More on that methodological thing

In the light of my previous post on methodological naturalism, Ian Thompson kindly made me aware of a book on the Victorian debate between the majority of theistic scientists, such as James Clerk Maxwell, and the naturalists such as Thomas Huxley and the X Club, who eventually triumphed in establishing their programme. It’s an enlightening read.

One of the author’s main points is how, despite the apologetics and revisionist history of the naturalists, theistic science had always been performed in pretty much the same way as the new naturalistic science, and under the same constraints, such as, in particular, the Principle of Uniformity – that nature operates under laws that apply everywhere and at all times. The difference was simply that those constraints were based on theistic foundations like the faithfulness of God, rather than treated as brute facts without explanation.

This sense of the inviolability of law was very much in the spirit of the times, in that theistic scientists had a tendency to ascribe even biblical miracles to compliance with natural laws at some deeper level (or to deeper laws) – whereas, of course, the naturalists simply denied them after the arguments of Hume. Yet the laws were not seen as operating independent of God, but as expressions of his power and wisdom. There may have been some hesitation about following William Paley in all aspects of his natural theology, but (as Darwin himself witnessed) most scientists echoed it, and it was the naturalists like him and Huxley who rejected natural theology altogether, through a process of (as it were) radical deconversion much akin to the evolutionist who has lately abandoned Creationism nowadays.

The theistic scientists’ approach is contrasted, by our author, with the modern programme of Intelligent Design, the primary difference being the latter’s assumed departure from this Principle of Uniformity in advocating direct divine action apart from natural law. This is to a great extent an oversimplification, in that arguments to design need not entail supernatural interventions, and such inferences to design were stock in trade to the theists. But it would seem to be true that they spurned the attribution of phenomena in nature to direct divine action (though most had a much higher view of providence than many modern theistic evolutionists). This fact alone counters the fear that a return to theistic science would result in science-stopping supernatural claims sprouting up everywhere: they simply did not, at any stage in the history of science – except within the revisionist history of polemicists like Huxley, John William Draper, or Andrew Dickson White.


Yet in this post I want to draw attention to possible cultural limitations in nineteenth century theistic science, that makes their struggle with the movement for naturalism different from the situation today, and I want to suggest that a return to their model would leave certain problems unsolved – just as, increasingly, the naturalist model does. Let me suggest some differences in the situations.

Firstly, the question of miracles was easy to sideline in the nineteenth century, because British and American Christianity largely took cessationism as a matter of course, though it had in fact been a Reformation reaction to  Catholic “superstition.” Miracles might be theoretically possible, but since they all stopped in biblical times, they need not be considered in practical science. More “liberal” Christians tended to see them all as legendary anywhere. However, nowadays cessationism is less universal – there has been enough influence from the Charismatic Movement and Christianity in the Majority World to make the claims of present day miracles something to be reckoned with (see Craig Keener’s monumental 2-volume work on miracles, for example).

Secondly, the inviolability of natural law has become questionable at multiple levels. For a start the quantum world has introduced a fundamental new level of indeterminism into mainstream science. Additionally the work of Maxwell himself in statistical science perhaps augured in an age when “randomness” came to be regarded by many as a causative agent. Particularly in evolutionary theory, “chance” has come to be seen as an ontological reality even by many theists, so that the concept of an “open nature” with some degree of “autonomy” or “spontaneity” is common amongst Evolutionary Creationists (though not the same thing). But natural freedom has the same doubtful relation to laws of nature as miracles do. It is certainly unlikely that any theistic, or naturalistic scientist of Victorian times would have countenanced either randomness or Nature’s freedom as compatible with science. Huxley even regarded humans as automata without free will.

Furthermore, the necessary inviolability of laws of nature has been seriously questioned by many, including Christian philosophers of the highest calibre like Alvin Plantinga. Today’s Maxwell would therefore have to justify his natural determinism to an intellectual world that has moved on from it.

But perhaps the most significant, but seldom noted, difference is that science has, since the nineteenth century, begun to lay claim to areas which earlier generations of theistic scientists would have regarded as belonging to God’s creative power, not to the natural laws of science.

The introduction of Darwinian Evolution, of course, coincided with the theism/naturalism debate in science. Many, including it would seem Maxwell, were apparently comfortable with the theory. But remember that there was still a reaction against any idea that ontological “chance” was the driver of evolution, on the part of theistic scientists like Asa Gray and even Alfred Russel Wallace, both of whom believed that variation was providentially guided. The progress of biology has served to make the pageant of life appear more astonishing and contingent, not less, and the recourse to “chance and necessity” is a return to purely Epicurean metaphysical assumptions.

Even Darwin treated the origin of the first “form or forms” of life as the creative act of God, Pasteur having finally disproven spontaneous generation in 1859. Those who disagreed, like Haeckel,  had no option but to insist it must have happened at least once in evolution. Now the sheer difficulty is much better appreciated – to the extent that even a good number of theistic evolutionists are nowadays willing to entertain the possibility that the original creation of life was a unique act of God rather than a unique fluke.

The nebular hypothesis for the formation of the solar system might have been considered part of science in the nineteent century – but the origin of the universe was, theologically, the direct work of God and, within science, the general naturalist view was that the cosmos is eternal, requiring no explanation. Now that last claim is only maintained by mathematical gymnastics or philosophical ineptitude – to the rest, the universe began with a bang that naturalistic science cannot even in theory address.

The one area in which naturalistic science had begun to encroach in Victorian times was in the origin of human consciousness, morality and reason. Huxley saw no reason why human automata should not be entirely the product of nature. But the theists vehemently disagreed, and the philosophical objections to the evolution of the human mind have, if anything, been strengthened today.

In summary, science only really began to claim authority in questions of ultimate origins, historically attributed to divine action, <i>after</i> the demise of theistic science. In the two instances, evolution and mind, where theistic science actually had any input, it was opposed to entirely naturalistic explanations.

It has been pointed out that these very specific “origins” areas, despite the efforts of 150 years, are the very areas which have yielded the least solid progress within science, of all the subjects it tackles. That may be coincidental, but is more likely not to be.

Cosmic fine tuning demands explanations for the origin of the Universe which have not been forthcoming without either God or unpersuasive and unphilosophical speculation. Origin of life science has fewer plausible theories than even ten years ago. Human mental properties fight both scientifically and philosophically shy of naturalistic explanation. And there would be no Third Way or Intelligent Design movement if the origin of species was as securely scientific as is usually claimed.

To put it bluntly, there was really nothing in science of the nineteenth century – nor even before – that even tempted scientists to easy “God of the Gaps” answers. The usual exception to this – Newton – turns out not to be an exception at all.

What this means is that science has come to cover a number of events which, on doctrinal or philosophical grounds, theistic scientists of a former generation might well have considered beyond its proper remit. Were they here today, I suggest they might very well wish – or even insist – on an alteration in their “Principle of Uniformity” to take account of the possibility of works of God they attributed to his role as Creator, beyond the usual laws of nature which were themselves only the products of creation, not its means.

What solution they would have favoured is, of course, uncertain – they would at least have new-fangled philosophers of science and religion to e-mail for advice. But I somehow don’t think their preferred option would be methodological naturalism.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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