iSoul Time has three dimensions

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 were 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

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