Intelligent Design

Was Methodological Naturalism a Product of the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries?

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In Part Two of my series on methodological naturalism, I critiqued the claim that it was espoused by philosophers as far back as the Middle Ages. In Part Three, I rebut a different claim, that methodological naturalism was a product of the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries. According to this claim, methodological naturalism arose largely in reaction to the superstitious thinking of the Middle Ages, in which epilepsy was attributed to the Devil, and epidemics and lightning bolts were ascribed to the wrath of God. I show that on the contrary, doctors in the Middle Ages knew that epilepsy was a disease of the brain, and that epidemics were a contagious disease. The cause of epidemics was held to be an infectious tainting of the atmosphere, resulting in poisoning of the soil, water and food over wide regions, and not the wrath of God. Lastly, the idea that lightning or thunder had Divine origins was widely rejected or ignored in the Middle Ages.

Proponents of the claim that methodological naturalism was a product of the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries often cite Copernicus and Galileo as examples of scientists who upheld this methodological principle. In this section, I quote passages from the works of these scientists which show that they both firmly believed that that anyone who diligently studied the movements of the celestial bodies would be led thereby to a knowledge of God. For both of these scientists, then, God-talk had a perfectly legitimate place in science – in fact, it played a vital role. In other words, they upheld a view which is diametrically opposed to methodological naturalism. And as I’ll show in a future post, there were many other famous scientists from the past who upheld the same view.

A standard pack of cards has two jokers. The joker is meant to represent a figure of fun, who should not be taken too seriously. In this section, I’m going to examine the testimony of two professors – Professor Robert Pennock and Professor John Haught – on methodological naturalism, at the 2005 Dover trial. The testimony of these two professors persuaded presiding Judge John E. Jones (pictured above) that methodological naturalism had been part-and-parcel of scientific methodology since the the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. I will argue below that the testimony of these two professors is so full of factual errors that it cannot be taken seriously. It is a joke. Hence my description of these two learned men – not the judge – as “jokers.”

1. Is Professor Robert Pennock right in portraying methodological naturalism as a reaction to medieval belief in magic?

Professor Robert T. Pennock is a philosopher working on the Avida digital organism project at Michigan State University. Pennock was called as an expert witness in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial, testifying that methodological naturalism, which explains observable events in nature only by natural causes, without assuming the existence or non-existence of the supernatural, is a defining feature of the scientific method. Professor Pennock’s testimony on methodological naturalism strongly influenced presiding Judge John E. Jones III, who cited it in his decision:

Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena. (9:19-22 (Haught); 5:25-29 (Pennock); 1:62 (Miller)). This revolution entailed the rejection of the appeal to authority, and by extension, revelation, in favor of empirical evidence. (5:28 (Pennock)). Since that time period, science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea’s worth. (9:21-22 (Haught ); 1:63 (Miller)). In deliberately omitting theological or “ultimate” explanations for the existence or characteristics of the natural world, science does not consider issues of “meaning” and “purpose” in the world. (9:21 (Haught); 1:64, 87 (Miller)). While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. (3:103 (Miller); 9:19-20 (Haught)). This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as “methodological naturalism” and is sometimes known as the scientific method. (5:23, 29-30 (Pennock)). Methodological naturalism is a “ground rule” of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify. (1:59-64, 2:41-43 (Miller); 5:8, 23-30 (Pennock)).

In his testimony at the Dover trial in 2005, Professor Robert Pennock drew a link between the rise of methodological naturalism and and a decline in the medieval belief in magic. Until the 15th century, even educated people generally attributed sickness, bad weather and other misfortunes to supernatural beings (e.g. evil spirits, or an angry God). Only gradually did they come to attribute these calamities to to natural causes.

Professor Pennock cited two particular fields of science as examples, in his trial testimony: medicine (in which, he claimed, the popular belief that diseases were caused by evil spirits gave way to the scientific belief that diseases had entirely natural causes) and meteorology (where the belief that God sent lightning bolts and bad weather as expressions of His displeasure was replaced by the belief that weather could be understood in neutral, scientific terms).

(i) Did the search for natural causes of disease lead to the rise of methodological naturalism in medicine?

Hippocrates, the Father of Western medicine. Engraving by Peter Paul Rubens, 1638. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine and Wikipedia.

In his medical testimony, Pennock portrayed the Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460-370 B.C.) as a lone voice of reason whose naturalistic approach to disease was rapidly extinguished by a tide of religious superstition, in which supernaturalism reared its ugly head again. During the 13th to the 15th centuries, he contends, it was thought that the only way of overcoming the laws of nature was by appeal to supernatural entities. This kind of crude, supernaturalistic thinking held sway until the resurgence of a rational approach to disease in the 15th century. After that, says Pennock, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment led to a rejection of religious authorities and their primitive, supernaturalistic explanations, in favor of an appeal to the empirical evidence from Nature. Allow me to quote the relevant passage from Pennock’s testimony (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District; Trial transcript: Day 3 (September 28), AM Session, Part 1):

Epilepsy was the example that Hippocrates dealt with. It was called the sacred disease. The idea was that it was kind of divine possession when one went into an epileptic seizure. Hippocrates suggested that we should not think of it in that way but just think of it as a normal illness and try to find a normal, natural way of curing it. As he talked about epidemics, again epidemics would have been things that under some non-scientific ways of thinking about it they’re the result of displeasure of God perhaps, and Hippocrates said we should try to find by cataloging natural regularities try to find causes for epidemics.

So that’s sort of an early inkling of this, and it’s not as though this then set root and established everything. One go through really century by century before one finds these things being teased apart. So for example really in the 13th through 15th century one finds alchemists, people doing supernatural magic, trying to think that one can find ways of overcoming the laws of nature by appeal to supernatural entities and so on.

And a switch that kind of happened of the same sort where people suggested well, maybe there are just hidden regularities that we don’t yet know about that are actually natural explanations for these apparent magical things. So they talked about the natural magic, and the idea then was let’s think about what these might be. Now, it’s not as though they got things right. Facchino was one 15th century natural magic proponent who thought that influences from the planets of particular sorts could explain events on earth. He wasn’t thinking of these as supernatural. He thought of them as natural, but that they could be controlled by other material, talismans for example.

So there you’re getting this notion of a method that assumes natural regularities and appeal to those as coming out. Really this gets much more firmly established then in enlightenment and scientific revolution. That’s probably what’s most characteristic of the scientific revolution, rejecting appeal to authority and saying we will appeal just to nature itself. We’ll appeal just to the evidence, the empirical evidence.

And it’s very clear at that point then that when one does science, one is setting aside questions about whether the gods or some supernatural beings had some hand in this.

The reader might be wondering: is Pennock’s narrative broadly accurate, or is it “Whig history” at its worst? Does Pennock paint a fair and balanced portrait of the rise of modern medicine, or is he engaging in myth-making? At this point, it might be a good idea to ask oneself a simple question: how did medieval physicians explain disease? Did they really attribute it to supernatural beings (e.g. demons, or an angry God), as Pennock alleges? Let’s start by looking at epilepsy.

(a) How did medieval physicians explain epilepsy?

In researching the question of what educated people believed about epilepsy in the Middle Ages, I decided to consult Medieval Medicine: A Reader (Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures) (University of Toronto Press, 2010) edited by Faith Wallis. I was pleasantly surprised to find that medieval physicians were well aware that epilepsy was a disease with a natural origin. For example, here is a quotation from Chapter 22 of the Breviary of the Practice of Medicine (Brevarium practicae medicinae), by the medieval physician Arnau of Vilanova (1235-1311):

I hold that epilepsy is an occlusion of the chief ventricles of the brain with loss of sensation and motion; or epilepsy is a non-continuous spasm of the whole body. This disease takes its rise from various causes, such as superfluous foods of drinks, or poisons, the bites of mad dogs or reptiles, from poisoned, corrupt, and pestiferous air. When the pores are constricted, and superfluities are retained, and natural heat is lessened, there follows a filling up of the chief ventricles of the brain. And these are the three causes which principally induce epilepsy. (Quoted in Wallis, p. 264.)

And here is Bernard of Gordon (1250-1318), writing in his Lily of medicine (Lilium medicinae), Part 2, chapter 25:

Epilepsy is a disease of the brain, removing sensation, motion and erection from the whole body, accompanied by a very serious disturbance of movement, because of an occlusion made in the non-principal ventricles of the brain.

The cause of this disease is a humor or windiness occluding the non-principal ventricles of the brain, impeding the passage of breath to the members, and therefore [the patient] is driven to fall suddenly to the ground. He feels absolutely nothing, nor can he in any way stand erect, but necessarily falls, unless the epilepsy be very mild, as will be seen. The movement of the hands and feet is agitated, disordered, and so is the breathing. Therefore, because of the disturbance in the breathing, there is always foam in the mouth…

Epilepsy, then, comes from either a secret cause or from some antecedent and remote cause. This is said because it sometimes comes from the brain, sometimes from the other parts, since the evil, poisonous fumes sometimes ascend from the chest to the head, occluding the ventricles, and so induce a paroxysm of epilepsy. Sometimes it comes from the stomach, sometimes from the liver, the spleen, the kidneys, the intestines, the bladder, the feet, hands or thumb. (Quoted in Wallis, pp. 265-266.)

Well, I can’t find anything about demons here. It all sounds pretty naturalistic to me, without falling into the pretentious claims of methodological naturalism. So much for the idea of Hippocrates’ lone voice of reason whose views were silenced by superstitious people in the Middle Ages.

(b) More nonsense from Professor Pennock: medieval Christians explained the Black Death as a punishment for sin, sent by an angry God

An image from The Dance of Death in the German printed edition, folio CCLXI recto from Hartman Schedel’s Chronicle of the World (Nuremberg, 1493). The image is thought to have been created by Michael Wolgemut, and not by Hans Holbein the Younger, as often stated. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Professor Pennock’s distortions do not end there. I’d like to quote from a 1997 essay that Pennock wrote wrote for the “Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise” Conference (March 20-23, 1997) at the University of Texas at Austin, entitled, Supernaturalist Explanations and the Prospects for a Theistic Science or “How do you know it was the lettuce?” In his paper, Pennock included a section, “History of supernatural explanation”, from which I shall cite a brief excerpt:

Perhaps it is a Neitzschian (sic) will to power that underlies our paradoxical desires both for understanding and for the mysterious, and that leads us to belief in the possibility of supernatural explanations. We desire understanding in part because of the control that it may give us. Knowledge is power, as Bacon said, and with it we feel more in charge of our own fates and sometimes the fates of others as well….

One of the earliest forms of supernatural explanation was animistic religion, which populates the world with gods… In later religious forms the gods have a more independent existence and may have more fully developed personalities. The Homeric epics reveal that for the ancient Greeks the world was populated by a panoply of competing gods and goddesses who regularly, sometimes kindly and sometimes cruelly, would intervene in the world and in human affairs. Homer explains how the fates of battling armies on the ground were often decided by the favors or jealousies of the Olympian gods watching and exercising control from above for their own purposes.

The switch to monotheism saw no change in this sort of use of supernatural explanation. Yahweh was regularly moved to anger, even towards his chosen people, and in His wrath would bring forth destruction and pestilence. In the mid-14th century, Christians in much of Europe tried to make wholesale atonement for their sins, that they thought must have led Yahweh to set upon them the Plague of Black Death.

Is Pennock factually correct here? Did Christians really explain the Black Death as a punishment for sin? To answer this question, I decided to look at what Christian physicians said on the matter. These physicians, like their contemporaries, firmly believed in the supernatural. If they didn’t ascribe the Black Death to the wrath of God, but ascribed it to natural causes instead, then it would obviously be wrong to claim, as Pennock does, that the rise of medical science was achieved only when people were willing to reject supernaturalistic explanations of natural phenomena. What it would suggest instead is that people, even back then, were careful about invoking supernaturalistic explanations, refraining from doing so until all natural alternatives had been exhausted. But as I explained in Part One of my series of methodological naturalism, that’s not what “methodological naturalism” means. That’s simply a principle of prudence: don’t invoke the supernatural unless you have no other alternative.

Bearing that in mind, let us now examine how Christian physicians in the 14th century viewed the Black Death.

Did Christian physicians in the 14th century explain the Black Death as a plague sent by God?

An article entitled, “Medicine, Theoretical”, in Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia edited by Thomas F. Glick, Steven John Livesey and Faith Wallis (Routledge: New York and London, 2005) describes how medieval physicians viewed disease, and demonstratively that they attempted to explain the Black Death in naturalistic terms, as a contagious disease, and not as a Divine visitation for sin:

In manuals of theory such as the Isagoge, … disease states are classified into three broad categories: (1) Mala complexio or disorders of temperament (humoral imbalance); (2) Mala compositio or congenital defect; and (3) Solutio continuatis, “breach of continuity” or trauma. Thus disease was not precisely an entity in Galenic medicine, but an event (accident) or state. Drawing on Aristotelian hylomorphism, doctors defined health and disease as “forms determining matter”; hence medieval physicians regarded as disease what a modern would term clinical presentation or symptom. Such disease specificity as exists in medieval medical theory lies closer to the modern concept of the syndrome: hence, a morbus was a disease of mala complexio with a proper name designating a particular cluster of symptoms (e.g. gout. leprosy, migraine). Ontologically, this was a fairly weak concept, because a morbus could manifest differently in patients of different complexion, and one morbus could change into another. Leprosy presented an interesting challenge to this model. Particularly in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and apparently in response to increasing demands on the medical profession for expert opinion in accusations of leprosy, authors such as Gilbertus Anglicus and Jordanus de Turre concentrated on cataloguing the features of leprosy that were definitive and invariable. The Black Death posed a different kind of problem, for its universal scope defied the Hippocratic model of an epidemic as a local outbreak of acute and virulent disease. Learned commentators invoked cosmological explanations based on the notion of a global infectio or tainting of the atmosphere, with consequent poisoning of the soil, water, foodstuffs etc. over wide regions. Although plague might be caused by environmental factors, it was understood to spread through contact (contagio).

Professor Pennock asserted, in the passage I quoted above, that “In the mid-14th century, Christians in much of Europe tried to make wholesale atonement for their sins, that they thought must have led Yahweh to set upon them the Plague of Black Death.” I have to say I can’t find anything about plagues sent by Yahweh here!

I am therefore forced to conclude that Professor Pennock has played fast and loose with his facts – and that’s putting it kindly. The upshot of my research has led me to believe that Christian physicians were sensible people who looked for natural causes for diseases first, before considering the possibility of a supernatural explanation.

The reader might want to ask: what about ordinary folk? Did they regard the Black Death as a punishment for sin? The question has little relevance, as it is the conditions that led to the rise of medicine as a science that we are discussing here, which means that we should be focusing our attention on what doctors believed, then and now, about disease. However, the reader will be interested to know that even the common folk did not rush headlong into supernaturalistic explanations of the Black Death. Instead, they looked for natural explanations first. Perceiving that 14th century healers were unable to successfully explain the cause of the Black Death, Europeans turned to astrological forces, earthquakes, and the poisoning of wells by Jews as possible reasons for the plague’s emergence. Sadly, hundreds of Jewish communities were exterminated because of this slanderous accusation against them – an accusation which was denounced time and again as a baseless calumny by Popes in the late Middle Ages. (See J. M. Bennett and C. W. Hollister, Medieval Europe: A Short History, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006, p. 326.)

(c) Yet more nonsense from Professor Pennock: Renaissance Christians attributed the dancing mania (St. Vitus’ dance) to demonic possession

A depiction of dancing mania, on the pilgrimage of epileptics to the church at Molenbeek. Music was typically played during outbreaks of the dancing mania, as it was thought to remedy the problem. A painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638), after drawings by his father. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

In an essay titled, Biology and Religion in chapter 22 of the Cambridge Companion to Biology (Cambridge University Press, 2007, eds. David L. Hull and Michael Ruse), Professor Pennock perpetuates yet another hoary old myth: the myth that medieval outbreaks of “dancing mania” (or St. Vitus’ dance), a phenomenon that occurred primarily in mainland Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries, were widely attributed to demonic possession, and that people refused to consider the possibility of a material cause for these outbreaks:

The idea that sickness is the result of possession, perhaps by evil spirits, is common across many religious traditions, not just animistic ones. Renaissance Christians offered similar explanations for the dancing mania, what became known as St. Vitus dance. On this kind of religious view of disease, cures necessarily will involve an appeasement of or struggle with immaterial spirits. The materialistic explanations of medical science may be viewed as irrelevant or even as suspect. (PDF, p. 9. Emphasis mine – VJT.)

When we consult the original sources, however, a quite different picture emerges. In an essay in Skeptical Inquirer (Volume 24.4, July/August 2000) titled, Rethinking the Dancing Mania, Robert Bartholomew punctures a few commonly accepted myths regarding the “dancing mania,” including the myths that (i) most “dancers” were crazy (in fact, they were usually pilgrims from other regions who had unfamiliar and at times bizarre customs, including a propensity for lewd and immodest behavior, in some cases), that (ii) there was a spontaneous, uncontrollable urge to dance (in fact, most participants were pilgrims engaging in emotionally charged, highly structured displays of worship, and adherents usually worshiped in a set pattern, much like modern-day ecstatic religious sects), and that (iii) most dancers were hysterical females (in fact, both men and women were equally affected).

The evidence from contemporary chronicles reveals that while people were at a loss to explain the bizarre antics of those affected by the “dancing mania,” a variety of remedies were tried, including many naturalistic ones. Music was typically played during outbreaks of dancing mania, as it was thought to remedy the problem (see the illustration above). During some outbreaks, musicians were even employed to play. Special places for dancing that were sometimes set up to alleviate the problem, often only made things worse. Erik Midelfort describes these natural remedies for the “dancing mania” in his magisterial work, A History of Madness in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Stanford University Press, 2000). J. F. K. Hecker, in his work, The Black Death and the Dancing Media (1832; trans. B. G. Babington, published 1888), relates that in southern Italy, the dancing outbreaks were attributed to the bite of a local spider – which is why the name of the local dancing mania became known as tarantism, named after the town of Taranto, and the indigenous spider called the tarantula (whose bite is painful, but not poisonous). The only cure was believed to be frenzied dancing to the accompaniment of music, which supposedly dissipated the “poison” from the victims’ blood. Again, it was noted that certain colors, such as red, exacerbated the symptoms in many of those afflicted. Isolation was another remedy for the “dancing mania,” according to authors Kevin Hetherington and Rolland Munro (Ideas of difference, Wiley-Blackwell, 1997).

Professor Pennock’s sweeping statement that St. Vitus’ dance was seen as demonic in origin fails to do justice to the facts. While a few dancers did indeed claim to be possessed by demons (leading to exorcisms in some cases), it was widely believed that the dancing was caused by saints, rather than demons: either St. John the Baptist or St. Vitus (leading many afflicted people to resort to prayer). In any case, exorcisms proved to be ineffective as a way of treating those afflicted; when an outbreak of “dancing mania” erupted, the best course of action proved to be patience, or waiting for it to die down, which it eventually did.

(ii) Was the rise of meteorology tied to a rejection of supernatural explanations?

Lightning bolts hitting Atlanta skyscrapers on 9 June 2008. Image courtesy of David Selby and Wikipedia.

I haven’t finished with Professor Pennock yet. In his testimony at the Dover trial of 2005 (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District; Trial transcript: Day 3 (September 28), AM Session, Part 1), Professor Pennock cited one other area of science in which a supernaturalistic approach gave rise to an exclusively naturalistic one: meteorology. Once upon a time, he tells us, people believed lightning bolts were sent by an angry God. Then along came Benjamin Franklin, who explained them in naturalistic terms, and the science of meteorology has never looked back since. As Pennock puts it:

A classic example had to do with meteorological phenomenon, lightning. It would have been thought or that lightning perhaps would have been an expression of God’s displeasure, right? That God by design would send lightning somewhere, and it was one of the founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin of course, who investigated lightning under this assumption of methodological naturalism and said you can have a natural explanation of lightning, it’s electricity.

And that’s an example of this shift, a shift as saying we’re not going to say what God may or may not be doing with sending lighting bolts. We’ll simply say let’s examine this as part of the natural laws of nature.

Well, did it happen that way? Did educated people in the Middle Ages really believe that lightning was caused by the wrath of God? As the reader might have guessed from Pennock’s previous unsuccessful forays into history, the answer is a firm “No.” According to the article on “Meteorology” in Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, edited by Thomas F. Glick, Steven John Livesey and Faith Wallis (Routledge: New York and London, 2005), people favored naturalistic explanations for bad weather:

In general, Aristotelian concepts were prominent in medieval writings on meteorology, although they were frequently adapted, altered, and transformed. In both antiquity and the Middle Ages, naturalistic explanations for the weather were favored. As a result, the idea that lightning or thunder had Divine origins was widely rejected or ignored.

I am forced to conclude, then, that Professor Pennock’s account of the rise of methodological naturalism at the 2005 Dover trial is fundamentally unreliable, both in its chronology and its utterly false portrayal of the beliefs of people living in the Middle Ages. Pennock is utterly unconvincing when he claims that medieval scientists’ willingness – even on rare occasions – to resort to supernatural explanations was what held back the rise of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In a future post, I will argue that long after the Scientific Revolution, scientists were still prepared to resort to supernaturalistic explanations in their work.

I’d like to conclude my discussion of Professor Pennock’s Dover testimony by citing an embarrassing admission he makes in an essay he wrote for the “Naturalism, Theism and the Scientific Enterprise” Conference (March 20-23, 1997) at the University of Texas at Austin, entitled, Supernaturalist Explanations and the Prospects for a Theistic Science or “How do you know it was the lettuce?” The essay contains the following passage:

Also, though religions have probably included supernatural explanation most systematically, they are not alone in this predilection. Until just the 19th century even the natural philosophers and scientists who studied the world would often include supernatural elements in their theories.

Here, Pennock is admitting that as late as the 19th century, methodological naturalism was not viewed by scientists as a vital part of the scientific method! He then goes on to cite scientists from the past who invoked the supernatural, including:

  • Isaac Newton (1642-1727), who “held that atoms and the laws they obeyed were fixed at Creation by God”;

  • 19th century British geologists, “many of whom were also clergymen,” who “spent much of their time searching for evidence of the global flood” in the course of their research on behalf of the Geological Society, until its President, Adam Sedgwick, recanted from this view in 1831;

  • 19th century British naturalists, who “agreed that the biological world was specially created through God’s supernatural agency” until Darwin’s theory was published in 1859; and finally,

  • Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), who “allowed that human beings had evolved, but under the direction of spirit beings.”

I’d now like to contrast Pennock’s frank admission that methodological naturalism did not become a generally accepted part of the scientific method until the late nineteenth century with the statement made by presiding Judge John E. Jones III, who cited it in his finding on whether Intelligent Design is Science:

Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena. (9:19-22 (Haught); 5:25-29 (Pennock); 1:62 (Miller)). This revolution entailed the rejection of the appeal to authority, and by extension, revelation, in favor of empirical evidence. (5:28 (Pennock)). Since that time period, science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea’s worth. (9:21-22 (Haught ); 1:63 (Miller)).

I wonder if Judge Jones would have made the same summing up if he had been aware of Professor Pennock’s damaging admission, in an essay he wrote in 1997, that methodological naturalism was openly flouted by geologists and biologists well into the nineteenth century, and by Wallace in the late nineteenth century. As they say, we’ll never know.

2. Professor Haught’s flawed claim that methodological naturalism goes back to Galileo and beyond

Left: Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). Portrait from Town Hall in Thorn/Torun – 1580. Right: Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). Portrait by Ottavio Leoni, 1624. Detail. Images courtesy of Nicholaus Copernicus Museum in Frombork and Wikipedia.

John F. Haught is a Catholic theologian and Senior Research Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. I feel compelled to add for the record that Haught rejects the Catholic doctrine that Jesus was born of a virgin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the other hand states: “From the first formulations of her faith, the Church has confessed that Jesus was conceived solely by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary” (Part One, Section Two, Chapter Two, Article 3, paragraph 496.)

Professor Haught testified against the teaching of intelligent design in schools due to its religious nature in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in 2005. In the following excerpt from his testimony (Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District Trial transcript: Day 5 (September 30), PM Session, Part 1) regarding methodological naturalism, Professor Haught argues that the decision to limit oneself to natural explanations has been a vital part of the way modern science is done, ever since its birth, which took place “roughly from the end of the 16th to the 17th Century.” Especially significant in this regard is the figure of Galileo:

Q. You said that science seeks to understand the natural world through natural explanations. Is that important?

A. Yes, that’s critical. The science, by definition, limits itself self-consciously, methodologically, to natural explanations. And that means that anything like a supernatural reality or transcendent reality, science is simply not wired to pick up any signals of it, and therefore any reference to the supernatural simply cannot be part of scientific discourse. And this is the way that science carries on to our present day.

Q. Would that mean this is the way modern science is conducted?

A. Modern science we date from roughly the end of the 16th to the 17th Century, in that period of time. And it was at that time that the great figurists of modern science, almost all of whom were deeply religious men themselves, decided self-consciously that this new mode of inquiry would not appeal to anything that’s not natural, would not appeal to things like value, importance, divine causation, or even anything like intelligent causation.

These are not scientific categories of explanation. And ever since the 16th and 17th Century, modern science, as it’s called, leaves out anything that has to do with theological or ultimate explanation.

Q. Who are some of the leading figures in the development of modern science?

A. Well, we can go back to Copernicus. And, of course, the figure that for me stands out is Galileo. And Galileo is important because he told his accusers, his ecclesiastical accusers, that we should never look for scientific information in Scripture, we should never look for scientific information in any theological source.

So he placed science on the foundation of experience rather than authority or philosophical coherence. From thence forth to this day, science is a discipline where testability is the criterion of its worth.

Professor Haught’s argument is badly flawed on logical grounds. The fact that Scripture cannot tell us about science does not imply that science cannot tell us about God.

Haught is also wrong on historical grounds. Neither Copernicus nor Galileo could be described by any stretch of the imagination as methodological naturalists.

(a) Copernicus’ whole approach to astronomy was grounded in his theology

Image of the heliocentric model from Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the Preface to his work De revolutionibus orbium caelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, 1543), Copernicus explains that the motivation for his heliocentric hypothesis was theological. He believed that a universe that had been created by God for our sake must be comprehensible to the human mind. He states that he was forced to revive the long-forgotten heliocentric hypothesis, because it alone could yield knowledge of the movements of the heavenly bodies with the desired accuracy:

For a long time, then, I reflected on this confusion in the astronomical traditions concerning the derivation of the motions of the universe’s spheres. I began to be annoyed that the movements of the world machine, created for our sake by the best and most systematic Artisan of all, were not understood with greater certainty by the philosophers, who otherwise examined so precisely the most insignificant trifles of this world. For this reason I undertook the task of rereading the works of all the philosophers which I could obtain to learn whether anyone had ever proposed other motions of the universe’s spheres than those expounded by the teachers of astronomy in the schools. And in fact first I found in Cicero that Hicetas supposed the earth to move. Later I also discovered in Plutarch that certain others were of this opinion.

In the Introduction to his work De revolutionibus orbium caelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, 1543), Copernicus expressed his conviction that anyone who diligently contemplates the order displayed in the movements of the celestial bodies will thereby come to admire “the Artificer of all things”:

“For who, after applying himself to things which he sees established in the best order and directed by Divine ruling, would not through diligent contemplation of them and through a certain habituation be awakened to that which is best and would not admire the Artificer of all things, in Whom is all happiness and every good? For the divine Psalmist surely did not say gratuitously that he took pleasure in the workings of God and rejoiced in the works of His hands, unless by means of these things as by some sort of vehicle we are transported to the contemplation of the highest good.” (Copernicus, Nicolaus, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, Thorn: Societas Copernicana, 1873, pp. 10-11).

In the following paragraph, Copernicus refers to astronomy as a “divine rather than human science” and favorably quotes the opinion of Plato, who was inclined to think that no-one lacking a knowledge of the heavenly bodies could be called godlike:

The great benefit and adornment which this art [astronomy – VJT] confers on the commonwealth (not to mention the countless advantages to individuals) are most excellently observed by Plato. In the Laws, Book VII, he thinks that it should be cultivated chiefly because by dividing time into groups of days as months and years, it would keep the state alert and attentive to the festivals and sacrifices. Whoever denies its necessity for the teacher of any branch of higher learning is thinking foolishly, according to Plato. In his opinion it is highly unlikely that anyone lacking the requisite knowledge of the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies can become and be called godlike.

However, this divine rather than human science, which investigates the loftiest subjects, is not free from perplexities.
(Nicholas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus (On the Revolutions), 1543. Source: Translation and Commentary by Edward Rosen, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London. Adapted from Dartmouth College, MATC, Online reader.)

At the beginning of the Introduction to his great work, Copernicus even defines the science of astronomy in theological terms, as “the discipline which deals with the universe’s divine revolutions, the asters’ motions, sizes, distances, risings and settings, as well as the causes of the other phenomena in the sky, and which, in short, explains its whole appearance.” (Nicholas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus (On the Revolutions), 1543. Source: Translation and Commentary by Edward Rosen, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London. Adapted from Dartmouth College, MATC, Online reader.)

In Chapter 8 of his De revolutionibus orbium caelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, 1543), Copernicus even adduces theological arguments in favor of the stability of the universe and the daily rotation of the Earth, after listing several scientific arguments for these ideas:

As a quality, moreover, immobility is deemed nobler and more divine than change and instability, which are therefore better suited to the earth than to the universe… You see, then, that all these arguments make it more likely that the earth moves than that it is at rest. This is especially true of the daily rotation, as particularly appropriate to the earth. This is enough, in my opinion, about the first part of the question.”
(Nicholas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus (On the Revolutions), 1543. Source: Translation and Commentary by Edward Rosen, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London. Adapted from Dartmouth College, MATC, Online reader.)

But it seems that Copernicus did not stop there. If the following quote is authentic, he actually equated the knowledge of the laws of science with Divine worship. Thus for Copernicus, scientific knowledge itself is a kind of prayer:

To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power, to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful working of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more gratifying than knowledge.”
(Reference unknown. Copernicus, as cited in Hubbard, Elbert, “Copernicus” (Vol. XVI, Jan. 1905, No. 1), in Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Scientists New York: The Roycrofters, page v. See also Poland: The Knight Among Nations (Fleming H. Revell Co., London & Edinburgh, Third edition, 1908) by Louis E. Van Norman, p. 290; Glory of The Stars (Pacific Press Publishing, Mountain Views, California, 1952), by Merlin L. Neff, Ph. D., pp. 191-192; and The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006) by Francis Collins, Free Press, 2006, pp. 230-31.)

Let us review the evidence. The motivation for Copernicus proposing his heliocentric hypothesis in the first place was a theological one. In his great treatise on astronomy, Copernicus voices his conviction that anyone who diligently contemplates the movements of the celestial bodies will be led thereby to a knowledge of God. He refers to astronomy as a “divine rather than human science,” and he approvingly quotes Plato’s statement that no-one who lacks a knowledge of the heavenly bodies can be called godlike. He even defines the science of astronomy in theological terms, as “the discipline which deals with the universe’s divine revolutions.” In Chapter 8 of the same work, Copernicus even puts forward theological arguments in favor of his scientific theory that the Earth rotates on its axis once a day. Finally, he equates scientific knowledge of the laws of Nature with prayer. Can anyone describe such a man as a methodological naturalist?

(b) Galileo believed that God’s existence could be clearly discerned from His natural works

A Grey Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum). Image courtesy of Aaron Logan and Wikipedia. According to Galileo, God personally designed the bones, veins, flesh and feathers of birds, in exquisite detail.

I’d like to begin my exposition of Galileo’s views on the natural knowledge of God with a passage from Galileo’s celebrated Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany: Concerning the Use of Biblical Quotations in Matters of Science (1615):

… I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages, but from sense-experiences and necessary demonstrations; for the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word, the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God’s commands. It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is in­exorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense-experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible. Perhaps this is what Tertullian meant by these words: “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.”

In the passage above, Galileo speaks of the Bible and Nature as God’s two books. But if the phenomena of nature constitute a book, then for Galileo, they must have had an Author. This contradicts the thesis of methodological naturalism, which asserts that natural phenomena can be fully explained without recourse to God.

In his letter to Grand Duchess Christina, Galileo waxes eloquent on Nature’s ability to reveal God to us. He even equates the grandeur of this revelation with that of the revelation of God in the Bible: “nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible.” Finally, he approvingly quotes the words of Tertullian, that “God is known first through Nature” and that God is known “by Nature in His works.” Does this sound like the way in which a methodological naturalist would write?

Because Nature is the “observant executrix of God’s commands,” She cannot possibly disobey those commands; hence, “she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her” by God. Galileo is not asserting here that the laws of Nature are fixed, but rather that Nature cannot violate the commands of Her Maker. Indeed, proof that Galileo could not have intended that the laws of Nature are invariant may be found in the same letter, where he discusses the miracle of Joshua’s “long day.” Although he entertain various hypotheses reagrding the mechanics of the miracle – e.g. did the Sun stand still, or did the primum mobile stop instead, causing the movement of all celestial bodies to come to a halt, as St. Augustine claimed? – what he never questioned, in his letter, was the reality of the miracle itself. This should suffice to refute the suggestion that Galileo was espousing some form of naturalism when he wrote that Nature “never transgresses the laws imposed upon her.” This suggestion was put forward by Ronald Numbers in his essay, “Science without God: Natural Laws and Christian Beliefs” (in When Science and Christianity Meet, ed. by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2003). It should be clear to the reader that Numbers has quoted Galileo out of context.

Another passage in Galileo’s letter to Grand Duchess Christina indicates that he believed that God’s greatness could be “marvelously discerned” from His natural works, especially by trained scientists who know what to look for when they study the heavens. Indeed, the universe contains so many hidden mysteries that “studies of hundreds upon hundreds of the most acute minds have still not pierced them.” Once again, Galileo makes use of the metaphor of Nature as a book, which can only mean that the hidden mysteries contained in the heavens contain a special message which God wants human beings to discern. But the notion of God communicating a message to us through the works of Nature is totally at odds with the tenets of methodological naturalism, which claims that we can fully account for the works of Nature without invoking God:

… [T]o prohibit the whole science [of astronomy] would be but to censure a hundred passages of Holy Scripture which teach us that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all His works and divinely read in the open book of Heaven. For let no one believe that reading the lofty concepts written in that book leads to nothing further than the mere seeing of the splendor of the sun and the stars and their rising and setting, which is as far as the eyes of brutes and of the vulgar can penetrate. Within its pages are couched mysteries so profound and concepts so sublime that the vigils, labors, and studies of hundreds upon hundreds of the most acute minds have still not pierced them, even after continual investigations for thousands of years. The eyes of an idiot perceive little by beholding the external appearance of a human body, as compared with the wonderful contrivances which a careful and practiced anatomist or philosopher discovers in that same body when he seeks out the use of all those muscles, tendons, nerves, and bones; or when examining the functions of the heart and the other principal organs, he seeks the seat of the vital faculties, notes and observes the admirable structure of the sense organs, and (without ever ceasing in his amazement and delight) contemplates the receptacles of the imagination, the memory, and the understanding. Likewise, that which presents itself to mere sight is as nothing in comparison with the high marvels that the ingenuity of learned men discovers in the heavens by long and accurate observation. And that concludes what I have to say on this matter.
(Letter to Madame Christina of Lorraine, Grand Duchess of Tuscany: Concerning the Use of Biblical Quotations in Matters of Science, 1615.)

Finally, the following passage from Galileo’s work, The Assayer (1623), tells us that we need to study mathematics if we are to grasp the mysteries of the universe:

Philosophy is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes — I mean the universe — but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.
(The Assayer (1623), as translated by Thomas Salisbury (1661), p. 178, as quoted in The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (2003) by Edwin Arthur Burtt, p. 75.)

But if the language of science is mathematical, then the Author must be a Master Mathematician, who is talking to us through symbols. Once again, Galileo’s thinking is diametrically opposed to that of modern-day scientists who espouse methodological naturalism.

Galileo and Intelligent Design

It gets worse. It turns out that Galileo was something of an Intelligent Design theorist. Galileo often mused on what he saw as the stunning manifestations of God’s creative wisdom. He was particularly impressed with birds and their ideal design for flight, and with fish and their perfect design for swimming in water:

God could have made birds with bones of massive gold, with veins full of molten silver, with flesh heavier than lead and with tiny wings… He could have made fish heavier than lead, and thus twelve times heavier than water, but He has wished to make the former of bone, flesh, and feathers that are light enough, and the latter as heavier than water, to teach us that He rejoices in simplicity and facility. (Sobel, Dava, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. Toronto: Viking Press, 1999, p. 99.)

So according to Galileo, God not only personally designed fish, but He also designed the bones, veins, flesh and feathers of birds, in exquisite detail. What’s more, He designed them in the way He did, in order to teach us something about Himself. But if you’re a methodological naturalist, then you are committed to holding that natural phenomena can teach us nothing about the Creator, since natural causes are sufficient to account for them.

In a future post, I will cite additional passages from Galileo’s own writings, showing that he was a believer in cosmic miracles, that he held that the human mind had been created by God, and he believed that God personally spoke to him.

3. Was Benedict Spinoza the father of methodological naturalism?

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza, ca. 1665. Herzog-August Bibliothek, Wolfenbuttel, Germany. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) has been viewed by some as an early advocate of methodological naturalism. Such a reading of Spinoza’s views gains plausibility when we examine his arguments against the possibility of miracles. In chapter 6 of his Theologico-Political Treatise (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus), Spinoza rejects miracles on naturalistic grounds:

Now, as nothing is necessarily true save only by, Divine decree, it is plain that the universal laws of nature are decrees of God following from the necessity and perfection of the Divine nature. Hence, any event happening in nature which contravened nature’s universal laws, would necessarily also contravene the Divine decree, nature, and understanding; or if anyone asserted that God acts in contravention to the laws of nature, he, ipso facto, would be compelled to assert that God acted against His own nature — an evident absurdity.

Why, one might ask, does Spinoza declare that an act of God which is contrary to the laws of nature is also contrary to God’s own nature? The answer, as Dr. William Dembski points out in his book, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology (IVP Academic, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1999, p. 55), is that Spinoza was a monist, who equated God with Nature. Hence for Spinoza, the laws of nature constitute the very nature of God Himself.

Spinoza also critiques belief in miracles on epistemological grounds, in the same chapter of his Theologico-Political Treatise:

As men are accustomed to call Divine the knowledge which transcends human understanding, so also do they style Divine, or the work of God, anything of which the cause is not generally known… The masses then style unusual phenomena, “miracles,” and partly from piety, partly for the sake of opposing the students of science, prefer to remain in ignorance of natural causes, and only to hear of those things which they know least, and consequently admire most.

Dr. William Dembski helpfully elucidates the reasoning underlying Spinoza’s argument:

According to this epistemological critique, to know that a miracle has occurred is to know the truth of a universal negative. Thus for a person to know that an event is a miracle, that person would have to know that no natural laws explain the event. But this seems to require that one explicitly identify every conceivable natural law that might explain the event and then systematically eliminate each of these laws as inadequate for explaining the event. Formulated this way, the task of demonstrating that the event is a miracle becomes impossible for a finite rational agent. (Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology (IVP Academic, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1999, p. 54.)

At first sight, the identification of Spinoza as a methodological naturalist might appear to be a slam-dunk case: after all, Spinoza equates God with Nature. However, it needs to be borne in mind that the term “methodological naturalism” has a very precise definition. In Part Two, when discussing the views of St. Albert the Great, I argued for the following, slightly revised version of my earlier definition:

(h’) When doing science, we should assume that natural causes (i.e. physical entities behaving in accordance with the laws of Nature) are totally sufficient to account for all physical phenomena, and that for precisely this reason, all talk of supernatural, paranormal or non-physical entities is banished from science.

The foregoing definition raises two questions which we need to address, in order to determine whether Spinoza was a bona fide methodological naturalist. First, does Spinoza view God as a “natural cause”? Second, are the laws of Nature (which, according to Spinoza, are also God’s laws) and the physical causes that operate within the natural world, sufficient to explain all physical phenomena?

The answer to the first question is by no means clear: it seems a little odd, to say the least, to speak of Nature itself as a “natural cause.” We should also recall that Spinoza imputes intelligence to Nature (or God). The question then arises: are God’s mental states wholly supervenient upon His physical states, or are both equally fundamental? It has been suggested that Spinoza envisages a parallelism between the formal content of the ideas of the human mind and their physical structure (see, for instance, his Ethics 2p17); presumably the same would hold true of Spinoza’s God. In that case, it might seem as though we could account for the totality of physical phenomena, simply by scientifically investigating their physical causes and the laws to which they conform.

Strange to say, Spinoza himself forcefully contradicts this “science-friendly” interpretation of his own writings. In a thought-provoking article titled, Was Spinoza a Naturalist? (Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 96, Issue 1, March 2015, Pages 77–99), Alex Douglas casts doubt on the commonly held view that Spinoza was a pioneer of naturalism – whether of the metaphysical or the methodological variety. For Douglas, the reason why Spinoza fails to qualify as a true naturalist is that he was not an empiricist: he held that not only our knowledge of God, but also our knowledge of the empirical world, is largely a priori, and that experimental knowledge tells us very little about the world:

…[E]ven if we suppose Spinoza to have unified physics and theology, by identifying God and nature, it remains an open question whether he allowed empiricism… to be the appropriate methodology for this unified science…

… [M]any have cast doubt on Spinoza’s claim to qualify as an empiricist. One of the most recent and thorough discussions is in an article by Eric Schliesser…

First, Schliesser points out that, according to Spinoza, ‘one cannot deduce particular facts from the laws of motion’.46 Since presumably all we observe are particular facts, if we cannot deduce implications involving particular facts from the laws of motion, it is hard to see how our knowledge of such laws could ever be exposed to observation.

Next, Schliesser notes that Spinoza was sceptical about the use of mathematics and measurement in the study of nature, which he regarded as piecemeal and relative to the imagination.49 …

Finally, Schliesser reminds us that Spinoza recommended that we pursue knowledge of things through their essences, while he was clear that experience cannot teach us anything about the essences of things.50 If knowledge of essences counts as knowledge of the concrete world, then this must constitute a violation of naturalism…

We have seen that proving God’s existence a priori implies that we can know him directly, rather than through his observable effects. Moreover, it is very unlikely that even Spinoza’s God-as-nature can be known by direct observation. Surely we have no sensory experience of nature as a whole, or in itself, independently of our sensory experiences of particular natural things.88 In fact Spinoza even rejected the standard view that God could be known through his effects: in the Short Treatise, he argued that ‘[i]t is impossible to get to know God through something else’.89 He thus fully embraced the kind of innate, non-empirical knowledge of God that (the Cartesian philosopher) De Raey wanted to purge from Cartesianism…

… De Raey and other Cartesians could be regarded as proto-naturalists to the extent that they left no space for non-empiricist metaphysical standards of justification in physics, in effect leaving room for the development of empiricist standards. The same cannot be said of Spinoza.

The foregoing remarks by Alex Douglas suggest that we may need to amend our definition of methodological naturalism, to incorporate the idea that our ability to explain physical phenomena is grounded in our empirical knowledge of the natural world, rather than any a priori knowledge of Nature:

(h”) When doing science, we should assume that knowledge obtained through an empirical investigation of natural causes (i.e. physical entities behaving in accordance with the laws of Nature) is totally sufficient to account for us to be able to explain all physical phenomena, and that for precisely this reason, all talk of supernatural, paranormal or non-physical entities is banished from science.

In my next post, I will argue that it is Kant and Hume, rather than Spinoza, who deserve to be called the true fore-runners of scientific naturalism, and especially methodological naturalism. I will also demonstrate that methodological naturalism is of surprisingly recent origin, and that it has only been considered part-and-parcel of the scientific method since the nineteenth century.

Concluding thoughts on the myth that methodological naturalism was the product of the Scientific Revolution

In this post, I have cited “chapter and verse” to refute the widely peddled myth, still propagated by certain scholars who should know better, that methodological naturalism goes back to the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At the Dover trial of 2005, Presiding Judge John E. Jones swallowed this myth hook line and sinker when he declared in his finding on whether Intelligent Design is science:

Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena. (9:19-22 (Haught); 5:25-29 (Pennock); 1:62 (Miller)).

Still, old myths die hard, so I’d like to close by quoting the final paragraph of an essay by the late Professor Margaret Osler (1947-2010), a former Professor of history at the University of Calgary, in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald Numbers (Harvard University Press, 2009):

Seventeenth century natural philosophers were not modern scientists. Their exploration of the natural world was not cut off from their religious views and theological assumptions. That separation came later. Reading the past from the standpoint of recent developments has led to serious misunderstandings of the Scientific Revolution. For many of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, science and religion – or better, natural philosophy and theology – were inseparable, part and parcel of the endeavor to understand our world. (Osler, “Myth 10: Science and Religion in the Scientific Revolution,” in Numbers, 2009, p. 98.)

Professor Margaret Osler’s masterly summing up should shatter any lingering credibility that attaches to the testimonies of Professors Pennock and Haught during the Dover trial. It should be obvious to the unbiased reader that these learned men have badly mis-read the history of the Scientific Revolution, and that the methodological naturalism they falsely ascribe to the scientists of that period is a projection of their own minds.

I’d like to wish readers a happy New Year for 2016.

7 Replies to “Was Methodological Naturalism a Product of the Scientific Revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries?

  1. 1
    Andre says:

    Dr Torley

    I loved the picture striking the skyscrapers and it reminded me that even though we are almost in 2016, we still don’t know what triggers lightning….. If you don’t believe me look it up we really don’t know what triggers lightning…..

    God himself of course pokes a little bit of fun at us when he said

    Job 38:35 “Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are”

    Happy new year to everyone….

  2. 2
    Mung says:

    thanks Andre!

  3. 3
    Mung says:

    Judge Jones was played for a fool, for sure.

  4. 4
    vjtorley says:


    You are correct.

    (Someone over at the BBC can’t spell “lightning,” judging from the spelling of the hyperlink address.)

    Happy New Year, Andre and Mung.

  5. 5
    Robert Byers says:

    I think it was a common intention of thinkers to simply get accuracy in conclusions by careful attention to method. It happened in the dark ages too.
    everyone figures this out and complains about others not doing it.
    It was not the top thinkers and universities that invoked magic etc.
    its a myth. Its just that very few people were thinkers and so sampling can get skewed badly.

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    Happy New Year!

    The next volume from Gaukroger is coming.

    The Natural and the Human: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1739-1841

  7. 7
    Andre says:

    So we have to ask ourselves if there is still no natural answer for what triggers lightning can we start looking elsewhere?

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