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CHARLES LYELL, UNIFORMITARIANISM, AND INTERPRETIVE PRINCIPLES

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Abstract.

I examine the development of Charles Lyell's principle of uniformity and its influence on the development of modern geology and biology and argue that distinguishing between philosophical starting points and empirical findings is essential for clarity in the discussion between science and religion. First, I explore Lyell's arguments against catastrophism and how these were both empirically and religiously motivated. I then consider how David Hume's empiricism, theory of causation, and rejection of miracles influenced Lyell. Using these insights, Lyell formulated his principle of uniformity, which he believed was based on current empirical findings, and rejected explanatory hypotheses that used the biblical Flood or other catastrophist accounts as violations of uniform causation and introductions of theological concepts into empirical science. I next examine the influence of Lyell's principle on Charles Darwin. Although Lyell opposed Darwinism for most of his life, Darwin relied heavily on Lyell, as is evidenced by references throughout The Origin of Species. I contend that the most important aspect of Lyell's principle for Darwin is that it makes natural evil (the struggle for survival) a process that has always been occurring rather than something introduced after the Fall as recorded in Genesis. Finally, I discuss the role that uniformity plays for Lyell, Darwin, and modern science as an interpretive principle rather than as an inference from empirical data, and I conclude by noting that keeping the distinction in mind between interpretive principles and empirical findings will help clarify debates between science and religion.
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Keywords: Charles Darwin; Charles Lyell; David Hume; catastrophism; causation; empiricism; interpretive principles; miracles; natural evil; paradigms; principle of uniformity; uniformitarianism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Arizona State University West, 4701 W. Thunderbird Road, Phoenix, AZ 85069;, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: June 1, 2007

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