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Historical science and miracles

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Biblical creation provides a different way of doing historical science than the dominant paradigm in the academy today—methodological naturalism, the idea that only natural cases can be evoked for historical events, especially in so-called ‘prehistory’. Biblical creation appeals firstly to the biblical witness for historical information, and so must wrestle with the problem of using historical science methods in relation to events with miraculous elements, such as the Creation Week and Noah’s Flood. How do we relate that to any discussion with believers in methodological naturalism? Nickolas G. from Greece writes:

Your philosophical principles used to interpret physical phenomena are non naturalistic. That is understood and more than accepted.

My question though is on your creation evolution hypothesis. Why when presenting your case, you don’t stick on your principles, support them by presenting evidence and predictions of your model and explain your inductive reasoning like science does, but instead you insist to criticize and highlight the gaps in knowledge of the interpretations proposed by different philosophical principles.

The differences between philosophical principles of naturalism and theism/dualism are known. Different principles provide different interpretations.

But people are interested in the actual knowledge that a theoretical model can provide. The commercial applications that can be based upon a theory and the successful predictions and useful products that it can offer.

So is your approach pseudo philosophical and damaging your worldview?

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

First, I think there is room for misunderstanding even in calling our view a “hypothesis”. That frames the debate in too exclusively a ‘scientific’ light that is misleading. It would be better to call biblical creation a ‘framework of explanation’ rather than a ‘hypothesis’, for the simple fact that it’s not a discrete hypothesis about some specific phenomenon, but is a way of approaching the study of natural history. Think of it as a rival framework of historical explanation to methodological naturalism. Methodological naturalism restricts historical explanations to natural processes (but remains agnostic on the metaphysical principles that might undergird history), whereas biblical creation takes Scripture as the primary constraining factor governing how we interpret the physical phenomena in reconstructing the past. In biblical creation, natural process may constrain some explanations (a good example is the biblical Ice Age), but the applicability of such a principle is determined and delimited by the biblical witness. For more information, please see Deep time doesn’t make sense!, Biblical history and the role of science, and Cuvier’s analogy and its consequences: forensics vs testimony as historical evidence.

Second, you fault us for not presenting our case in the way “science” does. First, what is ‘science’? Second, why must we build our case the way scientists do? I recommend taking a look at Evidence for young-earth creationism and Whose god? The theological response to the god-of-the-gaps to see that it’s not that simple. Third, of course, we do refute other interpretations of the physical evidence, and the presuppositions such interpretations rest upon. That’s part of building a case for any claim—one must show how rival claims fail in order to show the explanatory superiority of one’s own view.

But now, to the real point—the so-called ‘god of the gaps’ objection. Do we invoke God to plug up holes in our understanding of how the world works? No. The origins debate is not even about how the world works; it’s about what happened in the past. But let’s consider a specific example in the biblical framework—say that we posit a supernatural cause for the mechanism of Noah’s Flood. Are we doing this simply because we have no other way to explain the event? No. It was not a catastrophe like those envisaged in evolutionary history—it was an engineered catastrophic event, not a random one; and one where God promised to maintain life afterwards (Genesis 8:22). Is that a teleological explanation? Certainly. Does it open the door for miracles? It sure does. But why is that a problem in our own framework? It is not an arbitrary ‘God of the gaps’ scenario—the Bible explicitly says that God caused the Flood, and that He promised to sustain life through it and after it. As such, there would be a special purpose for such special manipulation of the physical world in the unique circumstances of the Flood for God to keep His word to preserve life. Remember, the Bible is our starting point, not the ‘need’ for a non-miraculous explanation. See Flood models and biblical realism for more details.

Nonetheless, science and the uniformity of natural law can indeed alert us to the likelihood of intelligent agency. In other words, there can be a role for empirical anomalies to tell us at what points, and to a certain extent in what ways, God may have directly manipulated matter to produce His intended effects—in the context of events likely to involve miraculous elements for which we have independent testimony of in Scripture. In other words, we only expect such ‘empirical anomalies’ relating to physical effects produced in events like Creation Week and Noah’s Flood. See Biblical history and the role of science, Modern science in creationist thinking, and ‘Natural law’ in the Creation Week?

Besides, one must ask: at what point do “gaps in knowledge of the interpretations proposed by different philosophical principles” become facts that the rival view cannot explain? For instance, consider abiogenesis. There is no evidence for it. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada. Mηδέν. People only believe in it because they think there must be some ‘natural process’ explanation for how it arose. Any explanation that does not take the form of a series of natural cause-effect historical events is regarded as a non-explanation before the evidence is even considered. Their naturalistic philosophical principles constrain the explanations they think are possible. And then the creationist comes along and says—“well, not only is there no evidence for abiogenesis, but the technological sophistication of the cell makes our best computers look no better than rocks in comparison, and we know our computers were designed, so by simple ‘lesser to the greater’ reasoning we can infer that the best explanation for the origin of cellular life is design.” The cell is the fact in need of an origins explanation. There is no evidence that it arose through natural process. There is even powerful evidence that cellular life arising from abiotic materials is highly improbable. We have only ever seen the sort of specified complexity that cells exhibit arise through design (in man-made objects). What should we conclude? Should we follow the example of immunologist Scott Todd?

“Even if all the data point to an intelligent designer, such an hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic”1

(He’s talking about methodological naturalism, not metaphysical naturalism—just so we’re clear that I’m not misrepresenting him.) But what if the design explanation is true? Should we be barred from making that inference in science just because it runs afoul of methodological naturalism? Todd thinks a scientist can accept the design inference at the individual level: "Of course the scientist, as an individual, is free to embrace a reality that transcends naturalism.", which admittedly is a massive improvement over many evolutionists. But the design inference is only 'problematic' for science at this juncture because of the unfamiliar and non-physical nature of the designer for life, not because the nature of the design inference is intrinsically anti-scientific (after all, if it was, it would render e.g. all archaeology and computer science completely non-scientific). But if we persist with the notion that science can’t make that inference because it’s wedded to methodological naturalism, then that’s a problem for science, not the design inference. And since there are also compelling philosophical reasons to reject naturalism (see also Defining arguments away—the distorted language of secularism, and our articles on atheism, agnosticism, and miracles), the design inference has ample philosophical justification, even if we have to limit science to the study of natural causes.

Finally, why think the commercial utility of a framework of explanation is relevant to its truth value? It’s certainly not for evolution: No sale for Darwin. The Newtonian framework of explanation was (and is) extremely lucrative, but it is not strictly speaking true. It approximates truth in ways that can be commercially capitalized on, but that still doesn’t make it true. Besides, biblical creation has a global Flood as a fulcrum for explaining the rock record. But how could we use that for commercial benefit? Noah’s Flood was not only radically non-actualistic,2 aspects of it were also likely supernaturally caused—how can such a fulcrum for explaining the rock record bear commercial fruit? Even if it could, it would require a far more comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of Noah’s Flood than we currently have to be of any commercially predictive use (for e.g. mineral exploration). Of course, approaching biological systems as products of design does indeed have great commercial benefit—the whole field of biomimetics is a testimony to this. Nonetheless, the primary benefit of biblical creation is not commercial, but explanatory—it explains simply, elegantly, and powerfully why we’re here, why the world is a mess, and where we and the world are going.

References and notes

  1. Todd, S., correspondence to Nature 401(6752):423, 30 September 1999. Return to text.
  2. Actualism is the idea that geological observations and patterns should be explained with reference to causes we actually observe. It is akin to uniformitarianism (‘the present is the key to understanding the past’) but it allows that several large catastrophes have occurred during the course of millions of years of Earth history. Return to text.
Todd, S., correspondence to Nature 401(6752):423, 30 September 1999.
Actualism is the idea that geological observations and patterns should be explained with reference to causes we actually observe. It is akin to uniformitarianism (‘the present is the key to understanding the past’) but it allows that several large catastrophes have occurred during the course of millions of years of Earth history.

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Readers’ comments
Fred B., Australia, 3 June 2016
This is an extremely well thought out and reasoned article. It would be interesting indeed, to learn of the response to such by Nickolas G. from Greece, if he in fact did so.
Phil M., Australia, 4 June 2016
I like your article, although not a fan of dividing science into ‘operational’ and ‘historical’ – for me science and history are simply two separate disciplines, with the sum total of science being what you call ‘operational science’. Distinguishing between ‘historical’ and ‘scientific’ – it is true ‘the cell is the fact in need of an origins explanation’. But don’t forget, for the atheist, they will always interpret the word ‘explanation’ to mean ‘SCIENTIFIC explanation’ when in fact you mean HISTORICAL explanation” and ‘SCIENTIFICALLY true’ when you mean “What if the design explanation is HISTORICALLY true?”. ‘Historical origins’ does not necessarily equate with ‘scientific origins’. Science itself does not say everything has to have a scientific origin. In fact it is impossible for science to prove that ‘historical origins’ necessarily equates with ‘scientific origins’. ‘Process’ is a term commonly used in science. ‘Event' is a term commonly used in history. It is odd some scientists really think there must be a ‘natural process’ explanation for abiogenesis, knowing that natural processes are deterministic. The steps involved and their sequence, the intermediates, the final outcome(s) are all pre-determined. This is why we can consistently predict the outcome of a natural process. And we give them names e.g. metamorphosis, photosynthesis, etc. Now they must know there is no scientific process anywhere in nature that can convert abiogenic material into a biological cell (although having given it the process-sounding name of ‘abiogenesis’). At most, they can only talk of abiogenesis in terms of ‘historical events’ – multiple chance natural (pre)historical events, which, of course, can never be scientifically determined. Moreover the presence of chance negates determinism.
Shaun Doyle responds
Pushing further, as you suggest, would require calling for a redefinition of e.g. historical biology as 'history' rather than 'science'. But this is bound to be counterproductive. After all, what is it that links 'scientific biology' and 'historical biology' together in most people's minds as the science of biology? It's the subject matter; life (as a subset of the natural world). The aims and investigative methods used in different branches of biology are not typically considered when defining biology as a 'science'. But even if we define 'science' as 'the systematic study of the natural world', we still run into a problem: what about the 'human sciences' like sociology, psychology, and economics? Is it then wrong to call these disciplines 'sciences'? Some would say yes, and others no. Indeed, and this is one major reason why philosophers of science have found it so hard to define 'science' in a philosophically precise manner as little more than 'what scientists do'. Fundamentally, the problem is that there really is no such thing as a properly prescriptive definition of science; the term 'science' is descriptive. So, rather than forcing people to distinguish between 'science' and 'history' in every field they usually consider to be 'scientific', we think it's better to work as much as possible with popular conceptions of 'science' and make a heuristic distinction between 'operational' and 'historical' uses of 'science' so loosely defined.
Dan M., United States, 4 June 2016
Both the creationist and the evolutionary framework hypothesis is a matter of forensics when it comes to the observations. If you've ever seen the popular TV series CSI, you'll note they always come on the scene after the event being investigated. Yes, they use scientific methods to accumulate data but then they have to use their imagination to frame a hypothesis of events that explains the data well. The technicians might link a person to the crime based on the data acquired but the techs can never be 100% sure they are correct. Even if there is no doubt the person committed the crime, science cannot provide a motive. Ahha, The techs now have to immerse them selves into the HISTORICAL records to try to find motive to solidify their hypothesis to convince the jury. Without a signed confession, the investigators could never know the truth of the series of events. It's the same in the real world of origins. The naturalists have come up with all kinds of explanations for the observations but they must make sense and their explanations are full of gaps, fudge factors and assumptions. If you took this evidence into a court room the perpetrator would go free. A written confession would give them motive and sequence for the events. The bible is Gods confession to creationists, (not that he needs to confess to any wrong doing) of events in the past. The confession and the observations fit very well if you are willing to open your heart and mind to him. The Judeo-christian bible IS our written record of events and it makes sense if you give it a chance. Why else would the atheists attack it so vehemently. It is a spiritual war, (Eph 6:12).
Tony F., United Kingdom, 4 June 2016
Lovely article which explains creation science cogently. I do like the last paragraph sentence very much especially the final sentence. Excellent summary.
Brian M., United States, 6 June 2016
In 2009 an earthquake measuring 7.8 moved Australia 30 cm closer to New Zealand in a short time. This would have taken millions of years by a strictly evolutionist model. A scientific model that follows the logical progression of "If it occurs this way now, then it always occurred this way" is not only illogical, but unscientific.
Shaun Doyle responds
Actually, a movement of 30 cm according to linear rates of plate movement would be achievable in decades, not eons. But of course, long-agers extrapolate these sorts of rates over eons, and such drastic extrapolations are indeed problematic. (See CSI and evolution for more details).