From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 2

Part 1 of this series is here. The excerpts below barely do justice to what is in the book.

Chapter Two is on the uniformity of natural laws, also called the uniformity of nature.

p. 34 – … the assumption that the universe was governed by uninterrupted laws was a fundamental part of natural philosophy. By the end of the nineteenth century, Huxley and his allies were using this concept as a bludgeon to drive theism out of science, and it continues to be used so today under the rubric of scientific naturalism. It is impossible, say the naturalists, for divine action or intervention to have any role in a world that runs by uniform natural laws.

p. 35 – The critical point is to understand that uniformity was a core principle of science throughout the nineteenth century for both theists and naturalists, despite each group claiming it as uniquely theirs.

The Victorian case for theistic laws of nature was laid out most clearly and influentially by the Reverend Baden Powell in his 1838 The Connexion of Natural and Divine Truth.

p. 36 – … the uniformity of nature itself was evidence for a divine creator. A universe in which natural laws were uniform and regular was one that was clearly designed to be that way.

Reducing God to only a “confession of ignorance,” as in the case of Newton’s arguments for planetary stability, was bad science and bad religion. Why? Because it allowed for violations of uniformity, which was critical for both …

p. 37 – “To speak of apparent anomalies and interruptions as special indications of the Deity, is altogether a mistake. In truth, so far as the anomalous character of any phenomenon can affect the inference of presiding Intelligence at all, it would rather tend to diminish and detract from that evidence.”

[Maxwell’s] award winning investigation of Saturn’s rings began with a statement that is was inconceivable that terrestrial mechanics might not apply to distant planets.

“I think each individual man should do all he can to impress his own mind with the extent, the order, and the unity of the universe, and should carry these ideas with him as he reads such passages as the 1st Chap. of the Ep. to Colossians …”

Maxwell instructed his students that once they understood the constancy and universality of natural laws, they would “begin to understand the position of man as the appointed lord over the works of Creation and to comprehend the fundamental principles on which his dominion depends, which are these–To know, to submit to, and to fulfill, the laws which the Author of the Universe has appointed.”

p. 41 – If nature were like a book, then there was a single argument–a common thread holding together the text that could be used to interpret and understand the whole.

p. 42 – Maxwell’s claim that laws were “parts of one universal system” was arguing that there was a plan to the interrelationship of natural laws.

p. 43 – Warning off the scientific naturalists, [Maxwell] declared that “no theory of evolution can be formed to account for the similarity of molecules, for evolution necessarily implies continuous change, and the molecule is incapable of growth or decay, of generation or destruction.”

Paley emphasized complexity as the indicator of God’s hand; Maxwell emphasized unity.

p. 44 – Maxwell did not think that any hypothesis proved, or was proved by any specific religious statements. He was willing to make broad, general claims about the theology of nature (such as in his molecules lecture), but was quite hesitant to directly link particular scientific ideas to any part of religious doctrine …

p. 45 – Science was expected to advance and change rapidly in a way religion (specifically Christianity) was not. Maxwell was concerned to protect both science and religion from this mismatch. … Harmonization of science and religion should instead rely on broad theological truths (e.g., God as benevolent creator) and broad scientific guidelines (e.g., physical forces are fundamentally unified).

p. 48 – John Brooke has argued that an “archetypical evangelical scientist” would probably have a biblically informed philosophy of nature, be averse to speculative hypothesis due to humility before God, be sensitive to the uses and limitations of natural theology, and insist on harmony between true science and true religion. An important distinction to be made when thinking about evangelical science is between natural theology (in the sense of grounding religious truths in the natural world) and a theology of nature (recognition of the role of God in nature). The evangelicals preferred the latter …

p. 49 – Such evangelical theologies of nature often critiqued Paley for not accepting the “dysfunctional aspect of creation,” and integrated visions of sin and evil.

p. 52 – In sum: far from uniformity being antithetical to religious thinking, many scientists and philosophers concluded that uniformity only made sense in a theistic world. 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.

Huxley worked from the axiom that any role for the divine in the natural world made uniformity impossible.

p. 55 – This declaration of uniformity in the living world, sometimes hidden, was a common point agreed upon by both Huxley and theists. Beginning with this emphasis was a strategy that would become quite frequent for him, reiterating that everyone agreed on the importance of natural laws and uniform processes. Then came his paring away of Owen’s work–his opponent’s practice might appear to follow these rules, but in fact should be seen as quite different.

Such theistic science was marked [by Huxley] as being preempirical and dogmatic. And this was not simply a matter of terminology or metaphysical preference, Huxley warned. It led directly to incorrect scientific practice, such as [Owen’s] seeing unwarranted similarities between skulls and vertebrae.

Adrian Desmond and other scholars have noted that Huxley’s opposition to Owen’s archetypes carried with it a side effect: hostility to the idea that species undergo progressive change and adaptation. He came to associate the claim that creatures changed significantly over time with idealist theism, and worked hard to show that the fossil record demonstrated that animals largely persisted in form. [ironic!]

Huxley linked directly this divine inference with the idea of biological structures being adapted to a purpose.

p. 58 – Any hesitancy [Huxley] felt regarding the details of Darwin’s theory was obscured in the ensuing public debate. Instead, Darwin became the emblem for his naturalistic worldview. His anonymous review in the Times laid out his plan to use the Origin to demonstrate what uniform, non-theistic science should look like. Quickly dismissing the possibility of a literally correct Genesis, he also declared that any direct act of creation was not a part of science. Divine action was not only placed in complete opposition to natural law, but the replacement of the first by the second was described as the chief marker of the development of science…

Darwin was credited with finally bringing the living world under the jurisdiction of laws of nature, and extending uniformity to all things.

p. 60 Briefly, belief in theistic evolution–that is, evolution guided, planned, or supported in some way by God–was widespread, and many theists commented on how Darwin’s ideas had extended uniformity throughout the world of life. Temple stated: “Once more, the doctrine of Evolution restores to the science of Nature the unity which we should expect in the creation of God.”

Unsurprisingly, the scientific naturalists rejected this interpretation completely..

p. 61 – [Huxley] often used the idea that laws were just regularities (and therefor had no ontological reality) as a weapon against theists presenting natural laws as God-given.

Huxley publically declared himself to be an adherent of evolution in 1868.

p. 64 – [Huxley] was certainly deeply committed to denying any barrier between the organic and inorganic world.

p. 68 – Over time Huxley attacked theistic laws far less, and increasingly targeted scriptural literalism in science as the chief enemy. “As the geologist of my young days wrote, he had one eye upon fact, and the other on Genesis; at present, he wisely keeps both eyes on fact, and ignores the pentateuchal mythology altogether.” This was likely a strategy to make his work more palatable to moderates, and to make uniform laws a wedge issue; men of science were pressured to either agree with him or ally themselves with the radical literalists. This also helped sharped the distinction he often drew between religion and theology, fingering the dogmatic theologians as the real opposition. In his last two decades he structured his attacks more carefully to claim uniformity as a wholly naturalistic category fundamentally opposed to theological conceptions of nature.

p. 69 – [Huxley] increasingly presented naturalism and supernaturalism as a zero-sum game, making any allegiance to natural laws seem to be a division from religion.

p. 70 – Theology, not religious belief per se, was the enemy. Theology was the intruder on science. Slavish literal interpretation of the Bible was one of its weapons. And most dramatically, these absurd beliefs had come to an end, thus marking any further resistance as antiquated and ridiculous. Uniformity was proposed as synonymous with rationalism, progress, and naturalism.

Science, as a complete scheme of the universe could have no interaction with theology other than accepting its surrender.

[There follows a section on miracles, which I will cover in a separate post.]


p. 79 – A theistic guarantee for uniformity was the standard, and when Huxley’s circle pushed for a novel approach, they were the ones who needed to justify that it could provide the same foundations as the old approach. They argued that naturalistic practice adhered just a closely to uniformity as theistic, even as they stressed that theism was incompatible with uniformity. By following existing practices (though they claimed to be completely new), the naturalists could move into existing scientific institutions, projects, and journals without serious disruptions.

Part 3 is here.