Experimental Method and God’s Voluntarism

From Nancy Pearcey, Charles Thaxton, The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy

p. 19 “In 1277 Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, issued a condemnation of several theses derived from Aristotelianism – that God could not allow any form of planetary motion other than circular, that He could not make a vacuum, and many more. The condemnation of 1277 helped inspire a form of theology known as voluntarism, which admitted no limitations on God’s power. It regarded natural law not as Forms inherent within nature but as divine commands imposed from outside nature. Voluntarism insisted that the structure of the universe – indeed, its very existence – is not rationally necessary but is contingent upon the free and transcendent will of God.”

One of the most important consequences of voluntarist theology for science is that it helped to inspire and justify an experimental methodology. For if God created freely rather than by logical necessity, then we cannot gain knowledge of it by logical deduction (which traces necessary connections). Instead, we have to go out and look, to observe and experiment. As Barbour puts it:

‘The world is orderly and dependable because God is trustworthy and not capricious; but the details of the world must be found by observation rather than rational deduction because God is free and did not have to create any particular kind of universe.’”

The book is a good overview of the science development as a fight between three different world views among Christians:

If Aristotelianism portrayed God as the Great Logician, and neo-Platonism as the Great Magus/Artisan, then mechanistic philosophy portrayed Him as the Great Mechanical Engineer.”

Nowadays God seems to be the Great Programmer.

A couple of quote to show that although the authors of the book use historical results, they do not completely agree with historians (this is a sign that historians have not been paid be the Church).

But the new approach harbors its own dangers. Historical sensitivity may give way to historical relativism, in which all cultures and beliefs are regarded as equally true or valid. When that happens, the study of history merges into historicism – the belief that there is no transhistorical truth and that all knowledge is caught up in a continual process of historical change.

Many scholars in the history, philosophy, and sociology of science today in fact display a marked tendency toward historicism. They dismiss the idea that science is a search for truth and instead reduce scientific theories to constructions of the intellectual, economic, or political conditions of a particular society and period. The history of science even has its enfants terribles, such as Paul Feyerabend, who go so far as to argue that the accumulation of knowledge we call science is a limited, culture-bound worldview not to be prized more highly than any other worldview, be it pagan myth or medieval witchcraft.”

Attention to the metaphysical and social context of scientific knowledge does not lead necessarily to reductionism or relativism. But the fact is that it often does. A study of the mystical neo-Platonic roots of a Bruno or a Copernicus can lead to a greater appreciation of the rich interconnectedness of human thought; but it can also be interpreted to mean that science is at its foundations nothing but mysticism in a new guise.”

Considering the relativistic, anti-Western, deconstructionist climate in American universities today, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the latter set of interpretations is fast becoming dominant.”

Interestingly enough that David Deutsch in his The Beginning of Infinity also strongly criticizes relativism. I was really surprised his Good vs. Bad (for example, he condemns Wittgenstein and logical positivism). In the book above, this seems to be logical but to hear something like this from David Deutsch was a surprise.

Let me quote The Soul of Science once more:

Old-fashioned realism, usually with a positivist flavor, has long been used in arguing that science is the only reliable source of truth. Religion is relegated to the realm of private feeling and experience. The newer historicism undermines claims to transcendent and universal truth — and hence likewise relegates Christianity to the realm of private opinion.”

Well, it could be that The enemy of my enemy …

Newton’s Principia and Existence of God

Roger Cotes, in his preface to the second edition of Newton’s Principia, wrote that the book ‘will be the safest protection against the attacks of atheists, and nowhere more surely than from this quiver can one draw forth missiles against the band of godless men.’”

The reason Newton felt free to avoid ultimate causes was, of course, that for him the ultimate cause was God. He viewed gravity as an active principle through which God Himself imposes order onto passive matter—as one of the avenues through which God exercises His immediate activity in creation. As Kaiser puts it, for Newton things like gravity ‘depended on God’s immediate presence and activity as much as the breathing of an organism depends on the life-principle within.’ Like breathing, these active powers were regular and natural, and yet they could not be explained in purely mechanical terms.”

A second way Newton found to ‘fit God in’ was in his concept of absolute time and space. From the mathematician Isaac Barrow, Newton adopted the idea that time and space are expressions of God’s own eternity and omnipresence. Newton took God’s eternity to mean He is actually extended throughout all time — in his words, God’s ‘duration reaches from eternity to eternity.’ He took God’s omnipresence to mean that He is extended throughout all space — His presence reaches ‘from infinity to infinity.’ Therefore time must be eternal and space infinite. Physics textbooks often describe Newton’s concepts of absolute space and time as purely metaphysical without explaining that his motivation was primarily religious.”

A third way Newton found a role for God in the world was as the source of its orderly structure. In the cosmic order, Newton saw evidence of intelligent design. ‘The main business’ of science, he said, is to argue backward along the chain of mechanical causes and effects ’till we come to the very first cause, which certainly is not mechanical.’ Newton also regarded several specific characteristics of the world as inexplicable except as the work of a Creator. ‘Was the eye contrived without skill in optics,’ he asked, ‘or the ear without knowledge of sounds?‘”

A fourth way Newton found a role for God was by assuming that the universe needs God’s intervention from time to time to stabilize it. For example, the orbits of the planets exhibit irregularities when they pass close to other planets or to comets. Newton feared that over time these fluctuations would accumulate and cause chaos, and the solar system would collapse. Therefore, he argued, God must step in periodically and set things right again. If the universe is a clock, then it is a clock that on occasion needs to be repaired and rebuilt.”