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Concerns About the Implications of BioLogos’ Science, Pt 3

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February 2, 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 3

Ard Louis’ scholarly essay addresses common Christian misconceptions about the nature of science and its relationship to God's involvement in our world. In this post, he focuses on efforts to find evidence of God in nature, historically known as “Natural Theology”, and popular in many Christian circles today.

Science and Natural Theology

The heavens declare the glory of God;
  the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

-Psalm 19:1

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

-Romans 1:20

I wonder at the hardihood with which such persons undertake to talk about God. In a treatise addressed to infidels they begin with a chapter proving the existence of God from the works of Nature . . . this only gives their readers grounds for thinking that the proofs of our religion are very weak. . . . It is a remarkable fact that no canonical writer has ever used Nature to prove God.

-Blaise Pascal, Pensés, iv, 242, 243

The Bible repeatedly proclaims that the whole of the cosmos declares the glory of God. It even goes so far as to say that men are without excuse because God’s eternal power and divine nature can be understood from what has been made (Rom 1). This must surely mean that, however vaguely, people can perceive attributes of God by their own observations of nature. Extracting such knowledge about God from nature is called “Natural Theology”.

Since these passages of inspired Scripture apply to people of all cultures over all of human history, it must be the case that, in the words of James Barr:

It is easily available public knowledge [that is seen] by everyone…not…information that is not otherwise known: it is rather… new insight into matter that is already “naturally” known and familiar’1

It is therefore unclear how modern science fits into this picture. Nevertheless, given that science allows us to understand so much more about nature, should we not be able to use these advances to learn more about God? It has certainly been tempting to think along these lines, especially as science increasingly acquired cultural prestige. Attempts at such a natural theology reached their apogee with William Paley’s Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802), and the subsequent Bridgewater Treatises written to demonstrate the “power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in the creation.” My favourite title is: Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion: Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1834), written by William Prout (1785–1850). Finding God in digestion? Really.

It should be noted that even during the nineteenth century heyday of natural theology, there was considerable Christian pushback. The more evangelical wing of the church worried that these arguments didn’t put enough emphasis on the Bible or the saving work of Christ. More famously, Cardinal Henry Newman, perhaps the most important British theologian of the nineteenth century, was deeply unimpressed, arguing that natural theology would lead to atheism. Later, Karl Barth, perhaps the most influential Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, famously rejected natural theology with an empathetic “Nein!”:

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son our Lord, in order to perceive and to understand that God Almighty, the Father, is Creator of heaven and earth. If I did not believe the former, I could not perceive and understand the latter.

--Karl Barth2

These great theologians were unhappy with the accommodation of natural theology to the rationalistic presuppositions of the Enlightenment and its independence from revelation and the centrality of Christ. They didn’t think this approach could lead to reliable theological knowledge.

In spite of this sustained critique by many theological heavyweights (which continues today), modern versions of Paleyesque natural theology remain surprisingly popular in Christian apologetics. In part this is a reaction to an equally a-historical anti-Christian apologetic that makes use of a similar type of natural theology to argue that God does not exist (Richard Dawkins would be the best known exponent). Both sides are beholden to the same rationalistic evidentialism that Newman, Barth and others (e.g. Plantinga and other exponents of Reformed epistemology) so emphatically reject. Until they understand their shared underlying presuppositions, both sides will continue to be locked into a destructive symbiotic embrace.

The attraction of a Paleyesqe natural theology may have other roots as well. As Mark Noll points out in his essay, Evangelicals, Creation, and Scripture: An Overview, written for last year’s BioLogos meeting, another popular assumption, widely shared by many Christians and their atheist interlocutors, is univocity:

once something is explained clearly and completely as a natural occurrence, there is no other realm of being that can allow it to be described in any other way.

This leads to well-known fallacies such as conflating mechanism and meaning:

Why is the kettle boiling? Because a heat source transfers thermal energy across the container wall into the fluid, increasing the mean-square velocity of the H2O molecules, <v2>, which is proportional to the temperature T. When T reaches 100 degrees C, there is a collective phase transition from a condensed liquid state to an expanded gaseous state. We call this process boiling.

Why is the kettle boiling? Because I fancy a cup of tea, would you like one?

The mechanistic explanation does not exhaust all layers of meaning. Explaining something scientifically does not explain it away. Nevertheless the conflation of mechanism and meaning and related fallacies such as “nothing buttery” (i.e. if we are made of chemicals, is love “nothing but” a (bio)chemical reaction?) are extremely common in public discourse on the meaning of scientific discoveries.

Another widely shared fallacy, fed by univocity and Paleyesque natural theology, is that “where we come from determines who we are and how we should then live”. This fallacy is exploited by the new atheists, and also lies at the origin of a great deal of the Christian resistance to the concepts like common ancestry. Of course Christians should recognize that answers to the questions of human identity and purpose come not from nature, but from Scripture. But until the grip of nineteenth century-style natural theology is weakened, discussions about biological evolution will be hard.

Notes

1. J. Barr, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, Oxford:Clarendon Press (1993), p. 83

2. Citation from K. Barth, Church Dogmatics vol III, (1948) p. 29


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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R Hampton - #52937

March 1st 2011

Before you leave, I wish to remind you:

You need to figure out how to resolve Free Will for a God who must *guarantee* necessary outcomes to correct your contradictory theological ideas about God re:Contingency.


Rich - #52944

March 2nd 2011

R Hampton (59327):

Thanks for the free advice, which in this case is worth just about exactly what it cost me.

I doubt I’ve made any statement about free will at all, and I certainly haven’t offered a systematic position on it, so your continued accusation that I have contradictory ideas on the subject is baseless.

In any case, since, as demonstrated over the past year, you have little knowledge of theology, other than a superficial and error-filled understanding of Aquinas, and a wildly liberal and historically uninformed understanding of the teaching of your own Church regarding naturalism and evolution, you are surely not the person to give me my walking instructions for future research.

Still, I have to thank you.  Though I’ve learned not a single thing *from* you about theology, I’ve learned a lot by debating *with* you, as, in order to show you why so many of your ideas are confused or erroneous, I’ve had to review many subjects, brushing up on old material, while acquiring new insights.  So you’ve unwittingly furthered my education.

Oh, and if you’d like some free educational advice in return:  Learn to occasionally admit error.  In a whole year I’ve never seen you do it.

Goodbye, R. Hampton.


R Hampton - #53001

March 2nd 2011

Rich,

Fair enough. If you don’t believe in Free Will, then I can’t fault you for a contradictory position on Contingency/Randomness.

But for those of us who do accept Free Will - and you claim that “And what modern ID proponent does not believe in free will? Most ID proponents are very orthodox Protestants or Catholics.” - then you must admit that we accept that God is not bound by strict causality as you continually argue (vis-a-vis the possible death of a worm critical to Man’s evolution).

So If most ID proponents and TE’s such as myself don’t doubt that Free Will and Providence are compatible, what then is the purpose of your argument? By your own admission you are not advocating a common ID or a orthodox Protestant/Catholic position.


R Hampton - #53022

March 3rd 2011

“Does Providence, therefore, bring necessity to things forseen, and, as a consequence, is contingency removed? HUTT. thus answers: “A reply is most correctly made by another distinction. But if, indeed, pure or absolute necessity, or necessitas consequentis, be understood, it is absolutely necessary denied that Providence brings necessity to things forseen. For thus no place would be left any longer for natural causes, nor any liberty of the human will. Nevertheless, that both are subordinate to the Providence of God, and can exist, together with it, without contradiction ... Thus the betrayal of Judas, with respect to Divine Providence, is said to be necessary by necessity of consequence, because God undoubtedly foresaw from eternity that Judas, from intended malice and with fixed purpose, would betray Christ; but contingent, in so far as he was able to resist the wicked desires of his will and not to betray Christ. Nevertheless, if Judas would have resisted the temptation, God would have also foreseen this from eternity, and thus (by his not betraying) the Providence of God could not have been deceived.”

The Doctrinal theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Heinrich Schmid, 1889, pp 182-3


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