In a bold and incisive paper, philosopher Owen Anderson writes: "In what follows I explain the principle of uniformity as developed by Lyell, consider its philosophical grounding in Humean empiricism and epistemological naturalism, and argue that, although Lyell himself may have believed in the theistic view of God, this principle raises questions about the role of God and natural evil in the world. By identifying the role that uniformitarianism has played in subsequent science and understanding its role as a nonempirical interpretive principle, I show how fideism can be avoided at the level of first principles." Among the many issues raised, I draw attention to just one. This concerns the fundamental importance of interpretive principles (or paradigms) in science.
There is a tendency for scholars in the Lyell tradition to think that empirical evidence can be gathered objectively and that analysis leads to robust knowledge. However, Lyell filtered the data available to him by an unarticulated interpretive principle. Anderson seeks to revise our perceptions of Lyell's contribution by focusing attention on his philosophical roots. "Just as the Aristotelians gathered huge amounts of data and yet because of false interpretive principles drew false conclusions about the world, so any other "science" is only as good as its interpretive principles."
Lyell appeared to have been deeply influenced by the philosopher David Hume. "Lyell's principle requires a radical form of empiricism as developed by David Hume. Hume's invective against anything that appears to be metaphysical or theological has had immeasurable influence on the modern mind. He believed that there were only two sources of knowledge and ruled out the idea of special revelation." The picture that emerges involves two competing philosophical stances: naturalism and theism. Although Lyell professed to be a theist, his thinking was that of a naturalist. "For the naturalist to maintain that he or she is simply working with the evidence while the theist is importing theology is for the naturalist to ignore his or her own interpretive assumptions. The theist will maintain that the material world and its past cannot be entirely explained through secondary causes and that, although God has created these causes and endowed the human mind with the ability to know them, they do not exhaust what humans should know about the formation of the world (there is also the redemptive work of God in history). Neither of these interpretive principles can claim to be neutral or "just following the evidence where it leads"."
The great strength of this paper is the way the author frames the science-faith debate. The differences are not about scientific methodology, nor about the role of reason. The fundamental differences are philosophical, particularly relating to naturalism and theism. Those who think that the term "theistic scientist" is an oxymoron would do well to read what Anderson has to say.
Charles Lyell, uniformitarianism, and interpretive principles
Zygon, 42(2), June 2007, 449-462.
Abstract: I examine the development of Charles Lyell's principle of uniformity and its influence on the development of modern geology and biology and argue that distinguishing between philosophical starting points and empirical findings is essential for clarity in the discussion between science and religion. First, I explore Lyell's arguments against catastrophism and how these were both empirically and religiously motivated. I then consider how David Hume's empiricism, theory of causation, and rejection of miracles influenced Lyell. Using these insights, Lyell formulated his principle of uniformity, which he believed was based on current empirical findings, and rejected explanatory hypotheses that used the biblical Flood or other catastrophist accounts as violations of uniform causation and introductions of theological concepts into empirical science. I next examine the influence of Lyell's principle on Charles Darwin. Although Lyell opposed Darwinism for most of his life, Darwin relied heavily on Lyell, as is evidenced by references throughout The Origin of Species. I contend that the most important aspect of Lyell's principle for Darwin is that it makes natural evil (the struggle for survival) a process that has always been occurring rather than something introduced after the Fall as recorded in Genesis. Finally, I discuss the role that uniformity plays for Lyell, Darwin, and modern science as an interpretive principle rather than as an inference from empirical data, and I conclude by noting that keeping the distinction in mind between interpretive principles and empirical findings will help clarify debates between science and religion.
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