Two meanings of science

John Wilkins makes an argument that, predictably, I have to take issue with:

several things mitigate against theism from the scientific domain.

One is that if you have a purely physical explanation for an outcome X, then the explanatory role for god in producing X is no longer necessary. For example, we do not need to appeal to God’s actions to produce babies in explaining fetal development from a fertilized zygote. A purely physical account is all that we require. This is the Excluded God from the Gaps argument. Once a gap has been filled by knowledge, God is not needed.

I could point out that it’s unfair to identify theism with “The God in the Gaps”, as Wilkins is clearly doing, but refutations of the claim that the two are identical are easy to find, or even think up oneself (I’m pretty sure Wilkins himself knows a few) so I won’t dwell on the point. I’m more interested now in a tension in the argument simply as given. The initial consequence is quite true: “if there is a purely physical explanation of X, then one need not invoke God to explain X.” The truth of the consequence rests on the truth that to give a purely physical explanation/cause would not give a divine explanation/cause. But then why not simply say that these causes or explanations belong to different sciences of X? There is no problem with one thing giving rise to multiple sciences: if your X is a human being, it can give rise to human anatomy, anthropology, sociology, etc. Again, you can study this “X” that is a man as a physicist (study his mass, gravitational effects, etc) as a chemist (consider his elements) as a biologist (study his genes/ genome/ evolutionary story, etc.) as a theologian (consider his order to God) or in many other ways. The human mind isn’t the sort of thing that can exhaust any X with one and only one science, or any one set of causes.

Briefly, “science” means either

a.) the search for physical causes/ explanations of X, and/or the method appropriate to this.

b.) any rational, objective, systematic, and methodological exposition or analysis of a given X.

Wilkins’s argument shows that theism is excluded from science in the first sense, but not in the second. In other words, he shows that a method that seeks only physical causes seeks only physical causes.


  1. Brandon said,

    June 28, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    I think you’re right here; the claim, which seems to be substantive at first, turns out to be trivial. If you actually have a purely physical explanation of X, you’ve explained X without invoking God. But this is so trivial as only to be relevant if one assumes that any view allowing distinct levels of analysis is wrong, whether it be scholastic or Whewellian (first induction vs. second induction) or Duhemian (positive description vs. metaphysical explanation) or pluralist.

    I wonder if the problem is also related to the odd argument, increasingly common, that there must be something to naturalism because science uses naturalistic explanations; when what they mean (when you look more closely) is not that science uses naturalistic explanations (explaining natural phenomena on naturalistic assumptions) but that it uses natural ones (explaining natural phenomena by natural principles), which is not at all the same thing. Virtually everyone accepts natural explanations as legitimate, although some people unnecessarily restrict them, but this commits none of them to accepting naturalistic claims, which are about legitimate explanation in general. One might as well say that we should all be positivists because scientists really do propose the theories positivists think are the only viable ones; there’s an illicit conversion of an A proposition hidden in there.

    • June 29, 2010 at 9:57 am

      I remember that natural/ naturalist distinction from your dashed off thoughts; and I always wanted to steal the idea. Every time I tried to, however, I just used the same words- and what art is there in that?

      Another option, which I think is false but not obviously false, is that you could just say that there is no reason for “science” to give purely natural accounts. The ID/ fine tuning/ crowd are pretty adamant that not every cause given in natural science must be itself natural; and I talk to philosophers and scientists with some frequency who are convinced that scientific findings show something divine (a sample of opinions I’ve heard: “things flashing in from a quantum vacuum show the divine ubiquity” or “the conservation/ quantum coherence of energy show the soul is immortal” or “relativity shows the possibility of an existence transcending time” or “the measurement problem shows that reality is an emanation from mind”)

      At the very least, it’s not obvious that there could never be some experimental data that wasn’t best interpreted as evidence for divine or spiritual reality. For example, there’s been a fair amount of scientific analysis of the Shroud of Turin or the Tilma of Our Lady. Again, if we do a perfectly scientific study of the effects of Lourdes on various sick persons, I don’t see how we could know even before we start collecting data that the best explanation of it will be a purely natural cause.

  2. Edward said,

    June 29, 2010 at 7:43 am

    Isn’t this also question begging? For a Thomist, for instance, nothing can be properly explained without reference to God if the objective is to have a completely comprehensive explanation of anything that isn’t God. Therefore, whether something can have a purely physical explanation for itself seems to be precisely what is in question.

    Also, the argument present a straw man argument to certain degree as well. I have never read anything authoritative in the Christian tradition that says we must forfeit natural causes if God is to have any room at all in an explanation. I have read no authority that says explanations must be either natural or supernatural, but never both. But what theist denies that the fetal development process holds explanatory power for a baby?

    • June 29, 2010 at 9:26 am

      I have read no authority that says explanations must be either natural or supernatural, but never both.

      Read Luther and Calvin. Charles Morerod shows, to my mind demonstratively, that this kind of claim is at the heart of the Reformation. If God forgives sins, then what does the priest do? If man can act freely, what need does he have for God? The simplicity of the Reformation relies heavily on doing away with any concurrence of causes, co-operation, or order of transcendence. So far as this characterizes modern philosophy, science, and politics, then all these are just the Reformation carried on by other means.

    • June 29, 2010 at 10:22 am

      In the first draft of this post, I wanted to say JW was question begging. It’s hard to see how in the world he can get to his conclusion that there is an opposition between theism and science without assuming that a theist account isn’t a scientific one (another line of approach, untaken, was to notice that there are immense category problems in trying to compare “theism” which is a belief or a (material) conclusion or principle; with “science” which is a certain means or method, and neither a principle nor (materially) a conclusion. If we really compared apples to apples here, the problem might well vanish, since we would have to compare “science” to either revelation or metaphysics.)

      I decided against the question begging critique since there is a valid sense of “science” which means “giving natural as opposed to supernatural accounts”. JW is more really just arguing from this definition. But it’s an extremely limited argument, since of itself it can’t even rule out the possibility that our knowledge of God is more rational, objective, systematic, certain, or even testable and confirmable.

  3. Edward said,

    June 29, 2010 at 11:37 am

    The point, though, is that none of these supposed chasms between science and religion (Christianity) or theism in general rest on anything other than the assumption that they do, in fact, exist. What you did in your post was expose the fact that, at bottom, the author offered no actual argument. He just wrapped his bias in rhetoric. Again, no Thomist would hold that natural explanations were not needed, only that they were not the most fundamental or ultimate explanations. To simply define him (our Thomist) out of the argument is to not take his actual position seriously.

    But even if I were to be generous, didn’t St. Thomas already articulate his point in the first objection to the existence of God?

  4. Gagdad Bob said,

    June 30, 2010 at 4:43 am

    I would just say that “a purely physical explanation” is a contradiction in terms, being that an explanation is a not a physical thing. And if it’s a true explanation, forget about it.

    And what’s Edward Said doing here of all places?

    • Ilíon said,

      July 4, 2010 at 4:18 am

      When “the natural” is understood (or defined) in terms of ‘naturalism,’ then the human person is easily seen to be “supernatural” — which is a rather odd development — for the fullnes of the human person simply cannot be fitted into the box of “the natural” as so understood (or defined).

  5. X-Cathedra said,

    June 30, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Bob: that is priceless!

    Presumed naturalism is, to my mind, like one of the most elusive serial killers: blending into scientific discourse, going undetected for decades, yet managing to murder so many thoughts and arguments

    Pax Christi,

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