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The Rule of Unity and Simplicity

Updated: Apr 9

Uniformitarianism and Ockham’s Razor


3MI Newsletter from April 5th, 2024


Human efforts are stifled by ill-conceived philosophy. Poor theological principles are responsible for the punishment of mankind. In a previous article, an author explored how the right belief in Divine Revelation could assist man with good philosophy. Nowhere has the philosophical errors had more catastrophic outcomes than the foundation of most contemporary sciences: uniformitarianism.


James Hutton, the Father of Modern Geology
James Hutton, the Father of Modern Geology

Honest scientists of goodwill can readily declare that this core principle that undergirds geology, evolutionary biology, and most cosmologies found in textbooks and popularly presented is patently false and erroneous. Authors such as Shea[1], Simpson[2], and Goodman[3] would discuss the problems of uniformitarianism. This concept, commonly attributed to James Hutton's work and popularized by Charles Lyell, contradicts the current standards of scientific experimentation[4]. Defenders of uniformitarianism might suggest that many authors have attacked a misrepresentation of terms that are used in the historical rather than the present understandings of methods in geology, biology, and cosmology.



Charles Lyell, Champion of Uniformitarianism
Charles Lyell, Champion of Uniformitarianism

Ultimately, any system of knowledge includes pre-existing assumptions, and any reliable scientist would point out these assumptions and declare that if the experiments are conducted and these assumptions are valid, then this hypothesis is corroborated. A theory, after all, is not a law. This agnostic view of science truly reflects many scientists’ dispositions towards their varying subjects.

Regrettably, amongst the generally scientifically illiterate public and those unhappy souls who view science as another religion, these theories are presented not merely as theories with their respective nuances and complexities, but as certain facts and indisputable natural laws. This leads to all sorts of illogical schizophrenic claims among the various high school and undergraduate textbooks; numerous educational programs and magazines. For instance, a basic understanding of the constant rate of the speed of light in a vacuum is presented to the student. However, the qualifier is important: in a vacuum. The claim is then made that light is affected by gravitational forces. Thus, it would stand to reason that lightspeed would be affected by the gravitational force of an object. Hence, as light travels past different massive objects in space with different gravitational forces it should slow[5]. These speed changes are then called “apparent” because the speed of light is “constant”. Even though there are competing theories and some experiments[6] would show speeds exceeding the speed of light, however, the pre-conception of uniformitarianism would argue to ignore this in cosmological formulations in the size of the universe and the distance between celestial objects.



What is uniformitarianism? There is no clear modern consensus on what uniformitarianism is. Each scientist seems to hold his definition of what uniformitarianism is or is not. Perhaps, agnostic science has loosened older more dogmatic definitions because of their inability to reconcile unreality with reality. A definition held only by oneself and in contradiction to others is not a usable or suitable definition at all. It seems that for this reason among academics, uniformitarianism has been shelved among historical oddities. Instead, simplicity has been preferred in a rudimentary application of Ockham’s Razor[7]. While the word uniformitarianism may not be used anymore and more present usages of the term seem to reflect that nature’s laws are constant and that these laws change in a constant manner as well, the idea that the term symbolized remains a part of many experimental and theoretical disciplines.

Even though scientists may acknowledge that this a priori may not be true, it is nevertheless, useful as experimentation can be conducted and predictable results can be found. Here lies another a priori of modern science. Truth does not matter as long as theoretical models possess utility or experimentation can be conducted. Cynics comment that truth does not secure funding. The usefulness of an idea becomes the judging factor. Of course, with Pontius Pilate, we may mutter ‘What is Truth?’. To this, the author says, Truth is the allocation of the mind to reality seen and unseen.


Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri (1871)
Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri (1871)

Sir Francis Bacon postulated that by using inductive reasoning one could form general principles from experiments[8]. This inductive methodology was in contrast to the deductive methodology made popular in the works of Aristotle and others. James Hutton took this method and applied it to the realm of geology. This led him to conclude that, “… we find no vestige of a beginning – no prospect of an end.”[9] For inductive reasoning to be a useful tool in studying the past one must conclude that present circumstances are consistent with past circumstances and that natural processes are uniform over time and space. To justify his experiments, Hutton developed the theory that came to be known as uniformitarianism. However, one can see how inductive methodology and uniformitarianism become a loop. If the present is the key to the past, then one must believe that natural processes are uniform for any experiments in inductive methodology to be useful. These experiments of inductive methodology then support the idea that natural processes are uniform as they must be because the present is the key to the past. This circular reasoning captures many.

James Hutton took inductive methodology and applied it to the discipline of natural history under the guise of the study of geology. From his observations, he induced certain hypotheses. Then stating that these natural forces were uniform throughout time and space, he extrapolated from this idea and reintroduced to the Western Christian imagination that the Earth was not 6000 years old, but rather to account for the slow processes which he observed that the Earth must be ages old. Thus, James Hutton reintroduced the notion of an old earth. Various experiments and observations using the same inductive reasoning and circular reasoning inspired by Bacon and Hume[10] would corroborate the thrust of his notions. Hutton would also follow the logical conclusions of uniformitarianism and apply the hypothesis to both biology and time. He concluded that small constant changes over time caused by breeding or environmental factors caused the great variation of creatures. He rejected the idea that this could cause new creatures to be created. With respect to time, Hutton inspired by his deist views saw Time as cyclical with no beginning or end, but constant recycling of permanent matter and energy. Later, Rudolf Clausius and Lord Kelvin’s second law of thermodynamics would contradict this hypothesis. Of course, to the agnostic scientist, the utility of uniformitarianism outweighs the need for such trifles as truth.

Charles Lyell was inspired by James Hutton by way of John Playfair’s summary of Hutton’s 2000+ page tome. Lyell re-presented and added to James Hutton’s model of uniformitarianism. He was the one who coined that “the present was the key to the past.” Lyell took the ideas of Hutton and presented them to a wide audience using his skills of rhetoric honed by his study and practice of law. Lyell was also influential on his friend, Charles Darwin. Darwin would take the principles of uniformitarianism and apply them to the discipline of biology in his work The Origins of Species.


Charles Darwin, the Face of Evolution
Charles Darwin, the Face of Evolution

“All inferences from experience suppose ... that the future will resemble the past”[11] spoke fellow Scotsman David Hume. This was a reiteration of Sir Francis Bacon’s inductive methodology which itself was an application of what is popularly referred to as Ockham’s Razor. But what if the simplest explanation is not the truth, it is only the most useful. Bad philosophy frustrates a man’s endeavors. This article has served as an introduction to uniformitarianism and the problem at hand. Later articles will demonstrate how this bad philosophy has led to bad natural science.


 

[1] James H. Shea; Twelve fallacies of uniformitarianism. Geology 1982;; 10 (9): 455–460.

[2] Simpson, G.G. (1970). Uniformitarianism. An Inquiry into Principle, Theory, and Method in Geohistory and Biohistory. In: Hecht, M.K., Steere, W.C. (eds) Essays in Evolution and Genetics in Honor of Theodosius Dobzhansky

[3] Goodman, Nelson. “Uniformity and Simplicity.” (1967).

[4] Taylor, Alexander. “Uniformitarianism.” The Foundation of Modern Geology, University of Illinois

[5] Will, Clifford M. Theory and Experiment in Gravitational Physics. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

[6] Dominguez, Alex. “Speed of Light No Longer the Limit.” ABC News, 7 Jan. 2006, abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=120095&page=1.

[8] Cajori, Florian. “The Baconian Method of Scientific Research.” The Scientific Monthly, vol. 20, no. 1, 1925, pp. 85–91.

[9] Magazine, Smithsonian. “The Blasphemous Geologist Who Rocked Our Understanding of Earth's Age.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 29 Aug. 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/father-modern-geology-youve-never-heard-180960203/.


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