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

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Thu Apr 16 2009 - 08:43:10 EDT


Regarding the historical career of methodological naturalism, I agree with you that the name does not have to be present for the thing itself to be present. I also agree with you that we can find expressions of the notion in certain ancient Greek writings and others prior to the 20th century.

Gregory does have a point, however, about the way that the term is used in the debate over Intelligent Design, especially by Eugenie Scott. I do not believe that her motivation or even her conceptualization is the same as Robert Boyle's. But I will take up the "culture war" use of "methodological naturalism" in a separate post, at a future time. For now, however, I would like to ask you a question about Boyle.

You quote Boyle as saying:

"But, not now to dispute of a power that I am more willing to adore then question, I say, that our Controversie is not what God can do, but about what can be done by Natural Agents, not elevated above the sphere of Nature. For though God can both create and annihilate, yet Nature can do neither: and in the judgment of true Philosophers I suppose our Hypothesis would need no other advantage to make it be preferred before our Adversaries, then that in ours things are explicated by the ordinary course of Nature, whereas in the other recourse must be had to miracles."

You interpret this as a methodological pronouncement that natural science (natural philosophy) should deal in natural causes, and not make use of special interventions of God. I think this is clear enough. But it leaves an important question open, one which is not left open by those who today claim to speak for "science" when they discuss methodological naturalism in relation to cosmology and evolution.

The question which is left open by Boyle's remark is whether the origin of the current structure of the universe, or of the living things in it, is the proper object of natural science (natural philosophy), or whether it ought to be assigned to the subject of theology. If the latter, then discussions of origins would certainly, for Boyle, be allowed to make use of "miracles", i.e., direct interventions of God which do not reflect "the ordinary course of Nature".

Now I do not know Boyle's writing, but I am guessing that, as a 17th-century Christian, he would have accepted the Genesis account of Creation, probably not with absolute literalness (since he would have known the cosmography was wrong), but at least in its general outline, and that he would have understood it as most men of his age understood it, i.e., as a teaching about extraordinary actions of God. I would be interested in hearing from you whether this is the case, and if it is not the case, I would like to know how he interpreted Genesis, or Creation generally.

If I am right, then Boyle implicitly distinguished between "origins science" and, for want of a better phrase, "operational science" (though of course he would not have used those terms), assigning the former to theology, and the latter to natural philosophy.

Modern science, however, since at least the days of Kant, has with steadily increasing confidence declared any implicit division between "origins science" and "operational science" to be groundless, and has claimed that, by extending our knowledge of operational science backwards through inference, scientists are entitled to pronounce upon questions of origins. This happened first in cosmology, then in geology, and finally in evolutionary biology and origin-of-life investigations.

One can speculate about whether or not Boyle, had he lived later, would have agreed with post-Enlightenment science in erasing the distinction between origins science and operational science, but I am not sure that such speculations can ever be profitable, as the theological responses of individuals cannot easily be predicted. Is it not true, however, that Boyle's understanding of origins, as we have it, was different from that of Kant, Laplace, Darwin, etc.? And if so, what can we learn from that? Merely that Boyle didn't live long enough to fully realize the implications of modern science for origins questions? So that 17th-century science, in its naivete about origins questions, was an immature, transitional phase, a "halfway house" between medieval science and fully mature modern science?




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Received on Thu Apr 16 08:46:03 2009

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