In my last post, I surveyed how a shift 600 years ago, away from believing in the reality of immaterial, universal qualities, to the belief that everything is concrete, particular, and located in space and time (nominalism), served as a key philosophical underpinning of the Scientific Revolution. If everything in creation (except God, angels, souls, etc.) is located in space and time, then it seems these are material and known empirically. That helped spur the development of modern science. However, it also raised serious issues for Christianity and the nature of reality.
In the early modern period, two other philosophical views arose to prominence. One was mechanical philosophy; we, and even the universe, are machines than function mechanistically. The second was atomism. Fundamentally, we are composed of atoms, which are the basic constituents of reality. Material qualities, such as size, shape, quantity, and location, became known as the objective, primary qualities. But, in light of the influence of Christianity and Aristotle, people still tended to think there are secondary qualities, such as colors, tastes, or odors. But, because these philosophies treated what’s real as material, these became regarded as subjective or just names we use (a nominalist view).
As results, Newton’s views developed along mechanistic lines, so God was needed only to start the initial machine. Indeed, if the universe is a machine and runs by natural laws, then those naturally lead to a deistic view of God. Plus, it suggests the universe is causally closed.
Moreover, the Puritans welcomed investigation into the orderliness of creation, since God is an orderly lawgiver. They embraced this 17th-century science. Likewise, evangelicals in the U.S. revered Francis Bacon’s inductive, scientific method. With the growth in prestige of science, they thought all disciplines, including theology, should be done scientifically. Bacon advocated that in science we should drop two of Aristotle’s four kinds of causes. He thought we should use material causes (the matter of which something is made) and efficient causes (what brings about an effect), but drop formal and final causes. These latter causes appealed to our essence and its related teleological goal, but as an atomist, Bacon had no place for such immaterial things. Instead, he focused on what we can know empirically, which was material.
With these kinds of views in place, scientists (e.g., Galileo, Boyle) used empirical methods to observe the created order. Through many discoveries, modern science developed and gained great prestige. But, it is important to notice that these empirical discoveries did not depend upon the truth of nominalism or mechanical atomism. If universals exist, there still could be an empirically knowable world with particular instances of colors, shapes, locations, etc. If creation includes essences, they still would be in their instances. For things like humans, we still could know what is empirically accessible about them, but that alone would not have anything to say against the existence of the soul. If the material aspects of the universe operate according to natural laws, that does not rule out in principle the existence of immaterial things, including such laws themselves. In other words, science with its empirical focus does not rule out the existence of immaterial realities. Rather, it was the wedding of science to these philosophies that served to undermine belief in what’s immaterial.
Notice also some implications of these philosophies. If we are mechanisms made of atoms, how can we have souls? If not, how can we have personal relationships, even with God? If creation operates according to mechanistic, natural laws, we would tend not to expect God to act miraculously today. Yet, that often seems to be Christians’ mindset today in the west. And, even though evangelicals in the U.S. held onto orthodox doctrines through the Civil War, nonetheless, by these views, they treated God as functionally deistic. All these implications themselves lead to a devastating, practical effect – we shouldn’t expect God to be intimate and personal with us (even though we may preach otherwise).
But, there were more factors that eroded the biblical expectation that God would be intimate with us. In the next post, I will look at another one.