Science is Theistic

HandOfGodThe earliest proposers of the “laws” of science meant the term more literally than most today realize. Contemporary people, when we think about the issue at all, tend to think of them simply as the way that nature happens to behave (with no more explanation than that–no wonder Hume was baffled). The developers of science, however, literally considered these laws to be something like divine fiat–God telling the world how it was to behave.

This is one of several reasons why, until very recently in history, the success of science was taken to be a point in favor of theism, rather than opposed to it.

Materialists (like many theists, for reasons I’lll get to) tend to scoff at this idea of divine fiat. But the trouble with this (for materialists) is twofold:

First, that materialism offers no alternative explanation. The regularity of the universe is simply a brute fact, according to this view–”brute fact” here being, as in most instances, something of a euphemism for “magic”.

Second, and more significantly, this perspective is not required by theism. In fact, it is not the traditional view. Rather, many theists have long held that God created the universe with a particular nature, it’s contents having specific tendencies that, under similar conditions, will behave similarly.

But, if this explanation works, why can’t the non-theist simply borrow it from the theist, strip it of any reference to God or the non-physical, and use it as a materialist explanation? Because it is the reference to the non-physical in general, and God in particular, that make this explanation work.

To claim that the contents of the universe have specific tendencies is to embrace teleology (aka final causation). It is a rejection of David Hume’s critique of causation (so beloved of materialists), and is the key premise in one of the traditional arguments for God’s existence. We’ll get to this last at some point in the future.

Beyond that, it is simply another “brute fact” in the hands of the materialists, as opposed to being based on a necessary being, argued for on independent grounds, as the theist’s position would have it.

I tend to be suspicious of views that dismiss vast parts of perceived reality as illusory. It generally seems like an ad hoc way of ridding one’s self of anything for which the view in question cannot account. That is, it is the provence of inadequate views trying to maintain respectability.

The telltale sign, however, is the need to postulate brute facts. Contingent things (that is, things that logically could not have existed, but do) that apparently exist for no reason at all.

Anything that simply pops into our view of reality (such as the patterns of the universe, or even the universe itself), without any explanation, is a sign that we’ve dismissed the actual explanation as illusory.

All this is to say that the only explanation materialism, or naturalism, or empiricism, or positivism has advanced for the fact that science works is, essentially, the old Apple Jacks argument that “it just does”. The moment one suggests that a complete philosophy needs to take the fact that science works into account, these secular philosophies are in mortal danger.

Theism, on the other hand, lives quite comfortably with the idea that the universe has such regularities. All the talk of secular philosophies being, in some unspecified sense, the “scientific” ones is excellent PR. But the reality turns out to be quite the opposite.

9 responses to “Science is Theistic

  • Mark Hamilton

    I’ve come to understand that there are only two beliefs that an individual has to have to be a scientist: They have to believe that everything that happens has a reason for happening, and that human beings are capable of understanding the world around us. Christianity (indeed, most religions) are not hostile to either of those beliefs. I’m not sure how well materialism supports the first, but it is definitively hostile towards the second. It’s something that I think people need to talk about more.

    I wrote a little about this own my own blog a while ago, if anyone’s interested on my full thoughts. (Note: I use the term “naturalism” instead of “materialism” but they are essentially the same concept.)

  • FZ

    In some circles, a cause = a reason/explanation. Another thought: Assuming that bacteria are not conscious, then aren’t we are justified in claiming the consciousness is not required for purposeful behavior?

    • Debilis

      Yes, that took me a long time to realize this, that was when pre-modern philosophy started to finally make some sense.

      But regarding the point about bacteria, I’d completely agree. In fact, traditional arguments for teleology claim exactly that. But, if one has already gone this far, we are beyond materialism and it would be hard to argue that the source of all matter, energy, time, space, and teleology in the contingent arguments around us would be unconscious.

      That would be an interesting position, actually, one that I’ve yet to see anyone take. But I ultimately feel that it should be set aside for better options.

    • Frank Morris

      FZ, I think you went the wrong direction with your assumption, which is yet more reason that we should never assume things.

      “Assuming that bacteria are not conscious, then aren’t we are justified in claiming the consciousness is not required for purposeful behavior?”

      Bad assumptions don’t justify anything. Your statement would be correct, I suppose, but only by using a completely counterfactual assumption.

      Its a little like saying “if we assume nothing ever falls, wouldn’t we be justified in denying gravity?” Well, sure, but don’t start with assumptions that violate the facts at hand and expect it to end well.

      Almost certainly, bacteria ARE conscious and their purposeful behavior is a strong indicator of that fact. Bacteria, communicate, seek and imbibe nutrients, avoid threats, learn, remember, commune, work cooperatively toward common goals and even intentionally engineer their own genomes, which even we can’t do.

      Intelligence is required for consistent purposeful movement. This is not an assumption but an explanatory requirement that has no other possible explanation. Is it possible that the intelligence of bacteria is some sort of sub-conscious intelligence? I don’t see how that could be, realistically. It would require some significant (as yet non-existent) explanation and a severe unexplained gap in uniformitarianism.

      Why not start with what we know (bacteria move purposefully) and see where we go from a factual starting point rather than a counterfactual one?

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  • Frank Morris

    Debilis, I tend to agree with most of what you say, but I can not accept that “science is theistic” anymore than I can accept that science is atheistic (another claim I have heard).

    Science is religion-neutral. Integration of science with personal theistic or atheistic beliefs has been a severe burden to science. People feel strongly about religious or anti-religious views and stretch or even reverse

    Science does not prove anybody’s religion to be true. Science does prove that intelligent agency exists and that life is caused by intelligence and that the universe probably is as well.

    But what do we really know about the intelligent agency involved in life or in the universe? We certainly don’t know many specific details such as are claimed by religious faiths.

    I guess that’s why they call them faiths.

    • Debilis

      I mostly think of science as religion-neutral myself.

      I only meant to say that theism is a much better explanation as to why science works in the first place than any secular concept. I completely agree that we shouldn’t propose God as an entity in a scientific theory. That would be an unwarranted jump in subjects.

      So, it is not that I think that science concludes to theism, but that science starts from a set of ideas that are best explained by theism.

      I hope that makes more sense.

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