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Tag Archives: History Of Science

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.

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From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 3

Part 2 of this series is here. This post covers the last section of Chapter Two, which is on miracles. I offer some comments of my own at the end.

p. 71 – Miracles

Building on this reading of uniformity, the scientific naturalists thought they had one attack for which there was no counter. Miracles, they said, were the essence of Christianity. And a miracle, it seemed, must be a violation of a natural law, and therefore a violation of uniformity, and thus cannot be consonant with science. Taking a position on miracles, then, forced one into either the theistic or naturalistic camp. This was a maneuver emphasized repeatedly by Victorian scientific naturalists, many of whom were directly inspired by David Hume.

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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.

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From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 1

Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon: From Theistic Science to Naturalistic Science by Matthew Stanley (Univ. of Chicago Press, Nov. 2014) is basically the first book to tell the story of how science was redefined in the 19th century. Most people don’t know it even happened and few know how. I bought a copy of this book and will give some excerpts and comments here.

Every paragraph of the Introduction is worth excerpting but let me pick a few key points. He starts with the contemporary debate initiated by the intelligent design movement, which criticizes the adoption of naturalism by the scientific community, then introduces his main theme:

p.2 – Naturalism has a history. The existential connection of naturalism with science is a relatively recent development. Further, naturalism has a specific birthplace. Despite naturalism’s high profile in modern American courts, its roots are in Victorian Britain. It was not until the end of the Victorian period (1837-1901) that naturalism became a common way to think about science, and it was a distinctively British creation. Regardless of this late and local appearance, naturalistic science has come to be seen as universal and eternal. Somehow the long-standing practice of nonnaturalistic science has been forgotten.

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Darwin’s theory and Huxley’s science

It is common to read statements like this: “For the vast majority of biologists, the debate over whether evolution occurs took place in the 19th century and has long been settled — evolution won.” (1) The problem with this statement is that it was not a scientific position that won but a philosophical and political agenda that won.

Charles Darwin in his 1859 Origin of Species presented his “theory of descent with modification through natural selection” (later called evolution) in which he argued that universal common descent by natural selection was possible. He contrasted his theory with an alternative he called “the theory of independent acts of creation”. He was careful not to press his case too far, and basically argued that a theory of evolution was an alternative to one version of a theory of creation. Since he avoided controversy, he left it to others to defend his theory in public.

Thomas Henry Huxley is universally acknowledged as the leading defender of Darwin’s theory in the years after the publication of the Origin of Species. But he did much more. His main defense consisted in asserting that Darwin’s theory of evolution was science and the alternative theory of creation was not. He even claimed that evolution was the only possible scientific theory that explained the diversity of life.

Huxley framed his defense of the theory of evolution and put-down of any theory of creation in terms that avoided the appearance of redefining science, but that was what he was doing. He argued that science must be agnostic about non-empirical forms of knowledge, especially claims for God and the supernatural. This was an argument for what today is known as naturalism. Such a philosophy was already on the rise, with positivism, materialism, and secularism.

Not only were the alternatives to naturalism deprecated, they were considered pseudo-science. But if any theory of creation was not science, then Carl Linnaeus was not doing science when he developed his taxonomy, in which he endeavored to discover all of the created kinds of organisms. Somehow mathematics would still be available to Huxley’s science despite it being a non-empirical form of knowledge.

Another aspect of the controversy was the change in the status of the clergy. One of Huxley’s goals was to remove the clergy from influence over education. As the sciences became professionalized, Huxley was successful in keeping the clergy out. The result was that a thoroughly naturalistic science became ascendant in the universities.

Thus began the strategy of promoting naturalism under the guise of science. It was so successful that people to this day don’t know science was ever otherwise. Such is the historical ignorance of our time that such ideas reign virtually unchallenged.

Centers of time measurement

The ancient center of time measurement was the earth, and this is still used in everyday life. The changing positions of the sun and moon relative to the earth make a convenient clock. In this sense, geocentric time makes sense. But the movements of planets are difficult to use in this way; their retrograde movements require ad hoc modifications to a geocentric system.

The proposal to switch to a sun-centered time system was met with resistance but its advantages eventually won out, with Newton’s laws ending the issue. The greater comprehensiveness of heliocentric time (heliochronic system) over geocentric time (geochronic system) proved to be decisive. Nevertheless, the everyday terms noon, morning, afternoon, etc. are still used, showing the naturalness of a geochronic system.

In the 20th century, the atomic clock was invented, which uses an electronic transition frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum of atoms (the signal electrons in atoms emit when they change energy level). This might be called a “phochronic” (light-time) standard. The positions of celestial bodies are not used with this system of time. It is an acentric time standard.

If accuracy is the most important factor, then a phochronic system is best. But it is not surprising that the “24/7” way of life arose since this acentric system was implemented. Time is less and less connected with the rhythms of the sun, the week, the seasons, etc. If the latter are the most important, then the geochronic system is best since it fits well with these rhythms, which are still an important part of the cycles of life.

Utility and evolution

Evolution is the ultimate theory of modern science because it’s all about utility.

Early modern scientists and philosophers of science dismissed formal and final causes in favor of material and efficient (i.e., mechanistic) causes. Galileo Galilei rejected final causes and endeavored to answer how things happened, not why. Francis Bacon spurned formal and final causes because they were “not beneficial.” René Descartes rejected formal and final cause explanations as barren and pointless. They were after utility, finding out how things worked, providing practical applications. Whatever didn’t contribute to that was discarded.

Modern science follows utility so much that is it not uncommon for scientists to deny that anything else exists. Formal and final causes are not merely useless, they are nonexistent precisely because modern science rejects them. A curious combination of forgetting the origins of modern science and becoming arrogant about the successes of modern science leads more people to dismiss anything outside modern science.

If modern science looks for utility and is only concerned about utility, then utility must be the engine of the universe. Evolution says essentially that. What works continues and what doesn’t work doesn’t continue. Fitness determines everything.

The circularity of the argument is so obvious it is amazing that anyone could fall for it but many have and continue to do so. “Nothing succeeds like success” and apologists for modern science have an abundance of examples to show its success. The fact that there are many failures gets lost in the fine print and publications that don’t happen. Who wants to read about failure? Yet failure is the key to modern science. The irony is great.

From history to nature

Over the centuries the various sciences have developed from a focus on history to a focus on nature, that is from a temporal or diachronic focus to a spatial or synchronic one. Saussure saw this in linguistics and reoriented it from a focus on historical language change to language as a system. Both have their place but historic study finds few natures, i.e., invariants, whereas the study of natures discovers many invariants.

For example, astronomy and physics in ancient times focused on cycles and the “harmony of the spheres” but in modern times focuses on a four dimensional continuum. Chemistry has developed from an alchemical focus on transmutation to a modern focus on the periodic table and compounds. Biology still focuses on temporality with its concentration on origins and history; to further develop it will need to focus on the nature of biological kinds. Geology has a similar focus on temporality so it will need to focus more on the nature of geological features.

Both History and Nature have been used by atheists as substitutes for God — in the 18th century Newton’s system was seen as Nature in control, then in the 19th & 20th centuries Darwin’s evolution was seen as History in control. So both approaches can be carried to extremes and will be by some.

Biology — whether evolutionary or creationary — needs to move from defining species or created kinds in terms of descent from original organisms to defining them in terms of their nature, e.g., as either having something in common (an essence) or a some type of interconnectivity (a topological definition).

Biases of modern science

Mainstream modern science is biased…

  1. toward what it calls “primary qualities” (and against other qualities)
  2. toward greater and greater extension (and less intension or meaning)
  3. toward efficient and material causal factors (and against formal and final ones)
  4. toward repeatability (and against the unique)
  5. toward positive results (and against negative results)
  6. toward the current paradigm (and against alternate paradigms)
  7. toward greater abstraction (and away from concrete experience)
  8. toward greater specialization (and against general observations)
  9. toward naturalism (and against the supernatural)
  10. toward materialism (and against the immaterial)
  11. toward empiricism (and against other kinds of experience)
  12. toward positivism (and against other kinds of knowledge)
  13. toward scientism (and against the humanities)
  14. toward secularism (and against interaction with any theism)
  15. toward linearity (and against the ancient bias toward circularity)
  16. toward nominalism (and against metaphysical realism)
  17. toward minimal kinds of things (and against balancing things and kinds)
  18. toward more state funding for science (and against reduction of state funding).

Falsification or limitation?

Karl Popper made falsification the key to scientific legitimacy. But as others have pointed out, scientists do not spend much time trying to falsify theories. Instead, they work to confirm and extend theories. Moreover, an observation that goes against a theory doesn’t falsify the whole theory; it creates an anomaly that can be dealt with in various ways–for example, search for hidden factors, modify the theory slightly, or discount the observation.

It is only when a superior theory arises that explains anomalies and everything else an older theory explained that scientists take note. So there can be a period of instability as some people question the theory and others try to defend it. This has happened many times in the history of science, from the geocentric-heliocentric debate, to the origins debate of today.

What I’d like to suggest is that falsification shouldn’t be the motivation regarding a theory which has some evidence for it. The question should be: What are the limits to the theory? The fact is that all theories have their validity limits (as Fritz Rohrlich calls them). Why? Because theories assume simplifications of reality, construct isolated systems, and are based on limited data.

While scientists posit theories that are nominally universal, that scope is merely a default in place of the unknown limits that will be discovered later. Science is both optimistic that its theories cover a wide number of cases and open to findings of the limits of theories. Promoters of science seize on the optimistic part and downplay or ignore the limitation part.

In the 18th century enthusiastic Newtonians were very influential in making a clockwork universe the common mindset. Their mistake was taking the word “universal” in universal gravity literally as if Newton’s theory had no problems. In recent years promoters of universal common descent have been very influential in taking the word “universal” literally in evolution, even as the limits of natural selection (and other mechanisms of change) are becoming more known.

Science should search for the limits of every theory. That can be done by finding out the conditions under which it is false, or it breaks down, or works poorly. This sets the stage for a superior theory, that is, one with a larger extension. It also puts all theories on the same level: they all can have their uses but they are always limited.

Scientific theories are not falsified; they are limited, and their limits become known over time.