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

Whether or not one takes the Genesis narratives of creation literally, their theological meaning is obvious to anyone who approaches them without bias against personal theism: The whole world, the universe, everything outside of God, was created by God “in the beginning.” p.143

And, yes, God has mind, intelligence, thought, purpose, but his essence is not “Mind” (Nuos) as Greek philosophy conceived it. p. 145

According to the biblical narrative, then, there are two basic categories of reality—God’s, which is supernatural and personal (but not human), eternal, independent, self-sufficient; and the world’s, which is dependent but good, filled with purpose and value and governed as well as sustained by God. p.145

The distinct, singular personhood of God, the reality of God as a being among beings, not an all-inclusive, unconditioned, absolute Being Itself, is a hallmark of the biblical portrayal of God. p.147

By the free act of creation, by creating something outside of himself with limited autonomy, the God of the Bible has become a being beside other beings and limited by them in a limited way. p.149

… the difference between God and humans is character, not personhood. p.149

As philosopher Plantinga explained, the scientific search for truth assumes nature is not all there is. If nature is all there is, then truth itself is a chimera and our human faculties for discovering and knowing it are unreliable. p.151

As already explained, according to the biblical view of God and the world, the world has a relative autonomy over against God—by God’s own design. Yet neither nature nor history are independent processes operating entirely under their own laws and powers. p. 151

Modern Christian thinkers such as Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710–96), Horace Bushnell (1802–76), and C. S. Lewis, among many others, went out of their way to explode the myth that a miracles must be a divine interruption of nature—as if, in order to act in special ways, God must “break into” a world that operates like a machine alongside of, over against, and independently of God’s immanent, continuing creative activity. The biblical-Christian view of nature and history is the both are in some sens always already the activity of God. That is not to say that everything that happens in them is the direct, antecedent will of God; it is only to say that, from a biblical and Christian perspective, the very laws of nature are, in some sense, simply regularities of God’s general providential activity. And history is always being guided, directed, and governed by God—even when God’s human creatures, endowed with free will, rebel and act against God’s perfect will. According to a biblical-Christian worldview, God’s agency is always the principle and power underlying everything. p.152

That means, then, that a miracle is never a “breaking” of nature’s laws, a “violation” of nature, or a “disruption” of history’s story as if nature and history were normally operating under their own power and overcome by God “from the outside.” That is the myth about the supernatural and miracles imposed by modern naturalism. p.152

Rather, from a biblical-Christian perspective, a miracle is simply an event in which God acts through nature in an unusual way. p.152-3

The ultimate reality of the biblical narrative, God, is self-sufficient but also vulnerable. He is not dependent on anything outside himself and yet, at the same time, opens himself to influence by his own creatures. … God’s self-sufficiency is his freedom; his vulnerability is the product of his love. p.154

According to [Thomas F. Torrance], the Genesis creation narrative itself implies God’s entrance into time. p.157

Catholic Tresmontant affirmed that the God of the Bible, unlike the ultimate reality of Greek philosophy, is not an unchanging sameness but ever active life and action. p.157

For Cherbonnier, God’s immutability is simply his faithfulness, not his static being-ness without becoming or eternity without temporality. p.158

That is, the biblical story consistently correlates virtue and knowledge but not in the Greek sense of “to know the good is to do the good.” Rather, for the Bible and Christian thought generally, “doing the good,” by God’s grace and with faith, produces knowledge of ultimate reality as the ultimate good. p.162

But also, Brunner argued, the whole idea of an objective moral law, “right” and “wrong,” depends on ultimate reality being a personal God. p.162

For biblical-Christian thought, then, metaphysics and ethics are inseparable. p.163

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?

p.243 – The shift among men of science from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries was remarkable. There were surely many processes involved in the way naturalists came to dominate science. I will here concentrate on three possibilities. Two of these — taking control of science education in Britain, and naturalizing theistic concepts — were deliberate strategies on the part of the naturalists, which they carried out quite effectively. The third was the broader shifts in religious life in Great Britain at the turn of the twentieth century. All three built upon the common grounds of theistic and naturalistic scientific practices to create a smooth transition instead of a disruptive revolution. This gentle shift allowed for the sense that there had been no change in science — it had always been thus.

If the naturalists wanted to truly change science, as opposed to simply promoting themselves, they needed to alter the entire system by which professors of science were made and chosen. Huxley thought strategically about how best to achieve this. A major part of his strategy was to shape the next generation of science teachers, so as to start a pipeline of like-thinking practitioners.

[Huxley] was deeply involved in the creation of biology professorships all over Britain in the 1870s and 1880s, and worked hard to influence who received those positions. His goal was to place candidates who were ideologically sound (i.e., purely naturalistic) as well as scientifically talented. In this he was quite successful.

p. 244 – [Huxley] was not reticent to share his plans in colorful language: to one correspondent he described “a course of instruction in Biology which I am giving to Schoolmasters — with the view of converting them into scientific missionaries to convert the Christian Heathen of these islands to the true faith.” These courses trained new teachers to think naturalistically, and even to see naturalistically, as Graeme Gooday has shown.

p. 246 – The exams became a way to distribute and enforce a naturalistic catechism for science. Those hoping to become science students or teachers needed to study Huxley’s syllabus, lessons, and textbooks.

Lightman comments that “every school child that read [Huxley’s] introduction to science would be trained to reject the very premises of theologies of nature.”

p.247 –  By the end of the century Huxley’s methods were well entrenched …

p. 248 – Huxley designed his teaching to stand for what Adrian Desmond calls a “distinct ideological faction” that clearly marked off acceptable (naturalistic) from unacceptable (theistic) ways of thinking about science.

In order for the scientific naturalists to dominate, they had to make their view of science seem obvious and inevitable. This goal had the major problem of two centuries of theistic science — how could science be naturalistic by definition if it had been practiced theistically for so many years? The naturalists’ strategy was to rewrite the history of their discipline to erase the long tradition of theistic science.

Moore suggests that a critical part of this process was the development of a new naturalistic theodicy based on order and progress.

p.249 – So the practices and methods of theistic scientists could often be imported into naturalistic work with simple relabeling, or sometimes without comment at all. Huxley was particularly skilled at this.

[Huxley] simply stressed the points on which they agreed — natural laws — then elsewhere argued that natural laws were solely naturalistic.

p. 251 – For Maxwell (and most theistic scientists), it made perfect sense to discuss religious matters alongside unifications of the laws of nature.

p. 254 – Opportunities to recast theistic science as naturalistic often appeared in the form of memoirs and memorials, which Huxley and friends were happy to take.

p. 256 – The key to this naturalization strategy was for Huxley to tell a new story about the history of science. By naturalizing theistic science, he was able to argue that science had always been naturalistic. That is, by naturalizing the tradition of theistic science, he was able to remove it from history completely, making naturalism the obvious and solitary way to do science. This was why he was always eager to place his arguments in the mouths of historical figures — it gave historical continuity and gravitas to those arguments.

p. 257 – Huxley’s vision of the history of science was one of expanding naturalism, beaten down occasionally by orthodoxy, but never corrupted in its purity. Theism could be found beside science, or obscuring it, though never in it. The connections between theism and science, such as natural laws, that were so clear to Maxwell and his contemporaries were relabeled as something quite different.

The changes Huxley was seeking in science were supported in powerful ways by major shifts in the social role of religion in Britain at the end of the Victorian period.

p. 258 – Jose Harris suggests that this movement of religious practice from public to private spaces was itself the result of a critical Victorian religious value — religion should be purely a matter of private conscience.

Bernard Lightman has shown that the venerable “clergyman-naturalist” tradition survived the attacks of the scientific naturalists. … The survival of theistic science was, like Edwardian Christianity in general, quiet and easily overlooked.

p. 259 – Bowler documents the efforts of these liberals to “reconcile” science and religion. But these liberals did not see themselves as continuing the Victorian tradition of theistic science. Rather, they saw themselves as beginning a new tradition of religious science that would sweep away the alleged materialism of the nineteenth century. They accepted the story that the scientific naturalists told — that theology had never been in science. Their rhetoric about how the new science was welcoming religion only made sense if science had, in fact, been purged of religious thought.

However, naturalism by no means stayed in Britain. The works of Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer moved to America quite quickly. Their writings proved just as popular as in Britain.

p. 260 – By far the most important American convert to naturalism was John Dewey. That educational philosopher was a major figure in making naturalism the default mode of conversation in science education.

p. 261 – Dewey’s naturalistic ideas about science became central to American educational reform in the early twentieth century.

Dewey classified religious thought as “not creative but conservative.” Anti-Darwinian ideas were not religious per se, because religion could not create new thoughts. … Conversations about science had to be purely naturalistic.

Dewey was not a ferocious [evangelizing] naturalist like Huxley or Tyndall, and that is precisely why he is significant. He had become convinced that naturalism was the ordinary and obvious way to do science, and he expressed that in his philosophy of education.

p.262 – It is remarkable how the naturalistic narrative came to be the standard even for religious figures, who seem to have forgotten their own intellectual ancestry. It is important to note that Huxley’s strategies did not make it impossible to be a religious scientist — rather, they flipped the default setting for scientists from theistic to naturalistic. Religious scientists in the twentieth century were the ones under the obligation to justify themselves, just as the young Huxley and Tyndall had been forced to do.

There was no dramatic break in which naturalistic men of science had to create their own community, as Boyle and friends had to do in the seventeenth century.

p.263 – A major remaining issue is why the theistic scientists let this happen. Why were they outmaneuvered by Huxley?

To a certain degree this was simply a matter of complacency. Theistic science had been the default mode for a very long time. Proactive organization and training to protect it seemed unnecessary for the system that was already embedded in power. Theistic men of science did not seriously think that theism could be completely displaced from science, any more than Christianity could be truly displaced from the core of British life. By the time that they realized that elementary science education was in the hands of naturalists (if indeed they ever noticed), it was far too late.


p. 265 – The transition from theism to naturalism was remarkably smooth.

[The author then contrasts this with the contemporary ID movement in terms that I think are inaccurate.]

Quite different, however, is the intelligent design community of the twenty-first century. ID scholars have not been able to participate in mainstream science journals and organizations. This is generally not because of scientific dogma or prejudice, but rather because they refuse to accept the principles of the uniformity of nature, the provisional character of science, and so forth, which have been the core methodological values of science since at least the dawn of the Victorian period.

p. 266 – A major factor that sets ID apart from theistic science is the deep concerns of Maxwell and others about the further development of science. Despite his reverence for the Bible and divine creation, Maxwell worked hard to avoid what are today called “science stoppers.” … a declaration that a mysterious phenomenon will never be understood, and must simply be accepted as divine action. An important example is Michael Behe’s claims that the lack of understanding of certain biochemical processes indicates that science will never understand those properties, and therefore nonnatural explanations (chiefly divine action) must be considered. If this claim is accepted, then biochemistry is at an end — no further research can be done, and nothing new can ever be learned.

p. 267 – … what we might think of as a “naturalism gap” — professional scientists and other intellectuals are thoroughly educated in the Huxleyian views of science, while the broader public is not.

This suggests a wider problem with the use of the term naturalism by science advocates today. They use it in the same sense that Huxley did, intending to point to positive scientific values while leaving “true religion” untouched. But the term cannot seem to shake its original pejorative connotation of opposition to the supernatural. It sounds irredeemably hostile to religion, regardless of the subtleties we might want to attach to it. Modifying it to “methodological naturalism” does not help much — Plantinga is correct that is sounds like a simple cover for “provisional atheism.” Certainly Maxwell would not have agreed that his work was methodologically naturalistic — he saw God and religious considerations as critical facets of his scientific methodology.

p. 268 – Laudan notes that philosophy has not been very successful at defining science, which makes accusations that ID is “unscientific” rather vague.

Laudan points out that if creationists make claims, “we should confront their claims directly and in piecemeal fashion by asking what evidence and arguments can be marshaled for and against each of them.” If their claims are testable, they should be tested.

But if we instead declare them unscientific because they fail the test of naturalism, those claims become irrefutable. And even worse, it makes the ground rules of science seem arbitrary and dogmatic by excluding certain claims by definition. This provides ammunition to those attacking science, who do not hesitate to paint science as functioning only through oppressive authority. Refusing to acknowledge an idea because it has its roots in religion makes scientists look as though they are afraid of open debate.

p. 270 – Theistic science was once the mainstream of science, and its successes suggest that there are a variety of ways to think about the foundations of scientific practice. Today we live in Huxley’s church, and it is easy to forget that it was not always there.

The end. Part 1 is here.

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.

p. 195 – It was on this issue — freedom of the will — that we can see the formation of the deepest fractures between theism and naturalism in Victorian science.

p. 199 – A particularly important natural law for physiology and psychology was that of the conservation of energy. As Frank Turner showed, that principle became one of the pillars of the naturalistic worldview, not least because of its enormous impact on questions of mind-body interactions.

p. 200 – Looking back on the previous generation of physiology [research], Huxley triumphantly declared that humans, just as much s the horse, were fuel-consuming, energy-limited machines.

p. 201 – Once physiologists could measure nerve force the way they measured the length of a limb, the mind could be treated as wholly within the uniformity of nature.

The dependence of mind on matter became a serious issue for Huxley in defending Darwin’s theory, particularly around the publication of The Descent of Man, as some critics tried to object that human mental capacity could not have evolved by physical means.

p. 202 – [Huxley] acknowledged that some objected to this position as materialistic. With his typical caginess, Huxley toyed with the meaning of the term until only “rhetorical sciolists [those who pretend to have knowledge]” could object to its use.

[Huxley:] Whatever reason we have for believing that the changes which take place in the normal cerebral substance of man give rise to states of consciousness, the same reason exists for the belief that the modes of motion of the cerebral substance of an ape, or of a dog, produce like effects.

p. 203 – These unconscious movements [e.g., reflexes] were used by Huxley as the foundation for far-reaching claims about the nature of animals and humans: his theory of automatism.

The result was the infamous “On the Hypothesis That Animals Are Automata, and Its History.” This was classic Huxley: a verbose, pointed historical narrative about the triumph of naturalism.

p. 207 – The scientific naturalists were relentless in claiming the human consciousness for the uniformity of nature. They were unwilling to accept that the mind functioned differently from the material world.

p. 210 – With the body and the mind pulled firmly within the uniformity of nature, and the will defined away, Huxley arrived at a controversial position of long standing. Commonly called determinism, sometimes necessitarianism, it was usually phrased negatively: there was no room for freedom of action in the world. The laws of nature allowed no exceptions, bringing rigid causality even to the living world.

p. 212 – Huxley’s lecture on [the method of] Zadig placed successful prediction and retrodiction as the markers of true science, and also what made it so threatening to the orthodox.

Huxley was aware that the most difficult defense of free will to stamp out would be that based on direct experience — the unbreakable sense that one can choose what to eat for dinner, therefore free will must be real. Balfour declared it “ludicrous” to think it was illusory. This subjective sense of will was impossible to observe, but equally impossible to debunk.

p. 214 – As always, Huxley delighted in turning theologians against their own. He could then paint attacks on him as simple prejudice — if Balfour truly objected to determinism, why was he not attacking Luther? In truth, was this not simply one more example of orthodoxy gone awry? Augustine and Calvin were happy to see man as a conscious automaton.

p. 215 – Huxley’s automaton theory stirred deep controversy. It was one thing for Huxley to tell people they were animals; it was something else entirely for him to tell people they were machines. Even beyond Darwin, the steam-whistle model of deterministic consciousness seemed to annihilate the last vestiges of human uniqueness. With the destruction of the possibility of an efficacious soul came a host of psychological and social threats.

p. 216 – Right and wrong could mean nothing if there was not a sense of being able to choose between them. A will must be able to choose between two alternatives or there could be no moral accountability.

p. 221 – [William] Carpenter reiterated that he understood, and indeed helped formulate, much of the physiology that the scientific naturalists claimed inevitably led to determinism. Against this he denied the possibility that “any conceivable play of molecular forces” could explain how an idea could come to dominate an entire nation.

p. 227 – Maxwell’s response to these developments appeared in an essay for the Eranus Club on science and free will. He began the essay by stating that free will was the essential problem bridging physics and metaphysics. He was clear that philosophy, religious or otherwise, must take into account the progress of science.

p. 228 – Stewart argued that there were two kinds of mechanical systems, stable and unstable. Both could be considered as machines and obeyed the laws of mechanics, but because they were regular and calculable, only stable systems had been studied closely. However, there were also unstable systems where an infinitesimal amount of energy could set a system in motion, such as when a balanced eggs falls in one direction and not another.

Maxwell was delighted with the development of the concept of instability. He argued in an anonymous review that the stable/unstable division called into question many of the fundamentals of determinism, most notably the notion of an unbroken causality that can be precisely understood.

p. 230 – At a singular state “a strictly infinitesimal force of equally possible paths, as the pointsman at a railway junction directs the train to one set of rails or another.”

The problem, Maxwell said, was that investigators had not been careful about applying results from one domain of knowledge to another.

p. 231 – There were two extremes on which Maxwell thought one could err. The first was to try to explain the emergence of consciousness from material processes.

The second extreme was to accept the existence of the soul, but then try to justify its properties in material terms.

p. 232 – [The soul] was outside the explanatory range of science.

p. 235 – The same metaphor that Maxwell constructed to explore the human will reappeared here inside containers of heated gas [in what Thomson/Kelvin called “Maxwell’s demon”].

p. 236 – The pointsman was not intended to show the unrestricted force of the will. It was meant to show that the will could act even within a wide range of restrictions.

p. 238 – It follows from [the activity of the demon] that the idea of dissipation of energy depends on the extent of our knowledge.

p. 239 – Maxwell asserted that thinking of humans simply as machines was a choice: “Either be a machine and see nothing but ‘phenomena,’ or else try to be a man, feeling your life interwoven, as it is, with many others, and strengthened by them whether in life or death.” One could either accept the reality of our experiences of volition and sociability or discard it, but rejecting that reality was asserting a particular boundary to science.

p. 241 – The evidence of uniform processes at work in the human body was agreed upon by all, but how to think about the significance of that evidence caused a profound split. The differing commitments of naturalists and theists could find no common ground on these issues. The human mind, particularly the will, became the thin end of the wedge.

Part 8 is here.

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.

p. 154 – Huxley proclaimed his “untiring opposition to that ecclesiastical spirit, that clericalism, which in England, as everywhere else, and to whatever denomination it may belong, is the deadly enemy of science.”

p. 155 – Huxley, despite counting a number of personal friends in the ministry, concluded that “clerically-minded people cannot be accurate, even the liberals.”

p. 156 – [Huxley] blamed his own difficulty with accepting evolution on how in his “early childhood he was indoctrinated with the reasonings of a great divine [Paley].”

Even further, he was reluctant to allow women into science because they were too susceptible to these “ignorant parsonese superstitions.”

p. 157 – [Huxley:] “Ecclesiasticism says: The demonology of the Gospels is an essential part of that account of that spiritual world, the truth of which it declares to be certified by Jesus. Agnosticism says: There is no good evidence of the existence of a demoniac spiritual world, and much reason for doubting it.”

p. 158 – Huxley delighted in demonstrating the shifting sources of ecclesiastical authority, especially if he could find disagreement among the members of a group.

p. 159 – [Huxley:] “I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian world call, and so far as I can see are justified in calling, atheist and infidel.”

The core version of Huxley’s narrative, around which several variants were formed, was this: a pure religion emerges and provides ethical guidance, but later figures encrust that religion with dogma and doctrines that corrupt it.

p. 161 – In seeking a life free from unjust authority, Huxley regarded as the last redoubt the right to think and believe as one wished. If liberty did not mean an unbound mind, it meant nothing.

p. 164 – [After describing Huxley’s anti-Catholicism:] As bad as the Anglicans were, at least they had good taste.

p. 166 – [Huxley on the Catholic Mivart:] … “let him not imagine he is, or can be, both a true son of the Church and a loyal soldier of science.”

p. 167 – Huxley’s placement of the Catholic Church as the distillation of all that was wrong with theology also helps explain his rejection of positivism. Some of the philosophical and methodological aspects of positivism were appealing to Huxley, but he could never accept the “religion of humanity” cloak in which Auguste Comte had wrapped them. It was no better to worship philosophers than to worship saints.

p. 168 – An essential part of Huxley’s vision of intellectual freedom was the right to doubt, to criticize, and be criticized. Vigorous, even fierce debate was held to be essential to science.

p. 171 – Huxley’s praise for the open-mindedness of himself and his friends did not, of course go unchallenged. Some of his students reported that his teaching fell far short of encouraging students to think for themselves. Critics declared that men of science had come to “constitute in our day a sort of lay-priesthood, as narrow, and intolerant, and tyrannous in temper as the priesthood of the Church ever was in the days of it darkest supremacy.” Some attacked the scientific naturalists’ idolization of Darwin as exactly the sort of argument from authority that they claimed to despise.

p. 172 – It could be phrased this way: for Huxley, religious education was acceptable, but not sectarian or theological education.

p. 174 – [Huxley] had no plan for a purely secular education that involved no religious ideals, individuals, or values.

The great surprise came when Huxley approved of the reading of the Bible in the schools.

And beyond this moral value, Huxley posited that the Bible was so interwoven with English culture and life that it would be a great crime to ignore it.

p. 175 – As an antidote to theological poison, [Huxley] recommended deep drinks from “the undefiled spring.” He emphasized that it was the right and duty of every man to address the scriptures with his own judgment and without any doctrinal filter.

p. 176 – Huxley went so far as to call the Bible “the most democratic book in the world.”

p. 178 – Maxwell provides an important lesson in the variety of religious belief and practice that was sometimes mistaken for orthodoxy.

Maxwell was known to say “I have no nose for heresy” and to look for points of agreement and cooperation with those of different positions.

p. 180 – Personal decision and responsibility were the keys. Maxwell argued, from a deeply religious position, against thinking of clerics as having any special authority and for the need of individuals to come to their own conclusions — points that would seem very familiar to Huxley.

p. 182 – Victorian Protestants saw themselves as guardians of freedom as much as political radicals did. However, they saw the source of liberty to be God …

p. 184 – Like Huxley, [Maxwell] saw Roman Catholicism as a terrible institution that functioned by compelling belief and practice.

p. 186 – The theists and naturalists’ shared values provided a solid foundation on which they could work productively.

p. 187 – Beyond this intellectual and educational intercourse, the theists and the naturalists maintained “easy social relations.”

p. 188 – The theistic and naturalistic scientists were, generally speaking, not close confidants. They were colleagues.

p. 189 – Anger at Belfast

[Note: In 1874 John Tyndall addressed the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAA) at Belfast in which he declared science to be naturalistic. This broke the collegiality between theistic and naturalistic scientists. See Lightman.]

The sentiments offered by Tyndall were not particularly new. However, I suggest that it appeared to the theists that Tyndall was trying to use his position as president of the BAAS to enforce his naturalism: precisely the sort of institution-based coercion of belief that both parties had agreed was antithetical to science.

Maxwell recorded his reactions to the [Belfast] address in two [satiric] poems … [which] show his visceral feeling of being attacked and coerced by the scientific naturalists.

p. 191 – Calling [Tyndall] a “poet-philosopher,” Maxwell mocked the molecular creation story that depended on nothing but incompressible spheres and force, particularly the idea that such stories could explain emotion and will.

p. 192 – [Maxwell] worried that the scientific naturalists were claiming the complete monopoly on power and political absolutism of Hobbes. And as the citizens ruled by Leviathan gave up their individual political activity in favor of the monarch, Maxwell feared that the diversity of individual views within British science might be quashed by the naturalistic ideology.

Part 7 is here.

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.

p. 130 – An education in science was thus a crucial part of rescuing the working classes from the linked dangers of ignorance and political radicalism.

p. 133 – Despite his many projects, Maxwell devoted a great deal of effort to working-class education over the course of his career. Why? Part of this was certainly noblesse oblige from his role as a Scottish Laird. He had a genuine sense of a need to make the most of his elevated social role.

p. 134 – Upon his evangelical conversion, Maxwell committed himself to live as an instrument of God’s will, and he seems to have latched onto teaching as an expression of that. His feeling of everyday work being part of a divine plan were quite strong.

And Maxwell had high expectations for the results of his science teaching. Practical benefit and more efficient engineering were useful side effects of science but they were not the important parts of science education. In his inaugural lecture at Aberdeen he declared that science education helped grow “that well ordered steady frame of mind and manners which belongs to educated men and by which they are distinguished from the undisciplined.”

p. 135 – Maxwell did not expect his students to dedicate their lives to science, but rather to take the mental and moral benefits that came from learning science and apply those to all professions.

p. 136 – [Maxwell:] “We are daily receiving fresh proofs that the popularisation of scientific doctrines is producing as great an alteration in the mental state of society as the material applications of science are effecting in its outward life.” This was certainly very impressive, but he worried that this influence had created a situation in which people would believe anything as long as it sounded scientific.

p. 137 – [Maxwell] was very concerned about those who claimed science as a weapon in favor of revolutionary politics or against Christianity, and explicitly framed his own science teaching as a remedy for those dangers.

p. 138 – Huxley’s interest in education stemmed from a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the existing school system in Britain, which he saw as being particularly unfair to the working classes. At best, it was inaccessible to them; at worst, it actively reinforced their subservience to an archaic authoritarian social structure. He felt victimized personally by this system, having been closed out of the Oxbridge system and its resulting career boost.

p. 139 – Adrian Desmond has argued that Huxley fashioned a low-class Dissenting image of science: no priesthood had “access to her deepest secrets”: they were accessible to anyone.

Overturning the British class system and replacing it with a social meritocracy became an enduring theme for Huxley’s career.

For Huxley, the class system’s chief weapon was the traditional British education. Its greatest sin was it instillation of blind, unthinking worship of authority.

p. 141 – Huxley said a classical education was fine, as long as you had no interest in learning anything new. For that, you needed science. … “The mediaeval view was that all knowledge worth having was explicitly or implicitly contained in various ancient writings; in the Scriptures, in the writings of the greater Greeks, and those of the Christian Fathers.”

This was in contrast to his vision of a modern university, which embraced science and the values of intellectual progress.

p. 145 – For Huxley, the beneficial effects of science education came from encountering facts. … It was the conditioning of the mind to deal with, apprehend, and appreciate facts that was valuable. He credited learning anatomy as the best way to gain these skills.

p. 147 – The traditional British liberal education aimed at the formation of character, and Huxley was unwilling to concede that ground to his enemies. He argued that science could be a moral discipline as easily as literature was. Moral lessons could follow from direct encounters with facts and the laws of nature.

p. 148 – [For Huxley] The breaking point, however, was Christian doctrine. No “theological dogmas” whatsoever could be allowed in the classroom. The imposition of belief via authority was absolutely unacceptable.

Huxley hardly hid his opinion that science education would pry the misled away from the authority of the established Church, but he certainly saw room for the survival of religion. He saw his science as a danger only to the flimsy, self-serving doctrines of antiquated theology.

p. 149 – Both [Maxwell and Huxley] were interested in training the working classes to think about truth, but Maxwell’s had a capital T — scientific truth was mainly practice for thinking about the truths of God, and the truths of man as laid down by God. Huxley’s truth, on the other hand, had no divine pedigree and its revelation was reliant on messy, human common sense.

p. 150 – The social benefits traditionally associated with natural theology gradually became co-opted over the second half of the nineteenth century by those espousing a purely naturalistic cosmology.

p. 151 – … the Working Men’s College show how science education brought Christians and agnostics together. Rather than being a wedge between the religious and the secular, science education was a glue that bound them together in a common cause.

p. 152 – Advocates of the new professional science certainly aimed for complete detachment from the old ways, but for some decades their attitudes toward education fit neatly with the religious frameworks of Maxwell and his allies.

Part 6 is here.

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.

p. 81 – The definitive work on agnosticism is Bernard Lightman’s Origins of Agnosticism. Lightman locates the roots of agnosticism at the intersection of Hume, Kant, and Dean Henry Mansel’s 1858 Brampton lectures. Mansel’s attempt to ward off historical and literary analysis of the Bible by emphasizing man’s inability to apprehend the divine was flipped by Huxley to argue that humans could make no positive statements about God, and thus that theology could never have the persuasive force of science. Following this reasoning, he took the position that if no certain knowledge of God could be attained, then there could also never be a positive denial of God’s existence. Taking Hume and Kant’s warnings about theological certainties into account, he defended “the limitation of all knowledge or reality to the world of phenomena revealed to us by experience.”

p. 83 – He worked to show that agnosticism had a genuine philosophical pedigree, and that it had genuine enemies. Those who possessed “unqualified assurance” were explicitly targeted. In particular, theologians who claimed absolute knowledge were placed as the targets for the arrows forged by Hume, Locke, and Kant.

p. 84 – Miracles violated the key principle of agnosticism–“that we know nothing of what may be beyond phenomena”–because they tried to link experience to something beyond human reason; namely, divine action.

While [Huxley] was happy to use agnosticism as a tool to deny theists their fundamentals, he was equally committed, in principle, to applying it to his allies: “To my mind, atheism is, on purely philosophical grounds, untenable. That there is no evidence of the existence of such a being as the God of the theologians, is true enough; but strictly scientific reasoning can take us no further. Where we know nothing we can neither affirm nor deny with propriety.”

p. 87 – The scientific naturalists relentlessly trumpeted their rejection of a priori, idealist, or overly speculative reasoning in science. Huxley and his allies argued that their work, unlike that of the natural theologians, was grounded in hard empirical facts about the physical world. They constantly asserted the need to limit science to claims that grew directly out of observation and experiment, thus allowing no room for theological interference or distraction.

p. 89 – Huxley described a hypothesis as a way to extend observation, not replace it. It was supposed to be a tool that functioned analogously to empirical experience. Hypotheses were to be evaluated on the grounds of their ability to provide explanation for physical phenomena that actually were directly observed.

p. 90 – The critical issue, [Huxley] said, was the gradual willingness to put aside unverifiable hypothesis as outside the limits of science.

p. 95 – [For Huxley’s ally John Tyndall] Even religion had something to contribute to the full human experience, specifically “in the region of poetry and emotion, inward completeness and dignity to man,” but not, however, in the realm of objective knowledge.

P. 96 – [Theist A. J.] Balfour actually did not disagree that human senses and reason were limited and certainly imperfect for understanding the world–he acknowledged that both naturalists and theists accepted this. His complaint was that naturalism, on these grounds, demanded “terms of surrender to every other system of belief.” The limits of naturalistic science, he argued, thus demanded too much from too little.

Further, these limits did not allow naturalism to provide many aspects of what Balfour considered to be an adequate worldview, such as morality and aesthetics. It has no “emotional adequacy.” Imagine, he said, a “catechism of the future, purged of every element drawn from any other source than the naturalistic creed.” Its inadequacy was obvious. And worse, the limits of science imposed by naturalism allowed no justification for the principles that made science possible: reliable experience of the world, the rationality of phenomena, and the uniformity of nature. He argued persuasively that science could not provide its own first principles, and therefore was not a stand-alone epistemology of nature.

As Lightman has shown, Huxley’s response to Balfour (written in the last days of his life), was not particularly strong. … Huxley fell back on the strategy of trying to control the terms of the debate: he objected to the conflation of naturalism, agnosticism, and materialism, and denied that he or anyone else held the positions being attached.

p. 97 – Maxwell was not hesitant to declare something beyond the limits of science.

Maxwell pointed out that even with modern science, humans knew nothing more about death than our earliest ancestors.

p. 98 – Like the majority of Victorian scientists, Maxwell saw observation and experience as the foundation of the practice of science.

Maxwell was not, of course, a complete empiricist. As one of the great theorists of the century, he used mathematics and speculative analysis in amazingly successful ways.

p. 99 – Just as the scientific naturalists did, Maxwell argued that hypothesis was essential to modern science.  … Intricate theoretical models using hypothetical entities were, as discussed earlier, somewhat suspect to many Victorian natural philosophers, and Maxwell constantly felt the need to discuss their scientific legitimacy.

p. 100 – [Maxwell:] “We must therefore discover some method of investigation which allows the mind at every step to lay hold of a clear physical conception, without being committed to any theory founded on the physical science from which that conception is borrowed, so that it is neither drawn aside from the subject in pursuit of analytical subtleties, nor carried beyond the truth by a favourite hypothesis.”

p. 101 The value of [energy] dynamics was that it provided a method for analyzing a system without needing to specify all of its inner working, thus avoiding the danger of misleading or inappropriate hypotheses.

p. 102 – Restrictions necessary to fit observations needed to come naturally from within the theory; otherwise, an investigator was simply forcing his pet theory onto the facts. A good hypothesis disciplined the man of science as much as mathematics did.

Generating new entities at will was precisely the sort of unscientific move that Maxwell was working so hard to avoid. He needed to convince his readers that his imagination was not out of control, speculating beyond acceptable limits. He said we should be reassured by evidence from multiple scientific disciplines pointing the same way, providing good reason to be confident in the hypothesis.

p. 106 – This suggests that Maxwell was thinking of a sort of graduated ladder of speculation–the more steps of hypothesis necessary to link an idea to observation, the less scientific the idea. As such ideas drifted from the anchor of experience, and became more reliant on reason and imagination, they could become misleading. He cautioned the reader not to confuse well-verified concepts and illustrative models.

p. 107 – A major feature of Maxwell’s scientific boundaries was that a hypothesis must be provisional.

p. 108 – [Maxwell:] “I have been carried by the penetrating insight and forcible expression of Dr. Tyndall into that sanctuary of minuteness and of power where molecules obey the laws of their existence, clash together in fierce collision, or grapple in yet more fierce embrace, bui8lding up in secret the forms of visible things … But who will lead me into that still more hidden and dimmer region where Thought weds Fact, where the mental operation of the mathematician and the physical action of the molecules are seen in the true relation? Does not the way to it pass through the very den of the metaphysician, strewed with the remains of former explorers, and abhorred by every man of science?”

“In our daily work we are led up to questions the same in kind with those of metaphysics; and we approach them, not trusting to the native penetrating power of our own minds, but trained by a long-continued adjustment of our modes of thought to the facts of external nature.”

p. 110 – Maxwell was clearly a highly synthetic thinker, and the threads of [Scottish] Common Sense, Whewellian Cambridge, and Boolean philosophy can all be seen in his articulation of the limits of science.

[Maxwell’s] vision of a divine creator who had wrapped the natural world in mystery while revealing selected portions, which was so important for his pursuit of unified laws, can be seen here as well. His evangelical God, wholly other, chose to make some aspects of the world understandable to humans despite their fallen and fallible nature. Maxwell’s sense of the divine gave him a deep appreciation that much of the world would always remain unknown while maintaining the prospect of sound knowledge.

p. 111 – Both Maxwell and Huxley stressed the importance of observation and empiricism while acknowledging the inherent limitations of human perception. Each was, in an important sense, a channel for Kantian-influenced epistemology. Both worried about the danger of rampant speculation and unverified hypotheses while also accepting the need for theory. Both saw theory as the tool that allowed science to provide deeper understanding of the unseen world, whether microscopic, invisible, or far in the past. Scientific knowledge was reliable, but necessarily incomplete, and was always vulnerable to the weakness of human reason and emotion. Natural philosophers needed physical and conceptual tools to discipline their minds and senses. Huxley and the scientific naturalists presented that views as methods for preventing theological and dogmatic intrusion into proper science. However, these limits were, at the least, deeply compatible with Maxwell’s evangelical outlook. Their similar limitations of hypothesis and scientific statement were arrived at via quite different approaches and justifications.

p. 116 – [Tyndall:] “Be careful, above all things, of professing to see in the phenomena of the material world the evidences of the Divine pleasure or displeasure.” It was the theists, he said, who tried to go beyond the limits of science.

p. 118 – As he often did, Huxley appealed to the narrative of scientific progress to imagine a time when there would be newly understood laws that would move molecular transformation back inside the boundaries of science. “It seems safe to prophesy that the hypothesis of the evolution of the elements from a primitive matter will, in the future, play no less a part in the history of science than the atomic hypothesis, which, to begin with, had no greater, if so great, an empirical foundation.”

Part 5 is here.