A second and more critical look at Jeff Lowder’s Evidential Argument from the History of Science
I provided a response to Jeffrey Jay Lowder’s argument for naturalism from the history of science here.
Lowder provided a reply to my critique here.
Theologians in perpetual retreat?
Lowder’s response is limited to one part of my rebuttal, viz. my observation that theologians have defended what I call transcendent agent (henceforth TA) models of divine action which completely underdetermine the “detectability” of God’s action in the cosmos. Lowder replies:
“On the assumption that theism is true, what reason is there to believe that transcendent agent models of divine action in the world are true? Is there any reason that is independent of the success of non-supernatural explanations?”
The short answer: of course. Indeed, I find Lowder’s question here quite perplexing. I pointed out that theologians defended TA models of divine action for centuries prior to the development of modern science. And Lowder’s response is to ask what reason they could have for endorsing such models apart from the advance of modern science? The question assumes that theologians developed TA models for centuries for no reason at all.
But of course that is not true. Theologians had biblical reasons for adopting a TA model (e.g. explaining the relationship between human and divine agency in election). And they had countless philosophical and theological reasons as well. For instance, TA models flow naturally from a commitment to divine simplicity and atemporality, two mainstays of classical theism. So theologians prior to the rise of science had many reasons to endorse TA models of divine action.
What about theologians who endorsed TA models in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries? Did they do so out of some anxiety over the incessant advance of science? Alas, such a suggestion is pure fiction. Read a Protestant scholastic like Francis Turretin and you’ll find no anxiety over modern science. What you’ll find instead is a faithful development of a centuries’ old tradition of (Aristotelian) scholastic theism. And what about Jonathan Edwards’ radical occasionalism (if that is the best way to define his theology)? Ironically, it is motivated not by modern science but by a concern over the philosophical implications of Lockean bare substance.
I would encourage Lowder to read medieval and Protestant scholastic theologians to find their reasons for adopting TA models rather than assuming that (a) they had no reason at all or (b) they must have been retrenching defensively from the advance of science.
The bigger problem
Lowder didn’t respond to the rest of my rebuttal to his argument. That’s unfortunate because I can’t help but think that he didn’t grasp the significance of those points for his overall thesis. So now I’m going to unpack what I said there a bit more to explain why I believe Lowder’s argument is completely wrongheaded.
Here is the evidence Lowder presents that has to be explained:
The problem with these two points is that they simply describe the emergence of science as an autonomous discipline. Science is full of examples of scientific explanations successfully explaining the scientific dimensions of reality. But science has no examples of theological explanations successfully explaining the scientific explanations of reality.
Well yeah. And as I pointed out, literature is full of examples of literary critics successfully explaining the literary nature of texts. But literature has no examples of scientific explanations successfully explaining the literary nature of texts.
Now I did note that science claimed some territory from other disciplines. But that was because science originally had no territory of its own, so it rightfully claimed the scientific dimensions of what had once been solely philosophical questions. This, as I observed, doesn’t mean that philosophy is therefore out of a job. In other words, it doesn’t mean that there is no longer a philosophical dimension of reality that can be explored by philosophy. It simply meant that science defined the kind of social knowledge discourse it is over-against other forms of social knowledge discourse.
Finally, I was disappointed that Lowder didn’t respond to my message-in-a-hailstorm example because it completely decontructs his argument. You see, the illustration allows us to say simultaneously that science could be maximally successful at explaining (and even predicting!) the occurrence of particular phenomena, and yet we could have reasons completely independent of anxiety over naturalism to believe that science had not exhaustively accounted for the event, i.e. that there was still an ample space left for philosophical or theological explanation.
So I conclude that Lowder’s argument for naturalism from the history of science is a failure. The advance of science within the proper sphere of science is to be expected as is the success of other modes of inquiry within their respective spheres. And this success is fully compatible with philosophical and theological explanations of natural phenomena from within the spheres of philosophical and theological discourse.