Philosophical Naturalism

Discussion in 'Science' started by Gup20, Mar 14, 2005.

  1. Gup20

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    May 11, 2004
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    Philosophical naturalism and the age of the earth: are they related?
    by Terry Mortenson

    This paper was published in
    The Master’s Seminary Journal (TMSJ) 15(1):71–92, Spring 2004

    A copy of TMSJ and information concerning subscriptions can be obtained by writing
    The Master’s Seminary Journal
    13248 Roscoe Blvd.
    Sun Valley, CA 91352

    Contemporary concern over the negative impact of theories of biological evolution is justified, but many Christians do not understand the stranglehold that philosophical naturalism has on geology and astronomy. The historical roots of philosophical naturalism reach back into the sixteenth century in the works of Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon. Evolutionary and naturalistic theories of the earth’s creation based on uniformitarian assumptions and advocating old-earth theories emerged in the late eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century, many Christians sought to harmonize biblical teaching with old-earth geological theories such as the gap theory and a tranquil or local Noachian flood. However, many evangelicals and High Churchmen still held to the literal view of Genesis 1–11. Two Enlightenment-generated philosophical movements in the eighteenth century, deism and atheism, elevated human reason to a place of supreme authority and took an anti-supernaturalistic view of the Bible, holding it to be just another human book. The two movements, with their advocacy of an old-earth and their effect on astronomy and geology, preceded Darwin and supplied him with millions of years needed for his naturalistic theory of the origin of living things. From this lineage it is clear that geology is not an unbiased, objective science and that old-earth theories, naturalism and uniformitarianism are inseparable. Intelligent-design arguments usually used to combat evolution fail to account for the Curse imposed by God in Genesis 3 and are therefore only partially effective. Intelligent-design advocates should recognize that the naturalism represented in evolutionary theories began much earlier than Darwin. A return to the Scriptures and their teaching of a young earth is the great need of the day.


    Many are concerned about the negative impact of evolution on today’s world. Some see the consequences in terms of moral and spiritual chaos in society and the church. Others see the damage that the brainwashing of evolution is causing in academic and intellectual arenas. They correctly argue that neo-Darwinism (or any related theory of biological evolution, such as ‘punctuated equilibrium theory’) is not pure science, but largely philosophical naturalism1 masquerading as scientific fact. Many such critics of evolution are part of what is called the ‘Intelligent Design’ (hereafter ID) movement. But many are also within the ‘young-earth creationist’ (hereafter YEC) movement.

    I strongly agree with and appreciate a great deal of what leaders in the ID movement are writing, not only about the scientific problems with all theories of biological evolution, but especially about the stranglehold that philosophical naturalism (hereafter simply ‘naturalism’) has on science.

    However, from my reading of ID books and articles and listening to lectures by some of those leaders, I do not think that they see clearly enough the extent to which science is dominated by naturalism. The reason for this observation is that many ID leaders have made oral or written statements something like this: ‘We are not going to deal with the question of the age of the earth because it is a divisive side issue. Instead we want to address the main issue, which is the control of science by naturalism.’2 The implication of such statements is that the age of the earth is unrelated to naturalism. Many Christians have not even considered the arguments for young-earth creationism because they think that the ID movement has the right view and is dealing with evolution correctly. But this disjunction of naturalism and the age of the earth is incorrect, as I hope to show.

    As I read their writings, the ID people do not seem to understand the historical roots of the philosophical control of science. Or, perhaps, they do not appear to have gone back far enough in their historical investigations. A closer look at history, especially the history of the idea of an old earth, provides abundant evidence that the originators of the idea of an old earth and old universe interpreted the physical evidence by using essentially naturalistic assumptions. Similarly, a closer look at the way modern old-earth geologists and old-universe cosmologists reason shows that both geology and astronomy are controlled by the same naturalism that dominates the biological sciences, and indeed nearly all of academia.

    I submit, therefore, that the age of the earth strikes at the very heart of naturalism’s control of science and that fighting naturalism only in the biological sciences amounts to fighting only one-third of the battle. Worse still, many of the people involved at the highest levels in the ID movement (e.g., Hugh Ross, Robert Newman, Walter Bradley) are not neutral regarding the age of the earth (as the recognized leader of the ID movement, Phillip Johnson, attempts to be), but are actively and strongly opposed to the young-earth view. Although the ID movement is fighting naturalism in biology, it is actually tolerating or even promoting naturalism in geology and astronomy—which is not a consistent strategy—thus undermining its potential effectiveness.

    I. Historical roots
    The idea of an old earth really began to take hold in science in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, before Darwin’s controversial theory appeared on the scene. Prior to this, in Europe and North America (where science was born and developed under the influence of Christianity and assumptions about physical reality were rooted firmly in the Bible), the dominant, majority view was that God created the world in six literal days about 6,000 years earlier and judged it with a global, catastrophic Flood. How, then, did the old-earth idea arise?

    Two important people in the sixteenth century greatly influenced the development of old-earth thinking at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Those two were Galileo Galilei and Sir Francis Bacon. As is well known, Galileo (1564–1642) was a proponent of Copernicus’s theory that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa. Initially the Roman Catholic Church leadership had no problem with this idea, but for various academic, political and ecclesiastical reasons, in 1633 the pope changed his mind and forced Galileo to recant his belief in heliocentricity on threat of excommunication. But eventually heliocentricity became generally accepted and with that many Christians absorbed two lessons from the so-called ‘Galileo affair.’ One was from a statement of Galileo himself. He wrote, ‘The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how heaven goes.’3 In other words, the Bible teaches theology and morality, but not astronomy or science. The other closely related lesson was that the church will make big mistakes if it tries to tell scientists what to believe about the world.4

    Galileo’s contemporary in England, Francis Bacon (1561–1626), was a politician and philosopher who significantly influenced the development of modern science. He emphasized observation and experimentation as the best method for gaining true knowledge about the world. He also insisted that theory should be built only on the foundation of a wealth of carefully collected data. But although Bacon wrote explicitly of his belief in a recent, literal six-day creation,5 he like Galileo insisted on not mixing the study of what he called the two books of God: creation and the Scriptures. He stated,

    But some of the moderns, however, have indulged in this folly, with such consummate carelessness, as to have endeavoured to found a natural philosophy on the first chapter of Genesis, the book of Job, and other passages of holy Scripture—‘seeking the dead among the living.’ And this folly is the more to be prevented and restrained, because, from the unsound admixture of things divine and human, there arises not merely a fantastic philosophy, but also a heretical religion.6

    As a result of the powerful influence of Galileo and Bacon, a strong bifurcation developed between the interpretation of creation (which became the task of scientists) and the interpretation of Scripture (which is the work of theologians and pastors). With the advent of the nineteenth century, the old-earth geologists, whether Christian or not, often referred to Bacon and Galileo’s dictums to silence the objections of the ‘scriptural geologists,’ a group of Christian clergy and scientists writing from about 1820 to 1850 who raised biblical, geological and philosophical arguments against old-earth theories and for the literal truth of Genesis—a literal six-day creation about 6,000 years ago and a global catastrophic Flood at the time of Noah, which they believed was responsible for most of the geological record.7 The warning of the old-earth proponents was powerful in its effect on the minds of the public. The message was that defenders of a literal interpretation of Genesis regarding Creation, Noah’s Flood and the age of the earth were repeating the same mistake the Roman Catholic Church made three centuries earlier in relation to the nature of the solar system. And just look at how that retarded the progress of science and exposed the church to ridicule, said the old-earth advocates.

    II. New theories about the history of creation
    In contrast to the long-standing young-earth creationist view, different histories of the earth began to be developed in the late eighteenth century, which were evolutionary and naturalistic in character. Three prominent French scientists were very influential in this regard. In 1778 Georges-Louis Comte de Buffon (1708–1788) postulated that the earth was the result of a collision between a comet and the sun and had gradually cooled from a molten lava state over at least 75,000 years (a figure based on his study of cooling metals).8 Buffon was probably a deist or possibly a secret atheist.9 Pierre Laplace (1749–1827), an open atheist, published his nebular hypothesis in 1796.10 He imagined that the solar system had naturally and gradually condensed from a gas cloud during a very long period of time. In his Zoological Philosophy of 1809, Jean Lamarck (1744-1829), who straddled the fence between deism and atheism,11 proposed a theory of biological evolution over long ages, with a mechanism known as the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

    New theories in geology were also being advocated at the turn of the nineteenth century as geology began to develop into a disciplined field of scientific study. Abraham Werner (1749–1817) was a German mineralogist and probably a deist.12 Although he published very little, his impact on geology was enormous, because many of the nineteenth century’s greatest geologists had been his students. He theorized that the strata of the earth had been precipitated chemically and mechanically from a slowly receding universal ocean. According to Werner’s unpublished writings, the earth was at least one million years old.13 His elegantly simple, oceanic theory was quickly rejected (because it just did not fit the facts), but the idea of an old earth remained with his students.

    The Scotsman, James Hutton (1726–1797), was trained in medicine but turned to farming for many years before eventually devoting his time to geology. In his Theory of the Earth, published in 1795, he proposed that the continents were gradually and continually being eroded into the ocean basins. These sediments were then gradually hardened and raised by the internal heat of the earth to form new continents, which would be eroded into the ocean again. With this slow cyclical process in mind, Hutton could see no evidence of a beginning to the earth, a view that precipitated the charge of atheism by many of his contemporaries, though he too was most likely a deist.14

    Neither Werner nor Hutton paid attention to the fossils in rocks. But another key person in the development of old-earth geological theories who did, was the Englishman, William Smith (1769–1839). He was a drainage engineer and surveyor and helped build canals all over England and Wales, which gave him much exposure to the strata and fossils. He is called the ‘Father of English Stratigraphy’ because he produced the first geological maps of England and Wales and developed the method of using fossils to assign relative dates to the strata.15 As a vague sort of theist16 he believed in many supernatural creation events and supernaturally induced floods over the course of much more time than indicated in the Bible.17

    The Frenchman, Georges Cuvier (1768–1832), was a famous comparative anatomist and paleontologist. Although he was a nominal Lutheran, recent research has shown that he was an irreverent deist.18 Because of his scientific stature, he was most influential in popularizing the catastrophist theory of earth history. By studying fossils found largely in the Paris Basin he believed that over the course of untold ages there had been at least four regional or nearly global catastrophic floods, the last of which probably was about 5,000 years ago.19 This obviously coincided with the date of Noah’s Flood, and some who endorsed Cuvier’s theory made this connection. However, in his published theory, Cuvier himself never explicitly equated his last catastrophe with Noah’s Flood.20

    Finally, Charles Lyell (1797–1875), a trained lawyer turned geologist and probably a deist (or Unitarian, which is essentially the same),21 began publishing his three-volume Principles of Geology in 1830. Building on Hutton’s uniformitarian ideas, Lyell insisted that the geological features of the earth can, and indeed must, be explained by slow gradual processes of erosion, sedimentation, earthquakes, volcanism, etc., operating at essentially the same average rate and power as observed today. By the 1840s his view became the ruling paradigm in geology. So, at the time of the scriptural geologists (ca. 1820–50), there were three views of earth history (see the chart at end of this article for a graphical comparison).

    It should be noted that two very influential geologists in England (and in the world) at this time were William Buckland (1784–1856) and Adam Sedgwick (1785–1873). Buckland became the head professor of geology at Oxford University in 1813 and Sedgwick gained the same position at Cambridge in 1818. Both were ordained Anglican clergy and both initially promoted old-earth catastrophism. But under the influence of Lyell they both converted to uniformitarianism with public recantations of their catastrophist views in the early 1830s. Buckland is often viewed as a defender of Noah’s Flood because of his 1823 book, Reliquiae Diluvianae. But this apparent defense of the Flood was actually a subtle attack on it, as scriptural geologists accurately perceived. Because of their powerful positions in academia and in the church, Sedgwick and Buckland led many Christians in the 1820s to accept the new geological theories about the history of the earth and to abandon their faith in the literal interpretation of Genesis and in the unique and geologically significant Noachian Flood.

    One more fact about geology at this time deserves mention. The world’s first scientific society devoted exclusively to geology was the London Geological Society (LGS), founded in 1807. From its inception, which was at a time when very little was known about the geological formations of the earth and the fossils in them, the LGS was controlled by the assumption that earth history is much older than and different from that presented in Genesis. And a few of its most powerful members were Anglican clergy. Not only was very little known about the geological features of the earth, but at that time there were no university degrees in geology and no professional geologists. Neither was seen until the 1830s and 1840s, which was long after the naturalistic idea of an old earth was firmly entrenched in the minds of those who controlled the geological societies, journals and university geology departments.

    III. Christian compromises with old-earth geological theories
    During the early nineteenth century many Christians made various attempts to harmonize these old-earth geological theories with the Bible. In 1804, the gap theory began to be propounded by the 24-year-old pastor, Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), who after his conversion to evangelicalism in 1811 became one of the leading Scottish evangelicals.22 It should be noted that Chalmers began teaching his gap theory before the world’s first geological society was formed (in London in 1807), and before Cuvier’s catastrophist theory appeared in French (1812) or in English (1813) and over two decades before Lyell’s theory was promoted (beginning in 1830). In part because of Chalmers’ powerful preaching and writing skills, the gap theory quickly became the most popular reinterpretation of Genesis among Christians for about the next half-century. However, the respected Anglican clergyman, George Stanley Faber (1773–1854), began advocating the day-age theory in 1823.23 This was not widely accepted by Christians, especially geologists, because of the obvious discord between the order of events in Genesis 1 and the order according to old-earth theory. The day-age view began to be more popular after Hugh Miller (1802–1856), the prominent Scottish geologist and evangelical friend of Chalmers, embraced and promoted it in the 1850s after abandoning the gap theory.24

    Also in the 1820s the evangelical Scottish zoologist, Rev. John Fleming (1785–1857), began arguing for a tranquil Noachian deluge25 (a view which Lyell also advocated, under Fleming’s influence). In the late 1830s the prominent evangelical Congregationalist theologian, John Pye Smith (1774–1851), advocated that Genesis 1–11 was describing a local creation and a local flood, both of which supposedly occurred in Mesopotamia.26 Then, as German liberal theology was beginning to spread in Britain in the 1830s, the view that Genesis is a myth, which conveys only theological and moral truths, started to become popular.

    So from all this it should be clear that by 1830, when Lyell published his uniformitarian theory, most geologists and much of the church already believed that the earth was much older than 6,000 years and that the Noachian Flood was not the cause of most of the geological record. Lyell is often given too much credit (or blame) for the church’s loss of faith in Genesis. In reality, most of the damage was done before Lyell, often by Christians who were otherwise quite biblical, and this compromise was made at a time when geologists knew very little about the rocks and fossils of the earth.

    Nevertheless, many evangelicals and High Churchmen still clung to the literal view of Genesis because it was exegetically the soundest interpretation. In fact, until about 1845 the majority of Bible commentaries on Genesis taught a recent six-day creation and a global catastrophic Flood.27 So in the early nineteenth century competing old-earth geological theories and competing old-earth interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis existed, and the scriptural geologists fought against all these theories and interpretations.

    (this is only a small portion of the whole article. Visit the following link for the full article)

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    May 8, 2002
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    Another huge copy and paste. So boring.

    There is a very interesting part there and the end of the copy and paste.

    "In reality, most of the damage was done before Lyell, often by Christians who were otherwise quite biblical."

    The findings that led to old earth theories were, according to your source, mostly Christians who held close to the Bible.

    Not by atheists with no care for " logic, or reason."

    Not by people who "have chosen [their] master, Satan."

    Not out of a "dogmatic religous zealousness."

    I am beginning to see why you cannot answer the questions posed on the other thread. If AIG has not discussed it, then it cannot be addressed. I have an overwhelming advantage in that I can go straight to the original sources and observations.

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