Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Under the Sun

It is, perhaps, part of the human condition to think our circumstances are unique; our problems never before faced. It's almost never true. Consider the following from Neal C. Gillespie's book, Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation. Gillespie notes, in connection with the change from the theological to the positivist view of nature:

What had separated the developing positive outlook from the traditional one, from its significant beginnings in the seventeenth century on, was not the idea that nature is predictable -- men had known that from neolithic times if not earlier -- but that nature must not be unpredictable. ...

This need for a nature that was predictably certain was the crux of the reaction against miracles that began in natural history with the nomothetic creationists [who believed God acted only through natural law] and came to full flower in positivism where it eventually led to the rejection of any divine role in natural processes or in scientific explanations of them. ...

[The] common idea, held by laymen as well as scientist, that miracles or supernatural interruptions of the order of nature were impossible, was part of the episteme shift represented by the Origin. The impossibility of miracles followed from the implicit metaphysics of positivism: the belief that all events are part of an inviolable web of natural, even material, causation. For [John] Tyndall such a simple prayer as one for good weather implied a rearranging of the forces of nature on a scale that would be miraculous if carried out. All prayers to interfere with the determined course of nature, he said, were prayers for miracles and, as such, were beyond the limits of the possible.
On the other hand:

To be sure, not all subscribed to the idea that miracles were simply impossible. Some, like Huxley, followed David Hume in denying that the so-called laws of nature were anything more than human conventions about the perceived regularity of phenomena and, by themselves, were no justification for rejecting a priori the possibility of preternatural events. For these, the occurrence of events out of the accustomed order of nature was not a matter of possibility but one of probability, of evidence. ...

One might have wondered, with Archbishop Manning (as told by R. H. Hutton), why, with all the emphasis on evidence, skeptics like Huxley did not investigate contemporary miracles where eyewitnesses and scientific evaluation were available. Manning meant Roman Catholic Lourdes, of course ...

To some extent, Huxley took his battles where he found them and, for the most part, he found them in scripture. But even if he had investigated modern miracles thoroughly, he certainly would have found nothing more than a confirmation that the event had happened-which, in theory, he was prepared to admit -- and no evidence at all that the event was supernaturally caused. "We can never," he wrote, "be in a position to set bounds to the possibilities of nature." And, continued [John Stuart] Mill,

if we do not already believe in supernatural agencies, no miracle can prove to us their existence. The miracle itself, considered merely as an extraordinary fact, may be satisfactorily certified by our senses or by testimony; but nothing can ever prove that it is a miracle: there is still another possible hypothesis, that of its being the result of some unknown natural cause. ...
Those who appealed to evidence, therefore, misrepresented the question by suggesting that evidence could settle it. But belief about the miraculous, one way or the other, required a prior belief, that is, an epistemic commitment. "The essential question of miracles," said Baden Powell,

stands quite apart from any consideration of testimony; the question would remain the same, if we had the evidence of our own senses to an alleged miracle, that is, to an extraordinary or inexplicable fact. It is not the mere fact, but the came or explanation of it, which is the point at issue.
Interpretations of such events, he went on, are governed by our preconceptions. A believer in the uniformity of nature would find, in the mere event, no reason to think it a supernatural intervention or miracle.'
There'll be a new sun before there are new arguments under one.


"There'll be a new sun before there are new arguments under one."

Looks like you've been reading Ecclesiastes!
Ah! ...

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

There is much that is true about humans in the Bible.
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