Richard Proctor, René Descartes, and NOMA

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Richard A. Proctor (1837–1888) was an English astronomer. While he made significant scientific contributions, Proctor is best known for his many popular level writings on astronomy. I’ve encountered many references to his works, and over the years, I’ve become intrigued by many of his publications. For instance, in 1877, Proctor proposed that some constellations may originally have been a memorial to the flood. His discussion indicated that Proctor took the flood narrative as a historical fact, and he even endorsed the Ussher date for the flood. Proctor and I have something else in common: we both took on the flat-earth movement. In his 1877 book, Myths and Marvels of Astronomy, Proctor devoted a dozen pages to Samuel Rowbotham and others promoting the notion that the earth was flat in the 19th century. This prompted William Carpenter to dedicate (perhaps mockingly so) his 1885 book, One Hundred Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe to Proctor, calling him “the greatest astronomer of the age.” Similarly, I have taken on the 21st-century flat-earth movement", though no flat-earther has yet dedicated a book to me (not that I would want that).

I found this interesting quote from Proctor’s 1889 book, Our Place Among Infinities:

So far as Science is concerned, the idea of a personal God is inconceivable, as are all the attributes which religion recognized in such a Being. On the other hand, it should be admitted as distinctly, that Science no more disproves the existence of infinite personal power or wisdom than she disproves the existence of infinite material energy (which on the contrary must be regarded as probable) or the existence of infinite space or time (which must be regarded as certain).1
He said the science could no more disprove the existence of an infinite personal God than it could disprove the existence of infinite material energy or the existence of infinite space or time.

Taken by itself, the first sentence is a bit jarring, as it seems to contradict the essence of what I had gleaned from Proctor’s beliefs as described above. However, the second sentence offers clarification. Proctor wasn’t saying that science leads to the conclusion there is no God. Rather, he was saying that science is limited, one of the limitations being that it can’t prove or disprove God’s existence. But notice how Proctor expressed this. He said the science could no more disprove the existence of an infinite personal God than it could disprove the existence of infinite material energy or the existence of infinite space or time. Proctor parenthetically expressed his belief that the former was probable, and the latter was certain.

In Proctor’s day, most scientists thought the universe was infinite and eternal. Hence, they thought the energy of the universe was infinite too. However, with the widespread acceptance of the big bang model a half-century ago, scientists mostly abandoned the belief that the universe is eternal, believing now that the universe has the finite age of 13.8 billion years. Regarding the answer to the questions of the universe and its energy being infinite, there is much disagreement. But many cosmologists are comfortable with a finite universe. So, it seems that Proctor’s assessment of the universe wasn’t so certain after all. I don’t judge him too harshly—Proctor was a product of his time. And the eternality and infinity of the universe were never demonstrated scientifically, but they were assumed going back at least to ancient Greece.

There is a potential problem in Proctor’s quote. It reminds me a bit of René Descartes’ approach to apologetics and philosophy. Many Christians dismiss Descartes as an evil influence based upon his famous statement “Cognito ergo sum” (“I think; therefore I am”) as the starting point of his philosophical system. The criticism is that Descartes allegedly started with man (himself), instead of God, which eventually led to humanism and no need of a Creator. But this was not Descartes’ intent. Descartes attempted to develop a system based upon the God of the Bible. He began with the conclusion that a benevolent, powerful God endowed man with intellect, reason, and a sensory system that enabled man to gain knowledge about the world through perception and deduction. From this, Descartes realized that his ability to think demonstrated his own existence. Unfortunately, later thinkers building on Descartes’ foundation began with Descartes’ deduction, not his starting principle that made his deduction possible. It was this misapplication of Cartesian philosophy that led to the practice of excluding God from so much of intellectual pursuit today, including science.

Probably, those who believe in NOMA would endorse the sentiment of both of Proctor’s sentences. However, there is a major flaw in how supporters of NOMA carry out their work.

Though Proctor didn’t mean it this way, his above quote easily could be interpreted within Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), that science and religion represent two entirely different realms that speak authoritatively within those realms. By itself, Proctor’s first sentence certainly appears to endorse the notion that God is unwelcome within a serious scientific discussion. And his second, clarifying sentence is a statement of some of the limitations of science. Probably, those who believe in NOMA would endorse the sentiment of both of Proctor’s sentences. However, there is a major flaw in how supporters of NOMA carry out their work. NOMA purports that neither science nor religion ought to trample on the realm of the other, and its supporters are very quick to point out what they see as examples of the trespass of religion into the domain of science. But the same people are very slow in citing examples of science invading the realm supposedly reserved for religion. Most supporters of NOMA can’t think of a single instance of this, because they haven’t spent any time pondering that possibility. Just one example of this invasion is the research attempting to prove a genetic link for homosexuality. The motivation of such research (and I use the term loosely) is to argue that homosexuality is genetically based and hence isn’t wrong at all. But morality is not a scientific question, as supporters of NOMA likely would agree. So, why don’t they call this out?

I think that Proctor’s choice of words in his quote was a bit poor and improperly reflects his attitude. So, despite this quote, I’m still a fan of Proctor. In recent years I’ve warmed up to Descartes as well as I’ve come to realize how much his work has been misunderstood. A future article setting the record straight on Descartes would be a good idea.

Footnotes

  1. Richard A. Proctor, 1889. Our Place Among Infinities. D. Appleton and Company, New York, pp. 2-3.

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