iSoul In the beginning is reality

Category Archives: History


Knowledge and repetition

Consider the distinction between repeatable events from unrepeatable events. Repeatable events includes events that have repeated or may be repeated at will (as in a laboratory) or may possibly repeat in the future. Unrepeatable events are events that are very unlikely to repeat or are impossible to repeat. It is said that science only studies repeatable events, and it can be argued that history is the study (science) of unrepeatable events – not that it excludes repeatable events but that it focuses on unrepeatable events.

“Nature” could be defined as the realm of repeatable events. Then natural science would be the study of nature or repeatable events. Those events that are unrepeatable would be left to historians but ignored by natural scientists. But could such scientists rightly study the past while ignoring unrepeatable events? Ignorance of unrepeatable events would be a limitation and a defect. We would not expect historians to ignore repeatable events, so why expect scientists to ignore unrepeatable events?

We may well expect events that only involve inanimate nature are repeatable in some way. But are all events with living beings repeatable? The position of naturalism says, Yes. But at some point we need to say, No, at least some living beings have free will (or whatever you want to call it) so that their actions may be unrepeatable, and thus beyond the purview of a science of repeatable events.

Knowledge of repeatable and unrepeatable events may need different methodologies to address both kinds of events but it could not ignore either kind without bias. We need both the study of history, with its unrepeatable events, and the study of science, and its repeatable events, as independent disciplines. The synthesis of science and history would require a different discipline, perhaps called “scihistory” or “histence”, that would balance the input of each discipline with the other.

Textual realism and anti-realism

Anti-realists always begin with reality – and reject it. Because, they argue, it is obscure, misleading, and subject to different interpretations. So anti-realists begin again, this time with an idea of theirs. Even materialists begin with an idea, the idea of materiality. Thus anti-realists substitute their ideas for reality.

In contrast, realists begin with reality and accept it. Because, we argue, it is reality whether we like it or not; it is sufficiently perspicuous; careful observation and reflection can overcome misleading appearances; and interpretations should be based on reality.

All of this applies to writings as well. Anti-realists turn away from the inherent meaning of the text in favor of their interpretations of the text. Realists accept the inherent meaning of the text, yet are also free to discuss its significance and application.

These considerations apply in particular to texts that are foundational for a people, such as scriptures and laws. Consider the Bible, as in these examples:

Dennis Bratcher’s Genesis Bible Study: “the text is primarily theology, telling us about God, humanity, and their relationship”.

“The aim of Theological Interpretation is to read the Bible as Scripture, that is, as somehow God’s transformative address to the Church here in the present. We may contrast this with the past two centuries of biblical scholarship whose interests have been primarily historical: that is, they were aimed at reconstructing the life, religion, and history of ancient Israel and early Christianity.”

If the Bible is primarily theological, then it is theologians who determine its meaning. What about the other aspects of the Bible, for example, the historical chronicles? Should ideas about theology replace the inherent meaning of the text as simply history? The anti-realist says, Yes; the realist says, No.

Many would agree that the theology is the most important aspect of the Bible, but the theology is related to or built on the history, the geography, and other aspects. Interpretation of these aspects should focus on their significance rather than replace them. The chronicles in the Bible are real chronicles prior to any theological meaning they may also have.

Textualism is realism about legal texts.

Textualism is a method of statutory interpretation whereby the plain text of a statute is used to determine the meaning of the legislation. Instead of attempting to determine statutory purpose or legislative intent, textualists adhere to the objective meaning of the legal text.[1]

Textualism is related to originalism. Originalists seek one of two alternative sources of meaning:

  • The original intent theory, which holds that interpretation of a written constitution is (or should be) consistent with what was meant by those who drafted and ratified it. This is currently a minority view among originalists.
  • The original meaning theory, which is closely related to textualism, is the view that interpretation of a written constitution or law should be based on what reasonable persons living at the time of its adoption would have understood the ordinary meaning of the text to be. It is this view with which most originalists, such as Justice Scalia, are associated.

Textual realism takes the text seriously as a form of communication, rather than a canvas for spinning interpretations. Without realism about texts, they will lose their significance and be replaced by canonical interpretations – which then become the new texts, and so they never escape the reality of the text.

Combining history and science

In 18th century the sciences started to become more prestigious and influential than the humanities. In the 19th century this led to a realignment of modern thought and society as scientists (a new term then) took the dominant position within the universities and high culture – in the place of clerics, philosophers, jurists, historians, poets, and the rest of the humanities. One result was the realignment of the humanities toward the sciences.

History in particular was thought to need a foundation of science. From Descartes on historical knowledge had been deprecated as mere opinion. A scientific history would fix that. Yet the difference between natural (and later social) science and history could not be denied. Science takes a nomothetic (lawlike) approach and history takes an ideographic (contingent and accident) approach.

Isaiah Berlin:

scientific procedure is directed in the first place to the construction of an ideal model, with which the portion of the real world to be analysed must, as it were, be matched, so that it can be described and analysed in terms of its deviation from the model. But to construct a useful model will only be feasible when it is possible to abstract a sufficient number of sufficiently stable similarities from the things, facts, events, of which the real world – the flow of experience – is composed. Only where such recurrences in the real world are frequent enough, and similar enough to be classifiable as so many deviations from the selfsame model, will the idealised model that is compounded of them – the electron, the gene, the economic man – do its job of making it possible for us to extrapolate from the known to the unknown. It follows from this that the greater the number of similarities that we are able to collect (and the more dissimilarities we are able to ignore) – that is to say the more successfully we abstract – the simpler our model will be, the narrower will be the range of characteristics to which it will apply, and the more precisely it will apply to it; and, conversely, the greater the variety of objects to which we want our model to apply, the less we shall be able to exclude, and consequently the more complex the model will become, and the less precisely it will fit the rich diversity of objects which it is meant to summarise, and so the less of a model, of a master key, it will necessarily be.

When a historian, in attempting to decide what occurred and why, rejects all the infinity of logically open possibilities, the vast majority of which are obviously absurd, and, like a detective, investigates only those possibilities which have at least some initial plausibility, it is this sense of what is plausible – what men, being men, could have done or been – that constitutes the sense of coherence with the patterns of life that I have tried to indicate. Such words as plausibility, likelihood, sense of reality, historical sense, denote typical qualitative categories which distinguish historical studies as opposed to the natural sciences that seek to operate on a quantitative basis. Isaiah Berlin, The Concept of Scientific History

Then what about scientific history or historical science?

J. N. Nielsen:

Now, in actual fact, scientific historians do not limit themselves to a scientific study of documents as physical artifacts; they also read the documents and derive information from the content, as we would expect they would. But if, as an exercise, we take the idea of scientific historiography according to the method of isolation, and consider it ideally as only scientific historiography, shorn from its association with traditional historiographical methods, we would be reduced to an archaeology of the historical period, which would be most unsatisfying.

Suppose, as a thought experiment, scientific historiography were to employ its methods to study what archaeologists call the “material culture” of the historical period, but was on principle denied any information recorded in actual documents and inscriptions. That is to say, suppose our picture of the historical past were exclusively the result of the study of the material culture of the historical past (here employing “history” in the narrow and traditional sense of history recorded in written documents). I think that our the historical past reconstructed on the basis of what scientific historiography could derive from material culture would be quite different from the story that we know of the historical past in virtue of written records. No one that I know of pursues this method of isolation in studying the historical past when documents are also available, though this method of isolation is pursued of necessity in the absence of any documents (or in the absence of a language that can be deciphered). Though this method is not pursued in history, it is important to point to that scientific historiography has its limitations no less than the limitations of critical historiography and its tradition. Big History and Scientific Historiography

As scientific history takes science into account, the historical sciences should take history into account. In the end they both combine history and science. There is genuine dialogue and balance of the two.

On the unique and the uniform

This continues posts on history and science (see here).

Uniformity is the background for history: what everyday life is like, what is constant in a culture. But history focuses on what is unusual or unique because that is the key to differences between people and places and periods. It is the unusual or unique that enable us to discern and explain why different things happen.

The unique aspects of things forms the background for science: the appearance of things, their unique details. But science focuses on what is usual or uniform because that is the key to commonalities between people and places and periods. It is the usual or uniform that allow us to discern and explain why similar things happen.

What is called “historical science” appears to be the science of historical events. But it is basically history, not science, because what is unique is more significant for historical events than what is uniform. Science can inform the background but history is the real focus in order to determine why things went one direction instead of another. This applies to history of nature as to history of humanity.

If there are gaps in historical records, knowledge from science about regularities can provide information about what might have occurred in the past. Such knowledge is valuable for studying cultures lacking written records.

This works the other way, too. If there are gaps in scientific data, knowledge from history about unusual events can provide information about what might have occurred uniquely in the past. Such knowledge is valuable for studying changes that shaped the physical world.

The more we know about uniformities, the more we can find uniform aspects of unique things. This works the other way, too: the more we know about uniqueness in the world, the more we can find unique aspects to things that seemed completely uniform.

A science is a system of the uniformity that is in the extensional universe. A history is a narrative of the uniqueness that is in the intensional universe.

Naturalism and uniformity

I posted a series of selections from Matthew Stanley’s recent book here. This post is about an article he wrote: “The Uniformity of Natural Laws in Victorian Britain: Naturalism, Theism, and Scientific Practice” (Zygon, vol. 46, no. 3, Sept. 2011, pp.536-560). His conclusion in the article is similar to the book: the practice of naturalistic and theistic scientists in the 19th century was the same. Their inspiration and motivation was different but this did not interfere with their common practice. Then the naturalists we able to achieve a position of dominance and deprecate the theists and their theism.

“Uniformity is the claim that the laws of nature are the same everywhere and everywhen in the universe” p. 537.

“Herschel’s position that the essence of science was the search for and study of universal, uniform laws was accepted by every scientist I will discuss here, whether theist of naturalist. Precisely what uniformity meant, and how one should thing about it, was more complicated.” p. 540

“The term ‘scientific naturalism’ was first coined by T. H. Huxley in 1892, but the ideas, methods, and attitude of naturalism became widespread decades before. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, a group of scientists preaching the strict exclusion of religion from scientific matters (for which the uniformity of nature was an important weapon) became influential and rose to prominence in the scientific community. Led by Huxley, John Tyndall, and their allies, these strongly naturalistic scientists portrayed themselves as the vanguard of a truly modern and enlightened science and eventually succeeded in making their visions of a completely naturalistic and areligious science seem obvious and inevitable – precisely how naturalism is presented by scientists today.” p.538

“Scientific naturalism had its most important locus in a group known as the X-Club. This informal network (essentially, a dining club) of young, ambitious scientists sought to professionalize their discipline and increase its social and cultural standing. A critical part of this effort was the exclusion of religion, the supernatural, and the clergy from science: ‘They opposed all suggestions that there were supernatural interventions in the natural order and any attempts to constrain scientific investigation within theologically-determined boundaries’ (Barton, 1990).” p.540

“Its leaders spent a great deal of time and energy discussing the foundations of science and explaining how those foundations excluded the supernatural. And the most important idea supporting that exclusion was uniformity.” p.540

“Huxley referred to the order of nature in almost every essay or lecture, and explicitly opposed it to theology.” p.541

“Huxley’s friend and ally John Tyndall also spoke vigorously of the power of uniformity to banish God” p.541

“The subtexts of these claims was that uniformity not only restricts religion from entering science, but that uniformity can only be justified in a world without divine intervention.” p.542

“The claims of Huxley and Tyndall that uniformity demanded a completely areligious science did not drive the theists to secularism. And yet, these theistic scientists (in Britain, almost all Protestants of various flavors) were in total agreement with the naturalists that uniformity was critical to the advance of science. How could they embrace the naturalistic methods but not the naturalistic conclusions?” p.542

“The answer is that the theists saw uniformity as their impregnable position, not Tyndall’s. The consistency of natural laws over time and space was a sign pointing toward God, not warding him off.” p.543

“Natural laws were seen as instances of divine fiat, and they were constant because God is consistent in his actions.” p.543

“Without an ordering force (i.e., God) one would expect the universe to be a mishmash of chaotic events. The only guarantee for constancy of the laws of nature was the intent of the lawgiver.” p.547

“Within the general rubric of uniformity, there are two specific topics that are thought commonly to be exemplars of how uniformity allows no room for religion: miracles, and the origin of the universe.” p.547

“There was widespread agreement among theistic scientists that apparent violations of natural law were illusory.” p.548

“If scientists had total knowledge of all natural laws, then nothing would ever appear supernatural.” p.549

“Some critics of this position claimed it restricted God’s action, saying that a God who could not intervene in special circumstances was no God at all. But, again, it was uniformity, not interruptions of it, that truly showed us the nature of things” p.549

“There is nothing in Religion incompatible with the belief that all exercises of God’s power, whether ordinary or extraordinary, are effected through the instrumentality of means – that is to say, by the instrumentality of natural laws brought out, as it were, and used for a Divine purpose” (Duke of Argyll, 1867) p.549

“So, this move would essentially remove the category of formal miracles and subsume all divine actions under special providence.” p.550

“Lord Kelvin, considering the implications of the laws of thermodynamics, said that science must stop at the point in the past where matter and energy were created” p.550

“Why Did the Naturalists Win?” The X-Club “was able to have an enormous impact on the future of science by focusing on science education.” p.552

“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.” p.553

“A side effect of this is that once the scientific naturalists gained dominance in the scientific community, they were able to rewrite the history of their discipline to erase the long tradition of theistic science.” p.553

“Concepts like uniformity, which were both theistic and naturalistic in practice, became recast as only naturalistic.” p.554

“Our modern understanding of the uniformity of natural laws as being purely naturalistic, then, is contingent and not inevitable, and a close historical examination of the issues shows that uniformity can be, and was, a tool used both for and against religion. The victory of the scientific naturalists in removing theism from the expectations and parlance of the scientific community had little to do with how science was done (despite their claims to the contrary) and much more to do with attempting to secure better access to professional positions, resources, and cultural authority.” p.555

Miracles and uniformity

The week before Christmas is a good time of year to write about miracles because it’s a time to be reminded of the meaningfulness of miracles. But what about their truth? Doesn’t the uniformity of nature make miracles impossible?

Thomas Aquinas said a miracle is ‘beyond the order commonly observed in nature’ (Summa Contra Gentiles III), but David Hume went further and defined a miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’ (Of Miracles, 1748). Hume also claimed that scientific induction required the uniformity of nature, so on his telling, miracles undermined science.

However, Hume failed to establish the uniformity of nature on rational grounds. The future does not necessarily resemble the past. The most he could say was that the uniformity of nature is a matter of custom and habit. (There’s a convenient summary of his argument here: Probable reasoning has no rational basis.)

Others have also been unable to establish the uniformity of nature on rational grounds. This failure led to Karl Popper’s argument that induction is merely not untrue, and that one counterexample can falsify any induction. However, the history of science shows an unwillingness to abandon well-accepted science because of one or a few anomalies.

Does scientific induction really require the uniformity of nature? No, that is a misunderstanding of science that goes back to Scholasticism, which was revived in the 19th century by Richard Whately and John Stuart Mill. See John P. McCaskey’s writings on The History of Induction.

Induction is based on classification, not a principle of uniformity. Observation and experiment lead to the definition of a class by a uniformity. Then by definition other objects or events in the same class possess the same uniformity, whether in the past, present, or future. As I wrote here, science studies uniformity but that is far from requiring uniformity everywhere at all times.

It is better to define a miracle by what it is – unique – rather than what it is not – uniform. A miracle is a highly unique event or result, especially one attributed to divine agency. Since science studies uniformity, not uniqueness, it doesn’t have much to contribute about miracles. But uniqueness is studied by other disciplines such as history, philosophy, theology, and literature – that is, the humanities, not the sciences.

Miracles are by their nature very unique and significant. They fall outside of uniformity but since there is no valid principle of uniformity, that is not a problem.

Fourfold history and cosmology

As a generalist I tend to think of the big picture and push global conceptions, which can get speculative, but should provide insight in some way. There are many ways of slicing up history that show a pattern, but we crave meaning and so expect patterns. For example, it is helpful to adopt a rather conventional division of history into periods of primeval, ancient, medieval, modern, and post-modern (for lack of a better term). At least this gives us something to start with and modify or clarify later on.

I have written before briefly about the fourfold Church. Here is a division of Christian history and cosmology that corresponds to the fourfold Gospel and the fourfold Church:

Patristic period – ca. first through fifth century, which is championed by the (Eastern) Orthodox Church. Their authoritative writings are the Bible and the seven ecumenical councils. This corresponds to a cosmology of the seven celestial bodies visible to the naked eye (Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn).

Medieval period – ca. fifth through fifteenth centuries, which is championed by the (Roman) Catholic Church. Their authoritative writings are the Bible and that of the Magisterium centered in Rome. This corresponds to a geocentric cosmology in which space and time are absolute.

Modern period – ca. fifteenth through twentieth centuries, which is championed by the churches of the Reformation. Their authoritative writings are the Bible and the various confessions or statements of faith. This corresponds to a heliocentric cosmology in which time is absolute.

Post-modern period – ca. from the twentieth century, which is championed by the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. Their authoritative writings are the Bible and the writings of the various spirit-led teachers. This corresponds to a relativistic cosmology in which space and time are relative.

When we learn about history, we should learn the importance of the change from a geocentric to a heliocentric cosmology. Changes in cosmology go beyond theories of physics or astronomy. They correspond to spiritual changes as well.

History and science once again

I’ve written about history and science before (here, here, here, and here)  because I think it’s important to understand their differences and relationship.

History and science are complementary, which means they are in some way opposite but they fit together to make a whole. It also means they cannot be merged into one another, but have a separate identity even as they work together.

History is about particulars. Science is about universals. They are similar in that they contain both particulars and universals, but their focus is different. The goal of history is to establish particulars. The goal of science is to establish universals.

Science is about what can or must happen. History is about what actually happened. The particulars of an experiment are the history of what actually happened. The universals of an experiment are the science of what could or must have happened. The particulars of a series of events are the history of what actually happened. The universals of a series of events are the science of what could or must have happened.

History has the final say on what actually happened because its goal is to establish the particulars of what actually happened. Science has the final say on what could or must have happened because its goal is to establish what could or must have happened. Science cannot annul history. Scientists cannot say, for example, that the French Revolution never happened because their theories don’t allow it. Historians cannot say, for example, that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is false because their histories don’t include it.

What if there’s a conflict between history and science? What if history determines that something actually happened that science says is not possible? As far as the particulars of what actually happened, history has the lead and so the position of history is final. As far as the universals of what actually happened, science has the lead and so the position of science is final.

This would be a paradox but not a contradiction. Science and history would not be talking about the same things in the same the way. A particular that actually happened but does not fit the universals of science would be an example of the incompleteness of science. A universal that was more narrow than the particulars of history would be an example of the inconsistency of history.

Science is incomplete, not only in the sense that the limits of a theory are not known until the theory is superseded, but also in the sense that science must be consistent and so reject anything that doesn’t fit its universals. History is inconsistent, not only in the sense that the sources of history conflict with one another, but also in the sense that history must incorporate particular changes that actually happened.

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.