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Concerns About the Implications of BioLogos’ Science, Pt 2

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January 24, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Ard Louis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Concerns About the Implications of BioLogos’ Science, Pt 2

This is part two in a series taken from Louis' paper (downloadable here), which addresses common Christian misconceptions about the nature of science and its relationship to God's involvement in our world. The first part can be found here.

Science, the Bible, and God's Action

The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

-Hebrews 1:3

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

-Matthew 10:29-31

The Bible opens with a glorious account of the one almighty God who has only to speak and the world comes into being. These early chapters of Genesis lay down themes that are expanded and elaborated in the many other biblical creation passages.1 A message we moderns may not pick up on so easily is illustrated by literary devices such as using the words “greater lamp” and “lesser lamp” instead of the usual Hebrew words to refer to the sun and the moon and moreover relegating them (together with the stars almost as an “afterthought”) to the fourth day. Why was this done? Almost certainly because the people of Israel were tempted to worship the sun and moon. Declaring that these heavenly bodies were physical objects rather than beings who control our lives may seem unremarkable to our modern ears, but it would have sounded incredibly daft to the intelligentsia of the day, who were, after all, astrologers.

Today the dominant assumption among the intelligentsia is very different, namely an autonomous “mother nature” that runs on its own. If there is a God, then they feel he should show himself by intervening — “poking into” — that world. These same influences lead Christians down blind apologetic alleys like arguing for a “God of the gaps”. This modern Christian temptation has its roots in the same heresy as the one that plagued the ancients: a misunderstanding of the sovereignty of God over all creation.

Our modern concept of “Nature” as an entity independent of God cannot be found in the Bible. Instead, the creation passages emphasize a God who “sustain[s] all things by his powerful word” Heb 1:3. That is why, for example in Psalm 104, the point of view fluidly changes back and forth from direct action by God — “He makes springs pour water into ravines” — to water acting on its own — “[the water] flows down the mountains”. Such dual descriptions are two different perspectives on the same thing. Within a robust biblical theism, if God were to stop sustaining all things, the world would not slowly grind to a halt or descend into chaos; it would simply stop existing.

So how should we think about science then? Certainly modern science was not present at the time that the Bible was written. It is a good hermeneutical principle that God inspired the biblical authors to write within the confines of their own culture. So to first order the Bible is not directly concerned with the practice of modern science. Nevertheless there are principles that can be brought to bear. Out of a rich theological tradition of refection on the difference between God’s miraculous acts and his regular sustenance of nature the following ideas emerged: If the regularities of nature are a manifestation of the faithful sustenance of an eternal and unchanging God then one would expect them to be trustworthy and consistent. The regular behavior of nature could be viewed as the “customs of the creator”. Christians glorify God by studying these “laws of nature.” A strong case can be made that such theological realizations helped pave the way for the rise of modern science itself.2

By the time the Royal Society of London, the world’s first scientific society, was founded in 1660, Christian thinkers like the poet John Donne, then Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, could write:

the ordinary things in Nature, would be greater miracles than the extraordinary, which we admire most, if they were done but once... only the daily doing takes off the admiration. ("Eighty Sermons", #22 published in 1640)

These theological principles naturally explain why one might expect the universe to exhibit properties like uniformity, rationality and intelligibility that undergird science. It is less clear how to justify these metaphysical principles from a purely naturalistic framework.

What about miracles then? It is important to remember that they are not just “wonders” (teras) for us to marvel at, but signs (semion) or works of power (dunamis). They occur when, to achieve his divine purposes, God chooses to sustain the world in a manner that is different from the way he normally does.

We thus see that within the biblical framework of a God who faithfully sustains the world we have good reason to expect that:

  1. The scientific method will have success in describing the “customs of the creator”, that is, the regular ways that God interacts with and sustains the world.
  2. God can also interact in less customary ways and do miracles, but since we do not have full access to the divine mind, we can’t know or control all the conditions, nor repeat them. Thus by definition they fall outside of the remit of science. You could almost say that the Bible teaches that miracles are unscientific (although of course science could measure their consequences).

This brings us back to Leibniz’s two criticisms of Newton. Strictly speaking, the first one-- that it demeans God’s craftsmanship if he has to intervene in nature – cannot be directly derived from the Bible. God is free, he can sustain the universe in whatever way he pleases. Nevertheless the sentiment behind this critique builds on a venerable theological tradition of the eternal and unchanging God faithfully sustaining the world in a regular way.

The second criticism – that God doesn’t do miracles to satisfy the wants of nature, but rather those of grace – builds on the more explicit Biblical theme that God performs miracles for his divine purposes. Fundamentally, the question of whether God did or did not use miracles in natural history is only accessible to us through revelation. Most commentators would say that the creation passages, rich though they are, are simply not concerned with this question.

Newton’s reply to Leibniz’ criticism was that if “From the beginning of creation, everything has happened without any regulation or intervention by God” then this would strengthen the hands of deistic or atheistic sceptics.

So does the argument that God mainly sustains the physical world in a regular way lead to deism? It is true that if we could find an unambiguous miracle in natural history, then this would weaken the case for deism. But on the other hand, it can be argued that in Newton’s phrase “intervention by God” we can spot the seeds — underlying assumptions of a quasi-independent nature in which God occasionally intervenes — that helped deism flourish in the centuries that followed him.

The Bible doesn’t leave any room for such deistic assumptions.3 Although it is silent on the exact mechanisms by which God acts in the world (as fascinating and important as this question is) it is loud and clear in its proclamation that God’s providence extends to all of creation. He is sovereign over the whole caboodle. We are called to trust in a God who cares for the sparrows and numbers the hairs on our head. We are warned against the ancient heresy of worshiping a magical and capricious creation, and also against the modern heresy of deism, be it metaphysical or practical, when even Christians live as if God won’t act in their lives:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

-Matthew 6:25-33

Notes

1. see e.g. David Wilkingson, The Message of Creation, (IVP, Leicester 2002)

2. See e.g. R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids,1972); R. Numbers, Galileo Went to Jail and 25 Other Myths about Science and Religion, (HUP 2009); P. Harrison, The Bible and the Rise of Modern Science CUP (1998)

3. Oliver R. Barclay, “Design in Nature”, Science & Christian Belief, 18, 49 (2006).


Ard Louis is a Reader in Theoretical Physics and a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, where he leads a research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology. He is also the International Secretary for Christians in Science, an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion and served on the board of advisors for the John Templeton Foundation.

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Bilbo - #48995

January 24th 2011

Ard:  “Fundamentally, the question of whether God did or did not use miracles in natural history is only accessible to us through revelation.

Which is why ID does not insist that God is the designer.  ID claims that it is possible to have good evidence to believe that intelligent agency was involved in natural history, independently of revelation.  Since most proponents of ID believe in God, they believe that God is the most reasonable candidate.


JWF - #49006

January 24th 2011

Ard,

Excellent article.

Thank you for pointing us to Psalm 104 and explaining that the “dual descriptions are two different perspectives on the same thing.” Although I’ve been aware of the beautiful language of this psalm for years, I had never picked up on that particular aspect of its poetry and truth.


Steve Ruble - #49029

January 25th 2011

I like the mouse-over popups (being fond of parenthetical statements myself) but they are difficult to pull quotes from.  Anyway, in the popup for “purely naturalistic framework” Louis wrote,

It is, in fact, interesting to speculate how one would derive (rather than assume) the underlying metaphysical principles that undergird science from a starting point of pure naturalism.

I agree, it is interesting.  I also find it interesting to speculate how one would derive (rather than assume) the underlying metaphysical principles that undergird Christianity from a starting point of pure supernaturalism. Certainly, from the position that there are powers outside of nature you still need to do a lot of work to get to the point where you can show that one should believe this book rather than that book - especially since there’s no way (per the essay above) to find evidence in the world that supports one set of miraculous claims over another.  In fact, this essay seems to argue against the idea that one could provide objective evidence for the events of the Bible at all. An interesting tactic…


dave - #49061

January 25th 2011

When asserting that God sometimes acts apart from the usual regularities, it would be helpful if some indication could be made how we identify such special acts. Without the identification of such acts there would seem to be reason to suppose God never did them. But if some candidates for being special acts were identified, one may then still suppose God to have created a world in which the regularities led to apparently special acts occurring which on closer investigation might be found to be fully in line with regularity. But, perhaps it would be more in line with Christianity to suppose there really were special acts that cut across regularities, and that they were common enough so that Christians might have a real experience of God’s acting in their lives. Are identifiable special acts common enough?


merv - #49209

January 26th 2011

Great article, Dr. Louis!

reacting with a couple comments above…  I wonder if trying to fixate on or identify irregularities as opposed to regularities isn’t somewhat contrary to the spirit of the essay ... perhaps intentionally so and maybe it should be.  I know he refers to God breaking with customary regularities for the purpose of signs.  But I hear the author point to this attempted dichotomy as part of our [theist] problem of thinking nature is independent of God.  Regarding ‘regularities’ we are already on tricky ground.  They are present enough for much of science to work.  But at what point does something become an irregularity?  It depends on scale.  Large Meteors don’t pummel the earth—at least not on human time scales, so would that be an irregularity?  Now we know that on geological time scales they do.  [irregularity shown to be a regularity].  Yes—the resurrection & other events can still retain their separate or singular categories, but what I take home from this essay (and others) is that we should ‘hold lightly’ to our manufactured distinctions between “God’s work” and “nature’s work”

—Merv


merv - #49211

January 26th 2011

...to correct my last post ... replace ‘Meteor’ with ‘Meteorite’ (or maybe I should have just said ‘asteroid’).


merv - #49213

January 26th 2011

... Another possible response to Leibniz when he suggested it a ‘mean’ or debasing view of the Creator to think he must always be repair faulty craftsmanship would be to suggest in response that we would not hold in high esteem any parent who left their baby outside at the whims of nature on the grounds that ‘they were already given perfect genetics and a perfect birth experience’—therefore the parent refuses to interact, care for, or relate with them because that would imply defective beginnings that left them in need. —and of course, that is nonsense.


—Merv


merv - #49217

January 26th 2011

Steve ... if anybody succeeds in ‘deriving underlying metaphysical principles that undergird…’ then won’t they have just moved the problem down to a new ‘underived principle’.  Eventually (whether in science or supernaturalism or whatever) if one reaches a truly foundational principle, then there won’t (by definition) be anything to derive it from, will there?  I know science has to keep trying ... maybe that’s one of your chief complaints against theism ... is that after seeing something as ‘foundational’, religion then stops trying whereas science presumably doesn’t (although I think even that latter point could be debatable.)    (As someone’s signature phrase states ... it’s turtles all the way down…)

—Merv


Steve Ruble - #49249

January 26th 2011

Merv, I understood the question to be going the other direction: if one were to assume naturalism, what could one then derive in terms of metaphysics, epistemology, etc? What can one conclude about the world?  Likewise, for supernaturalism…

I’m not sure that the question actually makes sense, but it doesn’t really matter; I was just riffing on a phrase from the essay, which Louis can defend if he likes.  My point was that we don’t actually reason that way - from philosophical assumption to argumentative framework to propositions about the world. Instead, Christians assume that the Bible is true, Muslims the Koran, and atheists… we don’t assume that any books are true. However, we all assume that induction is generally reliable and that observations correspond to reality to a large extent (note that these assumptions must be made before one can believe that there is a Bible). So the naturalist doesn’t need to justify their assumptions to the Christian - we share those - but the Christian’s assumptions are unshared and unjustified.


Steve Ruble - #49252

January 26th 2011

I should have said that we don’t reason from"philosophical positions” not “philosophical assumptions”. I mean to say that we start from assumptions which are much more amorphious than “pure naturalism” or something like that, with all the philosophical baggage that entails.


Rich - #49255

January 27th 2011

Dr. Louis:

Would you help me out by distinguishing between these positions:

1.  Nature is completely dependent upon God for all its moment-by-moment activities; it does nothing of its own.

2.  Nature is independent of God in its moment-by-moment activities; God made it, but he made it to run by itself, gave it “creaturely freedom,” as TEs Haught and MIller might put it.

3.  Nature is “quasi-independent” or “semi-independent” of God—terms you have used so far in your essay.

I’d like you to expand a little here, especially on position 3.  It appears that you think that position 3 is inherently un-Christian.  All the more, then, you must think that position 2 is inherently un-Christian.  Does it follow that you hold to position 1?  Or is there some fourth position that is the proper Christian understanding of nature?

Once again, I’m not trying to be captious, or to trick or trap you.  I’m just trying to get theoretical clarity on the status of nature in your thinking, so that I can compare your view to that of Christian philosophers and theologians who have written on the subject.


merv - #49265

January 27th 2011

I think I may agree with about everything you said (in 49249), Steve—provided the last words “unshared and unjustified” were in a less pejorative sense of being *unjustifiable* within the restrictive framework of Naturalism or Scientism.  But either way (& with all due respect to any ID friends I may have) I don’t think of my Theism as ‘justifiable’ in the terms demanded within science.

But when someone claims to *know* from a scientific platform that Theistic faith has been “dejustified” (not just passively remaining ‘unjustified’ for the Naturalist, but more actively *shown* to be untrue)—then begins the “burden of proof” hot potato toss that inevitably goes nowhere.  Even the lesser, but more scientifically realistic “just show me some evidence” exchanges end up in the same no-man’s land—each side satisfied that the dearth of it (according to their own qualifying standards) on the other side leaves them safe in their religious or anti-religious assumptions.  I can definitely see that.

—Merv


merv - #49267

January 27th 2011

Actually—I may slightly retract my agreement above just so can nitpick or at least inquire about your corrected statement:  “we don’t reason from philosophical positions”

I think I see your point—but are you implying (as I read someone else stating on another thread) that science just objectively “follows the data” with no true scientists ever launching their investigations from any platform or philosophical position?

If so, then I’m not sure science actually does that.  Scientists don’t always just meekly lay down their theory they’ve invested themselves into and follow whatever contrary piece of data that gives them problems.  They sometimes fight tooth & nail to preserve their own. —Thinking of Lord Kelvin and his extreme resistance to the new radioactivity data that threatened his thermodynamic calculations about the age of the earth.  I’m sure others could be named.  Point is… these were scientists, complete with all sorts of philosophical positions & sometimes wrong reasoning.  But their science remains part of valid science history in all its (not-so-clean) glory.


merv - #49268

January 27th 2011

... but taking your statement in its more pure logic form:  that one doesn’t build any argument by starting out with an opinion (or personal position) as their premise—- I certainly do agree.  Just checking to see if their was any scientific context there.

—merv


sy - #49298

January 27th 2011

This artilcle, which is quite illuminating, and profound, has gotten me to thinking about the historical enemy of both science and Christianity -magic. For most of human history, magical thinking was the prevalent world view of those who thought about nature. Many early religions were magical in character. Christianity did battle with magic by presenting a universe created and sustained by a single, transcendant God. Early scientists dealt the death blow to magic, by showing that careful investigation could find laws of regularity that swept away the basic chaotic and arbitrary nature of magical events.

Of course all religion and all science is the offspring of magic, the earliest manifestation of the human need to understand the world. The remnants of magic can be found in Christianity and in science, but as a useful tool for anything, (either understanding or practical use) it is no longer viable. To me this is sign of immense intellectual progress for humanity. The eventual (inevitable?) synthesis of Christian and scientific world views will complete the evolution of human thought to the light of truth.


Steve Ruble - #49302

January 27th 2011

Sy, what do you mean by “magic”? If we’re talking about belief in fairies and elves, then I can see what you mean about belief in magic leading to an interpretive framework where “natural law” isn’t a readily available concept - but belief in demons and angels (common among Christians even up to the present day) would seem to have the same effects. Likewise, there are “magical” traditions in which the rituals and spells are as formalized and law-like as, say, pleading for saintly intercession or praying to Jesus. In other words, the belief in “a single, transcendant God” has not eliminated a tendency among believers to behave as if certain words and rituals may increase the chances of a supernatural intervention in the world; to me that looks very similar to the “magic” of a non-montheistic religious framework. Would you say of prayer that “as a useful tool for anything, (either understanding or practical use) it is no longer viable”? If not, why not?


merv - #49315

January 27th 2011

Sy wrote:  “...careful investigation could find laws of regularity that swept away the basic chaotic and arbitrary nature of magical events.”

Not so much “swept away” as pushed them back far enough to give some confidence that they [unexplained phenomena] *could in principle* be pushed back without limit.  Others think those things (whether you call them ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’) are still there, though they can agree that the domain of what we consider “explained” has indeed grown.

Chaos has itself received a rather prominent place within science and math—so while we don’t think of it as magic, we certainly see science acknowledging at least one self-imposed limit.

—Merv


h - #49359

January 27th 2011

Louis:

“The term God of the gaps probably originated with Henry Drummond. Dietrich Bonhoeffer also warned against it”

Where did Drummond use the term “God of the gaps”.  I’ve never founded any source, where he had used the words “God of the gaps”. As far as I know, Bonhoeffer never wrote about “God of the gaps”. I know one sentence from one of his letters, where is the word “gap” in translation, but it is not in the original text (German). Bonhoeffer hoped that God is not something stopgap that is used when human resources fail.

” Religious people speak of God when human knowledge has come to an end, or when human resources fail — in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure — always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries… It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness.” -Bonhoeffer
http://being.publicradio.org/programs/bonhoeffer/letter-19440430.shtml


penman - #49419

January 28th 2011

=There are reverent minds who ceaselessly scan the fields of Nature and the books of Science in search of gaps — gaps which they will fill up with God. As if God lived in the gaps? What view of Nature or of Truth is theirs whose interest in Science is not in what it can explain but in what it cannot, whose quest is ignorance not knowledge, whose daily dread is that the cloud may lift, and who, as darkness melts from this field or from that, begin to tremble for the place of His abode? What needs altering in such finely jealous souls is at once their view of Nature and of God. Nature is God’s writing, and can only tell the truth; God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.=

Henry Drummond in The Ascent of Man (apparently p.333 in the 1894 edition: lots of different editions & I confess I couldn’t track it down in mine, so I resorted to the Theopedia… And admittedly, it isn’t the exact phrase “god of the gaps” but it’s pretty close)


h - #49461

January 28th 2011

penman:

“it isn’t the exact phrase “god of the gaps” but it’s pretty close”

Yes and no. The idea is close. But Drummond didn’t have God of the gaps “term”. Secondly, Drummond has been said to be an inventor of “God of the Gaps” term some years ago (after someone Googled that Drummond has also said something about “gaps”). For example 50 years ago, when the term was widely discussed (see for example http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1963/JASA12-63Harris.html ) Drummond’s name was not part of discussions.


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