Floris Cohen

Troubling Knowledge

Kepler to Einstein in Eleven Written Portraits

What has science left us of religion? Nothing? Everything?

The history of science is often presented as a victory of reason over the prejudices of faith and superstition. But many scientists, including the most prominent, believed in God or were of the opinion that there were more things in heaven and earth than science could ever reveal. How did they conceive of the field of tension? Why did they think there need be no conflict between scientific and religious outlooks?

Floris Cohen is regarded the world over as one of the foremost authorities on the emergence of modern science in seventeenth-century Europe, which he analyzed in his How Modern Science Came Into the World. He now investigates, in ten portraits, the tussle between knowledge and faith, sharing with us his own thoughts on his scientific heroes. Based on an in-depth analysis of the history of science, he shows us the diverse ways in which scientists have come to terms with their sense that a higher power exists.

What has science left us of religion? Nothing? Everything? A meagre remnant or the very essence? In Troubling Knowledge Floris Cohen describes how scientists, from Galileo to Kepler and Darwin, wrestled with that question, and how they found their way despite being drawn to both science and religion. He has sought out scientists who felt an affinity for faith while realizing that it was impossible to find rational foundations for that faith.

They include many major figures: Galileo, Pascal, Newton, Kant, Max Weber and Einstein, and from our own times Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. By analysing their lives, work and belief in God, Cohen reveals the relationship these great scientists had with religion.

On by far the majority of pages, we are addressed by Cohen the historian. In that role he is unsurpassed; as well as being erudite, he is a gifted narrator. As a result he has transformed the mostly tough material that makes up the history of science over the past 400 years into an exciting story.


Cohen is hugely well informed, doesn’t jump to conclusions, knows how to put it all into words and is wise, too, never laughing at our stupid forefathers, not even at our religious stupid forefathers. At the end of the book you think: well, even today we’re a long way from understanding everything, and perhaps there is still room for those who believe in mysteries.


Floris Cohen

Floris Cohen (b. 1946) is a professor of the comparative history of the natural sciences at Utrecht University. His two previous books were The Recreation of the World. The Rise of Modern Science Explained (2007) and Isaac Newton and True Knowledge (2010). In 2008, Cohen was awarded the Dutch…

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Het knagende weten (2016). Non-fiction, 304 pages.

English sample available

Themes: history



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