The Principle of Uniformity and its Theological Foundations

According to John Herschel, Charles Lyell, and William Whewell, the concept of “uniformity” of nature is the defining feature of science. Nature’s “inflexible order,” its “uniform sequences  and laws,” led many nineteenth-century scientists to reject miracles and divine intervention. According to Lyell,

By degrees, many of the enigmas of the moral and physical world are explained, and, instead of being due to extrinsic and irregular causes, they are found to depend on fixed and invariable laws. The philosopher at last becomes convinced of the undeviating uniformity of secondary causes, and, guided by his faith in this principle, he determines the probability of accounts transmitted to him of former ages, on the ground of their being irreconcilable with the experience of more enlightened ages.

Herschel, Lyell, and Whewell opposed dogmatic restrictions on free scientific inquiry. By mid-century, scientists could envision a uniformity of nature that allowed for progressive development but ruled out divine agency. As Ron Numbers noted in his When Science & Christianity Meet (2003), “by the 1820s virtually all geologists, even those who invoked catastrophic events, were eschewing appeals to the supernatural.”

But this is not the whole story. Matthew Stanley’s paper, “The Uniformity of Natural Laws in Victorian Britain: Naturalism, Theism, and Scientific Practice,” published in Zygon in 2011, argues that “uniformity was an important part of both theistic and naturalistic worldviews” (my emphasis). More importantly, “the methodological practices of theistic and naturalistic scientists in the nineteenth century were effectively indistinguishable despite each group’s argument that uniformity was closely dependent on their worldview.”

Stanley’s defines “uniformity” succinctly as the “claim that the laws of nature are the same everywhere and everywhen in the universe” and that “those laws do not break down or lapse anywhere in time or space.” As modern scientists and philosophers argue, the key distinguishing factor of science is its “appeal to and reliance on law: blind, natural regularity.” In short, modern science would be impossible without the assumption of uniformity.

But must uniformity require naturalism—that is, must it necessarily exclude religion, theology, and supernatural considerations? According to Stanley, a historical perspective requires us to say, “No.” In Stanley’s account, here once again encounter Huxley and his acolytes, the Scientific Naturalists. These scientists “preached” the “strict exclusion of religion from scientific matters,” and portrayed themselves as “the vanguard of a truly modern and enlightened science.” They saw the uniformity of nature as warrant of their position. But according to Stanley, “uniformity was not an obvious ally for those hostile to religion.” Theistic scientists also embraced the principle of uniformity. Moreover, they were its original formulators. Indeed, throughout its history, science has been deeply implicated with metaphysical and religious presuppositions. The supposed demarcation between science and religion by the scientific naturalists was, as Stanley and so many other historians of science have shown, was philosophically charged.

In his paper Stanley discusses the significant overlap between “theistic and naturalistic thinking” during the nineteenth century. Beginning with Huxley and Tyndall and the scientific naturalists in general, Stanley shows that the rejection of divine intervention in favor of natural causes is the exact narrative this naturalistic coterie constructed to promote their own authority. From their point of view, “the uniformity of laws left no room for religion in science.”

However, theistic scientists “were in total agreement with the naturalists that uniformity was critical to the advance of science.” Herschel, Lyell, and Whewell, for example, promoted uniformity yet were deeply religious men. According to Herschel, writing when Huxley was still a child, uniformity is the “constant exercise of his [Divine Author] direct power in maintaining the system of nature, or the ultimate emanation of every energy which material agents exert from his immediate will, acting in conformity with his own laws.” Stanley writes (following Peter Harrison): “natural laws were seen as instances of divine fiat, and they were constant because God is consistent in his actions.”

This position was also taken up by Lord Kelvin, James Clerk Maxwell, William Carpenter, Frederick Temple, Baden Powell, and the Duke of Argyll, among others. Quoting scientist Hans Christian Oersted, Powell, for example, nicely summarizes the theistic scientist position on uniformity:

The progress of discovery continually produces fresh evidence that Nature acts according to eternal laws, and that these laws are constituted as the mandates of an infinite perfect reason; so that the friend of Nature lives in a constant rational contemplation of the Omnipresent Divinity…The laws of Nature are the thoughts of Nature; and these are the thoughts of God.

But what about miracles and creation? According to philosopher Micheal Ruse, “a miracle must be a violation of a natural law, and therefore, a violation of uniformity, and therefore, has nothing to do with science” (my emphasis). But Stanley argues that theistic scientists also agreed that “apparent violations of natural law were illusory.” Argyll maintained that “the maker of a miracle is not the presence of supernatural causes, but rather that it has its origin in divine intent.” Similarly, Temple argued that

Science will continue its progress, and as the thoughts of men become clearer it will be perpetually more plainly seen that nothing in Revelation really interferes with that progress. It will be seen that devout believers can observe, can cross-question nature, can look for uniformity and find it, with as keen an eye, with as active an imagination, with as sure a reasoning, as those who deny entirely all possibility of miracles and reject all Revelation on that account. The belief that God can work miracles and has worked them, has never yet obstructed the path of a single student of Science…

Indeed, the ultimate “miracle” was the ultimate violation of the law of uniformity: creation. And here we have both theistic and naturalistic scientists grappled—and mused—over the origin of matter and energy. As Stanley points out, Tyndall himself concluded that the origins of the universe “transcends” scientific understanding. “Both groups agreed,” writes Stanley, “the moment of the creation was not something to be discussed scientifically.”

So how did the scientific naturalists win? How was it that their views became orthodoxy? According to Stanley, they won because they “seized the means of production.” In brief, they were better self-promoters, better at putting themselves in the locales of scientific power, better at shaping the next generation of scientists than their predecessors. Although this argument is not entirely convincing, it has merit. The scientific naturalists were indeed relentless self-promoters and popularizers of science. But as Bernie Lightman has shown in his Victorian Popularizers of Science (2007), so were the theists.

Where Stanley’s argument rings most true is in the context of education. The scientific naturalists produced textbooks, lab manuals, gave lectures, taught courses, and much more. They inserted themselves in scientific societies and promoted educational reform, to be sure, but as Adrian Desmond has put it, with a “‘distinct ideological faction‘ that clearly marked off acceptable (naturalistic) from unacceptable (theistic) ways of thinking about science” (my emphasis).

They were also very effective at rewriting history. Huxley and his acolytes rewrote “the history of their discipline to erase the long tradition of theistic science,” reimagining the “past in order to support their vision for the future.” This was a slow and gradual process that met little resistance, for, as Stanley observes “the positions of the theistic scientists and the scientific naturalists were actually quite similar in terms of basic concepts such as the uniformity of nature.” Moreover, the scientific naturalists “coopted literary strategies associated with natural theological writings to promote a naturalistic cosmology.” Taking a page from Turner, Stanley concludes that the “victory of the scientific naturalists in removing theism from the expectations and parlance of the scientific community had little to do with how science was done and much more to do with attempting to secure better access to professional positions, resources, and cultural authority.” In the end, however, it is “damaging for scientists to insist on this false dichotomy, as it makes an unnecessary enemy of anyone with religious beliefs.”