Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Wed Apr 15 2009 - 11:18:00 EDT

I respond here to these two paragraphs from Gregory's post:

The problem is not your history here, it is your philosophy. Robert Boyle's
statement proves my point that "Those who claim MN has been used as a
principle for hundreds or thousands of years are in love with retro-diction;
they thrive on anachronism." The way MN is meant today would have been
inconceivable to Boyle and his colleagues; they were mainly religious
believers who did natural philosophy and 'science' and didn't divide them
like we do today.

Again Ted, you are supporting the negative definition of MN 'one ought not
to invoke divine omnipotence in natural philosophy.' But there is nothing
positive or helpful in that (except maybe for debates with creationists or
IDists, which is not for the most part seriously academic)! The positive
case for naturalism (MN or otherwise) seems often to slide too easily and
directly into scientism. This is why Dawkins and Dennett and Harris are so
pleased to see religious folks defending MN and TE; it supports their case
more than it presents a responsible case for balancing 'science, philosophy
and religion,' which is what, it seems to me, that you and Keith and George
are ultimately seeking. But where are your non-natural silence?


Gregory, Boyle's statement proves the narrow point I made: namely, that
there is nothing modern about scientists looking for "natural" causes, in
exclusion of "supernatural" ones. There was apparently something helpful
in it, when Boyle responded to Line in the manner I indicated: he thought
that Line, by invoking God's absolute power to account for the meniscus in
the barometer, was simply evading the question. Line was not giving the
kind of explanation that Boyle, arguably the leading Christian scientist of
his generation and certainly one of the most genuinely pious, found to be
consistent with good science. You have asked me to make a positive case
*for* methodological naturalism, but IMO the whole history of science is
just such a case. The explanatory success of looking for and (usually)
finding "natural" causes for phenomena is hard to top. This need not mean
that *all* events will *always* have natural causes, and it does not mean
that "nature" is the ultimate explanatory entity -- indeed it is not (see
below). But it does mean that you are asking for a positive case that you
are overlooking.

As for Dawkins and company, I would be pleased to debate any of them on the
question, "Is Nature all there is?" If you or someone else can arrange the
details, please be in touch. MN itself needs an explanation--*why* is it so
successful? Under polytheistic religion it ought not be so, and under
atheism it ought not be so, either. Only monotheism can give a clear and
coherent account of why MN works so well. I don't give a hoot if Dawkins is
happy to see theists defending MN, but I do care whether he can account for
the success of his own science as well as theists can. I don't think he

Finally, concerning Boyle and the division of knowledge, I have another
surprise for you. In published catalogs that he approved, as well as in
private catalogs for his own use, Boyle divided his own works into two main
categories: natural philosophical and theological. There are numerous such
examples, and some of the hitherto unpublished ones are found in vol. 14 of
the edition of his works that I did with Michael Hunter. Sometimes he did
not make this distinction, simply listing all sorts of works-in-progress to
keep track of them, but often enough he did make this distinction. When he
made any sort of distinction, it was usually as described here. And, he did
so at the height of his career in the 1670s as well as at the height of his
fame at the end of his life in 1691. Furthermore, he typically published
his "theological" works under a pseudonym such as "[Rober]T. [Boyl]E. a
lay-man," or "A Fellow of the Royal Society," or even no name at all on the
title page. This was in fact the norm for his theological works, further
indicating that he accepted the kind of distinction that you claim he did
not make. For more on this see the introduction to vol. 1 in the edition.


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Received on Wed Apr 15 11:18:30 2009

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