iSoul In the beginning is reality

Category Archives: Naturalism

The history and philosophy of naturalism

Essentials of Christian Thought, part 4

The previous post in this series is here.

The key to this middle way, if it is truly a middle way between extremes, is divine self-limitation—the idea that the God of the Bible is vulnerable because he makes himself so out of love. p.139

… the personal God of the Bible is revealed there as the one “principle of all things,” “both cause and reason” for everything else’s existence. [Emil] Brunner also rightly emphasized that for the Christian this is no “theory of the world,” no rational, speculative hypothesis, but revealed truth of the “one word of God.” p.142

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Terms for science controversies

Controversies are more difficult than they need be. I have written about this before here and here. One challenge for dealing with controversies is that terminology is misleading, inaccurate, or loaded. Here are some examples from the creation-evolution controversy.

The term ‘evolution’ originally meant an unrolling, and was applied by Charles Lyell and Herbert Spencer to the idea that there was a natural progression over time from lower to higher organisms. Charles Darwin did not originally call his theory ‘evolution’ but others prevailed on him to use the term. Ever since people have confused the idea of progress with Darwin’s theory of unguided evolution.

Historically, Darwin’s theory is one of several theories of transmutation, which is any natural sequence of changes over time from lower to higher organisms. Darwin’s particular theory was that the natural variability of generations over a long time might result in some populations of lower species transmutating into higher species. In other words, varieties could become new species, which could become new genera, and so on.

The process Darwin theorized is not an unrolling as the term evolution would imply, and even transmutation gives it a direction which is not part of the undirected process. A better term would be “variationism” because it posits that every species starts as a variety, or variation of an existing species. It’s like a chemist who asserts that isotopes can become new elements.

A naturalist refers to person who studies nature. But it can also refer to one who promotes naturalism, the teaching that nature is all there is. It would be better to call the first kind of naturalist a ‘naturist’ since it is nature, not ‘the natural’ that they study.

Naturalism is the foundation of transmutationism, including the variationism known as evolution. Some would call a change “from molecules to man” evolution but evolutionists don’t like to address the origin of life. And cosmic evolution refers to the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It is naturalism that leads people to support stellar evolution, and other ideas in which ‘nature’ explains the whole history and condition of the universe.

Naturalism is opposed by creationism, though creationism is often paired against evolution. Creationism originally meant that God created the universe, without addressing what has happened since the creation. This is not a bad usage but what about the character of the original creation? It is not part of a natural progression, and is more than mere creation. The key issue is the creation of kinds of things, particularly populations that can vary only within created limits.

The question then is the existence of ‘natural kinds’ which are kinds of things that possess a fixed nature. To include creation in the concept, a ‘natural kind” would be a ‘created kind’. And someone who accepts ‘created kinds’ should be called a, well, ‘creationist’ in the sense that includes created kinds. At least this is not far from the common meaning today.

The term ‘scientist’ is problematic, too. It would literally mean someone who studies knowledge. That would refer to every discipline that concerns knowledge, including history, philosophy, theology, etc. But the term is meant for a restricted class of people who study empirical science. The correct term would seem to be ’empiricist’. However, empiricism is a teaching that all knowledge is based on sense experience. That usually means ‘scientism’ so we seem to be going in circles.

The solution is to broaden the definition of scientist to include all those who study the sciences, as distinct from the arts. The restricted usage would then be ’empirical scientist’. Since one does not need a license to practice science, unlike the medical or engineering professions, the term ‘scientist’ seems to be available for wider usage. So historians, philosophers, and theologians are scientists, too.

Interpretation of math and science

There’s a common understanding that most writings need to be interpreted — especially those of a religious or philosophical nature. But mathematical and scientific writings are similar and need to be interpreted, too.

Consider that mathematicians and scientists write as if they were creating a world. Mathematicians say things like, “Let there be a line and a point not lying on it such that …” Or scientists will say, “Occam’s razor is a principle of science” as if they can assert principles ex nihilo. How should these creations be interpreted?

Mathematicians write as if infinity were next door: “As x approaches infinity …” Scientists write as if the entire universe were in view: “The universal theory of gravitation states …” But universal theories turn out to have limitations. And the One who is actually infinite never appears in mathematics. So what do these locutions really mean?

Before the discovery or invention (which one?) of non-Euclidean geometry and its application to physics, it was common for people to think that Euclidean geometry described the space we live in. It is said that most mathematicians are Platonists, and believe that mathematical entities literally exist. Since the 19th century, the literal interpretation of science has been in ascendancy, in which nature is all that exists (i.e., scientific naturalism, see here).

Some say modern science was an unintended consequence of the Reformation’s rejection of levels of meaning in the Bible, which led to a more literal interpretation of God’s other book, the book of nature. The conclusion from all this is that mathematics and science need to be interpreted as much as religious or philosophical writings. What’s your interpretation?

Science stoppers and starters

An inference of intelligent design (ID), or any version of creationism, or whatever might hint at the supernatural is often considered a science stopper. See, for example, this and the final chapter of Stanley’s book reviewed earlier. Look at two key examples from the ID literature: Dembski’s design inference and Behe’s irreducible complexity inference. Do these stop further investigation?

One answer is Yes, because ID has a whiff of the supernatural, which some admit or boldly declare, and this violates naturalism. Stanley is right that the exclusion of the supernatural appears arbitrary, as a metaphysical restriction to science. Then who is really the science stopper here? Isn’t it those who insist that science cannot investigate anything with a whiff of the supernatural?

Another yes answer is because these authors have not followed up with more scientific results based on this inference. That is like saying, “I reject your A, B, C because you haven’t followed it up with D, E, F.” But if you aren’t convinced by A, B, C, how are you going to accept any D, E, F that depends on A, B, C? Show us your willingness to accept A, B, C first, and then your desire for D, E, F will be plausible.

Contrary to their critics, the ID community is not a well-heeled group of researchers. Unlike mainstream scientists, they have no funding from government sources. They have no state schools in which they can be employed and also teach or research ID because if any whiff of ID work becomes known, they will lose such employment. So it may take some patience waiting for further ID research.

But an inference of intelligent design or irreducible complexity should be a science starter. These are essentially discoveries of discontinuities, which should lead to new classifications and further research. The presence of a particular irreducible complexity, for example, indicates a particular class or type of organism. What are all of these classes or types? And what is the relationship between them? Here is an opportunity to conduct a whole program of science research.

Invention of the uniformity of nature

Previous posts review Matthew Stanley’s book, which describes how theistic science was displaced by naturalistic science in 19th century Britain. He calls the latter “scientific naturalism,” which is accurate since it is a version of the philosophy, naturalism. It would be opposed by “scientific theism,” though I don’t think he uses that term, perhaps because he didn’t want it to be confused with a particular version, such as the Scientific Theism of Augustus Hopkins Strong (of Strong’s Concordance fame).

One theme of Stanley’s book is the meaning of the uniformity of nature to theists and naturalists. However, he does not say that this was a new principle, one that was not previously thought necessary.

As John P. McCaskey points out in Induction Without the Uniformity Principle, the principle of uniformity goes back to Richard Whately and J. S. Mill and is based on their view of induction, which has this form:

This is true of some.
What is true of some is true of all.
Therefore, this is true of all.

The second statement (the major premise) is a uniformity principle. J. S. Mill made this central to induction. In 1843 he wrote:

Every induction is a syllogism with the major premise suppressed; or (as I prefer expressing it) every induction may be thrown into the form of a syllogism, by supplying a major premise. If this be actually done, the principle which we are now considering, that of the uniformity of the course of nature, will appear as the ultimate major premise of all inductions.

But in fact induction does not require a uniformity principle. McCaskey points out:

The other, and older, way to think about induction—Aristotle’s way, later revived during the Scientific Revolution—was to think not of particular and universal statements but of particular things, kinds of things, and universal properties, especially defining properties. If, say, attracting iron is a defining property of magnets, then by definition all magnets attract iron. In this way of thinking, the hard part is to figure out what properties should qualify as necessary to the class.

McCaskey’s whole article is worth reading but let me quote two more paragraphs:

The whole project of mature abstract thought is to identify similarities and differences, uniformities and changes, and to classify accordingly. And that—to Aristotle and followers such as Bacon and Whewell—is what induction is.

For them, classification, and therefore induction, comes before uniformity, not the other way around. It’s not that you must presume uniformity in order to classify. It’s that you classify to find uniformities. For Whately, uniformity is primary. For Aristotle’s followers, classification is primary.

These two views of induction encapsulate two kinds of science: (1) a science in which classification and the distinction of types is primary, whereas questions of uniformity or change are secondary; and (2) a science in which uniformity and uniform change are primary, whereas classification and the distinction of types is secondary.

The uniformity view of induction prepared the way for Darwin. An extreme version of the uniformity of nature prepared the way for scientific naturalism.

From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 8

Part 7 is here. Chapter 7 is on how the naturalists “won.” In short, they pushed their agenda with their opponents hardly noticing.

p. 242 – Huxley won. Modern science is practiced naturalistically, and most scientists would be baffled to think that there was any other way — precisely what the scientific naturalists were trying to achieve.

This is exactly how Huxley wanted one to think about science — it had always been naturalistic, just at times forced into a theistic prison that disguised it. All that needed to be done was to release it. However, as we have seen in previous chapters, this was not the case. The connections between theism and scientific values were deeply rooted, and indeed seemed completely necessary to most men of science.

The historical arc resulting in modern naturalism is long and complicated. Even in the Victorian period, many of the relevant ideas appeared outside science … However, I am interested in a precise, but critical, part of the story: how did practitioners of science come to embrace naturalism as essential to their work?

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From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 7

Part 6 is here. Chapter Six is on free will and natural laws. A philosophical dispute took center stage, with the future of science and society at stake.

p. 194 – Victorian society’s base assumption was that the soul and will could act freely, whether to select a meal or to accept divine grace. Being divinely created and endowed, the soul was qualitatively different from the crude matter around it and was thus exempt from having all its future states already determined as a rolling billiard ball would.

Applying the uniformity of nature to the mind, [Huxley and the scientific naturalists] said, demanded that animal and humans be considered as automata. The original Greek term meant a self-moving object, but in the eighteenth century it came to refer to an entity incapable of free will, a soulless machine.

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From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 6

Part 5 is here. Chapter Five is on Intellectual Freedom.

p. 153 – The narrative presented by the scientific naturalists was one of liberation. Only with the escape from dogmatic theology was science able to pursue truth and accuracy.

But this value was also widely held by religious figures, including Maxwell and his fellow theistic scientists. They agreed completely with Huxley that intellectual freedom and the right of individuals to pursue ideas were fundamental to science. However, they linked these values to true religion while Huxley defined them as opposite to false theology.

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From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 5

Part 4 is here. Chapter Four on the Goals of Science Education describes how Maxwell and Huxley each volunteered to teach at the Working Men’s College but for very different reasons.

p. 119 – This idea that a religious intent is incompatible with science education is a major part of the educational side of modern scientific naturalism. The claim is that the goals of science teaching are incompatible with theist religion.

We will see that the values and goals of science education for both theists and naturalists found common ground in the classrooms of the working classes.

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From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 4

Part 3 of this series is here. This post covers Chapter Three on the Limits of Science. Note: “man of science” was the common expression for scientist in Britain until the 20th c.

p. 80 – Victorian science saw many dramatic shifts in what counted as “science,” and figures such as Huxley and Maxwell were under constant pressure to justify their work as valid and reliable. Both of them, in rather different ways, struggled to clearly articulate what they saw as the proper limits of science and how their claims fell within them. For Huxley, this took the form of his agnosticism; for Maxwell, his development of scientific models.

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