I think my reply to the last critique made by Jay313 to my recent C S Lewis post warrants a longer treatment than an inline comment. So here it is as a post.
Jay writes, “What is not so easy — to the point of near-impossibility — is convincing scientists to change the method they have used successfully for centuries.” Well, there one has the interesting question of what changes a culture’s worldview, and that’s not often clear: naturalism itself did not arise from a single person’s argument, but rather from a sea change that had nothing much to do with scientific discoveries, for which the work of individual philosophers, theologians and, yes, lawyers (like John Locke) added momentum. When it changes, as it will, it will be because scientists conform to a new zeitgeist in society as a whole, in the same manner. Monoliths fall one chip at a time.
In the meantime, we find that those scientists who abandon methodological naturalism simply get reclassified as philosophers, theologians and lawyers. It’s a neat and foolproof system.
But that aside, I question the historical accuracy of those “centuries” of methodological naturalism, however hard it may be to get scientists to study independent history. In my OP I showed that the term “methodological naturalism” itself was not known to C S Lewis, and that’s not surprising as it was coined only in 1983 by Paul de Vries of Wheaton College. Lewis referred instead to “what we call the ‘scientific’ habit of mind.” And even that habit, I suggest, is not centuries old, but only dates from the professionalisation of science in the early nineteenth century. Lewis himself might well have called that the onset of science as a religion, which in his time (after one of its main populists) he was wont to call “Wellsianity.”
Before that time, it was very common for Christians in the sciences to weave their religious convictions into their scientific work. One good example would be Newton’s General Scholium to the Principia:
We know him only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things, and final causes; we admire him for his perfections; but we reverence and adore him on account of his dominion. For we adore him as his servants; and a God without dominion, providence, and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature. Blind metaphysical necessity, which is certainly the same always and every where, could produce no variety of things. All that diversity of natural things which we find, suited to different times and places, could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being necessarily existing. But, by way of allegory, God is said to see, to speak, to laugh, to love, to hate, to desire, to give, to receive, to rejoice, to be angry, to fight, to frame, to work, to build. For all our notions of God are taken from the ways of mankind, by a certain similitude which, though not perfect, has some likeness, however. And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.
Another example would be Kepler’s astronomical working notes, interspersed with expressions of praise to God. A third, closer to the time of change, is the Bridgewater Treatises. But from the early nineteenth century one could find many more, for natural theology along the lines of William Paley was the environment in which science was being done – it is no coincidence that Paley was Darwin’s hero at first, as he dabbled in theology but hankered after pursuing natural history.
Yet even later on the affirmation of God’s work within nature persisted within high-level science – look at the writings of James Clerk Maxwell for that, much later in the century, or Alfred Russel Wallace even in the second decade of the next, insisting that his case for design in nature was scientific, not religious or philosophical.
It’s been said that in mentioning God, these people were not doing science, but philosophy, but that (as the quote from Newton makes clear) is a distinction they neither did, nor could, make; for what they pursued was “natural philosophy” (and physics retained that name into Maxwell’s time) – “science”, like “scientist”, was a term that only came in with the establishment of the nineteenth century profession. (Elsewhere Lewis the academic points out that what demarcates subjects is purely what department of the university teaches them: create a “science” department and, hey presto! Divine action in nature becomes philosophy at a stroke!)
Now, it is of course true that the pursuit of science before that time was done under certain assumptions about secondary causes and laws of nature: the natural philosophers were looking for the patterns which God had put into nature, and perhaps even patterns which were properties of created nature itself, rather than direct actions of God. But in the absence of a doctrine of methodological naturalism, the origin of those regularities was, quite properly, considered nothing to do with the measurement of the relationships between them: Maxwell, for one, was happy to describe his statistical science in relation to individual acts of God:
Would it not be more profound and feasible to determine the general constraints within which the deity must act than to track each event the divine will enacts?
Jonathan Edwards too, as well as being a leading philosopher and theologian, was also a natural scientist – and his metaphysics was, essentially, occasionalist: God was the only true cause that existed in his universe. And so the heart of the “natural” causes they studied was simply their regularity, and nothing more. That is what constituted them as “natural.”
In terms of the pursuit of knowledge, in general, it’s important to note that, from the time of Bacon on, this approach to science was a working approximation intended to extract the regular from amongst the varied works of God. What was left behind was the contingent, and particularly the providential, which was still considered an essential part of physical reality, but perhaps beyond study… but not entirely so. Bacon himself hoped that as the Novum Organum Scientiarum project continued, one might be able to glean some knowledge of how God’s providence habitually acts – nowadays that might be called “statistics”.
Also excluded from the realm of science, and yet a fundamental reality, was Descartes’ conclusion that the human intellect was inherently supernatural. This intellect was the instrument, beyond the purview of science, by which alone science could be done – a relationship which, of course, was stressed by C S Lewis in his “argument from reason.” The natural world was the proper study of the supernatural mind.
All these natural philosophers, then, excluded from the study of their methodology the human mind, and the providential and contingent acts of God, both of which they acknowledged as real, and observed by their effects on nature. But there was also a third, unstated, exclusion from scientific methodology, and that was the creative acts of God, for the simple reason that it was nore or less universally the theology of the time that God’s creative acts had long ceased.
Creation is not a miraculous change, for it is not a change at all but a bringing of something new into existence. It is the sole and unique work of Christ the logos and wisdom of God. Spontaneous generation of life, for example, widely assumed during the early modern period, was not creation because it only produced species already created “in the beginning”: it was studied by scientists because it was believed to be a natural phenomenon, not something like “spontaneous creation”. The creation of the Cartesian soul was, however, not studied because it was not believed to be natural.
Now my point in all this is to show the self-imposed constraints natural philosophers worked under until they became professional “scientists” in the mid nineteenth century. Either one can say that many acknowledged phenomena – creation, contingent acts of God, and all human reason – were beyond nature, and hence not the business of scientists; or taking “nature” as “the entire earthly created order”, that there were many parts of nature that were not the proper business of science. There were irreducible gaps in the natural order, and that is to be expected under the Baconian, or Cartesian, or Newtonian, or Maxwellian, or Wallacian science that were practised so productively for 300 years.
That is a very different proposition from methodological naturalism, which entails that all phenomena in the physical world are best studied by the tools of science. This over-extension of the approximation of the “scientific approach” has become highly important because scientists have sought to drag into science that which the natural philosophers deliberately excluded. Why the change? As I said in the previous post, Lewis says that it was because “men of science were coming to be metaphysically and theologically uneducated.” (Lewis expostulated that his view came from being surrounded by scientists at work – which is of course true in the Oxbridge collegiate system, even at undergraduate level.) A calumny? If they were educated in these matters, would they reject arguments because they were made by philosophers and theologians and not scientists?
After Descartes, scientists treated the natural world as mere matter, to be reduced intellectually to component parts and, literally reduced too, so as to refashion nature to human will. But C S Lewis is not the first, and far from the only, person to point out (again, in Miracles) how this reductionism began later to encroach even upon Descartes’ supernatural human soul, seeking to explain its working naturalistically, and in so doing emptying it progressively of all that was not mere matter in motion. That is the theme of a significant body of Lewis’s work, from The Abolition of Man to That Hideous Strength.
Likewise, the contingent aspects of the world, formerly considered by natural philosophers the works of divine will, were dragged into “nature” under the banner of “chance” or “randomness”. When this was a statistical pursuit, as in Maxwell’s case, it was truly scientific, tracing the patterns inherent in contingent acts of God, as Bacon had foreseen. But methodological naturalism encourages, or according to Lewis leads directly to, naturalism, unless some strong conviction counteracts it. Inexorably, chance became Epicurean in mainstream science, even Christians coming to believe that what earlier natural philosophers saw as God’s provident activity was, in fact “ontological randomness,” “governed by a probability distribution,” and the like.
Jacques Monod was thought to be speaking scientifically, not metaphysically, when he put absolutely all change in nature down to chance and necessity – whereas Newton would have called the first providence, and the second God’s faithfulness. Nothing much has changed since Monod – except that many Christians now think that God is hiding somewhere far behind a chance and necessity that are “natural realities” rather than mere descriptions of divine choice.
A similar, if less obvious, departure from the safe self-limitation of the natural philosophers is that, because it has become apparent by observation that God’s creative work has continued through the history of natural world, species being succeeded by new species, even creation has become grist to the mill of naturalism. The finding that creation continues after Genesis 2:3, in itself, is not new: the Bible has many instances of God’s ongoing creation (Heb. bara) within the old creation as well as presaging the new. Furthermore a number of orthodox theological traditions view God’s preservation of the world as the act of creatio continua.
What was new, and ought therefore to have been questioned by Christians, was the subsuming of the creation of new forms – formerly clearly understood to be the creation of some new thing ex nihilo by the divine Word – into “Nature,” and so into methodological naturalism. In terms of philosophical continuity with the original programme of natural science in the Christian West, it is a conceptual and methodological innovation to speak of God’s creating by some natural process investigable by science, for nature and creation are two entirely separate things. Nature, or more accurately “natures,” are what are created – Nature itself cannot create anything.
It might well be in order to say that God creates in conjunction with nature, in the same sense that Descartes would believe (as a Catholic) that the supernatural creation of the human soul (a unique act of creation) coincides with a natural process of biological generation – albeit one providentially governed at the level of an individual sperm and ovum. Similarly, God created the vegetation in Genesis, so that it grew of itself.
But the two aspects of the process must be carefully distinguished, and the natural aspect of generation alone not imagined to be sufficient to explain the origin of a human being formed in God’s image, for his own individual purposes. How much more the origin of an entirely new biological form? Or the radical innovation of life itself, back at the dawn of the world?
Older theories of evolution were essentially post-creational: just as the oak is inherent in the acorn, so someone like Lamarck believed that the forms of advanced creatures were inherent in the lowlier forms. He theorised not only that ape came from amoeba, but that all today’s amoebae are destined to evolve into apes – protozoal acorn to hominoid oak. It was their nature to do so. But that is not so for the current theory of evolution, correctly understood, whether in its classic Neo-Darwinian form, or in most variants of the “extended synthesis”, apart from limited, possibly lawlike processes like convergence.
Evolutionary theory is held to be open-ended, driven by changes “random with respect to fitness”, blind with respect to the environment, and in theory at least, having outcomes explicable entirely by the science, sans apparent providential or creative divine activity. If God is involved, his activity is mysteriously wrapped in an enigma for which the science actually leaves no room, and so “has no need of that hypothesis.” All the classical theologies of divine action – concurrence, occasionalism, miracle, or even a physical boot up the backside… and even, in most cases, the precision clockwork of the Deist God – are shrugged off in favour of the methodological naturalism of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be changed, whilst a newly-minted incoherent and undefined mystery is attributed to the hidden God.
But in fact it’s simple – the oldtheology andphilosophy were not wrong, but methodological naturalism is, because it is “the scientific habit of mind” taken beyond its proper, original limits. Just as Newton’s theory of gravity becomes false and misleading when extended to the scale at which relativity applies, so methodological naturalism gives false results when it is wrongly applied to the contingent, to the mind, and to origins.
None of that may convince scientists, but at least when it is pointed out they will have heard the warnings of the giants on whose shoulders they stand.