Uniformitarianism Versus Naturalism - current perspective

Uniformitarianism is a useful guiding principle and is applicable to all natural laws across time and space but naturalism prevails over uniformitarianism. It is not possible to lay down law defining nature and context of things and events.
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Oct. 2, 2012 - PRLog -- The idea of uniformitarianism has inspired consciously or subconsciously philosophers, scientist, societies and individuals at all times and at all places. Uniformitarianism is the assumption that same laws and processes that operate in universe now, have operated in the past and have universal applicability.

Doctrine of uniformitarianism was first explicitly suggested by James Hutton (1785) as an axiom and was popularized by Charles Lyell (1830) through his book ‘Principles of Geology’. Lyell’s uniformitarianism was based on the assumptions that seemed most plausible to him and included uniformity of law as well as uniformity of things and events (Substantive uniformitarianism). Neither James Hutton nor Charles Lyell ever attempted to define ‘law’. But from their work it appears that by law they meant ‘methodology’.

As per Charles Lyell, the axiom of uniformity of law is essential in order for scientists to extrapolate inductive inference into the observable past. Charles Lyell said that the constancy of natural laws must be assumed in our study of the past, because if we do not, then we can’t make meaningful prediction about the past.

Stephen J Gould (1965) in his first scientific paper “Is Uniformitarianism Necessary” upheld uniformity of natural laws across time and space but rightly dismissed the idea of substantive uniformitarianism.

The author in his article “What Does Not Change” has held that natural laws and fundamental nature of things and events do not change. Visit http://sciencengod.com/blog/what-does-not-change/ . This is essential, for existence of natural order and because otherwise there can’t be any comprehensive, consistent, coherent natural explanation of natural phenomena that allows us to understand the present and predict the past and the future.

Impact of uniformitarianism: Doctrine of uniformitarianism has impacted our lives generally, in myriad of ways, many of which have still not come to the level of conscious perception.

Idea of uniformity of laws finds substantial support in legal domain, despite lack of precise understanding of nature of law. The author has defined law in his book but that definition is strictly applicable only to natural laws and not to man-made laws. Uniformitarianism has given rise to such notions as equality before law, case law or law of precedent, uniformity of legal procedure, state/society governed by law etc. All these notions are only partially correct.

Equality before law is often granted as a fundamental right in many countries but is undermined by plethora of statutory laws and judicial interpretation. It was bound to happen because it ignores natural differences among things and events that preclude equality. It amounts to attempt to forcefully bridge natural differences among things and events by the agency of law. For example men and women are naturally different, so how can they be equalized by any law. No two things can be treated as equals if there are substantive differences between them. Therefore in real life situations substantive differences between nature and context of things and events have to be accounted for.
Law of precedent, alternatively known as ‘case law’ wherein present issues are decided in conformity with past settlements. A precedent can only be an illustration of application of a particular law but does not become a law by itself. To be a law it has to satisfy the definition of law and therefore can’t be enforced as a law. In the event of being guided by a precedent, substantive differences in nature of things and events have to be kept in mind. Notion of case laws commits a society to dogmatism or traditionalism, i.e. whatever has been upheld in the past must hold good today
Uniformity of Process or elevation of legal procedure to the level of law meaning thereby that issues can be decided, disputes can be resolved and rights adjudicated on the basis of compliance with legal procedure alone, irrespective of material facts and legal rights. So enjoyment of each and every legally conferred right is subject to fulfillment of large number of conditions, often leading to denial of right. This to the sufferer means breach of promise by the state.
State/Society governed by law: This is another popular misconception that any state or society can be managed on the basis of law alone. To govern a state/society one requires goals and objectives directed management. This in turn requires order, organization and system. So, law alone can never be sufficient to govern any society. In fact any society has to be governed by its goals and objectives but in accordance with law. Any law can be wrongly used if its enforcement is not disciplined by its goals and objectives.
Gradualism is another popular misconception derived from uniformitarianism. All the natural events do not happen gradually and linearly. Phenomenon of punctuated evolution is well known. Fossil records bear testimony to punctuated evolution. Nonlinearity in physical events is well known and is generally designated as ‘singularity’ by physicists. Any change of state or phase with concomitant change in applicable rules is again contrary to gradualism.
Limitations of Uniformitarianism: A law is nothing more than a mandatory condition. Nature can meet this condition in myriad of ways. For example there are more than 2 million known plant and animal species, all satisfying definition of life but in ways characteristic of particular species.

Therefore, it is not possible to lay down law defining nature and context of things and events. This can only be inferred from natural history of things and events. Hence Stephan J Gould has rightly dismissed substantive uniformitarianism.

Hence in real life situations, one can’t act on the basis of law alone; one also has to factor in nature and context of things and events. Moreover, no law is absolute. Nature’s ingenuity can always devise ways and means to meet its goals and objectives in compliance with natural laws.

Summarizing, all above uniformitarianism is a useful guiding principle but its limitations must be understood. There can’t be any entity such as society governed by law. A society has to be governed by its goals and objectives in accordance with laws.

Author: Dr Mahesh C. Jain is a practicing medical doctor and has written the book “Encounter of Science with Philosophy – A synthetic view”. The book begins with first chapter devoted to scientifically valid concept of God and then explains cosmic phenomena right from origin of nature and universe up to origin of life and evolution of man. The book includes several chapters devoted to auxiliary concepts and social sciences as corollaries to the concept of God. This is the only book that deals with subject matter of origin of nature and universe beginning from null (Zero or nothing).  This article is inspired by author’s understanding of `nature.

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