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Scientists and Metaphysics

Blaise Pascal said that to seek religion apart from Christ was inevitably atheism and deism. Einstein said scientists make poor philosophers. Stanley Jaki argues that is the effort to go from science to philosophy that leads to error, such that the mechanization of the universe excludes all those very real philosophical truths such as existence, love, beauty and language. He would even say history shows that scientific metaphysics is not very permanent, being discarded by the next generation of scientists, whereas the abstract mathematics of science does remain. That is, scientists make lousy metaphysicians, but excellent mathematicians (and realists). Consider Descarte's philosophy which hardly anyone subscribes to today, versus Descarte's mathematics which is still taught. Here's Jaki's trenchant comments (Means to Message, p34): Despite Jaki's very real concerns, history constrains us to look at how some physicists have produced philosophy. My own view is that while superficially science and philosophy are separable, at some deep level they are interdependent such that bad philosophy corrupts good physics and bad physics corrupts good philosophy. I wish I could say this positively that "good philosophy creates good physics" but I have only one example to show, which was Augustine's cosmology. If I can find two more examples, then I will defend the positive version as well. So let us go through the Newton example in a bit more detail to see if we can be more sensitive to metaphysics.

A Metaphysical Example

Johannes Kepler

Kepler was Protestant, quite devout, trinitarian and a staunch defender of Copernicus' heliocentric universe. His enquiry into astronomy was founded on detailed empirical analysis of planetary orbits culminating in the famous 3 laws: planetary orbits are ellipses; equal areas are swept out in equal time; the square of the period equals the cube of radius. This absolute faith in his research indicates that Kepler was a realist, believing in the truth of externally existent objects. It also shows that he expected to find some law, some rule that explained the piles and piles of careful numbers taken over the preceding decades by Tycho Brahe. In other words, Kepler's labor of love in his decade immersed in Brahe's data arose out of a unique tension between fact and law that only Christianity embodied. I'd like to show how Kepler's orthodox theology contributed to his empiricism, but I'm not enough of a Kepler scholar, and I think I would have to demonstrate the mistakes he avoided in order to prove that Christianity was a decisive factor.


Newton was greatly influenced by materialism, but it would be wrong to classify him as epicurean or an atheist. Rather, he considered himself very religious, and spent the last 10 or so years of his life attempting to write a defense of his Unitarian theology. One of his many contributions was the "universal law of gravitation", in which he shows that Kepler's three empirical laws could all be derived (using the calculus that he had invented) from a gravitational force of attraction, which is inversely proportional to the distance and proportional to the mass of each body. But in developing this theory, he ran into a snag. Gravitational attraction acts at a distance, and through a vacuum. How then is this compatible with the materialist view that all forces are transmitted by particle contact? That is, materialists were very explicit that "force-fields" were the stuff of magicians and astrologers such as Gilbert's 1600 De Magnete that attributed the Earth's magnetic field to the "soul" of the earth. This was pure sophistry, they claimed, and led back to the dark ages of Aristotelianism wherein gravity was the "soul" of a rock which desired to find its proper place on the earth below water, air and fire. Forces, they maintained, could only be transmitted by inanimate, soulless particles colliding with other such objects in the void. How could Newton claim otherwise for gravity?

So Newton attempted a delicate balancing act, claiming that he made no metaphysical conclusions or assumptions in his gravitational law while holding to his action-at-a-distance. (This has led people, even today, to think of gravity as "mysterious". There's an engraved granite slab sitting outside the science building dedicated to gravity research. Read it.) He wanted to be both a materialist and a "spooky action at a distance" non-materialist, he wanted a force without explaining it, he wanted both mechanism and mechanic. How can he do this? Jaki argues that this balancing act can only be done in Christianity. Newton achieved something slightly less orthodox, Deism, which might be stereotyped as a mechanical God, or at best, a personal God who makes a mechanical universe and departs. Which is to say, Newton needed the benefit of a Christian world-view, while simultaneously rejecting its logic.

Now Newton was the archetype of the Enlightenment, and although he seems to have come right in the middle of era, his story is repeated over and over by many other scientists. What was the attraction of such heterodox belief? Earlier we had argued that Newton replaced the Augustinian trinity by his materialist trinity of space, time and matter. These thoughts were described in his 1687 Principia though it must be recognized that he had developed them much earlier, perhaps as early as 1665, when he spent a summer in the country away from the plaguey city. Let's describe Newton's religion, because it will continue to show up throughout the 18th century reaching a zenith in the 19th.

If space, time and matter are the eternal verities, then the laws describing their behavior become paramount, even over God's arbitrary decisions. Or to phrase it differently, God's will becomes defined in its most basic sense as the law that governs the heavens. This removes the creative and arbitrary aspect of God's will to the original creation, and inspired the analogy to a clockmaker. We characterize this inspired clockwork view of God and the world as Deism.

But it leads to a problem. How do we see God's hand? Since the clock moves on its own, we cannot see God working in the gears of the clock, rather we have to dimly discern his hand in the clever fashioning of the gears, the smooth action of the levers, or the long forgotten winding of the spring. But is this particularly compelling, specifically, does it fit with Romans 1:18? Does it require belief, or is it merely some anthropomorphic projection of masculine appreciation of the mechanical? Some would claim that God's hand can still be seen on rare occasions as he fiddles with the hands of the clock, resetting this or that dial. Newton himself thought that the orbits of the planets were unstable and required a tweak now and then to stabilize them and keep them from running into each other. As later commentators pointed out, this amounted to a "God-of-the-gaps", where lacunae in our human understanding were filled by God's fiddling.

This solution, however, is not very satisfying, because it relegates God the jobs that are defined by our ignorance so that as our knowlege grows with time, God's job description shrinks. Ultimately we will find ourselves agreeing with Carl Sagan who exclaimed "there is nothing left for God to do." Surely it is philosophically bankrupt to define the infinite by the limitations of the finite! This lack of philosophical foundations didn't seem to bother scientists (as Jaki is at pains to point out) who were enamored of the many benefits of such a metaphysical chimera. They could accept all the scientific advantages of materialism with all the moral advantages of Christianity, as long as they carefully compartmentalized the two worldviews. This was the gist of Immanuel Kant's phenomena- noumena distinction, or Stephen Jay Gould's "magisteria", or even Karl Barth's transcendant barrier between the word and world. It was, in Voltaire's famous phrase, "the best of all possible worlds".

While much ink has been spilled about the theological ramifications of such a compartmentalized worldview, few have written on the scientific decline that resulted. That is, science stagnates when it turns dogmatic. You know the old saw, theology is dogmatic, whereas science is progressive / evolving / skeptical / marvelous and true... History, should any of these sloganeers read it, proves otherwise. Science can be as dogmatic as the worst of the theologians, and rarely as sublime as the best. The antidote to smelly science is what we called earlier the medieval via media, the tension between empiricism and realism, what theologians refer to as the incarnation, the word become flesh. Just as Christianity is bankrupt without Christ, so science is sterile without purpose.

As Deism became dogma, and materialism subsumed purpose, we arrive at a 21st century stagnation point in science. The results of Einstein's relativity theory, or Quantum Mechanics are being resisted by the very scientists who use them. Neils Bohr would say that QM is just not comprehensible, making the field of "foundations of quantum mechanics" a deserted graveyard of metaphysics inhabited by kooks and religious mystics. Cosmologists invoke an infinite number of unobservable "multiverses" to achieve purpose by accident. Particle physicists embody particles with personality, "seeking the shortest path" while pretending persons have no purpose because "they are just particles". What can be done to change this impasse? Jaki would argue for more metaphysics. I would argue for more empiricism. Dembski would argue for more logic. ("Surgery" said the doctor, "medicine" said the nurse, "ice cream" said the lady with the alligator purse.)

Enlightenment Metaphysics

                                        /-->Naturalism      (chance) --> Darwin
Science(Newton) --> Metaphysics (machine)
                                       \-->Natural Theology (design) --> Creation
The debate often came down to deist design versus atheist chance. In religious circles, this debate came to be called "apologetics", which unfortunately sounded and acted a lot like apologizing. Many examples of well meant attempts to rationalize Christianity exist, such as Josh McDowell's "Evidence that Demands a Verdict", and most were doomed to failure. The genre has nearly petered out with some late modernist attempts such as Bishop Spong who have apologized Christianity into nothingness. The fundamental problem with all these "modern" apologetics is their commitment to "newtonian" or naturalist metaphysics. That is, the goal of apologetics was seen as "finding incontrovertible evidences of God in Nature". In opposition, then, the goal of atheism / agnosticism was seen as "determined skepticism", or finding reasons to reject evidence. It was such an even match that for 173 years, from Newton's 1686 Principia to Darwin's 1859 Origin, Deism flourished as a philosophy of open-minded tolerance to both sides.

The Beginning

The early years of these two centuries were spent sparring over the metaphysics of Newton and the materialist / atomist views of nature. That is, does nature act with a purpose in mind or purely by chance? One can construct a chart of the two opposing world views:
atomistorganic / magic
lifeless atoms souls, life
Newton mechanism Aristotle purpose
force by collisions action at a distance
particles mediate fields mediate
ether permeates space Magnetism, electricity
sound waves emanate influences, auras
mind is a collection mind, will, consciousness
of experiences are states of being
spontaneous generation life begets life
light is a particlelight is a wave

As you can see from looking at the above table, both sides were sometimes right, and sometimes wrong. That, my friends, is a deep lesson, and what I mean by empiricism. It is what the reformers meant by common grace, as Jesus said, "He sends the rain on the just and the unjust". In G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy he argues that it is exactly the exceptions that prove the truth of the observation.

So what led to the defeat of Aristotelian purpose and the victory of inanimate Epicurean atomism? First, atomism led to an easier transition to mathematics, a Newtonian calculus of observations. Particles are just a lot easier to describe than waves, as every student of QM discovers to their dismay. And remember Jaki's dictum, "it's the math, stupid." This meant atomism had the more fruitful theories and predictions. Second, there has always been a philosophical preference for atheism, a higher regard for the skeptic than the believer, a celebration of clever attacks on language, which of course, were entirely inconsistent with the skeptic's use of language to make the attack. Third, and this might be unfair, we find no person of the same stature as Augustine in the Renaissance, who could silence the critics and uphold orthodoxy. Instead all the great men, the Galileos, Newtons, and Einsteins, were men of flawed faith. Therefore for all these reasons, the victory went to naturalism, albeit an inconsistent naturalism.

The Middle Years

With success in the atomist debates, "basic physics" seemed to be won for a materialist, naturalist, mechanistic philosophy. This led to a desire (on the part of the winners) to reduce all other branches of science to physics, and thereby to win the world for naturalism. This effort has been called reductionism, or what I like to refer to as "physics envy". But reality is never that simple.

Despite all these real problems with reductionism, science continues to pursue this physics goal. To the public, however, reductionist naturalism was a bit esoteric. That is, nothing in the Bible seemed to contradict or speak about the atomic theory of matter, rather, the Bible did say a lot about biology and creation. Thus for a long time, physics could pursue its goals of purposelessness without interference from either theologians or the public. This was not true of reductionism in other fields, which were much more attuned to purpose. For example, when modern medicine confronts animist shaman healers, or witchdoctors, they might say that this fever is not caused by a voodoo curse, but by a virus. The response of the shaman is then "Who sent the virus?" That is, reductionism or naturalism is completely unable to answer questions of purpose. Yet human beings crave explanations of purpose. There is a tension within modern science then, because naturalism, founded on the metaphysics of materialism, cannot allow purpose.

The Later Years

So the debate between an atheist and a deist/theist took the form of identifying purpose. Hume and Kant both fall into this skeptical camp, and after countless hours of fruitless argument, concluded that human reason can never discover the infinite Creator. At best, they could only discover mechanical causes, the clock mechanism, as it were, bereft of the clockmaker. Both attacked purpose, or teleology, on philosophical grounds. Hume advancing skepticism arguing that one could never prove anything by induction from facts, e.g. every time I see a crow, it is black, therefore all crows are black. Hume would say I can't generalize to the literally millions of crows I have never seen. Kant, who is quoted as saying "Hume awakened me from my dogmatic slumbers", went even further, questioning the reality of the Thing-in-itself, of the existence of something outside my experience of it. This idealism put a great gulf between reality and reason. Jaki has nothing but scorn for Kant's reasoning. As Samuel Johnson once said about such solipsism, while kicking a stone, "I refute it thus!".

So in the end, teleology was a watershed issue. Either you saw God's goodness and praised design, or you didn't.
Last modified, January 22, 2003, RbS