and Physics at the Geneva School in Winter Park, FL for many years where he developed an integrated double period class called “The Scientific Revolution.” In that class students read primary sources like Galileo and Newton in order to recapitulate the narrative of discovery and explore its deeper meanings while preserving the mathematical and scientific rigor expected of a college level treatment. He has given more than 150 talks and workshops throughout America, Africa, and China on topics related to education, theology, philosophy, mathematics, poetic knowledge, and science. He has served as a deacon in his church and enjoys spending time with his wife Kelley and two sons, Judah and Xavier.

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Watch My Homeschool Conversation with Ravi Jain

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Amy Sloan: Hello, friends. Welcome to this episode of Homeschool Conversations. I am so delighted to have Mr. Jain here with us today. Ravi Scott Jain is a graduate scholar in science and religion at Oriel College, Oxford University, pursuing his doctorate in Theology. He’s co-authored one of my favorite books on education, The Liberal Arts Tradition: A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education, which is also found in Chinese and Portuguese. He’s also written A New Natural Philosophy: Recovering a Natural Science and Christian Pedagogy. His third book, The Enchanted Cosmos: Mathematics and the Logos Who Is Love, which will also be in Chinese, is due to be released in 2023.

He has taught calculus and physics at The Geneva School in Winter Park, Florida, and he developed an integrated double-period class called The Scientific Revolution. In that class, students read primary sources like Galileo and Newton in order to recapitulate the narrative of discovery and explore its deeper meanings while preserving the mathematical and scientific rigor expected of a college-level treatment.

Ravi has given more than 150 talks and workshops throughout America, Africa, and China on topics related to education, theology, philosophy, mathematics, poetic knowledge, and science. He served as a deacon in his church and enjoys spending time with his wife, Kelley, and two sons, Judah and Xavier.

How Ravi became interested in classical education

I am so delighted to get to chat with you today. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. At the beginning, I know I always give these big formal bios to introduce folks and I would love to just hear, from in your own words though, a little bit about yourself, your family, and then how you got started being interested in classical education.

Ravi Jain: Sure, Amy. Thank you. We just moved to Oxford about a year and a half ago. My wife and two boys, Judah and Xavier, who are essentially now in middle school in the English system. Going to a British school that’s a fine school, Christian school, a rare find here in England, and settling in. We enjoy it and are right midway through my degree process, if all goes as planned.

I got interested in Christian classical education — you probably can think of it in two stages. The first stage was just being becoming a Christian in high school and then going to college with an interest in how to deepen my faith. I learned Greek and New Testament Greek, and once you start learning ancient Greek you start to think about the ancient world. You read the Euthyphro in Greek and some plays. I was working on a political philosophy degree at my college, Davidson College in North Carolina, and one of the requirements was political philosophy. I’m sorry. Did I say? I would have a political science degree and one of the requirements was political philosophy classes.

My first exposure to the classics was actually in a political philosophy class where we read Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, among other things. I remember just being so surprised that Plato encouraged the best minds in the city that were going to be the rulers and the guardians of the city to study mathematics. I had never heard anybody before advocate mathematics for the reasons Plato did which was to grow in wisdom and learn discernment and judgment.

I never heard anybody advocate that mathematics would make you wise. I always thought it was just merely useful for the next subject that you might study in chemistry or physics or economics. My exposure to Christian classical education, I guess you could say, was first as a Christian, realizing that there were some classics out there that were relevant.

My first year out of college, I ended up teaching. I was looking for a job and wasn’t sure what would be a good fit for me. I took an offer to teach math at a Christian school.

At that Christian school, I tried to bring in some of the lessons that I had learned from Plato’s Republic about the deeper purposes for math. Even though it wasn’t a classical school, this was Seminole Presbyterian in Tampa, it was a Christian school. I think at that point I had this idea that there were these themes we could draw on from the classical world even as Christians.

It wasn’t until about four or five years later that I really got introduced to Christian classical education in the more sense of the movement. That was when I was working on a seminary degree and I was again looking for a job, and an opportunity came up at The Geneva School. I had done a few other things. I had worked at some churches and done some other jobs between my first year out of college teaching math.

I wasn’t really planning to go back to teaching, but it turned out to be just an interesting opportunity to teach math and physics at The Geneva School. Since I had done that before, they thought I’d be a good fit. At that time I was excited because I was just towards the tail end of my seminary degree and I thought, now I can really apply these ideas of Christian thought into a class and I can teach with a little bit more nuance and subtlety. I just thought I’d do it for a year or two, but I was so impressed with the vision of The Geneva School and the vision of Christian classical schools in general that it really became a home for me for the next almost 20 years. That’s how I got involved in Christian classical education.

Amy: I love to hear that story and I think right there I already start hearing hints of one of the reasons why I’m so excited to talk with you today. It’s a joke where a kid will go to the parents and they’re taking algebra and they’re like, “When am I ever going to need this? Why do I have to learn this?” You never hear someone give the answer because it will help you grow in wisdom, or even it will help you get to know and love God better. That’s an integral way to approach these topics. Right?

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What do we mean by the terms natural history, natural science, and nature philosophy?

I’m just so excited to get to have this conversation. I was recently reading your book, A New Natural Philosophy. I haven’t finished it, you can see my bookmark. One of the things I wanted to ask is if we can just start really big picture because you use a few terms and people may not know what you mean by the terms. You use terms like natural history, natural science, and natural philosophy. Can you explain what those are, if they’re the same, different, where they overlap?

Ravi: Sure. First of all, 400 years ago, somebody like Isaac Newton, if he was writing, he would’ve just thought of himself as a natural philosopher. Kepler, Galileo, all of those people who we would now call scientists would’ve just thought of themselves as natural philosophers. The word ‘scientist’ didn’t appear until mid-1800s.

From about 300 BC or so up until 1800, the word for what we think of today as scientists was natural philosopher.

I think of natural philosophy, first of all, as a very big tent to include a lot of conversations and it’s the real home for what we think of today as contemporary natural science.

Natural Philosophy: for the cultivation of wisdom

There are some distinctions. One is that natural philosophy, you can hear from the etymology, philosophy is the love of wisdom. Right from the start, there’s a sense that, again, it’s for the cultivation of wisdom. Wonder leads to wisdom, as Aristotle said. It’s a different beginning point and a different telos right from the very word ‘natural philosophy.’

If you think of natural philosophy as an overarching discourse that includes our assumptions about the natural world, that includes traditions of inquiry, language, the practices of different kinds of research groups, all these different things that some people might be pushing in one paradigm. Another might be pushing another theoretical paradigm. Natural philosophy is a big tent to discuss all these things. Chemistry, physics, biology, the things like taxonomy, all these ecology, all of that stuff would fit into natural philosophy.

Natural History: observations of the natural world

Now, sometimes I’ll say that natural philosophy hosts a dialectic between natural history and natural science. That natural philosophy hosts a discourse between natural history and natural science.

Natural history, a good rule of thumb to think about but it is the observations of the natural world. That’s just a simple way to think about natural history. In the 17th century, the thinkers then would keep a register. The register is what they call the register of facts. They were looking some cause and so they wanted to keep a register of all their observations, like what we would think about as a lab notebook, but it’s more just like almost a sketchbook or something like that or a record of all the things that they’ve observed. That was natural history for them.

You would start with natural history, the observations of the things in the natural world. To some degree it had to do with classification and taxonomy, things like that.

Natural Science: demonstrable knowledge of causes

Then natural science was looking for the cause of those effects. Natural science is a demonstrable knowledge of causes. Natural philosophy is the love of wisdom. Natural history is the observation of effects, and naming things, classifying things. Natural science is a demonstrable knowledge of causes in the natural world.

The typical way of thinking about this was we see all these results, all these effects, but what caused all these different results or these effects? We can’t necessarily see the cause from the effects, but if we can reason backwards to it and then demonstrate or prove or justify why we believe that this effect is a result of that cause, that’s science. That’s the whole demonstrable idea. Science is a demonstrable knowledge of causes.

It can be demonstrated, proved, justified, something like that. Natural history is really an appeal to observation. Hey, look, can you see that bird over there and how it’s colored? Classification, this bird is different than that bird. They’re different species, something like that. Natural science is a question of why do you think this bird is here? Do you think this bird is migrated from North America and it’s in some pattern right now where it’s, I’m going to fly back there to North America after the winter’s over?

Looking for the causes of the effects that we see is natural science. That’s the way these words have been used roughly for a thousand years or more.

I think it’s helpful to realize that starting around 1850, all of these words got lumped in together and called science, and that had some negative effects that are still with us today.

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Science and Technology

Amy: Can you explore that a little bit more? Because you mentioned that the term ‘science,’ maybe the way we think of science now is a new term, mid-1800s. How do these ideas of natural history, natural philosophy, natural science overlap or relate to what we might think of as our science curriculum? Then, how have those ideas changed culturally over time?

Ravi: Yes, and I should be real careful here. It’s not that the word ‘science’ is new. The word ‘scientist’ is new. What ended up happening is people that would’ve called themselves natural philosophers started to call themselves scientists by the late 1800s. That change started shifting the idea we’re no longer doing natural philosophy because we’re not natural philosophers. We’re doing science.

The thing that happened with science that I think is really the important move is that it became highly associated with technology and it became highly associated with technical control and mastery.

Where natural philosophy would’ve been interested in an accurate telling of what’s going on. Obviously, knowledge is powerful. The technology that we think of today in the 21st century is completely concerned with prediction and control. Natural philosophy could be interested in the love of wisdom and that involved knowledge to a high degree, but the technology is not so much interested in knowledge as it is interested in control and mastery. It’s helpful to realize and maybe thinking about what we are doing when we use our iPhones here.

It’s like with our iPhones, we can actually have a lot of control and mastery, but we don’t really know how that iPhone works. Sometimes in school curriculums there’s this push for technology. One of the ways it might get put in is lab sensors in a laboratory and look, we’re using all these cool lab sensors and all technology, but if the students don’t actually know how it works and how the sensors are functioning, there’s a veil that comes between them and the thing that they’re discovering that insulates that from them.

Technology may in fact give you control, but it does not necessarily give you wisdom, knowledge, or understanding. This all comes from a tradition from Francis Bacon who equates knowledge with power. The distinction is that yes, knowledge is powerful, but for Francis Bacon, the very shape of knowledge itself was power. In other words, it wasn’t actually knowledge unless it gave you power. Does that make sense?

Amy: Yes, no, that’s fascinating. It’s making me think about Abolition of Man, especially that third chapter where Lewis is really talking about these who are going to use technology and knowledge as a weapon or as a way to control other men. Fascinating.

Ravi: Yes. You got it.

Natural philosophy and its relationship to the liberal arts and common arts

Amy: Okay. We’re thinking about these ideas about natural philosophy. How does that then fit in with our understanding of the liberal arts as a whole? I think people who are somewhat familiar with classical education, they know a few terms, maybe they would recognize and they’d say, wait a minute, I don’t remember this having anything to do with the liberal arts, but I know it does. How does this fit in with the liberal arts and even then the fine arts and the common arts?

The 7 Liberal Arts

Ravi: Sure. I’ll give the brief sketch of what The Liberal Arts Tradition was about because in The Liberal Arts Tradition, it’s the big picture of the whole vision of education K through 12 or really K through university. That is that education is grounded in piety and governed by theology, that the gymnastic and the music are for the training of the bodies and the tuning of the hearts, tuning of the souls, that the liberal arts are the seeds and tools of learning, and that philosophy is the love of wisdom in natural, moral, and divine reality.

One thing about the liberal arts is that they assume some preliminary stages, they assume some training in piety, growth and godliness, reading scriptures, worshiping in a community of faith and practice, singing to the Lord. That leads us to music.

Music wasn’t merely just singing for the ancient Greeks. It was this whole inheritance of culture. We would think of a museum as passing down many different arts and even included astronomy and dance and other things, literature, poetry.

That how all those things shaped your soul was assumed by the liberal arts. Gymnastic, the training of the bodies just recognizes that what we do with our bodies affects our souls and affects the way we think. The importance of something like PE or good habits in things like bedtime and eating and sleeping affect the way we learn to think, practices like properly participating in sports or personal exercise and things like that. That all is assumed by the liberal arts.

Then the liberal arts are particularly the arts of language and the arts of mathematics.

We talked about them as seven liberal arts. You have the three liberal arts of language, grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, and the four liberal arts of mathematics which are arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Together, these were the seven liberal arts. The seven liberal arts are the seeds and tools of learning.

We talked a little bit about how science is demonstrable knowledge of causes.

We all have things that in our lives that we know, but we can’t necessarily prove them to somebody else. We can’t demonstrate it or justify it with a good argument to somebody else.

The liberal arts are those arts that help you learn to justify your knowledge and to demonstrate your knowledge to others, to produce good arguments, to learn to read with understanding and show people the understanding that you’ve acquired from your reading.

Grammar is really translated by the Latin word literature, literatura. Reading with understanding or grammar is an important part of the liberal arts of language. Rhetoric, giving eloquent arguments.

The arts of math are also pretty clear that they’re involved in so many other disciplines, so many other disciplines that come afterwards. Disciplines like economics or physics and things like that. It is, they are useful, but they’re also for wonder and worship and wisdom as well. The liberal arts form this core tools of learning and seeds of learning because they blossom in you to grow towards wisdom as well. After that, there’s so many topics out there to learn, whether somebody’s interested in German literature or somebody’s interested in anthropology or I don’t know. What’s a good one here? There’s some part of physics.

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Amy: Designing bridges.

Ravi: Well, designing bridges is actually going to be a different, a slightly different category, but it’s a good point. The idea is that philosophy or the love of wisdom contained all these different subjects that were not geared towards useful pursuits but were geared towards wisdom.

Natural philosophy, moral philosophy, and metaphysics were all in this category of philosophy. You wouldn’t really study the philosophies until you had studied the liberal arts.

Part of the reason is because if philosophy involved demonstrating your knowledge, then you needed to have those tools and those abilities demonstrate your knowledge before you went on to the philosophies. Natural philosophy comes after the study of the liberal arts. There’s some ways to consider that the beginnings of natural philosophy are also learned within the liberal arts, especially the liberal arts, well, within all the liberal arts.

For example, grammar is very interested in words and the meanings of words. The old grammarians were very interested in etymologies. Thinking about the names of animals and how you classify or distinguish animals would’ve been something that the ancients thought of as grammar. Somebody like Adam and Eve naming the animals might have been thought of as either a natural history pursuit or also as a pursuit of grammar and names, which the thing’s interesting. All these liberal arts play into, they lead to natural philosophy.

Mechanical or Common Arts

Now, on the other hand, you made a point of designing bridges, and we obviously want our students to also grow up and become doctors and engineers. I think the way that the medieval would talk about it is they would talk about mechanical arts, and it comes from an older term that I think is perhaps clearer in some ways called the common arts.

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They didn’t only think about philosophy as an end or natural philosophy. They also thought about, what are the kinds of practices that we want to do like blacksmithing or medicine or farming and agriculture. There’s this list of common arts, and they were Hugh of Saint Victor made them into seven, really, to mirror of the liberal arts.

It was essentially a catchall for everything that people did that was for the good of the community and for the body. The thing that’s I think is helpful to realize about the common arts is that they’re similar to technology. Tech, the word ‘art’ in Greek is techne. Technology, you could say the study of the arts or the common arts, they’re trying to get at a similar idea.

The common arts had a different starting point. The common arts had this vision of nature that we had to learn from and imitate, not necessarily slavishly, but that if you wanted to learn something about agriculture, it was actually good to pay attention not only to research, but also to look at how the forest around you might deal with invasive species or some threat. I know Wendell Berry talks about this, learning to get along with the land, and not merely thinking only about what the latest techniques are. There’s an idea in the common arts that you can learn from nature, that there’s a wisdom inherent in creation that we should learn from.

I like the common arts because they emphasize the notion of limited mastery and control. It’s not that you aren’t supposed to go out and take dominion, but it’s a different sort of dominion. It’s a sort of dominion that works alongside a wisdom inherent within creation as opposed to assuming that it’s just neutral stuff. That’s the liberal arts and the common arts.

Fine Arts

The last you asked about was the fine arts, and one of the things about the fine arts is that they often weren’t really broken out as their own thing throughout a lot of the medieval period. It seems to me that the reason is because people expected design to accompany all of their arts. They expected somebody like Leonardo da Vinci would’ve also been doing artistry in his biology and in his mechanics and all these other things.

There was art involved with them, what we think about as what might be now thought of as fine art. Eventually, there was a sense that we wanted this, that the west separated the idea of an artist as some genius from somebody that was just an artisan doing the common arts. It was actually this move in the 1700s like the romantic movement that led the people to create the term ‘scientist.’

They said, just like the artists have now got a new term, they call themselves artists if you’re a painter or a musician or something, so I think we should call ourselves scientists. It’s very interesting. The fine arts were always seen before the 1700s or so as integrated with all kinds of craftsmanship, whether it was architecture or designing your furniture so that the useful and beautiful were connected. Now it’s important that I think that we learned to actively reconnect them since they’ve been separated.

Amy: I think that’s one of the things I’m most excited to see generationally as well, because I think it’s really hard to do this all first generation, or even myself as a second-generation classical educator. We start to see these things that for hundreds of years, these ideas that have had consequences, actual consequences and assumptions that we now make, presuppositions we have that we don’t even think about anymore because it’s just the categories that we have divided the world up into these separate, distinct pieces.

Reintegrating these things is such a huge shift that it can feel overwhelming, but also very exciting because one of the reasons why I love The Liberal Arts Tradition in particular is this very basic, let’s start with what is the end of education, is the love of God and love of our neighbor. That is in one sense it’s broad, right? In another sense, what could be more fundamentally unifying than this idea of wanting to know and love God and then have that flow out into the love of our neighbor in this world, right?

We’re not gnostic, so we’re not just up here in the realm of ideas, but it’s being worked out in our communities. Being able to think about ideas of natural philosophy or our science and our math as we’re doing them in our homeschools, to be able to see them as part of something that’s much bigger. Looking for ways to integrate, I think, can be a way of thinking that may not necessarily tomorrow morning change what you do in your lesson, but over time really will be transformative culturally and with the ideas our kids then carry on hopefully to educate the next generation.

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Ravi: That’s right. It’s exciting to see. I guess you’re part of that, aren’t you? You’re the next generation, second generation.

Amy: Yes. I think that sanctification isn’t just an individual, right? It’s also generational. I pray that my children continue to be sanctified past where I am and will be.

Ravi: [chuckles] Yes. Don’t we all?

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How can we model and nurture a distinctively Christian natural philosophy in our homeschools?

Amy: Right. Well, with this idea, I mentioned about we have these presuppositions and these ideas. I would love for you to explore how we can model and nurture a distinctively Christian natural philosophy in ourselves and in our children. I said when I sent you these questions ahead of time I’m not just talking about baptizing our science curriculum like, here’s a few Bible verses, or like, and God loves you, in the science textbook or whatever. Like an essential attitude or presupposition that we would bring into these studies, how ought we to do that?

Ravi: Yes, that’s a good question. I think, again, there’s that sense that we just talked about with the common arts that God has put a wisdom into creation that we can learn from and to some degree imitate or at least work alongside of. I think in– is it The Magician’s Nephew? I forget which book it is, maybe it’s in Prince Caspian. There’s some statement that Narnia never was right except when a man ruled it and in human– it was ruled by humans.

I think the point was that there’s a way that God has ordained humans to help bring creation to its fullness. Nonetheless, in order to do that you’ve got to learn to work alongside the wisdom that God has put within it. Just maybe a stance of humility and piety towards creation, humility towards creation, piety towards God. The ancient Greeks actually talked about a cosmic piety, a sense of awe and wonder at the world. I think that could be appropriate if you think about the wisdom that God has put in the world as reflective of Christ as the logos. I think there’s a way that we could almost be– that order and the beauty of creation should lead us to worship for sure.

Amy: Maybe one might even say humility and doxology.

Ravi: Might want to even say humility and doxology, yes, exactly and well done. I think part of what that means is in the younger years to not worry so much about concepts that the kids need to learn with science but focus more on helping them to experience creation as beautiful, as wonderful, as pointing towards God. Especially in, I would say, up through sixth grade or so, the students, I really think, should focus on natural history and the common arts. Natural history and the common arts where natural history you’re getting out into creation and learning to name things and being exposed to all the variety of things God has made. Classifying them, sorting them out.

That, by the way, like I said, is a typical thing that grammar would’ve done, so that makes sense as something that can be done in the years up through sixth grade.

Also on the other hand, I think the common arts are the kinds of investigations into the natural world or the working alongside of creation that can really lead to greater wonder over the course of the students’ lives and over the course of further inquiry, because I just remember some of my best students were students that had learned to tinker with stuff when they were kids. They weren’t just thinking about physics or mathematics as technology, they actually were thinking about it as I want to know more about how these things work.

If kids come to me in 11th or 12th grade and they’re fascinated by computers and all kinds of electronic gadgets, I can’t really do anything with them as a first year physics student from that. That’s not the stuff we study, we study mechanics and so mechanics might even be very deep study with calculus and physics, but you’re talking about things like levers and forces. If kids don’t know how to use an axe or never played on seesaws, then they’re not really interested in the kinds of things that you study in mechanics and they don’t have any curiosity.

I think the traditional common arts, by getting students interested in those things, can help lead to that wonder. It’s also a gateway into history. I think that’s one of the things that Christians really ought to cultivate, is a love in their students for the past in the sense that it leads us towards piety. I think those are some steps in the direction of Christian thought for the lower school.

The only other thing that I would say is stories and narratives about the great scientists and especially when there’s a link between scientists and their faith. There’s a lot of links there. People like Blaise Pascal or Gottfried Leibniz or James Clerk Maxwell. There’s lots and lots of Christians who have been influential in science and there are some kids’ books for stuff like that out there. Not a ton that are really good, but for your particular question about Christianity and science. Getting those narratives into students’ minds and the younger kids’ minds and helping them think about natural philosophy and the common arts and not just always saying science, that’s one thing that can help in those lower years.

The other thing I would say is just also be careful — here’s a warning — that try watching science videos on YouTube. They might think that you’re doing the kids a favor in helping them learn STEM or helping them get more science ideas. Honestly, I never found that to be very helpful for my teaching as 11th or 12th grader, students that had gotten their science ideas from that. I could never go as far with them, I could never help shape them into the Christian natural philosophers that I was hoping they could grow into because they didn’t really have the wonder at the natural world, they just had techniques and gizmos in their minds.

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Amy: That’s an interesting– Yes, I’ll have to think more about that. I think sometimes just something as simple as giving the kids the freedom to go explore outside and play in the dirt, that doesn’t seem very profound but that kind of curiosity. I wonder what’s under that log? Or, I wonder what would happen if I did this?

I have a child who loves to climb trees and she can now shimmy up just about anything even if there are no branches, but she has learned the hard way. Like, which branch is healthy? Which one will support my weight? Some of those kinds of things, just that curiosity and that wonder and not having that like, oh, I just don’t really care to know. I just want to use this gadget to do this thing for me or whatever.

Ravi: Yes, you’re exactly right. Learning to build stuff, whether it’s just a little bench or something outside or whatever or plant a garden, it leads to all kinds of questions like you were just saying, like which branch is healthy? Which seeds work well in your climate? Or how hard do I need to strike nails, and different hammers have different sizes. Just levers and all those things, the curiosity comes up naturally when kids are out in the world doing stuff, so exactly, you got it.

What are some practical ways we can incorporate this vision in our homeschool?

Amy: I think that segues into my next question because I think there’s sometimes something that can really hold back myself as a homeschool mom. I know I hear this from other moms. We get all these ideals and we’re like okay, here’s this thing now I need to do. Then we get up in the morning and we look at our kids and we’re like, I don’t know how to do this actually right here in my real life.

I think some of these, we’ve already started talking about some simple ways that this can look especially in those younger years. I don’t know if you have any other ideas especially maybe for someone with limited resources or who feels inadequate themselves. Then as they get older, how do we really dive deeply and help our teens to start thinking about these ideas in a deeper way?

Ravi: Limited resources. There’s a couple of things I’d say is one you could just go get if you could still find a Boy Scout handbook or the way that Boy Scouts used to do merit badges, and I don’t know if there was something like that for Girl Scouts as well, but those kinds of things were great because they’re not expensive but you can– there’s all these different activities that kids can start thinking about and being exposed to in those.

Ready-made curricula in that way. Chris Hall’s book, Common Arts Education, I think is, it’s almost that’s a Christian Boy Scout handbook. [chuckles] It’s a fun with good justifications for why we should do those things. That’s a good place to start as well. As the students get older, I do think it gets more complicated because it’s just there’s less well-trodden roads. It’s harder to find people that know what to do in the 7th to 12th-grade period. One of the big emphases that I have is architectonic, and that is to help the students realize that truth does not exclude mystery, but embraces it.

One of the dangers that happens with science and math is that students feel like that’s the real stuff and it’s all facts. There doesn’t have to be any debate because we all know that this is all the exact right answer. In literature and in the humanities and the other things, that’s all fuzzy. I think it’s really helpful for the students to start to recognize, actually, there’s pretty substantial debates in science as well, natural philosophy. That doesn’t mean that there’s no truth. It just means that we only know the truth in finite limited and fallible ways God knows the truth. Do we expect ourselves to be God in this situation?

Helping students to recognize, for example, that the equations that they’re working with are limited expressions of what’s actually going on in reality only work under very idealized conditions, and are probably not the final or perfect expression of what’s actually going on is very helpful I think for students to start, now I’m thinking about 9th through 12th-grade students, start letting go of this notion that science and math are the real thing and literature or theology are fuzzy.

Now, when you start to look at how that works and how you might talk about some different themes, I talk about the idea that if natural history is about observations, natural science is about looking for the causes of the effects you see in natural history, then natural philosophy also takes into account things like the practices and traditions, the presuppositions positions of the assumptions of the scientists. I think this is where it’s really helpful to recognize that there are different you could say research programs, you could say different paradigms, different theses that rival groups of scientists advance.

Within those, they often have different metaphysical assumptions, different views of reality. Helping the kids to actually recognize that then create some space for talking about the nature of those assumptions. This is where Christianity is actually pretty strong in the history of thought. In the early 1900s, some of the very most famous philosophers in England, one of them was named Alfred North Whitehead. He said essentially that natural science was born in the cradle of Christianity. That we wouldn’t have had what we think of as modern natural science today if it wasn’t for medieval metaphysics and Christian thought.

What are those Christian thoughts? What are those aspects of Christian thought that lay the groundwork for natural science, or natural philosophy? These are things that the universe has ordered, and it’s an order that is knowable. That’s an interesting thing that that order is mathematical. That’s another interesting thing that didn’t seem to arise in other cultures as strongly.

There are three themes that I suggest that can help guide teachers as they think about how to talk about natural science, natural philosophy, these assumptions, and Christian thinking.

ravi Jain natural philosophy christian classical pedagogy homeschool conversations podcast liberal arts tradition

Communion of the body

The first one is the communion of the body. When we think about this in terms of the church, we think about being many members but one body in Christ. We also think about the mystery of the Trinity. How is one God three persons? This notion of one in many is something that you see a lot in biology or physics, how things come together and separate and come together and separate. That’s a theme that I like to emphasize with students.

Embodiment of the logos

The question of transcendent order and embodiment. We talked about the fact that there’s order in reality, yet it’s discoverable by us.

This is one of those themes that really leads to the birth of natural philosophy. I think if you read the New Testament, it’s just like everybody’s surprised that God has come to earth. Everybody is just absolutely shocked that Christ became incarnate, that Christ is God, and they can’t get their minds around the fact that Jesus is God. The incarnation is astounding. This idea of embodied order that God would become flesh. The incarnation of the word I think is what I would call a divine mystery. That we can think of the natural mystery as the embodiment of the logos. At creation, all things were made through Christ, through the logos.

This order, this logos was embodied in creation is what Athanasius and Maxwell the Confessor would say. This is again, a theme that I think can run throughout all the different science curriculum. The communion of the body or ontology you could call it ontology of communion, Trinitarian ontology is just the side of the communion of the body. The natural mystery of the embodiment of the logos and the divine mystery of the incarnation of the word.

The natural mystery of corporate causality and the divine mystery of the gospel

Then I think the third one is I like to associate it with the gospel. How is it that God calls us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and yet it is God who works in us causing us to will and to act according to his good creditors?

It’s a very interesting thing that we are to work out our salvation, but it’s God who works in us. I think the gospel we understand as God’s saving grace in our lives. How is it that God works and yet we’re also involved in that process of sanctification? This question about causality, I think is much more complex than natural science textbooks make it out to be. For the ancients, they thought about it as harmony, they thought about harmony a lot more. The moderns really reduced the category of harmony or cosmic harmony or the harmony of the spheres, the music of the spheres, what was the liberal art of music, they reduced that all down to the notion of natural laws.

The difference with a natural law versus the harmony of the spheres or a universal live with music is that these laws are generally externally imposed. Whereas when you think about harmony it’s more like people participating in making that order and that order rising up spontaneously from them. I talk about sometimes the mystery of corporate causality. The natural mystery of corporate causality and the divine mystery of the gospel. These three natural mysteries and divine mysteries, I think, form nice ways for the students to start thinking about mystery and truth.

That these different research programs, whether it’s Leibniz versus Newton or Einstein versus Bohr or string theory versus beginning of the cosmic foam or something like that. These different research paradigms, they often come from different metaphysical points. The way to keep track, I think, of these metaphysical points is to start thinking through them Christianly.

Amy: I think that’s really helpful too because it frees me up as a parent who’s not an expert on natural philosophy. I don’t know what string theory is. I haven’t delved deeply into some of these topics, but you can start asking questions. We talk in the homeschool community about being learners alongside our children, modeling that humility for them and this curiosity and wonder, “I don’t know, let’s learn.” Being able to just ask questions or look for those three themes that you brought up, look for ways in which a scientist’s assumptions have played out and worked themselves out in their research. Those are things that we can ask questions and then discover and look more deeply together with our students.

Questions we can ask our homeschool students to help them recognize scientists’ assumptions

As we’re doing this process and we’re talking to our students, you emphasize in your book, you emphasize a narrative approach, especially with older students asking questions. Do you think there are any other questions we can be asking to help our students start recognizing scientists’ assumptions or their ideas?

Ravi: It is helpful to start asking about disagreements. It becomes a little tricky because, for one, scientists don’t like to acknowledge their discrepancies. A book that I’ve used with my juniors and seniors is Steve Shapin’s book, The Scientific Revolution. In that book, one of Steve Shapin’s points is that in the birth of early modern science, they muted their dissent because the ideal of science was this idea that everybody’s going to agree because we had demonstrated it all.

Amy: There’s no mystery, right? They’ve taken off the mystery.

Ravi: That’s right. It’s become clear that that’s no longer the case, but he does a good job showing how that was something that they tried to cover up and hide, and the fact that there was dissent and disagreement. A good book on that is Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which shows that there’s clearly revolutions and so there’s paradigm shifts and things like that. There’s a lot of other people that do similar things. I think the difficulty is what you end up having to do here is that a lot of scientists, they’re not that aware of philosophy of science or the history of science.

You’ve got to be a little bit careful not to assume that any scientist you talk to recognizes that there is the disagreements and all these things. A good place to start as far as getting your students to ask questions is Nancy Pearcey’s book, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy. I had one student who he read that book I think three, four times before he graduated, then he said it was the only book he took with him when he went off to university to do his physics degree. He went to Duke. He’s a smart kid. [chuckles]

He just really loved that book because I think it led him to start knowing what kinds of questions to ask to see that the different sciences were beholden to different ideologies that they didn’t even always understand or know themselves.

Amy: It looks like I’ll have to add that book to my Amazon cart when we’re done. [chuckles]

Ravi: You can add that to your 17-year-old’s Amazon cart and make him or her read it.

Amy: Exactly.

Ravi: It must be awful for your kids that you just go, “Oh, you got to do this now. You got to do this.”

Amy: I’m going to be like, “Oh, I found another great book.”

Especially that senior, I’m feeling all the pressure. He’s read so many amazing books, and he loves to read and think through things and has his own to-be-read stack. He’s working through it on his own in his room. Even so, I feel like I’m getting down to the wire like, “Oh no, he’s about to leave home. What books have I still not had him read?” I have to remind myself he has his whole life. I don’t have to make sure he reads them all before he turns 18. It’ll be okay.

Ravi: Oh, no. That’s so true. That’s such a good point. You just plant seeds.

What Ravi is reading lately

Amy: Yes, exactly, and let God bear the fruit there. That is actually my next question. Speaking of needing new books to add to my Amazon cart, the question I love to ask all my guests at the end of the episode is, what are you personally reading lately?

Ravi: I saw that question. You don’t really want to know what I’m reading right now because I’m deep in the abstractions of philosophy of math. [chuckles] If I put that aside and think about what I can pretend to be reading–

Amy: Oh. Tell us the real answer first. I actually know a math nerd who listens to this podcast.

Ravi: I am reading a book by Hellman and Shapiro called Varieties of Continua, which is really unusual. It’s back to that question of trinitarian ontology for me and the question of the one and the many and the mystery of the one and the many. Only perhaps your math nerd friend will understand that one, so let me tell you some of the other stuff that I’ve looked at over the past year. I think it was the book, My Father’s Glory. Have you read that? Have you heard of that? It’s a French novel.

Amy: No, I don’t think so.

Ravi: It’s about Provence. I read that over the summer. I started reading Machiavelli. I read a lot of Machiavelli’s, The Prince, over the summer. Not very difficult and more interesting than I would’ve expected. If I’ve read it before, I couldn’t remember it. I’m actually working through Aristotle’s Metaphysics a little bit right now. Spending a lot more time in metaphysics than I would’ve expected. I think the Metaphysics is really a crazy book because you can read it and have no idea what it said.

It’s amazing that over 5 years, 10 years after intense study of all kinds of other stuff, you can go back to it and be like, “Oh, he said that. That’s interesting,” and realize that he was really advanced 2000 years ago on stuff that people are still arguing about and his points are really nuanced and complex. I barely understand it unless you get a lot of work in other areas. I really want somebody to write a simple book on metaphysics. Actually, I can recommend that. Another book I just got out of the library a couple of days ago was a book called Metaphysics by Anna Marmodoro.

It looks like a simple book on metaphysics, and she seems to have a position that I would have a lot in common with. Not positive that it would be great, but it does look good. That is something that I’m hoping to read over the next week or so.

Amy: Looks promising and maybe a little easier than Aristotle. Entry level.

Ravi: Yes. She’s an Aristotelian, and she’s contemporary. She’s here at Oxford, and a professor, and she’s very interested in classical thought and interested in Christian thought. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s a Christian, though I don’t know for sure, but she’s certainly very friendly towards Christian thought and classical thought. She’s one of the very few people that can make those kinds of connections for contemporary philosophers and be within that world of contemporary philosophy without always sounding completely obscure. At any rate, it might be. A lot of people here seem to like her, so that might be a good book.

Here is another book I just recommended to some people over the past few days. Have you heard of E. G. West’s book, Education and the State?

Amy: No, I have not.

Ravi: That’s a book that I think a lot of people should read in our circles, and I don’t think a lot of people have. E. G. West was British, and then I think he was professor in America for a long time, maybe Iowa. At any rate, he tracks the advent of public education in the 1870s in England and how it pushed out nascent church schools and private schools that were starting to fill the gap but had not quite yet filled the gap because the gap was coming out newly.

His argument is quite interesting for this generation where we’re thinking about charter schools and homeschooling and the relationship between education and the state. He’s got a number of important followers here today in England. Some people may have heard of James Tooley who wrote a book called The Beautiful Tree and that’s about low-cost education in the third world. He was very interested in E. G. West as another philosopher here named Anthony O’Hear. Anyway, I think this thought is something that I think we should all learn a little bit more from.

Amy: I’m going to have to add those to my list actually. I’m a part of a local, in-person classical education study group. I will have to add this, some of those books I’m like, “Maybe I will get them to want to read that with me so I will have an excuse to read them.” I don’t know if you’ve read J. Gresham Machen. He has a collection of essays. They’ve been compiled. He didn’t originally put them together, but the theme was also Christian Education and the State. Those were from the early 1900s and absolutely fantastic essays and very prescient. They sounded very timely like they could have been written yesterday but also recommend those.

Ravi: That’s right and good recommendation. There’s one more book that I need to share with you about because it’s a new book by Alister McGrath called Natural Philosophy. It just came out last month. I discovered about four or five months ago that he was going to release this book called Natural Philosophy. I was at a conference with him and we exchanged books and I was just like, astounding to me because he’s one of my heroes intellectually. I’m really excited. I think he’s made a shift from advocating primarily natural theology to now advocating natural philosophy, Christian natural philosophy in particular.

Oh, my son amazingly just brought me the book to show. Thank you, son.

Amy: Your perfect little assistant there. What timing. Thank you. Oh, that’s great. I will definitely add that one to the show notes too. This has been absolutely delightful. I always enjoy my interviews, but sometimes I get more excited about one than others and this has definitely been one I’ve been super excited to get to chat with you. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us all the way from Oxford.

Find Ravin Jain Online

Can you tell people where they can find you and your books all around the internet?

Ravi: I think has the best prices. Although shipping might be a little bit slower than Amazon. The first two books you can get so Liberal Arts Tradition, A New Natural Philosophy, you can get in those places. Enchanted Cosmos I think will come out next year. Enchanted Cosmos was a very interesting book to write on mathematics. We’ve been talking about A New Natural Philosophy, but the idea of redeeming math has now been on the forefront of my mind for the past five years.

Hopefully, that will come out in 2023. You can also buy at Classical Academic Press. I would like to say within a month or two, you can find me at or maybe it’s .com but that website’s actually been down for three or four years, so perhaps I can get it up in a month. I’ve been planning this too, so let’s see.

Amy: That will be something exciting. When you listen to this episode, check the show notes and I will have links to all of these things over in the show notes for this episode at I look forward to checking all this out and definitely look forward to your new book in 2023.

Ravi: Thanks, Amy. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.

Amy: Bye.

Check out all the other interviews in my Homeschool Conversations series!

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