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Science posts


Today the word science usually means naturalistic science. Historically, naturalism was not dominant in modern science until the nineteenth century, when it was promoted by those who were called “naturalists” (not to be confused with a naturalist as someone who studies natural history). These naturalists promoted the idea that science was limited to naturalism. They were adept at taking leadership of science at a critical time when it was becoming professionalized and supported by government largesse.

Since naturalism is a false philosophy, science today is alienated from truth. The intelligent design movement challenges the idea that science is limited to naturalism. The creation science movement, which is related but independent, denies naturalism and much of the science built upon naturalism, including evolution and deep time. While these movements are small, it is important to remember that they stand in a tradition that goes back to the first centuries of modern science. The science of Galileo, Newton, and other great scientists of the past was not naturalistic science.

Science and terminology

Science is knowledge (scientia) that is systematically gained and/or organized. That entails that the terminology of science be systematic, i.e, a nomenclature rather than a hodgepodge of terms. This can make discussions about science hard since people have to learn a body of nomenclature before understanding a science. This applies to all sciences, whether natural sciences, social sciences, historical sciences, or subjects with some systematization such as systematic theology.

But a more pressing challenge for discussions of science is the use of words that have both technical and non-technical meanings. Within a science only the technical usage should apply but discussions of a science inevitably use some of the same words from general usage as well. So terms with a precise meaning within a science are used along with the same term with an imprecise or ambiguous meaning.

If this were a problem that applied only to minor terms that would be a minor problem but it is a problem with major terms and terms whose meaning is disputed. The result is that people who disagree are talking past one another, misunderstanding one another, and fail to communicate. This happens especially in cases of controversy or strong disagreement. What can be done about it?

One solution is to qualify terms so it is clear what meaning is intended. For example, instead of saying “evolution” specify “unguided evolution”, “guided evolution” or “theistic evolution”. Instead of saying “design” specify “intelligent design”, “intentional design” or “divine design”. Instead of saying “creation” specify “transcendent creation”, “special creation” or “intelligent creation”. These qualified terms should be defined but the presence of a qualifier alerts people to the more specific meaning intended.

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 transmuting into higher species. In other words, varieties could become new species, which could become new genera, and so on.

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 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.

Science or stories

Science has no stories. Stories have characters, plots, and narratives. Science has data, hypotheses, postulates, and theories. Science and stories are different. They should be kept separate.

Stories can refer to science or be about scientists, but that is not part of science. Science can refer to stories or collect data from stories, but that is not storytelling.

Evolutionary stories are not part of science. Evolution without stories is part of science. But evolution without stories is variation and adaptation.

The science community and its boosters confuse science and stories. They are different and should be kept separate.

History is a chronicle, a narrative, a story. But history is not science.

The Bible is a story of stories. It includes chronicles, poetry, parables, and letters. The Bible may refer to science, but the Bible is not part of science.

The stories of the Bible are not inconsistent with science as long as science is not confused with stories. If science is confused with stories, then there may be inconsistencies with the Bible. The answer is to stop confusing science and stories.

Biblical creationists follow the science community and its boosters in confusing science and stories. Creationism is about history and theology, not science.

Science or stories: focus on one or the other but don’t confuse them.

Superseded science

Science is an iterative process and so theories that were once widely accepted may later become superseded, but what does that entail? A superseded theory may be thoroughly undermined by its consistent failure to match expectations. Contrary to falsificationism, it usually takes more than a few anomalies to bring down a theory. Theories are part of larger paradigms which have many variations.

Superseded theories are not only no longer accepted but they are virtually lost, except in general references or obscure historical works. Also, those promoting victorious theories may make exaggerated claims about what has been superseded. There may be confusion about what has been superseded and what has not. The purpose of this essay is to clarify these things in a few cases.


While the story of science may be said to begin with the pre-Socratics, modern empirical science started with Bacon and Galileo. The first superseded theory then was Ptolemaic astronomy as the advantages of Copernicanism were realized. Copernicanism was subsequently superseded, too, though this is often not acknowledged. What did these two theories propose?

Ptolemy wrote a treatise in the 2nd century AD called the Almagest, which described an astronomy in which the earth was the center of circular movements of the moon, the planets and the stars. In order to maintain this paradigm but conform more closely with observation, epicycles (circles on top of circles) were added to these circular orbits. In ancient and medieval times circles were considered the most perfect geometric form. Because the celestial bodies were idealized, there was a strong desire to understand them in terms of circles. The use of epicycles enabled people to maintain this idealization and conform to observation.

The geocentric paradigm of Ptolemy and those who followed him was challenged by the heliocentric astronomy of Copernicus (1473-1543). Galileo (1564-1642), Kepler (1571-1630), and Newton (1643-1727) proposed theories that were further developments of the heliocentric paradigm.

Copernicus wrote that the sun was the center of circular movement of the planets and the stars. Galileo showed how the heliocentric paradigm could reduce the number of epicycles needed. Kepler showed that the planetary orbits were elliptical. Newton placed the planetary orbits into a comprehensive theory of motion by an inverse square law of gravitation.

So Copernicus was vindicated in the sense that the heliocentric paradigm proved more fruitful than the geocentric paradigm. However, his assertions that the orbits were circular and that the sun was the center of the motion of the stars have been superseded.

Has the geocentric paradigm been completely superseded? In so far as it requires the earth to be the center of movement of celestial bodies other than the moon, yes. But there are other senses of the term “center”, notably a center of mass. The validity of a universe with a center of mass is disputed but has not been superseded and so should be considered an open question.


Aristotle’s biological writings were quite empirical for his time. He classified organisms into genus and species and speculated on the purpose (teleology) of the diversity of life. Hippocrates and Galen wrote about medicine. Jumping ahead to the 18th century, Linnaeus developed a biological taxonomy in 1735, and variations of this have been in use ever since. Like those before him, Linnaeus conceived of species as fixed life forms within a hierarchy.

This paradigm of life forms emphasized completeness and stasis: all possible forms of life were included and change over time was excluded. So it was a problem when fossils were found that seemed to be from organisms that no longer existed, because that would imply there were gaps which was considered to be a waste or loss that God would not allow. Or it meant that species had changed.

In the 19th century, the main current of science abandoned both completeness and stasis: many but not all possible life forms have existed and these have changed over time via what Darwin’s followers called evolution. The pendulum of science had swung in the other direction.

Darwin’s criticisms were leveled at a simple version of his opponents’ paradigm in which no species ever changed. But this paradigm was revised to allow some change over time within limits. Darwin and his followers ignored these revisions. The old theory was superseded but the old paradigm was not.

Darwinism prevailed and marched on without opposition until the later half of the 20th century when some scientists started promoting “creation science.” They began working with a paradigm that has never been fully explored: species that have changed within limits of their kind. Initially ignored or vilified by establishment science, they have grown into a worldwide movement.

Cumulative knowledge

While it is generally thought that science is a form of cumulative knowledge, this has meant different things. Since Kuhn, new theories are often considered ‘incommensurable’ with old theories. Essentially, a ‘scientific revolution’ occurs in which the old theory is superseded by a new one rather than incorporated into it as a special case.

But old knowledge should not be superseded by new knowledge, otherwise all knowledge is ‘defeasible’ and in danger of being shown completely false at any moment, hence we really don’t know anything. Rather, new knowledge should clarify old knowledge, show its limits and context, but not completely replace it.  We should not (and do not) trash old theories that still work. Of course, some theories are shown not to work even in a limited domain and should be rejected (astrology for example).

So science should act respectfully toward theories that have been generally accepted, and try to maintain as much of them as possible. However, this goes against the grain of a scientific culture in which revolutionary change is prized and Whig history is the norm (those who anticipated the new theory are good guys, those who held on to the old theory are bad guys).

This respectful attitude toward the past goes beyond science to modern culture which rejects old ways of doing things and exults in the new, which has become so ingrained that no matter how bad the new is, it is commonly preferred to the old simply because it is new.

We can and should dispute this modern prejudice and arrogance. In particular, we should reject any natural history that deprecates ancient knowledge such as the occurrence of a world-wide flood. This goes beyond what is contained in the Bible but the Bible acts as a kind of referee concerning what is genuine knowledge and what is knowledge falsely so-called.

Before Darwin it was well known that humans are different in kind from other creatures but evolutionists have lost this knowledge in their obsession with showing that everything is different only in degree. So it is precisely this deprecation of the old that holds science back.

There were some ancients (Aristotle in particular) who said the universe always existed (based on a lack of knowledge of a beginning). The Bible affirms that in this respect the myths and legends of many cultures are correct: there was a beginning. But the Bible says more and that is the issue today. For example, the age of the earth is the age of the universe since the earth was there ‘in the beginning’. Starlight was visible on day four, which leads to the question of how starlight got to be so far away (not the reverse of how starlight got to be here).

Respect for genuine knowledge from ancient sources goes against modernity. That makes creationism a threat to moderns and post-moderns. It also goes against the grain of an anti-tradition attitude, which is strong even among creationists. The point is that ‘tradition’ may contain genuine knowledge; it should not be discarded as a whole but sifted through to keep what is good.

Christianity and science

A good summary of the myth of a long-running conflict between Christianity and science is in Timothy Larsen’s “War is Over, If You Want It” (September 2008). This warfare myth was invented in the 19th century by people such as TH Huxley who either should have known better or were purposely stirring up animosity. It is composed of individual myths that “support” it, such as the myth that Christians thought the earth was flat in the Middle Ages or the myth that Christians opposed the use of anesthesia during childbirth in the 19th century.

Larsen references Frank M. Turner’s “Contesting Cultural Authority” (Cambridge, 1993), as someone who “persuasively argued that the notion of a conflict between theology and science was generated as part of a campaign of professionalization by would-be scientists.” (p.150) It’s almost forgotten today, but the profession of a scientist didn’t exist until the late 19th century. Before that, science was developed by amateurs (including clerics) who had the leisure and interest. TH Huxley and others fought against such people because they stood in the way of a new class of professional scientists.

Although the warfare meme is vastly exaggerated, there are enough misunderstandings that the opposite idea of integration isn’t realistic. For example, it is said that many Christians quickly accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution in the 19th century and later. But what is overlooked is the fact that Christians misunderstood Darwin and substituted their own ideas of evolution by law or miracle.  Theistic evolution is common among Christians who either insert a law-bound version for Darwin’s undirected version or else invent undetectable miracles that make it God-directed.

Many have noted that modern science developed in a Christian matrix. If science jettisons its Christian roots, it loses a reason to expect an ordered universe that can be understood by human beings. It may either adopt a multiverse that just happens to have order in one universe or drift toward non-causal explanations in a chaotic universe.

Some scientists want to deepen the Christian roots of science rather than cut them off. They are mostly creationists or intelligent design proponents. Those who follow TH Huxley will have nothing of it. But some are willing to entertain new proposals. As the modern era comes to a close, we can expect that modern science will change into something else.

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