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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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Science in history

Scientific theories are in principle subject to underdetermination in that multiple theories could account for the data. In the natural sciences this possibility is strongly resisted. When Darwin proposed his theory in 1859, he could not show that a version of special creation would not account for the data. What he and Huxley did instead was to advance a new definition of science that was completely naturalistic so that special creation was no longer science, no matter what evidence it might have in its favor.

The late 19th century also showed the rise of agnosticism and secularism, which are tied to the new definition of science. William Dembski has a chapter on this in his book Intelligent Design, The Bridge Between Science & Theology (Chapter 3 on the Demise of British Natural Theology). Dembski is right to call naturalism idolatry.

Darwin’s strategy won the day so that few people now are even aware of the older definition of science that allowed special creation. One could say that creationists and intelligent design advocates have this in common: both reject the naturalistic definition of science. In that sense both want to return to a former definition of science, though it is not being stated as a return but as a better definition. Perhaps that reflects the anti-historical bias of our day — who cares about the past that has been superseded?

One could argue that the 19th century naturalistic and positivistic turn was a result of Enlightenment thinking in the 18th century. And one could argue that Enlightenment thinking arose as a result of mechanistic thinking in the 17th century. And one could even argue that that was a result of the nominalism that arose in the late medieval and renaissance periods. But even so there has been much continuity throughout this time of what natural science is.

Is it better to promote a post-naturalistic, post-secular science or focus on critiquing the mistakes of the past? Both are worth doing, though the latter has been neglected. Several points could be made by those who accept a form of special creation: (1) they are not scientific newcomers or rebels; (2) they are in continuity with a long past; (3) their opponents have broken from the historic mainstream of science.

 

Nature and what?

A recent meta-analysis on the old question of nature vs. nurture (Meta-Analysis of Twin Correlations and Heritability) concluded that overall the variation of human traits and disease is 49% due to genetic factors and 51% due to environmental factors. There is a similar question about nature vs. culture in anthropology and education.

Evolutionary theory is fraught with the combination of innate and environmental effects. The emphasis has been on the innate that is reproduced with the environment providing whatever is missing (as in the conditions that ensure the next step of evolution).

Naturalism throws a wrench in all of this because it says there is nothing outside of nature. The universe has no environment so ultimately it’s all nature. Nurture, culture, and the like must be reduced to nature.

I dispute naturalism but what exactly is the alternative? It is that the universe is an open system. We say it is open to God but that does not get to the heart of it. A closed system can be just as open to the transcendent God who creates and sustain it.

An open universe is open to more than God; it is open to spirit, mind, intellect (commonly called intelligence). If we want to be the most precise (and the least accurate), an open universe is open to information in the sense of Shannon (for example see Shannon and Weaver’s book, The Mathematical Theory of Communication).

Not coincidently the intelligent design and various creationist movements have been hammering home the necessity of intelligence and information for the fine tuning of the earth and the universe, the diversity of life-forms, and the basis for natural science. Not surprisingly those caught up in naturalism aren’t listening. They are living in a closed world, deaf to the larger reality.

 

The nature of creation

‘Nature’ is the world conceived without reference to God. A natural rock is a rock as if it exists on its own or as part of a world that exists on its own. It has no absolute origin. Its only ‘origin’ is from other rocks, other existing substances. It is all transformation. This presupposes a metaphysics of materialism.

‘Creation’ is the world conceived as made by God from nothing & dependent on God for its continuation. Something of the nature of creation can be gained from the attributes of God. We can expect orderliness for God is a God of order. We can expect some reflection of purpose for God surely had a purpose in creating the world.

‘Natural history’ is history (conceived with reference to God and) with particular reference to the non-human world.

Creationists do not ‘add God’ to the natural world. There is no natural world without God. Creationists take off the blinders of naturalism that prevent the acknowledgement of the reality of God.

The laws of nature are conceived by naturalists as laws without a legislator. The laws of nature are conceived by creationists as laws created by God. They are laws of creation.

Naturalistic science is sometimes considered merely methodologically naturalistic because it avoids ontological commitments rather than affirming an ontological naturalistic universe. This is a sham. There is nothing to recommend ontological minimalism beyond an academic exercise. Moreover, the results of naturalistic science are presented as conclusions about reality, not merely conditional products subject to further vetting by others.

A naturalistic science needs to justify why there are not chaotic, non-causal events. It has excluded these arbitrarily. It promotes deterministic states arbitrarily. It is open from below, not above.

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