A critical look at Jeff Lowder’s Evidential Argument from the History of Science

Posted on 07/13/12 28 Comments

In “What would count as evidence for naturalism?” I explained why the advance of scientific explanation does not count against a theistic (or Christian) understanding of the world and for naturalism. Given that the definition of naturalism is disputed, I focused on what I called the minimal claim of naturalism:

(MCN): God does not exist, or if he does he does not interact in the universe at all.

So my claim is that the advance of science does not support MCN. (Nor does the advance of science provide evidence against MCN. Instead, it underdetermines it.)

In response, Jeffrey Jay Lowder kindly provided a link to an argument he wrote called “The evidential argument from the history of science.” When I followed up the link I was delighted to see that the argument is concise and clear. The argument begins with an informal statement and then proceeds to a formal statement and defense. Here is the informal statement in its entirety.

“If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that naturalistic explanations work. The history of science contains numerous examples of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones. Indeed, naturalistic explanations have been so successful that even most scientific theists concede that supernatural explanations are, in general, implausible, even on the assumption that theism is true. Such explanatory success is antecedently more likely on naturalism–which entails that all supernaturalistic explanations are false–than it is on theism. Thus the history of science is some evidence for naturalism and against theism.”

So what can be said in reply?

A terminological swap

Before we get started, I’m going to propose a terminological swap. I propose that we drop the use of the terms “naturalistic explanation” and “supernaturalistic explanation” in favor of “scientific explanation” and “theological explanation”. The reason is for nothing more than clarity and accuracy.

With that in mind, when I quote Lowder I will slot in scientific (italicized) in place of naturalistic, andtheological(italicized) in place of supernaturalistic.

The hammer is a great tool, but it isn’t the only tool

Now let’s consider the opening sentence: “If there is a single theme unifying the history of science, it is that scientific explanations work.” While this is certainly true, we should make sure we are very careful in considering how it is true.

Imagine that a greenhorn starts his first job on the work site knowing absolutely nothing about construction. At the morning break one of the old timers holds up his hammer and says with admiration, “If there is a single theme unifying the history of my time on the work site, it is that hammers work.”

The greenhorn nods to himself and files away that bit of information. An hour later the foreman asks him to install some screws. “Sure thing boss!” he chirps. At that moment the old timer’s words come back to him, so he grabs a hammer and starts pounding the screws.

“You idiot!” the foreman shouts. “Look what you’ve done!”

“But the old timer said hammers work!” the young man protests in tears.

The foreman turns beet red and sputters, “Of course they work … for nails! But hammers are no good for screws!

Science is to the object of its study (i.e. the physical structure of the universe) as hammers are to nails: a great tool for that specific use. However, we would balk at any person who reasoned that the continued success of hammers at pounding nails provided evidence that hammers could replace the other tools on the belt. It would be equally in error to suppose that the continued success of science at explaining the physical structure of the natural world could replace other explanations in their proper spheres.

The wadi fills with water

Here is the predictable retort: “What are these other ‘proper spheres’?”

Yes, let’s consider that for a moment.

Science, as it is now practiced, is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Four hundred years ago, the people who practiced what we’d now all science were called natural philosophers. Why? Because philosophy owned that territory. Throughout the seventeenth century science began to distinguish itself from philosophy as a protean scientific method emerged and Aristotelian causes were removed from the scientist’s toolbox. (Please remember: removing something from the scientist’s toolbox doesn’t mean establishing that it doesn’t exist.)

This brings me to the next sentence in Jeff’s argument (with my terminological swap): “The history of science contains numerous examples of scientific explanations replacing theological ones and no examples of theological explanations replacing scientific ones.” Jeff obviously pins a lot on this observation. But I find it overwhelmingly underwhelming as an argument for naturalism. Let me explain why.

As we moved into the twentieth century there were some philosophers (and definitely some scientists) who were saying the same thing about philosophy: “The history of science contains numerous examples of scientific explanations replacing philosophical ones and no examples of philosophical explanations replacing scientific ones.” As a result, a smattering of philosophers proposed that their compatriots should basically commit disciplinary hari-kari by arguing for the eventual replacement of philosophy with science.

This vision for philosophy is well represented by one of the twentieth century’s leading philosophers, Willard van Orman Quine. For example, in his famous 1969 essay “Epistemology Naturalized” Quine advocated moving toward epistemology as a scientific enterprise. Forty-three years later there are still philosophers who would endorse Quine’s project. But it would be foolish to think that science has replaced philosophical epistemology. Those philosophers who endorse Quine’s project of a naturalized epistemology are definitely in the minority, and not simply because all the other philosophers are trying to protect their jobs! Science is not going to replace epistemology. It appears that there are clearly natural limits to how much of traditional philosophy can be claimed by science.

Let me explain what is going on here. Picture a broad desert valley with a wadi running down the center. (A wadi is a seasonal river bed.) A group of travellers arrive in the valley in early summer when there is no water around. So they dig deep wells and begin to settle. Through the long hot summer they build their community. They continue on into the fall and winter. Almost every day is sunny and the wadi remains bone dry. Then in spring the rains begin. One day a small stream appears in the middle of the dried out river bed. The next day it is flowing at twice the width. Within a week it has filled up about a third of the river bed. Day after day it continues to grow.

As the settlers watched this some of them would probably think: “At this rate the river will one day fill the entire valley!” Indeed, they might even say, “The history of the river contains numerous examples of water replacing dry land and no examples of dry land replacing water.”

True enough. That’s because the river started off with nothing, and has been reclaiming ground from the desert. But there are natural boundaries to the expansion of the river and eventually they will be met.

Some folks have watched the expansion of science from a bare trickle a few hundred years ago and reasoned similarly. They’ve seen “natural philosophy” replaced by modern science as the dry desert floor has yielded land to the growing river. And they’ve concluded that one day water may cover everything.

But the fact that science has successfully hived out its own disciplinary space as it has claimed territory from philosophy does not support the conclusion that one day science will eliminate philosophy. And the complete failure of “Epistemology Naturalized” to replace traditional epistemology is evidence of this.

So I have a serious caution for those so enamored with the advance of science that they think it will one day flood the valley. Philosophy has its own boundaries. And so does literature (as this famous scene from “Dead Poets Society” reminds us).

And what about theology?

What’s wrong with God of the Gaps Theology?

A few years ago I wrote an article at “The Christian Post” called “What’s wrong with God of the Gaps Theology?” which is directly relevant to the discussion. Here is the original article in its entirety:

There are few topics as fiercely debated in the science/religion dialogue as the so-called “God-of-the-gaps”. This phrase refers to the tendency to invoke God’s action in the world wherever our attempts at a natural explanation seem to fail. The ongoing furor over intelligent design, with its apparently gap-friendly concepts like “irreducible complexity” and “directed contingency” has only added more fuel to this often fiery debate.

According to the critics of the God-of-the-gaps approach, one of the problems is that it seems to limit God’s action to what we don’t know. And this implies that once we do come to understand how something occurs naturally, this excludes a supernatural dimension. As one can imagine, the God-of-the-gaps method spells trouble for theology. The problem is simple: since our scientific understanding keeps expanding, the putative areas in which God can be viewed as active in the world keeps shrinking. Thus it would seem that in principle the growth of science could lead to the complete exclusion of God’s action from the world. The dilemma was well stated decades ago by theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

It has again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat.

On this point I agree with Bonhoeffer. To locate God’s action in gaps of our understanding is bad theology.

But God-of-the-gaps theology is not only mistaken because it tends to shrink the conceptual space in which God can act. In addition, I believe it depends on the flawed assumption that a natural explanation for a given phenomenon excludes the need for a supernatural explanation. It shall be my task here to argue why this assumption is flawed.

In order to make my argument I’ll develop a little thought experiment. Imagine that in twenty years meteorology has made extraordinary advances in understanding weather systems. Indeed weather prediction is so improved that the meteorologist can make completely accurate weather forecasts a day in advance. (Yes, I know this contradicts current chaos theory.) These predictions are so detailed that a forecast can accurately predict the exact place that every rain drop, snowflake, or hail pellet will hit the ground over the next 24 hours.

Now the forecast for tomorrow comes in and alas, cumulus thunderheads are on their way promising a violent thunderstorm. With the forecast comes a complete description of staggering complexity projecting the point at which each golf ball sized hail pellet over the forecast area will hit the earth.

Since my birthday is tomorrow and I am planning a backyard party, I take special note of the forecast over my house. With that in mind I go to weather.com, type in the coordinates for my house, and in moments I receive my own personal and completely accurate forecast. With relief I see that no hail pellets will hit the tent or stage. However I then discover with considerable amazement, that a couple dozen large hail pellets will hit my lawn in such a way that they will perfectly spell out “Happy Birthday Randal!” As predicted, the storm rolls in the next day on schedule. Then as the band plays the hail hurtles down from the sky as if on cue and spells out “Happy Birthday Randal!” in front of my shocked guests.

One can imagine the amazed guests saying things like “How extraordinary!” and “It’s a miracle!” And those would indeed be natural responses. So then imagine one party guest, a skeptical curmudgeon, objecting that there is nothing miraculous about the event at all. According to this fellow, since scientific laws predicted with accuracy the exact position of the hail falling, we must chalk up the “birthday greeting” to mere chance.

I suspect that such a response would convince few if any other guests. Most of us would recognize that, natural scientific explanation or not, something else was going on here. Indeed, it would seem most reasonable to conclude that a higher intelligence, perhaps even God, was acting precisely through the supple operation of the laws of nature to wish me a happy birthday.

Admittedly the story is fanciful, but that is beside the point. To sum up the central lesson, even if we have a complete scientific prediction and explanation in advance of a given phenomenon, that need not undermine the conclusion that God is also specially active in that event. God, it would seem, is to be found acting as much in what we do know as in what we do not.

This is sufficient to establish that scientific explanations are not exhaustive explanations. Science will not flood the valley. Even if there were a complete scientific description of physical structures and processes, fields and particles, it would not exclude the place for philosophical or theological explanations in their proper spheres.

Back to the Pit Bull

My burden here has not been to argue that there is a legitimate subject matter for theology. The claim has simply been to argue that the success of science completely underdetermines the existence of God or the disciplinary integrity of theology. In my original argument I presented a pitbull illustration which I’ll quote again for good measure:

Suzy is considering buying a pitbull so she asks the advice of two friends.

Her first visit is to Ray, the old bachelor who lives in an old school bus on an acreage. Ray advises her as follows: “Don’t buy a pitbull. Them’s dangerous creatures! They’s all ravenous beasts, I tell you!”

Her next visit is to Randy, a respected professional working in the nearby city. Randy says: “If you buy a pitbull be advised that they can be dangerous if they’re not trained properly.”

Suzy decides to buy a pitbull. She doesn’t train it well and six months later it eats her beloved Siamese cat and then attacks her, leaving her with severe bite marks on her hands.

Does Suzy’s misfortune constitute evidence for the truth of Ray’s advice? No, it doesn’t, for the simple reason that both Ray and Randy offered advice fully consistent with this unfortunate outcome.

By the same token, discovering the natural genesis of lightning does not constitute evidence for MCN because the natural genesis of lightning is fully consistent with the existence of God and his action in the world. (Indeed, to assume that there is such a thing as special divine action entails that there is such a thing as regular action in which natural processes are operative, including the discharge of lightning under the right conditions.)

In closing, let me underscore a point I made originally to Ray Ingles. For at least fifteen hundred years countless theologians have developed what I call transcendent agent models of divine action in the world which view God as the primary metaphysical agent of all natural events in a way that is completely consistent with the advance of scientific explanation in its proper sphere. So once again, and for good measure, the advance of science in its proper sphere which it has rightfully claimed from other disciplines, provides no evidence that those other disciplines do not have their proper spheres. And thus it provides no evidence that theism is false or that naturalism is true.


  • Jeff Lowder

    Thanks for the thoughtful response, Randal! I’ve posted a reply at the end of the original post defending AHS, in the section where I discuss objections. Here is the link again: http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/2012/06/evidential-argument-from-history-of.html

  • John Coleman

    Intersting post. I especially liked the comparison with the discipline of philosophy.
    A case could be made that in the history of psychology the decline of behaviorism was a turn from a purely “scientific”, objective, account of the mind to ones in which subjectivity and introspection play a more prominent role. While subjectivity is not theological per se it meshes more nicely with a theistic worldview then it does with a purely naturalistic wordview. Decades after Watson tried to turn psychology into a branch of natural science people like Victor Frankl showed the continued relevance to psychology of questions regarding meaning and intent. In general, the social sciences don’t display the same unidirectional trend towards pure naturalism that Lowder sees in the physical sciences.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Excellent observations. Thanks

  • Raymond Ingles

    Why can’t God (which you have defined as ‘an agent that is the ultimate cause of everything contingent’) be ‘natural’? (As I said before, in response to your question, I disagree with your MCN… but then you dropped the conversation.)

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I didn’t drop the conversation, at least not intentionally. I was from the blog much of yesterday and failed to respond to all the comments I wanted to.

      To say that naturalism is consistent with the existence of a necessarily existent agent that creates all contingent reality is tantamount to saying capitalism is consistent with the denial of private ownership. You’re free to define capitalism (or naturalism) any way you like, but by adopting a completely idiosyncratic definition that nobody else holds, you end up marginalizing yourself from the wider conversation.

      • Raymond Ingles

        One of the original objections to Newton’s theory of gravity was that he was positing a weird ‘gravitational force’ that acted at a distance with no visible manifestation besides the trajectories of falling objects. Many felt he was invoking supernatural concepts in an allegedly natural explanation.

        Not many people today agree that Newton’s theory of gravity is a supernaturalist account, though. Magnets were thought of as magic, too (http://www.howmagnetswork.com/history.html) – and still are today (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/fcking-magnets-how-do-they-work).

        So even things once considered ‘occult’ have been happily incorporated into naturalism before. I don’t see how a ‘necessarily existent agent’ couldn’t be incorporated into naturalism, if it were sufficiently understood.

        Of course, since you define ‘naturalism’ as “God doesn’t exist”, that would be impossible – by your “completely idiosyncratic definition”.

  • Raymond Ingles

    For at least fifteen hundred years countless theologians have developed
    what I call transcendent agent models of divine action in the world
    which view God as the primary metaphysical agent of all natural events
    in a way that is completely consistent with the advance of scientific
    explanation in its proper sphere.

    To quote – though possibly apocryphally – Laplace, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Of course this argument wasn’t about persuading you of the position. Instead, it was about showing that the position you (and Jeff, and others) have defended is wrong.

      • Raymond Ingles

        What we’re pointing out is that your argument appears to boil down to, “Science hasn’t accounted for X, and therefore science will never account for X.”

        You can claim that the “there are natural boundaries to the expansion of the river and eventually they will be met.” But you have to actually argue for those boundaries and explain why they apply. You can’t just say, “The water will never fill up the valley!” (Especially when you and your compatriots have a history of saying “The water won’t get more than ankle-deep!” and now it’s covering a third of the valley.)

        • Randal Rauser

          I gave you a specific case: epistemology. Do you think there is evidence that epistemology will be naturalized as Quine envisioned?

          • Raymond Ingles

            I’ll quote you: “Forty-three years later there are still philosophers who would endorse
            Quine’s project. But it would be foolish to think that science has
            replaced philosophical epistemology… Science is not going to replace epistemology.”

            In other words, “Science hasn’t accounted for X, and therefore science will never account for X.”

            I don’t know enough about Quine’s work to say whether or not I think “Quine’s project” might succeed. The only evidence I see you provide for its futility, though, is… ‘it hasn’t succeeded so far’. That’s not quite so compelling as you seem to suppose.

            • Randal Rauser

              ‘In other words, “Science hasn’t accounted for X, and therefore science will never account for X.”‘

              I can see that nothing will shake your religious commitment to scientism.

              • Raymond Ingles

                Or, just possibly, your arguments aren’t nearly as strong as you think they are.

                Question: Is mathematics science or philosophy?

  • David Evans

    “It would be equally in error to suppose that the continued success of science at explaining the physical structure of the natural world could replace other explanations in their proper spheres.”

    That’s true. However it should be pointed out that theologians have not always been content to defer to science in its proper sphere.

    Scientists understand earthquakes well enough now to have some idea which cities are likely to suffer them. Theologians have also thought they understood earthquakes – as a judgment of God on sinful cities. Some even do so today. But it’s clear which hypothesis has the greater predictive value.

    • Randal Rauser

      David, inference to the best explanation is not constrained by predictive value. If the most satisfactory explanation of a particular event or state of affairs is an intelligent cause, then you ought to conclude that an intelligent cause is at work, irrespective of the degree of predictive power that insight provides for other cases.

      • David Evans

        We have learned that the ability to predict events is a good test of whether an explanation is satisfactory. An explanation of earthquakes as God’s punishment is clearly satisfactory for some people. It provides some sort of justification for apparently needless suffering. It fails, however, to predict that earthquakes should be more common on fault lines. That seems to me a good reason not to accept it.

        • Randal Rauser

          I don’t think the ability to predict events is sufficient to conclude that there is not an intelligence behind the event, and I’m quite sure you don’t either.

          Consider this example. Every time you walk into a haunted house a demonic voice growls “Get the hell out!” Would you suspect there was intelligence there? Or would you discard the sound and set up your sleeping bag in the living room?

          It would appear that we need to distinguish predictable phenomena that do not warrant inferences to intelligence from those that do. Mere predictability is not sufficient to discount the presence of intelligent causes.

      • Joshua Jacobsen

        Would intelligent causes be more satisfying if we were able to assign values to the sinfulness of times and places and correlate relative evil to an incidence of (super)natural disaster? I have to presume that theologians would balk at such an exercise, well aware of the likely results. What may seem satisfying answers in specially selected cases might prove less satisfying under better statistical rigor.

        • Randal Rauser

          I think I’d need to to explain this exercise a bit more as well as elucidating what you would expect it to establish.

  • patrick.sele

    Jeffrey Jay Lowder:
    “The history of science contains numerous examples
    of naturalistic explanations replacing supernatural ones and no examples of
    supernatural explanations replacing naturalistic ones.”

    Phenomena that are claimed to
    be supernatural fall into two categories, namely phenomena that appear to be
    designed and phenomena that lack such a feature. The latter are unfalsifiable
    and therefore irrelevant in this respect. A good example of such claims is the
    idea that God directs evolution. Looking at the former category it is clear why
    it is more likely that phenomena that once were thought to be supernatural have
    turned out to have naturalistic explanations than the other way round. It is
    certainly more likely that a phenomenon that appears to be designed turns out
    to be explainable by impersonal natural processes than that a phenomenon that
    seems to lack design turns out to have this feature nonetheless. But if we only
    take the former category into account, is there really such a high number of
    phenomena once thought to be supernatural that have turned out to have naturalistic

    At the end of his post Randal
    Rauser points out that scientific and theological explanations needn’t be
    mutally exclusive. This certainly applies to phenonema belonging to the latter
    category pointed to above. However, as Rauser’s hypothetical example of hail
    pellets spelling out “Happy Birthday Randal!” shows it can even apply to
    phenomena belonging to the former category. A biblical example of such a
    phenomenon is the Plague of the Locusts as described in Exodus 10,1-20. On the
    one hand it is quite clear that God was the cause of this plague. Yet in Exodus
    10,13 we read that it was a wind that brought the locusts to Egypt. Even in the
    Bible a wind is a mindless natural force and not a supernatural personal agent.

    • Randal Rauser

      Your mention of Exodus brings to mind Colin Humphreys’ really interesting book “The Miracles of Exodus”.

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