Methodologies, like theories, have limits

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.

Avatar photo

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.
This entry was posted in Creation, History, Philosophy, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Methodologies, like theories, have limits

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    Talking of Maxwell: have you seen the book about the tension between him and T.H. Huxley? “Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon”.

    There was good discussion at that is relevant to your point of *how* naturalism came to be accepted. Not accidental, or rationality-driven, but deliberate pushing.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Thanks, Ian – will chase these links up and maybe post a response.

        • Mattman says:

          Dear Jon I posted this in another piece but I will repost here:

          Dear Jon I am a little late coming to this post but I think this paper might interest you. paper “Theism, naturalism, and scientific realism”. Especially
          “According to evolution by natural selection, an organism that sees reality as it is will never be more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. Never” (Gefter 2016). More precisely, various studies apart from their own show
          that when interface perceptual strategies compete with any realist strategy, the former will drive the latter into extinction (Hoffman, Singh, and Prakash 2015, 1487). Not co-existence, which is an option. Extinction.

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            Hi Mattman

            Thanks for contributing. I reply here because it’s a more current thread. I’ve downloaded the paper to read, but the quotes you give appear to provide interesting empirical support to Lewis’s philosophical argument.

            In effect (though I’ll have to check the context in the article) the papers cited are corroboration of the argument from reason presented, as I sought to do in the OP, in a scientific form.

            It seems we have either to agree that the naturalistic methodology itself is falsified by such findings, or go with the realpolitik that we’re not going to persuade scientists to change the methodology they have been told by Huxley et al. that they’ve been using for centuries!

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Right – those articles are quite brief, so didn’t take long to digest. Essential reading for all here!

    I was aware of Huxley, of course, but not of his political programme through the X club. But it all confirms what I’ve gleaned from previous research, and what I say in the OP about the long history of theistic science, the shift in metaphysics and so on.

    And the strategic procurement of key academic appointments to ensure victory very much mirrors what happened when Neo-Darwinism began quietly (or sometimes less quietly) sidelining the many who had different views in the mid 20th century… as does the creation of revisionist scientistic histories, which I’ve written about frequently here.

    Who would have thought that anyone would fall for it… but then C S Lewis, whilst including philosophy and metaphysics as things that slipped out of scientists’ education, missed out history!

    • Jay313 says:

      I read the essential reading, but it reads to me like just another conspiracy theory of history. What’s next? The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? In any case, the atheist can just as easily flip the script and point to the Discovery Institute’s “Wedge Document,” its Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, and its political “Science Education Policy” goals as a perfect Christian counterpart to Huxley and his X Club. Had DI actually succeeded in achieving its goals, it surely would be depicted as a hostile takeover of science by a cabal of Christian conspirators.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        …it surely would be depicted as a hostile takeover of science by a cabal of Christian conspirators.

        It already is so depicted, by everyone from atheists to Theistic Evolutionists. Even respected contributors here have hinted that it would spell the end of western civilization. So why is that fear not equally comparable to the Protocols of Zion?

        Or alternatively, if there is even an element of truth in it, why is the history of science’s secularisation, documented by a number of legitimate historians of science (eg Mattthew Stanley, Ron Numbers, James Hannam) to be regarded as mere “historical conspiracy”?

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    I am puzzled by this – at the time of Huxley, Christian academics and scientists formed the vast majority, and yet Huxley seems to have won the battle. When viewed this way, it is difficult to understand why naturalism/materialism came to dominate the sciences, and the scientific method was mangled into this methodological naturalism, whatever people think it means.

    • Avatar photo Mark says:

      Ah, but the funding for science now comes overwhelmingly from the state, doesn’t it?

      Science is at present degraded in condition because it has become captured. Captured by the state operationally and captured by naturalism philosophically. Because it now relies so heavily on the former for funding, it tends to produce conclusions convenient to those in power.

      Evolution, not Divine Creation, is the model which gives the state moral permission to shape man without limits. Evolution, not Divine Creation, is the model which gives the state moral permission to make human rights an ever-changing grant from itself to its subjects rather than a gift to every individual from their Creator and therefore something to which even the mighty state should acquiesce. It is not surprising that a science establishment captured by an aggressively secular state will dogmatically assert that man evolved from lower forms by naturalistic means only.

      Huxley had help from government-funded science. Those who run mighty kingdoms chaff at the thought that they are accountable to anyone, including God.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Mark –

        There is indeed a good body of work, not least from leading philosophers of science, about how state funding can corrupt science just as it can corrupt religion.

        I’m not sure how much state funding of science there was in Huxley’s time, though. Wasn’t it more simply a case of having the ear of Lord Whoever at the parliamentary dinner party? He would also happen to be the chancellor of Oxford responsible for allocating the chair in zoology or whatever.

      • Jay313 says:

        Science is at present degraded in condition because it has become captured. Captured by the state operationally and captured by naturalism philosophically. Because it now relies so heavily on the former for funding, it tends to produce conclusions convenient to those in power.

        More conspiracy theory of history. And the reason people need AR-15’s is to protect themselves from their own government. Yawn…

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          In one respect Huxley might very well agree with Mark here. His anticlericalism was largely predicated on his resentment of any institutional power-base or dogma limiting the spirit of free, individual, inquiry of the scientist.

          He was probably inconsistent in practising what he preached, but the idea of state funding of research, journal impact factors, promotion-by-results, consensus science – possibly even peer-review as it is now practised, would probably be seen by him as anti-scientific.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I think we have to factor in Enlightenment skepticism – the same general atmosphere that made the “educated classes” of Britain warm instantly to Darwin’s theory, which of course they understood only as a concept, not testing the science.

      As you know, scientists generally were slower to accept the science. No doubt many of them were Christians like Maxwell and Faraday – but I doubt it was a majority, even then. And I don’t think Huxley & Co took out ads saying “Vote for secularising science” – as today, it’s better to get quietly elected to key posts, make appointments and publish in accordance with your programme, and write as if “science” was speaking.

      After all, how many people today take much time to wonder if the editors of Nature or New Scientist might have personal axes to grind?

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        Hi Jon,

        I agree that a word in the lords year would help Huxley get appointments and what have you, but I am inclined to think that many other factors were in play. I am puzzled, and so I ponder on factors that would cause such a radical change in the scientific community then, and continues today.

        I can’t help thinking that the implementation of science in so many areas, and especially in wars such as the American civil war, WWI and II, may have caused many scientists to eventually believe that only the material mattered. Evolution as an ideology seems to me to underpin such belief, and science as a source of wonder regarding God’s creation began to fade from the scientific outlook. This is an opinion I have with what I find puzzling. Many other factors were obviously at play, including a reaction to simplistic understanding of the Bible.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          Ian’s kindly pointed me to this book, which seems to explore the matter in depth.

          EDIT: here’s a summary passage from the Introduction to that book that might help:

          By the end of the nineteenth century, theistic and naturalistic science had been
          functioning side by side for decades, and it was only due to deliberate strategic choices that Huxley and his allies came to triumph. Chapter 7 argues that their key strategy was to make naturalistic science seem obvious and unique. Their chief tactics were to gain control of science education in the long term, and work to reframe concepts (such as uniformity) as solely naturalistic despite their theistic roots. The core of the plan was to reinterpret the history of science to erase its theistic past, and make science look as though it had always been naturalistic. These moves all required that naturalistic science largely share the same values as the theistic science it sought to replace, and led to a gradual generational change rather than a sudden revolution. Naturalism was given a long history, to make it seem impossible that science was ever practiced any other way. All of these strategies were critically enabled by large-scale social transitions in Britain, and were successfully brought to America as well. The Victorian scientific naturalists were so successful in telling their new story about science that today it is accepted by both naturalists and their enemies in the ID camp.

          And by the “in-betweens” in the EC camp, apparently!

          • Avatar photo GD says:

            Hi Jon,

            I read the Introduction, and I note the point that both camps have shared values regarding how science is done. This is why I use the phrase “scientific method”.

            Your posts have got me thinking (and somewhat puzzled), and I would contribute these thoughts. I regard theistic matters to be my (our) comprehension of God, and we understand the transcendence, imminence and simplicity, as proper terms. These also require us to understand language, as for eg, God differs from being(s), and we recognise and know objects by difference. But God transcends these and thus we do not know God as something different. Thus objects (the interest of science) are understood as that, as differing from each other, and science is concerned with properties and means to characterise (to know) each object.

            To be brief, I see scientific endeavour to depend on how a scientist thinks, but science is not theistic in the strict sense. I think coherently as a result of my comprehension of God, the creation, but scientifically I cannot see how I would “weave” these into the science, or the scientific method – since that deals with objects based on how we humans differentiate them.

            These comments are “of the cuff” – I give them as a response to this interesting exchange.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


              You’re right that the practice of science is not altered by theistic presuppositions. The pre-Huxley scientists based their science on the uniformity of nature because of God’s sovereignty as law-giver.

              The “naturalists” (Huxley’s own rhetorical term, I believe) seem to have taken the same lawfulness as axiomatic. That’s problematic metaphysically, but altered nothing scientifically, except as a wedge to introduce the idea that religion was inimical to science (it’s no coincidence that the conflict hypothesis appeared at the same time).

              My own feeling is that a clearer idea than “law” (in these days when quantum theory has dealt a blow to determinism) is simply “regularity” and “repeatability”. This avoids any metaphysical commitment, other than to the uniformity of nature (another axiom grounded originally in theism), but has the advantage of marking out the limits of science as what can be reduced to order.

              You’ll note that this excludes contingency – the “random” becomes, as it ought, simply “of unknown cause”. Methodological naturalism would insist it’s chance; methodological theism (if such existed) might insist it’s divine will – but regularism simply says that question is not a scientific one and insist on the use of a neutral term like “contingency”.

  4. Avatar photo Mark says:

    “the oldtheology andphilosophy were not wrong, but methodological naturalism is, because it is “the scientific habit of mind” taken beyond its proper, original limits.”

    Indeed what we call simply “Science” now used to be called, and sometimes still is, “natural science”. There were other kinds of science based on other premises. Indeed even theology was considered a science and many institutions still offer a Science of Theology degree. Naturalism has broken its proper boundaries and laid claim to all science when it is properly one kind- for more see

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Yes indeed, Mark – it’s striking on your side of the pond how B B Warfield’s work, for example, treated theology as a science. Not surprising, really, since he trained in maths and natural science before turning to theology.

      Another success of the secularisation process is how all the other sciences jostled to get on the naturalism bandwagon. They tend to call it “physics envy” when methodological naturalism is applied to fields like psychology (though in terms of our recent discussions, it’s about amnesia of the Cartesian basis of natural science).

      Even more bizarre is how academic theology thought it appropriate to apply methodological naturalism to the study of God and the Bible. Since they’ve been doing that almost as long as the physicists, maybe (re the origin of this post) it’s equally negative to protest!

  5. Jay313 says:

    Interesting post. I’ll try to reply a bit, but I’m entertaining relatives for the next two weeks and a little out of touch. Bear with me.

    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.
    Yes, that’s why I called it simply a “method,” not “methodological naturalism.” It used to be called simply the “scientific method.” I don’t think it would be too hard to make a case that scientists have followed the same basic method for centuries, but if you want to limit it to a little more than a century-and-a-half, that’s fine. In another 20 or 30 years, we can call it “centuries” without qualification. Eventually, I’ll be correct. haha

    Well, there one has the interesting question of what changes a culture’s worldview, and that’s not often clear…
    And therein lies the rub. How would Newton’s prose have changed if written by a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a New Ager, etc.? Science is an aspect of every culture, but it also transcends any single culture. It is a worldwide endeavor, so its “rules” must be applicable to every culture, not just those with Christian heritage. At the same time, science is its own subculture, and as such, any change must come from within its own ranks. In other words, scientists set their own rules, critics and bystanders be damned!

    Gotta run. Maybe more to say later …

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Science is an aspect of every culture, but it also transcends any single culture.

      Because this argument commonly appears at this point in the discussion, it intrigues me. The story so far has been about how science can best arrive at truth – and suddenly it shifts to the virtues of scientists achieving the same results, regardless of race, colour or creed. There’s no more evidence that finding truth maps to universal agreement than there is that evolution produces true reason – rather, equipping everyone with the same hammer will produce a universe of nails, regardless of truth.

      What’s intriguing is that the argument matches exactly the anti-doctrinal stance of Huxley’s people, selling, and motivated by, the conviction that science should transcend bigoted religious dogma to some pure kind of knowledge – Thomas Nagel’s “view from nowhere.” The fact that most of them were disgruntled radical non-conformists outside the establishment is not coincidental.

      Their theistic opponents within science, I think, started from the conviction that Christ is “the way, the truth and the life”, and that “all things were created in him, by him, and for him,” and “all things in heaven and earth have been given to him by the Father.” All truth, therefore, comes in reference to Christ. Yet Jesus taught that his truth would, necessarily, be established only through conflict, not consensus.

      It’s comforting to escape from that messiness into a world above such particularity, where knowledge is pure, universal, and available to all equally, but the evidence is that it’s a religious myth, akin to “rock and roll will save the world.” Even at far less fundamental levels than metaphysics, science operates sociologically and politically, from the manipulation of power structures of the X-club or the early population geneticists, to the suppression of entire national scientific traditions by accidents of war or language… and more commonly, simply to the unconscious biases of folks trained in a particular way, and lacking a broader background.

      What is universal is what God has made to be regular in nature, but not the questions people ask about it (witness the fact that a single-pair human bottleneck was considered impossible until some Christians investigated it to settle an internal dispute). But of course one must not forget that theistic evolution/evolutionary creation – the forum for this discussion – is not about finding a consensus on truth with Buddhists and Atheists, but finding how Christ is Lord of the situation: that might go beyond science, but cannot be constrained by its naturalism.

      The other thing to consider in the “only scientists can define science” argument (other than the sidelining of those scientists who disagree with the current ethos – remember that Ian is a working scientist, whereas you and I are not!), is a similar myth – that science stands independently outside the supervision of humanity, just as the mediaeval Catholic hierarchy stood accountable to no-one but itself.

      The truth is that scientists receive billions in funding from taxpayers who are philosophers, theologians and lawyers; that they have the ear of governments in legislation, of doctors in health provision, and – ever since Huxley – control the education of our children and young adults about how the physical world works, and how that world is presented in the media. Like churches that refuse to consult their laity, or governments that always know what is best for the masses, there comes a point at which science may simply lose its public authority by insisting on a naturalist materialism that cuts across common experience. The Flat Earth Society has the right to choose how it operates, but it can’t make anyone care.

      The polls in America seem to reflect that increasing distrust – to much handwringing from scientists both atheist and Christian scientists. And the Islamists don’t burn science books because there’s nothing to disagree with.

      And thus much concerning God; to discourse of whom from the appearances of things, does certainly belong to Natural Philosophy.

      • Jay313 says:

        The story so far has been about how science can best arrive at truth – and suddenly it shifts to the virtues of scientists achieving the same results, regardless of race, colour or creed.

        No, that’s scientism. That’s not the story, or at least, it’s not my story. Science cannot arrive at capital “T” Truth, because science is limited to investigating only a very small slices of truth — those that have to do with material “facts” about the world. Science tells us nothing of meaning or value or purpose, which are the only questions that ultimately matter in human life. Materialism is an inherently dissatisfying philosophy and useless for living. Let the materialist preach his empty dogma. We preach Christ crucified and resurrected, a dogma of faith, hope, and love. I am happy to fight that battle on those terms. We cannot lose.

        As far as the rest, you miss my point. I don’t think you guys have thought through the ramifications of what you’re proposing. If we allow scientists to indulge in the sort of theologizing that took place 300 years ago, we have opened Pandora’s Box. It will not be a return to some Golden Age of God in science; rather, ALL scientists, of any stripe of belief, will be free to weave their bogus theologizing into peer-reviewed “scientific” papers and journals. The Christian scientist might be free to weave his metaphysics into his work, but so will the Muslim, the New Ager, the atheist, the Sikh, the Zoroastrian, etc. What you are advocating would not bring about a return of the giants like Paley and Newton; rather, it would take the muzzle off the scientists and let them run wild with unhindered speculation. A giant mistake, in my view.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          That kind of fear is what, as a matter of historical fact, Huxley and friends wrote back into their revisionist history of the past. Though much of that also involved recasting those who had practised overtly theistic science – from Newton through even to Faraday after his death in 1867 – in the mould of secularists who kept their religion out of the lab. Hence in fact:

          Faraday commonly used biblical metaphors and references in his lecturing and often spoke of the laws of nature as being divinely crafted. In particular, he saw the conservation and conversion of energy as being closely tied to theological principles. His faith was well known in the science community, and despite the Sandemanians’ generally negative social status, he was embraced as a typical theistic scientist.


          Tyndall’s 1868 book Faraday as a Discoverer set up the Sandemanian as an exemplar of scientific naturalism. Faraday was described as embodying all the naturalistic values—unified laws, provisional results, the use of hypotheses and theory, the moral value of scientific investigation, and freedom of thought. All of these were described in such a way that their theistic roots were abstracted away, and they could be read naturalistically instead.

          The fact is that theistic science was the norm, and practised according to agreed metaphysically neutral principles like “uniformity” (as opposed to “methodological naturalism”) by Evangelicals like Maxwell, Catholics like Mivart, Sandemanians(!) like Faraday, Spiritualists like Wallace AND anti-clericalist agnostics like Huxley, without any kind of religious anarchy.

          Huxley (et al) sought to change that, and succeeeded, (a) by gaining control of key academic appointments, (b) by gaining control of science education, including that in schools, (c) by secularizing the examinations required to qualify in science, (d) by a vigorous campaign of rewriting history (not only here, but across the Atlantic, where it directly encouraged the persistent myths of Andrew Dickson White’s conflict hypothesis.)

          The net result was (I don’t think at all controversially) that not only did naturalist science become assumed to be the norm, but became believed always to have been the norm, except where theism was alleged to have damaged science.

          Why did theists like Maxwell not resist it? Matthew Stanley suggests (a) that Huxley et al. campaigned very carefully (boiling frogs syndrome), (b) that theists were complacent, assuming that religion would retain the same place in science it always had and (c) they weren’t so committed to making appointments on ideological grounds rather than scientific merit.

          The question remaining, then, is whether a secularist movement accidentally produced the only good way of doing science, or whether the winners simply wrote the script that still seems most plausible.

          • Jay313 says:

            The fact is that theistic science was the norm…

            Yes, once upon a time, it was the norm, when science was primarily conducted in Christian Europe and North America. That is not the case anymore. It is also no longer the case that the majority of scientists are Christian. Change the rules of science, and do you honestly think that “theistic science” will somehow emerge from that milieu? The chances are nil. All that would happen is that the atheists would be free to include their metaphysical speculations in scientific papers and journals, rather than being confined to speeches and books for the popular market.

            You cannot turn back the clock. Neither the Enlightenment nor the scientific revolution can be erased from history. We have to play the hand we’re dealt, not beat our heads against the wall.

  6. Ian Thompson says:

    Good points Jon!
    As (most) of my colleagues emphasize, truth is not a popularity contest.

    As for me, I am still employed as a theoretical nuclear physicist, and (being in the USA) they do not want me to retire just yet.
    For detail, see

    And I have also written a book on science and religion: “Starting Science from God”.
    For detail on that (and full text), see

Leave a Reply