Harrison - Natural Causes, Divine Action, and Scientific Explanation


Additional Information

Category Lecture
Speakers Harrison, Peter
Year 2014

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Respondent: Ignacio Silva

Scientific explanation is routinely understood to be governed by the principle of methodological naturalism, which excludes putative supernatural causes. This conception of naturalism is dependent on a distinction between natural and supernatural which in modern discussions is regarded as largely unproblematic. However, the natural-supernatural distinction has an important history that shows how interdependent these notions once were. In the past, ideas about the relative self-sufficiency of the natural realm typically relied upon deeper theological or metaphysical assumptions that could not themselves be established by naturalistic methods. In the Middle Ages, when the natural-supernatural distinction first emerged, divine action was an integral component of natural causation. Subsequently, during the scientific revolution, the introduction of the modern conception of laws of nature, understood as divine dictates, collapsed the natural-supernatural distinction, effectively erasing the notion of natural causes. This early modern effacing of any real distinction between natural and supernatural causation paradoxically laid the foundations for a modern science that would later be understood in purely naturalistic terms. Viewed historically, scientific naturalism is indebted to particular notions of divine action.

PETER HARRISON is Research Professor and Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland, Australia. Previously he was the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, where he was also Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre. He has published extensively in the area of intellectual history with a focus on the philosophical, scientific and religious thought of the early modern period, and on the historical relations between science and religion. His five books include, most recently, Wrestling with Nature: From Omens to Science (Chicago, 2011)—an edited collection that surveys conceptions of science from antiquity to the present—and The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (Cambridge, 2010). He has published over 70 articles and book chapters. His 2011 Gifford Lectures will be published next year by the University of Chicago Press under the title The Territories of Science and Religion. His current research focuses on conceptions of progress in history and the historical sciences.

IGNACIO SILVA is Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College and the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, University of Oxford, and member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion. His research focuses on the historical development of the notion of special divine action in relation to the natural sciences. His recent publications on the topic include “Revisiting Aquinas on Providence and Rising to the Challenge of Divine Action in Nature”, The Journal of Religion 94:3 (2014); “Great Minds Think (Almost) Alike: Thomas Aquinas and Alvin Plantinga on Divine Action in Nature”, Philosophia Reformata 79:1 (2014); “Thomas Aquinas Holds Fast: Objections to Aquinas within Today’s Debate on Divine Action”, The Heythrop Journal 54:4 (2013); and “John Polkinghorne on Divine Action: a Coherent Theological Evolution”, Science and Christian Belief 24:1 (2012). He has also recently edited the volume Latin American Perspectives on Science and Religion, Pickering and Chatto, 2014.