Posted by jlwile on November 1, 2009
Cornelius G. Hunter has a Ph.D. in Biophysics and Computational Biology and is an Adjunct Professor at Biola University. He spends most of his time doing research, specifically in the area of molecular biophysics. His first two books (Darwin’s God and Darwin’s Proof) did not impress me. Don’t get me wrong – I essentially agree with the views presented in them. Darwin’s God said that evolution is not the same as atheism and, in fact, Darwin was actually trying to “glorify” God by removing Him from the sordid details of nature. As pointed out in that book, Darwin clearly didn’t believe in the God of the Bible, but he clearly did believe in God and sought to make this God more powerful by essentially saying that He created the natural laws that ended up allowing organisms to create themselves.
In his second book, Darwin’s Proof, he shows that common features in organisms don’t imply common ancestry, and he gives plenty of scientific evidence to show that the general principles of macroevolution (one kind of organism evolving into another kind) are clearly wrong. While both books present many truisms, neither added much to what is already known about Darwin or the misuse to which scientists have put his views.
Science’s Blind Spot is Hunter’s latest book, and it is superior to both of his previous ones. In this book, Hunter attempts to explore the benefits of naturalism in science as well as its limitations. Clearly Hunter has spent a lot of time thinking about this, and his insights are both interesting and refreshing.
Hunter starts with the common theme that today’s science is tied to naturalism. Most creationists bemoan this fact, and when you start reading the book, you think Hunter is going to do the same thing. He starts by defining what he calls theological naturalism:
Put simply, the primary theological ground rule is that scientific explanations must be purely naturalistic. The term naturalism can take on different meanings when used by historians and philosophers of science. Here it is used to refer to this restriction of science to naturalistic explanations for religious reasons. I use a new term, theological naturalism, to clarify this ambiguity. (p. 11)
The reason he calls it “theological” naturalism is to emphasize that this naturalism doesn’t come from an atheist worldview – it comes simply from metaphysical reasoning. Often, this metaphysical reasoning is religious in nature, and sometimes it is atheist in nature. Regardless of the nature of the reasoning, however, it has nothing to do with an effort to promote a particular worldview. It is simply an underlying assumption that has no evidence whatsoever. Thus, it is a theological belief, not a scientific one.
So far, this is nothing new. Lots of creationists, intelligent designers, and panspermists have pointed this out. However, what Hunter does with this concept is truly remarkable.
First, Hunter makes the distinction between empiricism and rationalism. He uses Francis Bacon and Rene’ Descartes as examples. Bacon believed that science was limited to empirical evidence. A scientist could do experiments and conclude specific things about the results of the experiment, but the scientist could not make sweeping generalizations. Essentially, Bacon said that science can make statements about how the natural laws work, but it can go no further. This, of course, is the empirical view of science, and virtually no scientist today follows this view. Descartes, on the other hand, was a rationalist. He believed that the main thrust of science should be to explain things. If you saw something happen, science should be able to explain why and how it happened. Most scientists today follow Descartes’s view of science.
Now none of this was news to me, since I ended up with a minor in philosophy. However, one thing that really surprised me was something I had never gleaned from my somewhat limited reading of Descartes. As Hunter says:
Descartes argued that having a plausible yet incorrect description was better than no description at all…For Descartes, a theory could be fictional but still useful. He also applied a version of this logic to problems of cosmology. True, God created the universe, but a naturalistic description is nonetheless possible. (p. 18)
Now the concept that a fictional theory is better than no theory at all (or even a theory involving the supernatural) is not news to me. Indeed, my PhD advisor constantly tried to teach me that. He said science’s role is not to find out what really happened or how the universe really works. He said science’s role is to come up with theories that accurately represent the data. Whether or not those theories are true is utterly irrelevant. If they can explain the data, that’s all that matters.
What was news to me is that this view is at least as old as Descartes. I had always considered this a relatively new approach to science. It clearly is not. It has a long, rich tradition. Now, the fact that it has a long, rich tradition doesn’t make it correct. I think the pursuit of science is worthless if its theories are fictional. Nevertheless, it is interesting that this view of science (which is the common view among scientists today) has been alive for so long.
Given this background, Hunter then discusses how it was mostly the religious scientists who pushed for naturalistic explanations in science. While Hunter made this case in his first book, I found it somewhat lacking, perhaps because he did not make it clear that Descartes had laid the foundation for the idea that fictional theories are okay in science. Thus, if a scientific theory left out God even when God was an integral part of what was being explained, that was okay, because a fictional theory is better than a theory that requires reliance on the supernatural. Many religious scientists of the day were not only okay with this idea, they wholeheartedly supported it.
Hunter discusses the views of Hutton, Lyell, Chambers, and Kant, who all pushed for a naturalistic view of science, even though each and every one of them was a theist. In fact, he makes the strong case that these people pushed for such an explanation because:
Divine providence was to engage in the noble activity of impressing laws upon matter, not constantly grovel in the muck of nature. (p. 22)
So the historical reason that science is so focused on naturalism today is not a result of atheism. Instead, it is the result of theism. Religious scientists of the day wanted to elevate God above the “muck of nature,” so they wanted all explanations related to nature to be naturalistic.
This view reminds me of many scientists today. For example, Dr. Francis Collins is the current head of the NIH, much to the chagrin of atheists who are so insecure in their own views that they can’t stand the thought of an accomplished scientist who is also a vocal Christian. Collins thinks that science must stick with naturalistic explanations, but that Christianity provides guidance outside the scientific realm, in areas like society, values, and morals. Like the theists mentioned above, Collins believes that God should be taken out of the “muck of nature” and reserved for more lofty pursuits, such as providing moral guidance.
At this point, you might think that Hunter (and even this author) thinks that theological naturalism is a good thing. After all, let the natural laws that God impressed on nature take care of themselves. Let’s reserve God for the really important things like love, morals, society, etc. However, both Hunter and I think that this is neither a reasonable approach nor a good one. If God is, indeed, the author of nature, He needs to be included in our study of it.
At the same time, however, God clearly is not the puppet master that some might think. He clearly lets many things operate on a solely naturalistic level. The “day-to-day” operations of the human body, for example, can be fully explained by how the various tissues, organs, and systems of the body interact with one another. Thus, much of the study of human anatomy and physiology should rely solely on naturalistic processes. Nevertheless, there is something “non naturalistic” about people as well. We love; we have abstract thoughts; we have consciousness, etc. Thus, where does the naturalistic explanation end and the “non naturalistic” explanation begin?
Hunter says that theological naturalism is science’s blind spot. As a result, the current view of science cannot even tell when there is a need for a “non naturalistic” explanation:
This restriction of explanation leads to an unavoidable blind spot. Theological naturalism is ailing because it has no choice but to blindly pursue all problems as equals. Analyzing a nerve cell is conceptually no different from analyzing human consciousness. Explaining the ontogeny of a frog is no different from explaining the source of all life. Theological naturalism lacks the resources to look at all sides of a problem. It lacks the wisdom to know its own limitations. It is the fool that rushes in where wise mean fear to tread. And it must rush in, for to do otherwise would be to deny its own convictions. (p. 50).
Thus, Hunter would like science to recognize that there are some questions that defy a naturalistic explanation. Rather than accepting clearly fictional theories simply because they are naturalistic, science must be able to determine when naturalistic explanations work and when they do not.
I strongly agree with Hunter on this point. In fact, I think that young-earth creationists have done a good job of trying to determine the limits of naturalism and when science must refer to the supernatural. For example, as I have mentioned before, the only working model for planetary magnetic fields is a young-earth creationist model. It makes some assumptions about the supernatural creation of a planet, and from that it produces a naturalistic model that not only reproduces all the known planetary magnetic fields in the solar system, but it also has made several predictions about data which had not been measured. All those predictions have so far been verified once the measurements were actually made.
This model, then, recognizes that the current naturalistic models for planet formation are hopelessly inadequate. Rather than accepting what are currently fictional models, it simply rejects them, and it assumes a supernatural origin for the planets. Once certain assumptions are made about this supernatural origin, a naturalistic model for what has happened since then emerges, and that naturalistic model does an excellent job at explaining the data. In my opinion, this approach overcomes science’s blind spot. It accepts the limits of naturalism when it comes to the origin of planets, but once that origin has been taken into account via supernatural means, the rest of the planets’ workings are treated using only naturalistic processes.
I am not sure Hunter would agree with me that the young-earth planetary magnetic fields model is the proper way to overcome science’s blind spot. Nevertheless, it clearly does a better job than any other model that exists for planetary magnetic fields. Thus, such an approach might, indeed, be the way to overcome the blind spot that Hunter so eloquently points out.