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Concerns About the Implications of BioLogos’ Science, Pt 3

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February 2, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Concerns About the Implications of BioLogos’ Science, Pt 3

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

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.


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 Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads a interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where as of November 2011, he sat on the Board of Directors. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

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Gregory - #50736

February 10th 2011

What worldview would you have visitors to BioLogos adopt instead of their/our current ‘theism,’ Mithaokhta?

Iow, what worldview are you promoting?


R Hampton - #50748

February 10th 2011

The age of the bar could easily be determined by the watching the transition of Au > Pt > Ir. If about half the atoms in the bar changed to Platinum three hours and ten minutes after having been first presented, then we could state with confidence that the bar was manufactured at the same time. Perhaps some super-advanced species has such technology, but we do not. So we would be left with few explanations; one, an alien life form played a practical joke on us, two, it was some sort of mass delusion or conspiracy, or three, it was a miraculous event.

Let’s assume that the bar of metal did not disappear afterward and the event was widely recorded with numerous instruments to which even atheist scientists attest to their authenticity and accuracy. Furthermore, let’s assume the bar’s presenter claimed to be the Messiah and had a completely natural human biology. Would not the most plausible explanation be that a genuine miracle had been witnessed?

But if I understand you correctly, God simply can not create a miracle that would allow science to rule out all known explanations but for the supernatural.

Rich - #50749

February 10th 2011

Hi, SW!

It depends on what is meant by contingent.  For example, that a cosmic ray happens to strike a sleeping reptile, and generate a mutation that will eventually lead to the race of birds, would be a contingent event, in the sense that the lizard might have chosen to sleep on a different rock, and then the cosmic ray would have missed it.  Mutations were thought by the classic neo-Darwinists to be contingent in this sense, which meant that the future of winged flight and many other major macroevolutionary changes hung on a very slim thread.  The mutations can’t come in just any old order, and a viable order was not likely to occur very often.

If you are asking, could God be behind such a string of contingent events?  I answer:  of course he could.  He could have fired the cosmic ray himself by supernatural means, or could have set it up from the beginning of time to leave from a particular star and strike where he knew the lizard would be sleeping (presuming that there was some determinism about the lizard’s actions).  So either by supernatural intervention or by a wholly naturalistic set of planned billiard shots, God could have made the event happen.  But either way, that’s design, not “randomness.”

R Hampton - #50754

February 10th 2011

It’s not random to God but it most certainly is to us. We do not have divine knowledge so by necessity we must describe things like radioactive decay as random (although we can predict with reasonable certainty, the rate a sufficiently large set of atoms will decay, the fate of any particular atom is, for all intents and purposes, random) Scientifically we must describe it many aspects of the material world as random.

Now consider that radioactive decay (a.k.a. a random/contingent event) increases universal entropy. If God is not the master of what we must know to be random, then neither is God the master of what we know to be entropy. Thus your insistence that God is beholden to randomness - as if it exists in God’s realm - is theologically unfounded. Of course God is not constrained by entropy, gravity, the speed of light, corruption, evilness, etc., yet these are fundamental realities for Creation.

Rich - #50760

February 11th 2011

SW (continued from 50749 above):

So sure, in that sense, one can make Darwinian “science” fit in with an omnipotent God who has actually designed everything.  But two caveats:  (1) Darwin didn’t want his work to be interpreted that way; (2) In any case, most TEs don’t interpret God’s activity in the ways suggested above, since they reject intervention, and find front-loading “Deistic”.  So they affirm vigorously that God actually does something in evolution, while denying that he either steers it or sets it up so that it must happen in the way it does.  I find their notion of divine action completely fuzzy and incoherent.  I’ve asked over and over again, how does God guarantee, *within the natural world of cause and effect*, that man will emerge from a Darwinian process?  Does the initial configuration of the created universe make man’s emergence inevitable?  Or does it leave it—*on the natural plane*—in doubt?  No TE will say.

In any case, we have wandered off the thread.  The question for me is:  Who are these alleged Christians who substitute natural knowledge of God for Jesus Christ?  I’ve never met one, and I’ve never read one.  I think this heretical natural theologian is a non-existent straw man.

Jon Garvey - #50771

February 11th 2011

Rich - #50067

“I won’t bother to ask you *how* God uses an inherently undirected process in a directed fashion, because I know from many past exchanges that you don’t know the answer to that question.”

In this exchange R Hampton places “random” events within God’s sovereignty, and whilst accepting the miraculous in principle seems to make it a point of dogma that God does not employ it in “natural” processes. This is beyond methodological naturalism and would appear to founder at the Big Bang, unless he proposes an infinite regression of natural processes beyond that.

You, au contraire, appear to exclude God’s sovereignty over the random on principle, making miraculous intervention necessary for a divinely directed outcome. But a few observations:

(a) Randomness is a mathematically discerned phenomenon to which nature only approximates (witness the difficulty experienced in true random number generation). Certainly “random” mutations are actually severely constrained by the chemistry involved, limiting possible outcomes and making some hugely more probable.

Jon Garvey - #50772

February 11th 2011

(b) Randomness can be hugely asymetric on the small scale. “Randomly” someone is bound to throw 100 double sixes in a row occasionally. But to say that the person who does it has not been given good fortune by the gods is a matter of conviction, rather than of maths, if the totals stack up. The whole art of my medicine was to balance the statistical science of diagnosis and therapeutics against the uniqueness of individual circumstances. That something odd pertained to Mrs Bloggs did not negate the statistical distribution curves. “Inherently undirected” is too strong a term for randomness - it’s a faith statement.

(c) Scripture everywhere attributes to God sovereignty over random events anyway, from the lot in the lap, the prey wandering past the eagle’s lair, kings getting terminal infections, the death of sparrows, the hairs on believers’ heads (which even as a metaphor for the whole life would be a remarkable promise in the light of meteorites, falling bricks, brake failure, etc…)

As to *how* God should use random events one might have to ask God. But for him do direct undirected events would, of course, be a tautology: the question, then, is whether randomness need be “undirected”. If it occurs in nature.

Rich - #50782

February 11th 2011

Jon Garvey:

As I’ve said before, I dislike the attempt to drag “randomness” into the discussion.  It is used by TEs to fog the discussion, because of ambiguities in its meaning.  Sometimes the TE means only “random with respect to the outcome” (which is all that neo-Darwinism requires) and sometimes the TE means “random” in the sense of “acausal” (having in mind the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum indeterminacy), and sometimes the TE uses both in the same place without distinguishing between them.  Also, sometimes the TE means “random” in a technical mathematical sense, not implying anything about reality, and other times means “random” in some absolute sense (again perhaps thinking of quantum theory).  Clear thinking requires precise definition, and sticking to one definition throughout an argument.

Neo-Darwinists—who originally made *no* reference to quantum theory—argue that mutations random with respect to outcome can (with natural selection) produce radically new body plans.  ID denies this, and demands the hypothetical pathways.  No matter who is right, that debate has *nothing* to do with either quantum indeterminacy *or* theology.  It’s simply a question of empirical science.  (continued)

Rich - #50784

February 11th 2011

Jon Garvey (continued from 50782):

As for randomness and theology, I repeat for your benefit (because you weren’t here a year ago when this interminable discussion began) that I have no problem with the position that all apparently random events have causes, some in the laws of nature ordained by God, and some in the direct action of God.  It is in this sense that the Bible sometimes attributes “chance” or “random” events to God.  When I criticize the use of “real randomness” in TE arguments, I’m talking about acausality—the doctrine that *no sufficient reason* can be given for certain quantum events (e.g., the timing of a radioactive emission).  For certain quantum theorists, this is not just a limitation of our observational capacities but a reality of nature, that it’s causally “open.”  So what causes the “collapse of the wave packet” in individual cases?  If there’s literally *no reason*, then God is not in control of that event.  And if it’s God, then God is directing the event.  And if he’s directing a mutation-causing event, you’ve got design.  That may be how evolution proceeds, but it ain’t Darwin, and it ain’t Mayr, and it ain’t Gould, and it ain’t Dawkins.

Rich - #50786

February 11th 2011

Jon Garvey (concluding from 50782):

Jon, it’s out of respect for you—your knowledge of theology, your polite manner of discourse—that I’ve issued the above clarification.  It actually contains no points I haven’t already made many times before on several threads, but to no avail with my interlocutors, who persist in misreading my words and ducking the question how God can be “behind” Darwinian evolution without cheating re the original intentions of Darwin and the neo-Darwinists.  But I don’t want to discuss this any more here.  If it comes up again on a thread where the columnist is writing *about* randomness and divine action, I may speak again.  But Dr. Louis is writing here about natural theology, and complaining how harmful natural theology is for conservative Protestantism.  That’s what I want to talk about:  Who are these unidentified Christians who substitute natural theology for Christ?  And what did Calvin mean in the chapter I cited?  Did he affirm that there was indeed a natural knowledge of God?  How then do we square Calvin with Barth etc.?  Merv has ducked the challenge, and Dr. Louis has chosen to quote scholars rather than to offer his reading of Calvin.  And that’s where the debate stands.

Jon Garvey - #50817

February 11th 2011

Rich - #50786

Well, I’ve given you another chance to summarise your case .

FWIW my understanding of Calvin is that his pricipal concern is not to go beyond what Scripture actually states. And my reading of that passage in the Insitutes is that he does no more than use the cited Scripture passages to say that man has no excuse before God to deny his Creator’s existence and goodness - which is almost to quote the passage from Paul.

I think the idea of nature as a formal “proof” of God would be alien to his entire character and method, or he’d have spent more time enquiring into nature rather than spend 1280 pages (in my edition) making arguments from Scripture. I don’t know if your interlocutors would agree with that assessment or not, if they’ve read the Institutes.

Rich - #50820

February 11th 2011

Jon Garvey (50817):

It sounds as if you agree that Calvin accepts a limited natural knowledge of God.  This was precisely my point, that accepting a limited natural knowledge of God does not prevent one from being completely committed to the revealed knowledge of God.  As in Calvin, so in Aquinas, proofs or evidences or inferences of God’s existence from nature are only a very small part of the theologian’s writings.  Natural theology is not salvific knowledge.  I cannot imagine why any Christian should be hostile to it.

Of course, one can argue that particular arguments for God’s existence aren’t very good.  One can criticize Paley’s arguments, or ID arguments (though Behe has said directly that he doesn’t intend his ID work as a proof for God’s existence).  But it’s one thing to say that particular arguments aren’t very good, and another thing to say that such arguments are in principle damaging to Christian faith.  Christians weren’t against arguments for a generic God until modern times.  (Pascal, Newman and Barth are all moderns.)  And since the TE hostility to natural theology is very modern, I find TE negative remarks about the “modernity” of ID to be rather cheeky.

Mithaokhta - #50827

February 11th 2011

In reply to Gregory - #50736

You are perfectly entitled to your theism as it is revealed to you through faith.  You are not entitled to twist the natural world into divine manifestation through unfalsifaible claims.  This is not science, it has no bearing or relation to science and cannot yield anything scientifically useful.  One does not, in fact, better understand the workings of the natural world through an understanding of God.  One understands God through the workings of the natural world and one must come to understand that whatever there is to know about God is impossibly confused with the human descriptions and human affairs from which such knowledge arises.  In short, God and issues of his existence, attributes and creative process are not the kinds of things which can be successfully blogged about.  Even I cannot know the truth value of my own claims about God.  That uncertainty is all that is the case and is not a point on which science proper can be conducted.

Mithaokhta - #50828

February 11th 2011

As for R Hampton - #50748

As I have said before, you are correct and you have uncovered a certain crudeness in my analogy.  The inadequacy of analogy is not exclusive to the one I have provided, but seemingly is a characteristic of all analogies.  Regardless, the parable does provide an account of what I am attempting to indicate.  Mr. Hampton, if you will, please provide for me something which you consider to be the word of God, or, for that matter, the work of God.  Next, I would like you to explain how those words, which I assume will be written in a natural, human language, could only associate with divine origin.  I would like you to explain the process behind the divine origin of miracles.  For instance, by what process does the Au191 bar made by the deity come into being?

These tasks which I have requested of you are impossible.  You, a human being, can not do what I am asking.  You have access to the natural world and access to natural language and every description you provide is a product of your psychological predispositions, not of God.

If you choose to believe in God, you do so by faith alone.  There are no revelations to be had in physics, astronomy or any science which can scientifically be connected to God.

R Hampton - #50839

February 11th 2011

If you choose to believe in God, you do so by faith alone.  There are no revelations to be had in physics, astronomy or any science which can scientifically be connected to God.

I agree completely, Science can not detect the supernatural. But as I said in a previous post, science would have no explanation for the hypothetical event. That does not mean that event had been proven to be miraculous using scientific means - but it would leave an unanswerable theoretical void.

R Hampton - #50840

February 11th 2011

For certain quantum theorists, this is not just a limitation of our observational capacities but a reality of nature, that it’s causally “open.”  So what causes the “collapse of the wave packet” in individual cases?  If there’s literally *no reason*, then God is not in control of that event.

As I discussed with Mithaokhta above, if quantum events are “truly random” all that Science can offer is that there is no natural explanation for it. But nothing can be outside the power or providence of God.

In the example you offer of a causally open event, you assert that God can not be in control because the action of “true randomness” is separate from God. However God is not just the dice thrower, but the dice and the surface on which the dice roll. God is the watchmaker and the watch, the atom that decays, the quantum wave packet that collapses. Thus God is immanent in randomness - open and closed - just as God is immanent in entropy, gravity, life, etc.

Mithaokhta - #51419

February 17th 2011

Under what conditions would you accept that randomness and the existence of God are not correlative events?  In what way have you determined this to be an empirically relevant claim?  Isn’t the correlation of God to whatever perceived randomness just a point o metaphysical (thus, nonscientific) speculation?

Mithaokhta - #51421

February 17th 2011

Furthermore, isn’t the claim that “nothing can be outside the power or providence of God,” inherently tautological and therefore non-assertive.  If so, then how can we even attribute such a claim to natural theology?  How can science utilize such an unintelligible statement?

Gregory - #50843

February 11th 2011

Mithaokhta #50827

Maybe it is worth another try? I don´t see any answer to my question in post #50827.

It was quite a clear question.

I asked:
What worldview would you have visitors to BioLogos adopt instead of their/our current ‘theism,’ Mithaokhta?

Iow, what worldview are YOU promoting?

If you are promoting a no-name brand worldview, fine. Just say so.

Thanks, G.

Gregory - #50844

February 11th 2011

Oops…my post with question was #50736, not #50827.

Rich - #50847

February 11th 2011

Here’s a statement purporting to be Roman Catholic theology:

“God is not just the dice thrower, but the dice and the surface on which the dice roll. God is the watchmaker and the watch, the atom that decays, the quantum wave packet that collapses.” (50840)

Funny; when I went to school, we called this pantheism.

R Hampton - #50850

February 11th 2011

It would have been more accurate had I said “God’s will sustains, as his spirit embodies, the atom that decays and the quantum wave packet that collapses.” None the less, God is not separated from the dice or the table or anything else involved in the random event as you contend.

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