Argument from the History of Science

9 December 2005

Atheists commonly make the claim that the history of science has displayed a remarkable tendency for naturalistic explanations to overcome supernaturalistic explanations. Jeffrey Jay Lowder, in a recent article of his, has made this claim:

“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.” 1

I will refer to this argument as the Argument from the History of Science (AHS). This argument is rarely explicated or defended in a rigorous fashion, but it is embraced implicitly by many critics of religion. I will offer one possible formulation here:

1.) If scientific explanations consistently replace supernaturalistic explanations, then it is unlikely that any remaining supernaturalistic explanations are true.
2.) Scientific explanations have repeatedly replaced supernaturalistic explanations.
3.) Therefore, it is unlikely that any remaining supernaturalistic explanations are true.

However, I think both premises of this argument, upon examination, are completely unfounded. In this essay, I will address these two fatal flaws of the AHS.

1.) It is not true that the history of science, whatever the results, has any impact whatsoever upon the likelihood of the existence of God.

Upon first glance, the AHS may seem quite reasonable. After all, our theistic ancestors did credit God or gods with all sorts of natural phenomena, such as rain, wind and lightning bolts. In our day and age, however, such events have thoroughly naturalistic explanations. God’s actions in the universe seem to be receding further and further back in time. Some have claimed that it appears God has been left without a job.

However, whether or not it is true that God’s supposed sphere of direct influence has shrinken, this is not any sort of evidence against His existence. For, it is entirely possible that our ancestors would have behaved differently. Let us hypothesize a second possible history (which we will call H2), in which only the good arguments (let’s say, the cosmological, teleological, and origin of life 2) for the existence of God were used, and naturalistic phenomena were generally not attributed to acts of God. If this history were actual, then the second premise of the AHS would be false, and thus the AHS would not be a sound argument for the nonexistence of God. Since in H2 there is now one less argument against God’s existence, God’s existence is consequently more likely than in H1 (our actual history).

But surely this cannot be correct. We are still living in the exact same universe. Nothing has changed between H1 and H2 save for the more conservative philosophical and theological claims of our theistic ancestors. Nothing objective about the universe has actually changed, so there is no conceivable way that the existence of God could actually be objectively more or less probable. We thus see that the entire foundation of the AHS is false because it leads to an absurd conclusion.

In other words, the probability of the existence of God can and should only be based on the soundness or cogency of the arguments that are currently used for His existence. The Cosmological argument loses no plausibility because historically some theistic philosophers have used faulty arguments for the existence of God. Nor does the Cosmological Argument gain any more potency under the historical scenario described by H2. The Cosmological Argument still has the same premises, the same arguments, and the same conclusion in either history. This is true of all arguments both for and against God’s existence- they must be analyzed on their own terms.

It appears then, that the Argument from the History of Science is fundamentally flawed. Premise 1 is incorrect, and the argument cannot get off the ground. Since this point completely undermines the foundation of the argument, the AHS is essentially dead. However, for the sake of thoroughness I wish to show that the 2nd major premise of the argument is empirically unsupported.

It is untrue that history shows an overwhelming tendency for naturalistic explanations to overcome theistic explanations.

Obviously, the scientific community will never “officially” declare that the God hypothesis is the final solution to any given problem. However, many scientific finds in recent times do lend credibility to theistic explanations, as anybody, even naturalistic scientists, can admit. A brief survey of a few such examples will be enough to show that it is quite false that the overwhelming trend of data found confirms naturalism and renders irrelevant theism. In fact, the exact opposite may be true.

1.) Spontaneous Generation and the Origin of Life.

The first topic I will discuss is that of the origin of life. In the past, it was thought that spontaneous generation (that is, the creation of life from inanimate matter) was possible. It was thought that maggots were literally created out of molding food, rats were literally created out of garbage, and so on. Quite obviously, the theory of spontaneous generation renders naturalistic explanations for the origin of life more likely and exposes theism as a needless hypothesis with regards to the origin of life.

Unfortunately for the atheists, the theory of spontaneous generation was refuted by later finds in science. 3 This creates a serious problem for atheists. A new theory for the origin of life is needed. Moreover, in a huge double-whammy, scientific finds have shown the cell to be fantastically complex and intricate, which makes the naturalistic origin of life without spontaneous generation even more unlikely.

The only possibility that seems to be left for the atheists is Abiogenesis. Whether or not Abiogenesis is a successful theory is up to debate, but certainly it must be admitted that spontaneous generation, if true, would be a much simpler explanation of the origin of life. In fact, there seems to be several serious problems with the theory of Abiogenesis. 4,5,6 I also think it is safe to say that the issue of the origin of life is not a favorite for naturalists. This is one powerful example of scientific finds supporting theistic contentions rather than naturalistic theories. In fact, it is hard to imagine any possible finding on the origin of life, other than the tremendous complexity of the “simplest” organisms, that would more effectively bolster theism.

2.) Cosmology and the Beginning of the Universe.

The question of why the universe exists is one of the most mind-boggling issues mankind has ever faced. Atheists, naturally, must account for the universe’s existence. This used to be done by postulating that the universe had existed for an eternity- that it had no beginning. Thus, the universe was a necessary being, requiring no explanation external to itself.

Unfortunately, things took a sour turn for the atheists. As I have documented in my article HERE, scientific finds have overturned the notion of an eternal universe. This has left atheists with much more difficulty in explaining the origin of the universe. Once again, it is difficult to imagine a more convenient find for theists. This is another good example of science overturning naturalistic theories and supporting the theistic hypothesis.

3.) The Physical Constants of the Universes’ Origin

In the past, science had not vindicated the concept of “cosmic teleology”, or, design in the cosmos. Theists still used cosmic teleology as an argument for the existence of God, but science had yielded very few concrete examples. However, according to William Lane Craig, this situation changed in recent years:

“In recent years, however, the scientific community has been stunned by its discovery of how complex and sensitive a nexus of conditions must be given in order for the universe to permit the origin and evolution of intelligent life on Earth. The universe appears, in fact, to have been incredibly fine-tuned from the moment of its inception for the production of intelligent life on Earth at this point in cosmic history. In the various fields of physics and astrophysics, classical cosmology, quantum mechanics, and biochemistry, various discoveries have repeatedly disclosed that the existence of intelligent carbon-based life on Earth at this time depends upon a delicate balance of physical and cosmological quantities, such that were any one of these quantities to be slightly altered, the balance would be destroyed and life would not exist.” 7

Thus, we see once again science vindicating theistic hypothesis and leaving naturalists with a tough hill to climb. See my article HERE on the Teleological Argument for further discussion of this.

Case Studies of Naturalism Overturning Theism

Now that I have compiled a short list of scientific discoveries that bolstered the theistic hypothesis, I will turn my attention to those discoveries which, atheists claim, support naturalism over theism.

1.) Theory of Evolution

This is the probably the most common and convincing example of a scientific hypothesis rendering irrelevant a theistic contention. It must be conceded that the theory of evolution surely did (and does) help the case for atheism. However, the extent of evolution’s alliance with atheism may not be as impressive as some nontheists would have one believe.

First, I must mention the possibility that evolution is not true. It is not entirely clear that evolution is scientific fact, and if evolution is false atheism takes a tremendous blow. Moreover, evolution has to be completely true in order for atheism to benefit from it. In other words, if Michael Behe is correct that most but not all structures can be explained by evolutionary means, then evolution as a theory does not bolster the case for atheism at all, because a designer or outside intelligence would still be required.

Secondly, evolution may actually support theistic contentions. After all, on the assumption that atheism is true, it seems much more likely that evolution would only have resulted in simple life forms. Since evolution has no goal, it is not true that there is any sort of motivation for evolutionary processes to create complex, sentient, and self-aware beings like homo sapiens. See HERE (upcoming) for a fuller explanation of this.

Weather Phenomena

In the ancient past, humans declared weather related phenomena as “Acts of God”. Science, however, has shown that such events have naturalistic explanations.

However, I think on the assumption that the Biblical God exists it would be quite unreasonable to suppose that such Acts of God would occur with frequency. The gods of the Greeks and Romans, perhaps, could be expected to engage in such activities often, but I do not believe in these gods.

Whatever the case, I have absolutely no problem with acknowledging that the weather is, for the most part, a natural phenomenon. Such is certainly compatible with a rational creator who created a rational world.

As far as I know, this is about it with regards to naturalistic hypothesis overturning theistic contentions. 8 It certainly is not true that there is an overwhelming tendency for supernaturalism to be refuted by scientific analysis. Furthermore, since it is the atheist making the claim, they actually have the burden of proof to show that almost all scientific finds vindicate naturalism. This is burden I do not think the nonbelievers can live up to.

Conclusion:

The Argument from the History of Science fails on two counts. Both major premises are found to be flawed. Scientific finds from biology, cosmology, and physics have actually bolstered theistic hypotheses, showing that it is altogether untrue that science is the enemy of Christianity. In any case, the argument is faulty because it is not true that the past history of human thought and claims concerning God’s activities in the world have any bearing on the probability of His existence. Atheists must look elsewhere if they wish to construct an impressive argument against God’s existence.




NOTES

1. Lowder, Jeffrey. “A Brief Survey of Evidential Arguments for Atheism” Also see HERE for my rebuttal to Lowder. NOTE: I have not linked to the article because it is no longer available on the Internet. However, most of the article is preserved in my linked critique.

2. Obviously, most nonbelievers would be reluctant to consider these “good” arguments, which is not surprising. However, it is clearly the case that these arguments are superior to “arguments” that God causes lightning bolts or rain. Additionally, the cosmological, teleological, and origin of life arguments still at least theoretically fall under the realm of things that science has not yet fully explained.

3. “Spontaneous Generation- a Look at an Old Chestnut.” ASA found at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Origin%20of%20Life/spontaneous_generation.html

4. Bergman, Jerry. “Why Abiogenesis is Impossible” http://trueorigin.org/abio.asp

5. Sarfati, Jonathan, “The Instabiity of Building Blocks”, http://trueorigin.org/originoflife.asp

6. Kenyon, Dean and Gordon C. Mills. “The RNA World: A Critique” http://www.arn.org/docs/odesign/od171/rnaworld171.htm

7. Craig, William Lane. “The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle” http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/teleo.html

8. Some may claim that neuroscience has slowly eroded the necessity of the soul or of a creator of consciousness. However, these arguments are inconclusive, as there are still viable theories of the soul despite this increased understanding of the brain.






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  1. A good article, but I have one point of difference.

    When you address the physical constants of our universe, you point out that science has increasingly validated theist explanations for those constants because the existence of life has been shown to be precariously balanced on these constants that, if changed only slightly, would break the balance and our existence.

    To the contrary, this does nothing to support theism because life is assumed to be a “special” trait of the universe.

    The logic would basically follow thusly:

    “Because the existence of this special trait (life) would presumably be favored over the lack of it, it forms a sort of reverse logic that it was indeed favored because it exists. Thus, it was tuned for and designed, and there is a designer.”

    But life is not a special trait of the universe, any more than particularly pretty rocks or sunbeams.


    Alex    Jun 8, 09:41 AM    #
  2. Actually, the history of science is a major blow to theism. In the past, people largely believed in God precisely because it explained things like death, and plagues, and weather, and droughts, etc. Anyone 2000 years ago who wanted to know why their crops weren’t growing looked only to the priest or oracle for explanations. Speed it up 2000 years, and everything has a natural explanation, which is a recent phenomenon. Even belief in God and Christianity can be naturally explained via psychology affected by genetics and how one was raised. That said, any rationally minded person will follow Occam’s razor and simply say God is no longer necessary to explain anything in the world.

    It’s true that this does not make the existence of God any less, but it puts belief in God closer and closer to the equivalent of believing that there are one hundred pink elephants walking around Manhattan. They’re invisible, undetectable, but you can’t prove they’re not there.

    I’ve read the Bible, and last I checked, it supports a geocentric universe, a 6,000 year old earth, and actual creation of all life in less than a week’s time. Anyone who professes these views today are generally considered extremely ignorant. Also, having taken enough biology classes in my time, I can honestly say that nothing in biology makes any sense without the theory of evolution.

    In this day and age, it is the job of the theist to bring forth hard evidence of their propositions, and not just merely criticize the theories of others.


    — Booboo    Jul 31, 12:03 PM    #
  3. The statement that science has overturned the idea that the universe is not eternal, is factual false.

    On the contrary, we have extended our view of the dynamics of the universe, and have concluded that even the universe shows signs of grand scale development, which lead to the Big Bang theory.

    The BBT is not a theory of the ultimate origin of the universe, but how in the last 13.7 billions of years the universe developed.

    The question of ‘what happened before’ is something that is under investigation and not completely settled.


    Rob    Jul 24, 08:24 AM    #
  4. The time of christians letting them frame the argument in their favor is over. Good article. Here are a couple of resources for the future.http://www.frame-poythress.org/Poythress_books/NAllPoythressRedeemingScience20061017.pdf http://www.isnature.org/Files/Cartwright_No_God_No_Laws_draft.pdf http://www.naturaltheology.org/Scientific%20Law%20and%20the%20Attributes%20of%20God%20-%20DC%20Watts.pdf


    Darl    Dec 5, 10:10 AM    #
  5. Naturalistic explanations have very little to say about the existence of God. We previously knew very little about the mechanics of the universe. Now we know more and things are more complex; so what? There are still things outside the known universe that are required to make the universe work as science demonstrates it does. So naturalistic explanations have not replaced supernatural explanations at all. The entire argument is false and only works if you take a ridiculously narrow view of the term “explanation”. The main problem with Evolution Science is that, unlike all other branches of science, it refuses to accept that there are factors outside the known ones that are at play, despite overwhelming evidence. This is because most current views of Evolution are based on atheistic religious beliefs and dogma and this explains why most Darwinists overreact as they do. They are not being scientific but are really just atheistic zealots and are no better than than the religious zealots of the past. Correct science must allow the data to speak and follow where the evidence leads, whether it fits with our beliefs or not. This is the only way that evolution science is going to advance. Dogma, whether religious or otherwise has no part in proper scientific process.


    Michael    Dec 21, 01:10 PM    #
  6. Kyle,

    You said:

    “Nothing objective about the universe has actually changed, so there is no conceivable way that the existence of God could actually be objectively more or less probable.”

    This is obviously true. God’s existence is independent of our thoughts, feelings, or musings. However, the AHS deals with the epistemic probability of the existence of God – that is, whether or not God exists based on what we know. Thus, based on our knowledge (assuming that the second premise is correct), we can infer that supernaturalistic explanations will eventually be replaced by naturalistic ones. Here is another way to think of it: every day that you have lived so far, the sun has risen. While we cannot prove with complete certainty that the sun may rise tomorrow (the sunrise problem), we can logically infer that it most likely will. The same can be said for this argument. I’m not sure if I am being clear enough, so feel free to criticize my views and clarify yours.

    Midas Vuik


    Midas Vuik    Jul 25, 08:41 AM    #
  7. I think you mean “shrunken” and not “shrinken”.

    Another good article. Thank you.


    Sean D    Nov 19, 05:15 AM    #
  8. I feel as if, even if naturalistic explanations are given, our very low understanding of just exactly how God works makes it very possible that God himself is behind all of these natural occurances. God, or any intelligent entity that could have over saw Creation, could have designed everything to work precisely how it does. The main subject I have in mind is the weather. The science behind precipitation is so simple and widely accepted that it is taught to elementary school children. I too accept it. But who is to say that although the science takes place, God is not actively causing that particular event to happen. As far as we know, something created man, and man created Math and Science. Man was made clever enough to see the process behind what takes place, but it doesn’t refute the fact that God could still be behind it.


    Connor    Apr 1, 08:17 PM    #
  9. I don’t think there’s any merit in inventing a meaningless syllogism, demonstrating it false and declaring victory. It can be viewed as a strawman.

    It’s an observation of history how supernatural claims about natural phenomena give way to natural explanations and god’s supposed direct involvement demonstrated false.

    It’s not an argument against religion, it’s a reason to be skeptical of it. There are countless examples of phenomena demonstrated to have natural explanations, there are no examples of phenomena having supernatural explanations. Therefore be skeptical.

    “However, whether or not it is true that God’s supposed sphere of direct influence has shrinken, this is not any sort of evidence against His existence.”
    No, rather it’s evidence against a personal god, one outlined in the bible. The only god it’s not proof against is the deist god.

    “Obviously, the scientific community will never “officially” declare that the God hypothesis is the final solution to any given problem.”
    They would if it were demonstrably true, and the first scientist to do so would be rich beyond his years with prize and research funding money.

    “Spontaneous Generation”
    The hypothesis of spontaneous generation of life was refuted hundreds of years ago BY SCIENCE. This was a time when atheism wasn’t even common. I’m not sure how you figure this is relevant. As for abiogenesis:

    “In fact, it is hard to imagine any possible finding on the origin of life, other than the tremendous complexity of the “simplest” organisms, that would more effectively bolster theism.”
    The simplest organisms today are complex. They’re complex because they’ve evolved for the past 3 billion years to survive. The earliest forms of life wouldn’t be complex because they wouldn’t need to be nor would they be fully alive (similar to viruses). Abiogenesis predicts that in a period of hundreds of millions of years at the bottom of the soupy hot oceans of primordial earth, at some time, a molecule, a particular complex chain of amino acids, a carbon compound developed (like with the Miller Urey experiment which created a great deal of complex carbon compounds) that could replicate itself. That’s all that would need to exist to eventually mutate with successive replications for its eventual progeny to become the early forms of life.

    Nowhere in the origin of life is there any hint of necessary involvement of a god, and therefore no evidence of one.

    “Atheists, naturally, must account for the universe’s existence.”
    No we don’t. We don’t profess to know things we cannot know. Which is why we don’t pretend to know why the universe is here, or that there must be a god or that god made the universe for x reason. Only theists like yourself pretend to know things they cannot. Atheism is the admitting of ignorance, a principle of admitting limitations, it’s not a religion where theists make it up as they go along and pretend that’s somehow virtuous.

    “scientific finds have overturned the notion of an eternal universe.”
    Again this is irrelevant and very old science.

    “This has left atheists with much more difficulty in explaining the origin of the universe.”
    It’s not our job to prove nowhere can there be any involvement for a god because we’re not the ones making the claim. The burden of proof lies on the shoulders of the theist claiming a god is responsible for X Y and Z. We just are not swayed by theist attempts to justify themselves. Go look up Russell’s Teapot and see why it’s unreasonable to think we have to explain everything.

    “Thus, we see once again science vindicating theistic hypothesis and leaving naturalists with a tough hill to climb.”
    Not really. If we suppose the universe is designed, by looking at what it does, then we ought to say it’s designed not for life (it’s very hard to find life anywhere in the universe) but blackholes. The efficiency at which it makes life would make the universe the worst designed thing imaginable, that only seems to manage its purpose by accident. Whereas it is incredibly efficient at making blackholes and voids.

    “However, the extent of evolution’s alliance with atheism may not be as impressive as some nontheists would have one believe.”
    It should be pointed out that an atheist need not any tool or weapon or friend in order have the stronger stance. Theism claims alot, and justify these claims with misdirection, logical fallacy, strawman and threat. As long as theism has no demonstrated merit, Occam’s Razor is swift and decisive in discarding theism. Theism has never been needed to explain anything, it didn’t even need to explain life before Charles Darwin. The association of evolution and atheism is merely because it, more than any other theory, rattled the cage of the churchgoer. Up until then, most people made theistic presumptions, having never looked at evidence before. Evolution was a very visible example of how theism wasn’t needed or demonstrable.

    “After all, on the assumption that atheism is true, it seems much more likely that evolution would only have resulted in simple life forms. Since evolution has no goal, it is not true that there is any sort of motivation for evolutionary processes to create complex, sentient, and self-aware beings like homo sapiens.”
    That is the most preposterous thing you’ve yet said. Natural Selection, if you understood it, IS why things get more complex. When an organism is more suited to its environment than its peers, the likelihood that it has more offspring than its peers increases proportionately, producing more, well-suited progeny. The resultant ebb and flow of genetics over millennia make creatures with more arbitrary and over complex and redundant genomes. This is a point to stress. Complexity is not by itself a sign of design, rather complexity without arbitrariness and redundancy is a sign of design. Yet these are things seen to make up the majority of evolutionary history of any organism. Natural selection is a reactionary force guiding evolution – there is no need for any motivation.

    “Whatever the case, I have absolutely no problem with acknowledging that the weather is, for the most part, a natural phenomenon. Such is certainly compatible with a rational creator who created a rational world.”
    This, more than anything, is why you’re not really a skeptic, merely clinging to the title in hopes of some intellectual respect. Like I’ve said before, there are abundant instances where natural explanations are demonstrated and supernatural ones thrown out. So much so that we only have a long list of natural explanations and not one supernatural one. This is why we should be skeptical, because we’ve found that the world has a tendency to be naturalistic, perhaps only naturalistic, but we’ve yet to see that it must even be a little bit supernatural. You believe in the biblical god in spite of what any evidence says. You are not a skeptic.


    Mike Wolfe    Jun 30, 07:45 PM    #
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