Scientific Revolution Methodology
By: Jim Virkler
Skilled science philosophers and historians contribute to our understanding of seminal topics such as the Scientific Revolution. Robert Bishop is a Professor of Philosophy and History of Science from Wheaton College. His article “God and Methodological Naturalism in the Scientific Revolution and Beyond” appeared in the ASA Journal Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith (PSCF), March, 2013. His observations were insightful and fruitful on this important issue. We use many concepts from Dr. Bishop in this post.
The Scientific Revolution of the last four centuries is monumental. At the onset of the revolution scientists turned away from the mystical Aristotelian philosophy, in effect for nearly two millennia, to a modern scientific methodology. Early scientists “were united in their convictions that the ultimate goal was understanding what kind of creation God had made and how God was at work in and through creation.” The new methodology permitted startling advances in man’s knowledge of the natural world. The progress of our civilization began an unprecedented upswing. We owe much of that upswing to a revised outlook on metaphysical and theological reality together with astonishing progress in scientific discovery beginning with the onset of the Scientific Revolution.
There was little question whether scientific discoveries at that time supported the fact of God’s existence or his activity in the natural world at the beginning. Many scientists were devout Christians. Robert Boyle and other Scientific Revolution scientists acknowledged the creative activity of God and respected Bible truth. There was little conflict between interpretation of the Bible and science. Boyle recognized God’s workmanship. Viewing the wonders of the heavens he exclaimed, “How many are your works O Lord! In wisdom thou hast made them all” (Psalm 104:24). Boyle worked hard to diminish the long-standing dominance of Aristotelianism.
Boyle and other theistic scientists often focused on secondary causes to explain the wonders of the natural world. They were intent on declaring that science was governed by the laws of operation originally emplaced by God. Subsequently they investigated how the systems functioned. Robert Bishop writes “Boyle’s experimental approach to inquiry was a means for gathering as much information as possible about creation’s processes for the construction of ‘the most coherent interpretation of how the particulars of nature are connected into one grand cosmic mechanism.’”
Bishop further elaborates on secondary causes: “With respect to MN (methodological naturalism) Boyle argued that it was illegitimate to explain the operations of natural phenomena in terms of the actions of spiritual beings….. Without denying that God was the Creator, Sustainer, and Governor of the entirety of creation, Boyle sought to study and understand natural phenomena without intermeddling with supernatural mysteries.” Present day writers call this an effort to “understand natural phenomena on its own terms.” The term MN did not originate until centuries after Boyle, 1983 to be precise. In terms of recognition of “secondary causes” and “understanding natural phenomena on its own terms,” we do not object to the use of MN nor of crediting Robert Boyle as promoter of the MN concept.
The following link contains one of our blog’s previous discussions of MN, including when and where the MN term originated:
Lest our readers have become lost in an esoteric topic, we relate a humorous personal story related to MN. In one of my discussions on the topic of my view of naturalism, a friend wondered if there was a direct appeal to God for a divine miracle each time my auto mechanic used a wrench or screwdriver to repair my car. I replied that I possess plentiful naturalistic confidence that the laws originated by God for exerting productive energy on my automobile would apply until completion of the work. Therefore, I am a methodological naturalist. I do not perform or observe experiments and activities as if God does not exist.
Robert Boyle and many other early theistic scientists did not hesitate to credit God as the pre-existing Primary Cause.
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Jim Virkler, a retired New Jersey public school science educator, now devotes his time investigating the harmony of scientific discoveries and Christian faith. He and his wife, Eleanor, now reside in the mid-west near their children and grandchildren.