[Fwd: methodological naturalism (long)]

William B. Provine (wbp2@cornell.edu)
Sat, 28 Mar 1998 19:54:27 +0000

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Message-ID: <351D0DA5.9EA50AA@cornell.edu>
Date: Sat, 28 Mar 1998 14:48:05 +0000
From: "William B. Provine" <wbp2@cornell.edu>
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To: "Howard J. Van Till" <110661.1365@compuserve.com>
CC: ASA listserve <asa@calvin.edu>
Subject: Re: methodological naturalism (long)
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Dear Howard, Phil, George, Paul, Keith, Allan, Bill and all on ASA,

Howard, your comments on methodological naturalism have crystallized the
discussion, and we all are in your debt. The rest of you have also contributed
in major ways. I wanted to subscribe to ASA listserv for exactly this kind of
discussion. Thank you all for letting a total atheist join in the discussion.

Howard, you have for me two highly insightful comments.

1) Regarding your RFE Principle: today, you said of it that "I freely admit
that I cannot prove it (nor, of course, could anyone disprove it); the best I
can do is to make a human judgement." You tell Paul Nelson that the solution to
"scientific research problem" or "empirical puzzle" (regarding the formational
history of physical structures or of life forms) is essentially the same as
methodological naturalism.

This view suggests that my interpretation of the universe is logically
consistent. We differ in BASIC ASSUMPTIONS about how physical structures and
life forms evolve over time. You can, however, state with confidence that God
created the universe, and I along with most astrophysicists, feel ignorant.

The definition of "deism" in Newton's day (and who can believe that Newton was
a deist, or consistent in following MN) meant one who believed in nature whose
divinity could be understood by faith alone. The theist could see unmistakeable
handiwork of God in nature not by faith alone, but by deduction from
intelligently designed phenomena. Newton denied being a deist on many grounds,
but particularly on the adaptations of biological organisms being obvious signs
of God. Howard, you would be judged a deist by those who accused Newton of
deism. So would George Murphy, Keith Miller and Allan Harvey. Believing the
miracles of the Bible, by the way, did not excuse the deist of nature.

2. Howard says something else that is wholly inconsistent with his RFE
Principle that he believes by faith.

> Suppose, on the other hand, that a person were to begin with a commitment
> to the worldview of Naturalism--Nature is all there is. There is no
> Creator; Nature is its own source of being. How does something--a universe,
> say--come to exist in place of 'absolute nothing'? If P. W. Atkins'
> rhetoric is taken to be representative, then Naturalism's answer is simply,
> "chance," or, to employ his more colorful prose, "the haphazard,
> unmotivated action" of nothingness. (This type of rhetoric can be found in
> his brief book, _The Creation_.) Not very satisfying or convincing answers,
> Mr. Atkins.
> But there is far more that Naturalism must yet explain. Naturalism must
> account for the existence not merely of a nondescript something in place of
> nothing, but rather of a SOMETHING as remarkable as a universe that
> contains us! In other words, Naturalism must accept the challenge of
> explaining the existence of a universe that is equipped with a formational
> economy sufficiently robust to account for the formation of the elements,
> of space, of galaxies, of stars, of planets, of plants, of animals, and of
> human beings. How does the "haphazard, unmotivated action" of nothingness
> do that?

Howard, now you are saying loud and clear a matter that has nothing whatever to
do with faith. You have said that from the observation of plants and animals
and all the others you list, the Christian God can be deduced. This is a very
different matter from an RFE Principle one must take on faith. I, with my
observational powers, should be convinced by the same reasoning.

Of course, I am not convinced. You have totally misrepresented the views of
mainstream scientists, who argue that determinism and chance both play
important roles. Biologists say that mutations are not "random" events, but
merely random with respect to the needs of the organism in a particular
environment. "Random" segregation of chromosomes is likewise not really random,
but a crude random number generator, easily affected by segregation distorters.
If Atkins really believes that nature is just haphazard change, he is dead
wrong. I don't believe he really means that.

In these paragraphs in 2) above, you sound to me rather like Phil Johnson. God
must have created a universe in which His creation produces organisms whereas a
merely natural one as I see could never have done that.

In other words, these assertions of yours are not only inconsistent with your
argument about RFE Principle, but they place you in direct opposition to modern
science. If you put the two paragraphs above in a physical and a biological
journal, you would be branded a creationist who believes in a long history of
the universe and earth. Is this what you want? I thought you were trying to
avoid this charge.

Then the problem of the traditional miracles of the Bible arise. I assume,
Howard, that you would accept the miraculous status of the birth of Jesus
Christ and His Resurrection. So even by the continuity of the RFE Principle,
this is impossible.

Best wishes to all, Will