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.”

De-centring the Scientific Revolution, Paley’s Natural Theology, Mobilizing a Prophetic Newton, and Maxwell’s Design Argument

I still have several articles open on my pdf reader that are worth mentioning before I officially end my reading of The British Journal for the History of Science, and before tackling other articles from other journals and books.

In discussions over the historiography of the “Scientific Revolution,” almost all the authors I have recently read have mentioned Andrew Cunningham and Perry Williams’ “De-centring the ‘big picture’: The Origins of Modern Science and the Modern Origins of Science” (1993). They argue that a big picture of the history of science cannot be avoided, and that “big pictures are both necessary and desirable.” Indeed, the “big picture” is crucial, if not necessary, for giving any localized, “small picture” meaning. But in saying this, Cunningham and Williams also want to expose and reconstruct the aims of the founders of the “old big picture” of the history of science (Herbert Butterfield and his followers), which maintained that “science…[is as] old as humanity itself.” This was a single, grand, and sweeping history of science.

Without usurping this “old big picture,” Cunningham and Williams want to promote a different account, one that emphasizes the idea that our world is fragmented into a plurality of local, autonomous discourses, and based on principles of postmodernism and poststructualism. They then rehearse the problems which have arisen with the concept of the “Scientific Revolution” since Butterfield. Modern notions of the scientific revolution derive from conceptions of science in the early and mid-twentieth century, including positivist definition of “science as a particular method of enquiry” that produces “knowledge in the form of general causal laws”; as essentially moral, “as the embodiment of basic values of freedom and rationality, truth and goodness”; and as a “universal human enterprise,” which emanates from some innate, human curiosity. In the 1940s, historians of science incorporated these characterizations of science as they developed the concept of the scientific revolution. In short, they projected their own contemporary definitions of science onto past.

According to Cunningham and Williams, such a view of the “Scientific Revolution” is no longer tenable. The “new big picture,” they argue, should view science as a contingent enterprise reflecting the aims and morals of a particular social group in a particular historical time; one among a plurality of ways of knowing the world, it must be seen as limited, bounded in time and space and culture. In their estimation, the origins of science “can be located in Western Europe in the period sometimes known as the Age of Revolutions—approximately 1760-1848.” “Every feature which is regarded as essential and definitional of the enterprise of science,” they write, is identifiable during the Age of Revolutions: “its name, its aim, its values, and its history.” On this view, “the history of science becomes a relatively short and local matter.” This realization, they maintain, is “de-centring,” in the sense that we realize “that external objects have permanence, that other people can have different knowledge, interests, feelings, and so on.” It is a shedding of egotism. “To see science as a contingent and recently-invented activity is to make such a de-centring, and to acknowledge that things about our primary way-of-knowing which we once thought were universal are actually specific to our modern capitalistic, industrial world.”

For those interested in the history of the publication, teaching, reception, and use of natural theology in the nineteenth century, Aileen Fyfe’s essay “The Reception of William Paley’s Natural Theology in the University of Cambridge” (1997) is essential reading. Studying the examination papers of the University of Cambridge, contemporary memoirs, autobiographies and correspondences, reveals, Fyfe argues, that Paley’s Natural Theology (1802) was not a set text at the university in the early nineteenth century. “Theology proves to have been a relatively minor part of the formal curriculum, and natural theology played only a small role within that.”

Writing in his dedication page in Natural Theology, William Paley (1743-1805) maintained that three of his books contained “the evidences of Natural Religion, the evidences of Revealed Religion, and an account of the duties that result from both.” The most recent was his Natural Theology (1802), preceded by his A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794) and the Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785). By all measures, Natural Theology was a great success, going to “through fifteen editions in as many years, and while the print runs are not known, this suggests sales of around 15,000 copies.” Reviews from Edinburgh Review, Monthly Review, Monthly Magazine, and Churchman’s Magazine found it most agreeable, and some even “mentioned its educational potential.” Some reviewers from the Evangelical Magazine, however, worried that Natural Theology would lead readers to “dangerously conclude that no other religion [that is Scripture] is necessary to their eternal salvation.” English politician, philanthropist, and leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade, William Wilberforce (1759-1833) wrote in the Christian Observer that Paley’s assertions were “both untenable and unsafe…We are the more suspicious of the sentiment…because we recollect that it was made the ground of the theological system of [the noted deist and radical] Thomas Paine.” As Fyfe write, some “Evangelicals associated Paley’s work with deism…[and] with [the] radicalism after the French Revolution.”

Despite these criticism, Paley’s Natural Theology was immensely popular. Moreover, when Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) emerged, “natural theology did not suddenly end in 1859,” a point Jon H. Roberts cogently confirms in his entry in Ron Numbers’ (ed.) Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009). But as far as being a set text at Cambridge, Paley’s Natural Theology was not used. Natural theological questions “rarely occurred in university or college examination,” and thus natural theology never quite achieved “equality with revealed theology.” As Fyfe concludes, “natural theology did not have very much formal recognition in the mathematical University of Cambridge at a time when Evangelicalism was spreading and deism was threatening. It could have been recognized only as a defense for theology or as an implicit background assumption for the natural sciences.”

Those curious about “geographies of reading”—I stand convicted—may turn to David N. Livingstone’s corpus, particularly (but not most importantly) his “Science, Religion, and the Geography of Reading: Sir William Whitla and the Editorial Staging of Isaac Newton’s Writing on Biblical Prophecy” (2003). “Writings of eminent scientists,” Livingstone claims, “can be mobilized in the cause of local cultural wars.” And indeed they have.

Isaac Newton’s insistence that nature follows  mathematical laws, for example, was marshalled by seventeenth-century churchmen both to mount assaults on atheism and to curb radical inclinations towards religious enthusiasm. At the same time, the Newtonian system was also enlisted in contemporary debates about the role of the monarchy, the nature of the state and the constitution of the social order. In more recent times, American creationists have called upon the doctrines of earlier scientists as self-justification  for their own credo, while those inclined towards theistic evolution have likewise sought reinforcement from earlier advocates of a Christianized Darwinism.

These are tactics in the “attempt to create a suite of canonical scientific texts to serve the needs of some particular sensibilities.” In this way Livingstone wants to draw our attention “to the consumption sector of the scientific knowledge circuit, to the different ways texts were received in different localities and to the spaces in which theories were encountered and textual meaning made.” From Robert Chambers, Alexander von Humboldt, to Charles Darwin’s corpus, “the meaning of texts…shifts from place to place, and at a variety of different scales.”

Six years after his death, Isaac Newton’s commentary on the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation was published in 1733 as Observations upon Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John. In Two Parts. Nearly two hundred years after this first appearance, William Whitla, professor of Materia Medica at the Queen’s University of Belfast, in 1922 made Newton’s text available again to the reading public, under the title Sir Isaac Newton’s Daniel and the Apocalypse with an Introductory Study of the Nature and the Cause of Unbelief, of Miracles and Prophecy.

Whitla was fascinated with the prophetic writings of the Jewish prophets. He was also good friends with William Bramwell Booth, General of the Salvation Army, and dedicated the new book to him. Whitla wanted to use the book against those who were undermining the authority of the sacred text. Newton, who “in strong and childlike faith lent his mighty intellect to the study of this fascinating record.” As Livingstone puts it, “the aim was to muster biblical prophecy Newtonian-style in the conduct of current culture wars.” With the outbreak of the First World War, W.B. Yeats fearing the “reversal of Christian values,” and the 1920s “heresy trail of J. Ernest Davy in Northern Ireland, Whitla saw all these “ominous signs” as “an unmistakable mark of the ‘latter days’ which are to terminate the present dispensation.” Moreover, the “moral leprosy” of biblical critics was spreading “into the heart of the Church itself.” Whitla would use Newton to counter this European crisis.

Ironically Whitla did not “broadcast the fact that Newton had come to doubt the accuracy of the textus receptus of the New Testament”; and neither did he mention that Newton had rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Whitla also used Newton for anti-Catholic propaganda, re-staging Newton’s own anti-Catholicism, equating the Papacy with the “autocracy of the most satanic character.” Whitla thus valorized Newton’s text as a Protestant polemic. “All of this serves,” Livingstone concludes, “to underscore the salience of textual performance, spaces of reading and sites of reception in elucidating the dynamic geographies of scientific knowledge and religious belief.”

And finally, an intimate and complex relationship between religion and scientific practice is demonstrated in Matthew Stanley’s recent “By Design: James Clerk Maxwell and the Evangelical Unification of Science” (2012). Stanley argues that Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), known for his formulation of a set of equations that united electricity, magnetism, and optics into a consistent theory, “saw a deep theological significance in the unification of physical laws.” This search for unification was connected to Maxwell’s “particular evangelical religious views.”

Stanley also wants to compare and contrast Maxwell’s own design argument with Paley and those of the modern Intelligent Design (ID) theory. According to Stanley, “both Paley and [Michael] Behe [known for his molecular arguments of “irreducible complexity”] argue that a certain level of complexity could never be explained by naturalistic science, and thus the search for such explanations must stop.” Although Maxwell embraced claims of natural theology, “his evangelical religiosity gave him a rather different perspective.”

Maxwell believed that nature was like a book, with each element a manifestation of a deeper unifying principle. The connections between laws were a sign from above: “…the laws of nature are not mere arbitrary and unconnected decisions of Supreme Power, but that they form essential parts of one universal system, in which infinite Power serves only to reveal unsearchable Wisdom and eternal Truth.” The interrelationship of natural laws “was a way that God communicated His existence, and it was the unity of laws that revealed this communication.” Indeed, the “unity of nature was…guaranteed by theology.” Thus whereas “Paley emphasized complexity as the indicator of God’s hand, Maxwell emphasized unity.”

Stanley notes that Paley, Behe, and Maxwell would all agree that Darwinian evolution was not a reliable scientific theory. For his part, however, Maxwell argued that “Darwinian evolution relied on pre-existing variation, and thus perfectly uniform molecules could never have evolved.” His rejection of Darwinian evolution thus relied on his understanding of unity in nature, not complexity.

As a conservative evangelical Christian, Maxwell had specific notions about the nature of God. Victorian evangelicalism, Stanley tells us, was a “‘religion of the heart,’ with an emphasis on conversion, sin and grace, and moving away from the rationalizism of the Enlightenment in an attempt to resurrect the lost, primitive Church uncontaminated by human failings.” In the summer of 1853, Maxwell gained a newfound evangelical outlook. Maxwell wrote:

I maintain that all the evil influences that I can trace have been internal and not external, you know what I mean—that I have the capacity of being more wicked than any example that man could set me, and that if I escape, it is only by God’s grace helping me to get rid of myself, partially in science, more completely in society,—but not perfectly except by committing myself to God as the instrument of His will, not doubtfully, but in the certain hope that that Will will be plain enough at the proper time.

Divine grace, submission to God, Christology, and Scripture were constantly upon his mind, as his letters to friends and relatives show. From this evangelical perspective, Maxwell saw humanity as “fallen, sinful and fallible.” But “God gave humans the ability to see his actions,” if they would only “embrace Him fully.” Revelation was ultimately mysterious, but so was nature, according to Maxwell: “I have endeavoured to show that it is the peculiar function of physical science to lead us to the confines of the incomprehensible, and to bid us behold and receive it in faith, till such time as the mystery shall open.” In his inaugural lecture at Aberdeen in 1856, Maxwell clearly shows how his theology of nature was manifested in his physical science:

Is it not wonderful that man’s reason should be made a judge over God’s works, and should measure, and weigh, and calculate, and say at last ‘I understand I have discovered—It is right and true’…we see before us distinct physical truths to be discovered, and we are confident that these mysteries are an inheritance of knowledge, not revealed at once, lest we should become proud in knowledge, and despise patient inquiry, but so arranged that, as each new truth is unravelled it becomes a clear, well-established addition to science, quite free from the mystery which must still remain, to show that every atom of creation is unfathomable in its perfection. While we look down with awe into these unsearchable depths and treasure up with care what with our little line and plummet we can reach, we ought to admire the wisdom of Him who has arranged these mysteries that we find first that which we can understand at first and the rest in order so that it is possible for us to have an ever increasing stock of known truth concerning things whose nature is absolutely incomprehensible.

Stanley writes, “Maxwell’s God was a teacher who wanted his students to learn all the details of the world, which He organized in such a way as to help them in their studies.”