by Terry Scambray
Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
Science’s Blind Spot: The Unseen Religion of Scientific Naturalism by Cornelius Hunter. (Brazos Press, 2007)
Most people think that science and religion were entangled in the past, to the detriment of science, but that the modern, experimental science of the last 400 years with its reliance on natural explanations has eliminated any lingering religious influence. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Cornelius Hunter, writes in the opening pages of Science’s Blind Spot.
In the ensuing pages, Hunter, who has a PhD in biophysics and conducts molecular and engineering research, documents how the success of experimental science with its trial and error method is compromised when it is misapplied to other areas of study. For this misapplication entangles science once again with religion by forming a concoction he calls, “theological naturalism.”
Certainly the great success of experimental science in the last 400 years is due to its reliance on naturalistic explanations like the uniformity of nature and repeatable experiments. But when experimental science is conflated with the historical sciences or with the study of consciousness, as another example, then subjective beliefs can be smuggled in where experimental observation necessarily ends and conjecture must necessarily begin. And this happens because the study of origins deals with one-time, non-repeatable events from a deep past, just as studying human consciousness depends on the subjective responses of those whose minds are being studied.
As one example of this, the philosophy of naturalism is smuggled in when scientists argue that life could not have developed in the relatively short time available for its development; therefore, it must have come from space aliens. Or, as some cosmologists say, a la Carl Sagan, that “billions and billions” of universes, called multiverses, must have existed in order for natural processes to have created life in one of them.
Hunter argues that such speculations merely buy the time necessary for a naturalistic explanation to work. Little if any evidence exists for these conjectures, but they are called “science” because they fit the presumption that naturalistic, accidental forces are the only ones available. “Those committed to naturalistic explanations, like those committed to supernatural explanations, can always devise a theory to explain what we observe.”
This is “science’s blind spot.” And it will remain unless science frees itself from theological naturalism, the tacit religion of science.
Hunter uses Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes to trace back this entanglement of science with religion. Both were sanguine about the great potential of science, but they disagreed on the direction it should take.
Bacon believed in observation and investigation and is called the father of the experimental method. Recognizing man’s fallen nature and the power of religious ideas, he worried, however, that scientists would smuggle their biases in with their scientific findings.
Descartes believed that science should, in principle, be able to explain everything. Though its explanations may not always be accurate, he saw them as useful fictions which could inspire future scientists.
Bacon and Descartes foreshadow what is a continuing tension: Will science adhere to realistic descriptions? Or will it sacrifice realism for a complete picture of everything, knowing that the picture may be slanted toward whatever is the prevailing philosophy?
The importance of this book as well as Hunter’s two previous books,Darwin’s God and Darwin’s Proof, is that he explains the history of our prevailing but hidden philosophy, naturalism, and its influence on science.
Naturalism is not a discovery of science — it is a presupposition of science as currently practiced. It is a metaphysical assumption that arose over time in the history of ideas, motivated by several religious arguments. If these arguments are true, then all is well with the historical sciences, but we have no assurance of that.
Ironically, Hunter writes, naturalism arose not from atheists, but from 17th and 18th century theists who discovered a world more harmonious and beautiful than had been previously imagined, yet also more imperfect and grainy than had been previously realized.
As one prominent example of how naturalism arose, Hunter points to an Anglican cleric and geologist named Thomas Burnet who wrote the popular and influential Sacred Theory of the Earth which extolled the great beauty that he had discovered in the Alps. Yet he was disconcerted by the mountains’ “incredible confusion” and “ill figured” lack of symmetry.
“Burnet’s paradoxical observations would become commonplace,” and from this belief that the world looked designed yet was imperfect was born Deism, the idea of a distant, rationalist god who remains unsullied by contact with a corrupt world. Indeed, God was thought to be a “greater God,” Hunter says, if he could create and sustain the world from a distance, rather than degrade Himself by being a mere handyman, fixing his own bungled creation. As one 17th century cleric and natural philosopher wrote: “We think him a better Artist who makes the clock that strikes regularly at every hour rather than having to put his finger to it every hour to make it strike.”
Richard Lewontin, the Harvard geneticist, famously wrote that science, “in spite of the patent absurdity of its constructs and it’s just so stories,” nonetheless, has “a prior commitment” to materialistic, naturalistic explanations. Doing otherwise would “allow a Divine Foot in the door.”
Cornelius Hunter apparently has news for Professor Lewontin. Not only is the Divine Foot in the abode of science, but the rest of him, at least a certain image of him, has been comfortably cohabitating on the premises for some time. And guess who unknowingly and sternly insists that he remain?
“Obstructed View” first appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity and is reprinted with permission.www.touchstonemag.com
Terry Scambray lives and writes in Fresno, California.