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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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Mithaokhta - #50864

February 11th 2011

Gregory - #50843

Worldview?  Perhaps I do not understand what you mean.

My view of the world is limited by my language.  Ludwig Wittgenstein said that.

Perhaps that is the closest to what I am promoting.

On the other hand, I am also promoting the idea that religion as an organized event is founded on the misconception that there can be discourse about God.  I am promoting the privacy of faith over the sharing of meaningless or misconstrued conceptions of the universe.

What worldview does natural theology promote?  I am inclined to say I am a proponent of adopting its opposite.

Mithaokhta - #50866

February 11th 2011

R Hampton - #50839

Well Mr. Hampton, we are coming closer to agreement.  Do you or do you not share my skepticism toward natural theology?  It sounds like you might considering you have agreed that knowledge of God is not something the sciences provide.  Have you considered that descriptions of God in terms of his supernatural attributes are not provided through language?

You have yet to address the issue of language.  To what does the word “God” refer?  To what do descriptions of his miracles refer?

I would contend that the naturalistic origin of language limits us to describing only a naturalistic kind of deity.  If this is the case, we must abandon natural theology and revealed theology and accept only transcendental theology.  Would you agree with Baruch Spinoza that God is the substance from which contingent things arise?  If so, do you consider yourself a Christian?

I will not abandon any of my previous claims, they are logically coherent.  Yes I agree that it would be odd if some Au191 showed up, but my point is, and always has been, what would its existence tell us about God?  Can the presence of something which is possible in nature, however weird, indicate the existence of something supernatural?

Gregory - #50874

February 12th 2011

“We still have scholars today who busy themselves with philosophy and who consider freedom-from-every-standpoint not to be a standpoint, as though such freedom did not depend upon those very standpoints. These curious attempts to flee from one’s own shadow we may leave to themselves, since discussion of them yields no tangible results. Yet we must heed one thing: this standpoint of freedom-from-standpoints is of the opinion that it has overcome the one-sidedness and bias of prior philosophy, which always was, and is, defined by its standpoints. However, the standpoint of standpointlessness represents no overcoming.” – Heidegger

I’ve never met a person nowadays who claims philosophia & doesn’t know what ‘worldview’ means!

Weltanshauung is the nearby German term, vision du monde in French, mirovozrenie in Russian, perhaps an even more interesting term in Spanish - cosmovision. Which do you prefer? Arabic?

Was Wittgenstein ‘religiously unmusical,’ like Weber? Or always curious? I prefer Husserl.

“I have had a letter from an old friend in Austria, a priest. In it he says that he hopes my work will go well, if it should be God’s will. Now that is all I want: if it should be God’s will.” - L.W.

Rich - #50875

February 12th 2011

Here’s another bit of purported Roman Catholic theology:

“God is not separated from the dice or the table or anything else involved in the random event as you contend.”

It is of course a central aspect of the doctrine of creation, as understood in the monotheistic traditions, that God is separated from, i.e., clearly distinguishable from, the world which he creates.

And here’s a statement it would be interesting to find in Aquinas:

“... his spirit embodies, the atom that decays and the quantum wave packet that collapses.”

I wonder what it would mean to Aquinas that God’s spirit “embodies” atoms.  Does God’s spirit “embody” elephants and rivers, too?  And I wonder how one “embodies” a quantum wave packet which has no body.  And I wonder how long an authorized theologian in a Catholic university would maintain his *magisterium* if he uttered statements like these.

Mithaokhta - #50929

February 12th 2011

Gregory - #50874

For someone who seems so well versed and well read, you have completely misread me.  I have a general idea of what Weltanshauung means, I can use ‘worldview’ in a sentence and I am a competent speaker of English; so no, I don’t need you to phrase your condescension in Arabic.

In terms of my philosophical standpoint, I am not advocating a perspectivism (the worldview which Heidegger is criticizing in your quote), nor am I failing to take a side.  I have “standpoints” as you call them.  Listen:  I am an unabashed naturalist and refuse to play a game where metaphysical claims operate as the antecedents to conclusions about the natural world.  This is the standpoint for which I am arguing, and it is very broad in what it permits as well as what it excludes.  If you want from me an alternative religion or way-of-life, I will not oblige you because I have no place for that in my analytics.  There is no room for the open-ended texture of metaphysical propositions in philosophy and likewise, there is no room in science.  Metaphysical speculations cannot serve a conjunctive role in logic separate from those derived from a conditional because they haven’t any accesible truth value.

Mithaokhta - #50932

February 12th 2011

Now, on Heidegger, you are mistaken entirely in the use of your reference.  The overcoming experienced by a dasein, while metaphysical, is still essentially private.  To paraphrase from Being Towards Death, the dasien that has not overcome experiences death in terms of the ‘they’.  The overcoming occurs when one (dasien) overcomes anxiety and has a coming-to-terms with his own death.  This is not simply an inductive statement that to the effect that ‘I am alive and living things have always died in the past, so I will die.’  It is literally having ones existance thrown into the future so that one becomes a transcendental existent.  (I might have used the a/e distinction in reverse).  I am surprised that you would mention the quote you did without a discussion of the authentication of dasein.

On Wittgenstein, I will simply say that, for my metaphysics and metaphilosophical views, I am a tractarian, and so, the quote you attribute to Wittgenstein does not surprise me at all.  It is perfectly fine to do philosophy after the metaphysics because one can develop philosophically defensible interpretations thereof, but one cannot except to determine the truth value of the foundational metaphysical views.

Mithaokhta - #50933

February 12th 2011

As for the philosophy of language.  The way I see it, one has two directions in which he may travel after Wittgenstein.  One may either follow W.V.O. Quine or one may follow Jacques Derrida.  If you prefer Husserl’s phenomenology, then you would probably be more sympathetic to the Derridaian.  As I have said already, I am a naturalist so I more follow Quine.  As I understand it, the two men hated each other bitterly, and I don’t think that either read the other.  I have read both and I respect both.

The differences between the two are accentuated by their descriptions of metaphysics.

For Derrida, a metaphysical proposition is an unfulfilled promise that, paradoxically, loses its structure (and thus its meaning) should the promise be fulfilled.  Read John Caputo on ‘The Event.’

For Quine, a metaphysical proposition does not have a future-looking quality.  It is simply the combination of objects from one past experience arranged in a psychologically pleasing, though superstitious manner.

Meta-metaphysically speaking, both men would probably accept that when one utters a metaphysical proposition, the proposition defers to the physical world for meaning.  I can go much further into this if you like…

Mithaokhta - #50941

February 12th 2011

And I better say something about Kai Nielsen or you’ll think that I’m ‘religiously musical’.  So, um, Kai Nielsen…

But seriously, being a naturalist, I have not commented at all on fideism.  Certainly, as it did for Wittgenstein, fideism might be said to exist as a coherent philosophical view, but I believe its fruits would be irrelevant because they would be part of a completely unintegratable language game (integration would rely on equivocations) and in fact, they would only hold a certain immeasurable value for individuals with faith and would provide absolutely no social and no psychologically intelligible, content.  Language—> normative—> not private; (faith & not reason)—> private—> not normative—> not linguistically accessible.  Have I oversimplified?

There is an interesting article by Professor Nielsen in the anthology, Religious Language and Knowledge in which this is discussed.

R Hampton - #51077

February 14th 2011

God is distinguishable from Creation and yet his spirit is in all things (as motivator):

God is in all things; not, indeed, as part of their essence, nor as an accident, but as an agent is present to that upon which it works. For an agent must be joined to that wherein it acts immediately and touch it by its power; hence it is proved in Phys. vii that the thing moved and the mover must be joined together. Now since God is very being by His own essence, created being must be His proper effect; as to ignite is the proper effect of fire. Now God causes this effect in things not only when they first begin to be, but as long as they are preserved in being; as light is caused in the air by the sun as long as the air remains illuminated. Therefore as long as a thing has being, God must be present to it, according to its mode of being. But being is innermost in each thing and most fundamentally inherent in all things since it is formal in respect of everything found in a thing, as was shown above (Question [7], Article [1]). Hence it must be that God is in all things, and innermostly.

The Existence of God in Things
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

Rich - #51096

February 14th 2011

R Hampton:

Granted that God is “in” all things, in the sense of being “present to” all things.  But that wasn’t the way you put it in your two previous comments.  You had said that God “is” all things, and then corrected that to “his spirit embodies” all things; neither claim is what Aquinas says in your quotation.

In any case, I find it interesting that, while purporting to be a Thomistic Catholic, you’ve attacked me in a thread where I’m defending natural theology, instead of siding with me against Barth and Pascal.  Your agenda is a most peculiar one.

R Hampton - #51103

February 14th 2011

The reason for my two previous comments was to demonstrate that randomness is not a separate phenomena from God (he’s the dice thrower, and he’s in the dice, the table, etc.). True randomness, like Free Will, is not outside of divine providence, nor does it make predestination impossible. That’s why I can’t side with your application of natural theology.

In the Catholic perspective, neo-Darwinians who adduce random genetic variation and natural selection as evidence that the process of evolution is absolutely unguided are straying beyond what can be demonstrated by science. Divine causality can be active in a process that is both contingent and guided. Any evolutionary mechanism that is contingent can only be contingent because God made it so. An unguided evolutionary process – one that falls outside the bounds of divine providence – simply cannot exist because “the causality of God, Who is the first agent, extends to all being, not only as to constituent principles of species, but also as to the individualizing principles….It necessarily follows that all things, inasmuch as they participate in existence, must likewise be subject to divine providence” (Summa theologiae I, 22, 2).

R Hampton - #51104

February 14th 2011


As I said before, events can appear to be truly random from the perspective of Science, yet know that these events were preordained from the perspective of Theology.

But it is important to note that, according to the Catholic understanding of divine causality, true contingency in the created order is not incompatible with a purposeful divine providence. Divine causality and created causality radically differ in kind and not only in degree. Thus, even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation. According to St. Thomas Aquinas: “The effect of divine providence is not only that things should happen somehow, but that they should happen either by necessity or by contingency. Therefore, whatsoever divine providence ordains to happen infallibly and of necessity happens infallibly and of necessity; and that happens from contingency, which the divine providence conceives to happen from contingency” (Summa theologiae, I, 22,4 ad 1).


Rich - #51107

February 14th 2011

R Hampton (51103):

Once again you fail to grasp my point.  I agree that no evolutionary process can exist outside the bounds of divine providence.  I’ve said that, in various ways, maybe 20 or 30 times now. 

That is why, if God’s fixed will *determined* that man was to emerge, God had to use an evolutionary process which would *guarantee* that emergence.  Neither Darwin’s process nor the process as envisioned by classic neo-Darwinism could guarantee the emergence of man (or any other outcome).  Therefore, God would not use such unreliable processes.  He could use miracles to counteract the waywardness of Darwinian processes—neither ID people nor Thomas Aquinas would rule that out—but your dogmatic naturalism won’t accept that.  That leaves you with no option but to bite the bullet and accept an intrinsically teleological evolutionary process.  Some ID people are open to that.  But you won’t go for that, either.  So your position is incoherent.  You insist that God used a process which cannot possibly have guaranteed the result he decreed.  That you cannot see the self-contradiction, despite repeated explanations, indicates that further discussion is useless.

R Hampton - #51112

February 14th 2011

For someone who presents themselves as well educated in these matters, I find your understanding of Contingency to be lacking, The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Prophecy has a good summary http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/prophecy/

A very different approach to explaining God’s knowledge of the contingent future involves suggesting that God exists outside of time altogether ... Instead, the idea is that God knows all events from the perspective of timeless eternity. Many theists have adopted this view throughout the centuries, including the highly influential medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) One of the earliest Christian theologians to defend this approach to answering the Knowledge Question was Boethius (480–524 A.D.), who wrote in The Consolation of Philosophy that “[Since] God has a condition of ever-present eternity, His knowledge, which passes over every change of time, embracing infinite lengths of past and future, views in its own direct comprehension everything as though it were taking place in the present” (Boethius Consolation, 117).

Omniscience allows for true randomness and free will, whilst it allows God’s plan to unfold with absolute certainty.

R Hampton - #51114

February 14th 2011


You are among those who deny contingency:

Denying Contingency
Philosophers have responded to this problem in several different ways. One obvious way to respond is simply to claim that there are no future contingent events. Different people have taken this approach for different reasons. Some are attracted to the idea that every event has a prior sufficient cause. Others believe that the idea of free choice does not require anything like real contingency or the possibility of doing or intending otherwise. Still others believe that God’s providential control over the world is so thorough and detailed that nothing is left to chance, not even the apparently free choices of human beings (see the views defended by Calvin, Carson, and Feinberg, for instance, and the entry on divine providence). So one possible response to the difficulty here is simply to give up one half of the problem by denying that there are any future contingent events. Many philosophers and theologians do not find this approach very promising, though, because they believe strongly in future contingent events, especially human free choices.

Rich - #51123

February 15th 2011

R Hampton:

Having studied the primary texts of many of the great philosophers and theologians, under highly trained teachers, both in undergraduate and graduate school, I don’t need on-line encyclopedias to look up kindergarten information on God’s eternity.  Perhaps you do, and that’s fine; but if so, please spare me your amateur researches on subjects I mastered many years ago.  (By the way, I’ve *taught* Boethius’s text before, whereas you probably never even heard of the man before you cut and pasted the above bit from the internet.)

Like most TEs, you lack philosophical training and competence, and therefore, the moment you stumble across something in an online source about God’s foreknowledge (i.e., his knowledge of all things past and future in an eternal present), you seize upon it as a substitute for proper causal links in the realm of time.  In fact God’s foreknowledge tells us nothing about causes within the temporal world.  Whatever happens, God foreknows; but one still must provide a causal account of how Event A leads to Event B—*especially* if one insists, as you do, on purely naturalistic causation.  So you still have to explain how the Big Bang *guarantees* the coming of man.  Care to try?

Becki Nelson - #51699

February 19th 2011

So is it impossible to debate without contemptuously smearing one another’s intelligence, character or educational background? These are completely beside the actual points being discussed and serve only to sully the debate. The one who has the strongest case and a healthy sense of self has no need to cut an opponent down to (one’s own) size.

R Hampton - #51192

February 15th 2011

If you actually read the “kindergarten” information, especially the section on divine providence, then you would need not have asked the question. But perhaps you might come to understand how this is possible if, instead of randomness, you considered the ‘illogic’ of Free Will.

God does not choose for us, yes? Adam and Eve did not have to sin, Abraham did not have to follow God’s command to sacrifice his son, Judas did not have to betray Jesus, etc. Yet God knows the choices each and every one of us will make, and in turn the consequences affecting the causal chain. Without dictating the choices of all the important players in the course of our Fall and Salvation, purely naturalistic causation simply can not explain history. So it must be impossible for God to *guarantee* that his Plan will unerringly unfold considering how much depends on autonomous agents.

And yet, you believe in true Free Will.

R Hampton - #51193

February 15th 2011

The problem of Randomness is no different, but in understanding this, you fail.

It should be pointed out that in giving this response, proponents of the free will defense are making an important assumption about the relationship between God’s will as creator and ours as creatures — namely, that God’s will operates in the same way natural causes do. That is, his fiat as creator counts as an independent condition or event, which causes the occurrence of what he wills in just the way natural causes produce their effects.

...the antitheist can still raise two complaints. First, he may argue, even if the free will defense does not violate God’s omnipotence, it still violates his sovereignty. If God were fully sovereign over the universe his rule would be complete. All that occurs would be under his direct control, down to the smallest detail.

...Second, the antitheist may argue, the free will defense violates divine omniscience. For if I possess libertarian freedom, then whether I decide to go to the concert tonight is neither under God’s direct control nor controlled by natural causes. And if that is the case then God has no way of knowing what I will decide.


R Hampton - #51197

February 15th 2011

Rephrased for Randomness

...the antitheist can still raise two complaints. First, he may argue, even if [“True Randomness”] does not violate God’s omnipotence, it still violates his sovereignty. If God were fully sovereign over the universe his rule would be complete. All that occurs would be under his direct control, down to the smallest detail.

...Second, the antitheist may argue, [“True Randomness”] violates divine omniscience. For if the actions of Nature contain innumerable plausible outcomes, then whether or not a particular atom decays tonight is neither under God’s direct control nor controlled by natural causes. And if that is the case then God has no way of knowing what will naturally occur.

John Sullivan - #52454

February 24th 2011

Not sure where to post this so here will do. On your page http://biologos.org/questions/problem-of-evil/ under the heading “Suffering is Also a Problem for Atheists”  you say…
” If God does not exist and there is no grounding for how things ought to be, then moral — as opposed to emotional — outrage at horrendous evil has no basis. The fact that we cannot escape our sense of horror and outrage at evil actually points us to God’s existence.”

This is an entirely fatuous arguement. Evolution gave us our sense of right and wrong. I can prove it using a simple thought experiement. Imagine a group of hunter/gatherers who had no sense of right and wrong…. killing each other is ok, torturing each other is ok, stealing is ok. How long would such a society survive? Of course the would not they would die out. But there is a conterveiling principle here. In-group amorality is counter-survival, but out-group amorality can be selectively advantageous. That is why war and torture of enemies is often condoned, It allows robust defense of a nation and one may even get to take more land/resources from out groups. So there is a tension between to much morality and amorality in any one society…simple yes?

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