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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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Rich - #52590

February 25th 2011

R Hampton:

Free will has nothing to do with our debate.  You yourself, in a previous post, insisted firmly that only human beings have free will, and that all non-human matter must obey the will of God, which according to you is expressed, prior to the emergence of Man, wholly through natural laws.  And we are talking here only about the events from the creation of the universe up to the emergence of Man, not what happens after Man arrives on the scene and free will becomes a factor.

So you still have to explain how, given that God has (according to you) restricted himself to purely natural causation, God guaranteed the arrival of Man, given the initial conditions at the time of the Big Bang.  Did those initial conditions *guarantee* the arrival of Man, or not?  If you say yes, then you are a design theorist in all but name.  If you say no, then you are, willy-nilly, affirming that God was not in control once he set the ball rolling.  Take your pick.

Laurent - #52711

February 27th 2011

What a great article. The part on univocity is excellent. I believe that alone dissolves the majority of anti-theistic arguments.

Thank you.

R Hampton - #52854

February 28th 2011

Free will has everything to do with our debate. If autonomous agents can decide, of their own free will, to act against God, then by your logic God can not guarantee any outcome. So Free Will and Randomness present the same problem in your scenario in which God has to have direct control of every outcome.

if God’s fixed will *determined* that man was to emerge, God had to use an evolutionary process which would *guarantee* that emergence

God’s fixed will determined that Judas would betray Jesus, yet God did not force Judas’s hand. He didn’t need to.

God’s fixed will determined that Man would evolve, yet God did not force Nature’s hand. He didn’t need to.

God’s Providence is greater than your simplistic notion of guaranteeing fixed results - otherwise Free Will is just not possible in your theology.

Rich - #52864

March 1st 2011

R Hampton (52854):

Still dodging the question, I see.

I simply will not discuss my own conclusions or speculations regarding free will in this context.  However, I will show why your reasoning is flawed.

Your reasoning is:  “If you believe that God *can be sure* that Judas will betray Jesus without determining Judas’s will, then logically you must believe that God *can be sure* that man will emerge from the Big Bang without determining the course that matter will take to get to man.”

This is true if the meaning of “can be sure” is non-causal, i.e., is restricted to God’s knowledge.  This is where Boethius is relevant.  God is in eternity, not time; he sees the future as the present; without having to lift a finger, he knows what will happen because he sees it as it happens.  I have never disputed this.

However, if “can be sure” is causal in meaning, i.e., if it means “ensures”, then it pertains not merely to divine knowledge but also to divine action.  To say that God *ensures* an outcome is to say more than to say that he *foresees* it.  It is your failure to grasp this distinction that causes your reasoning to go astray.


Rich - #52866

March 1st 2011

R Hampton (part 2 on free will):

An example should help.  God cannot possibly have foreseen the second term of President Kennedy.  He cannot foresee what does not happen.  If God wanted to *ensure* the second term of Kennedy, he would have had to, at a minimum, arrange for Oswald’s assassination attempt to fail, whether by natural or supernatural means.  What happens in time and space matters.

Now suppose we evolved from a marine worm, which acquired a certain crucial mutation 600 million years ago.  God then foresaw our evolution.  Fine.  But suppose that a predator gobbled up that worm before it could reproduce.  Now man does not evolve.  In that case God would not have foreseen our evolution.  What happens in time and space matters.

But since God has *determined* (not just foreseen) from before creation that man is to evolve, God must *ensure* (not merely foresee) that the worm will survive.  How does he do this?  Through chains of purely natural causes, or through some strategic supernatural interventions?  Take your pick, and explain your pick.

If you don’t answer the question, but instead resume talking about free will, then I’m gone.  Your “free will” will determine whether dialogue continues or ends.

Jon Garvey - #52885

March 1st 2011

@R Hampton - #52854

“Free will” as an absolute attribute independent of God, though almost an axiom in much popular evangelicalism, let alone modern Christianity more widely, is a misleading and non-Biblical concept.

It’s worth remembering, in Jim Packer’s words: “Historically, it is a simple matter of fact that Martin Luther and John Calvin and all the leading Protestant theologians of the first epoch of the Reformation, stood on precisely the same ground here ... in asserting the helplessness of man in sin, and the sovereignty of God in grace, they were entirely at one.”

I recommend reading Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” before claiming too much for free will.

R Hampton - #52910

March 1st 2011

Rich: God cannot possibly have foreseen the second term of President Kennedy. He cannot foresee what does not happen.

Aquinas: Those things that are not actual are true in so far as they are in potentiality; for it is true that they are in potentiality; and as such they are known by God. Since God is very being everything is, in so far as it participates in the likeness of God; as everything is hot in so far as it participates in heat. So, things in potentiality are known by God, although they are not in act.

As for your other example: But since God has *determined* (not just foreseen) from before creation that man is to evolve, God must *ensure* (not merely foresee) that the worm will survive.

God also *determined* (not just foreseen) that he would send his Son to Earth to die for Man’s sin, thus God must *ensure* (not merely foresee) that Jesus will be born.

But suppose Mary choose a different path in life, married and gave birth to a normal son a year before Jesus was to be conceived. Now if Mary truly has a free will, then God must *ensure* (not merely foresee) that Mary will remain a virgin.


R Hampton - #52912

March 1st 2011

Given the incredibly intricate chain of contingent events throughout Biblical history, at some point some one would have freely choose to act in a way that would have disrupted God’s plan. Thus, on occassion, God must have usurped Free Will to *guarantee* the history of his design.

Randomness, like Free Will, escapes direct divine control (God’s elimination of possibility - introduced by autonomous agents - for the sake of divine certainty).

Jon Garvey,
I agree with your point about the Reformers views on predestination. However that is not how Rich described his views on the matter. He seems to accept a Catholic view that true Free Will does not violate God’s omniscience/predestination. So Mary was not forced to remain a virgin and Judas was not forced to betray Jesus. Even so, God’s plan required these choices to be made. Randomness (contingency) presents the same problem - a given worm was not forced to survive even though God’s plan required it.

As Rich sees it, Contingency is theologically impossible, unlike Free Will. That is illogical. To be consistent, he should side with Luther and Calvin re: Free Will or with the Catholic Church on Contingency.

Rich - #52919

March 1st 2011

R Hampton (52910):

You continue in your unscholarly habit of quoting Aquinas without naming the work, locating the passage within the work, offering any explanatory comments on the quotation, or confirming your interpretation with reference to leading Aquinas scholars.  (This habit, along with many other things, convinces me that you have little training in medieval theology, and merely use search engines to find passages with key words which look as though they might be relevant, and then, without regard for context, copy and paste them.)

It is impossible for me to tell without context what Aquinas has in mind, but nothing in your passage suggests that he is talking about events which never have or never will occur.  Instead, he seems to be talking about events which will occur, but have not yet.  God knows such events even when they are still only potential and not yet actual.  Nothing in such a statement is incompatible with anything I said about foreknowledge, or with my comment on unreal events, e.g., Kennedy’s second term. 

For your benefit, I have done some serious reading on the question, and have found a passage in Aquinas which is more relevant.  I reproduce it next.  (continued)

Rich - #52920

March 1st 2011

R Hampton (part 2 on Aquinas and foreknowledge):

*Summa Theologiae*, I-I, Question 14, Article 9, ed. Pegis:

“Now among the things that are not actual, a certain difference is to be noted.  For though some of them may not be in act now, still they have been, or they will be; and God is said to know all these with the *knowledge of vision*: for since God’s act of understanding, which is his Being, is measured by eternity, and since eternity is without succession, comprehending all time, the present glance of God extends over all time, and to all things which exist in any time, as to objects present to Him.  But there are other things in God’s power, or the creatures’, which nevertheless are not, nor will be, nor have been; and as regards these He is said to have the knowledge, not of vision, but of *simple intelligence*.  This is so called because the things we see around us have distinct being outside the seer.”  [emphasis original]

Notice that what I am calling divine foreknowledge or divine foresight corresponds to Aquinas’ “knowledge of vision” (vision, fore-*sight*).  And notice that the possibilities which never become real are grasped not by God’s “vision” but by his “simple intelligence”.  (continued)

R Hampton - #52922

March 1st 2011

Whether God has knowledge of things that are not?
Summa Theologica, Part I, q. 14, art. 9

Rich - #52923

March 1st 2011

R Hampton (part 3 on Aquinas and foreknowledge):

Thus, while God certainly can intellectually contemplate (and I presume did intellectually contemplate) the possibility of a second term of the Kennedy presidency, he cannot “foreknow” or “foresee” it in the technical sense that I am employing.  He can foreknow or foresee only what will become actual.  And Kennedy’s second term never became actual.

I have put my argument in Thomist terms because Thomas is the only theologian whose authority you accept.  As it happens in this case, he agrees with me and not with you.  However, I want to be clear that in no way do I acknowledge the authority of Thomas in Christian theology.  I regard him as brilliant and insightful, and highly worthy of study by all Christians, but I regard his conclusions as in no way binding upon Christian theology or Christian conscience.

Enough on Aquinas.  I will return to the main argument in the next post.  (continued)

Rich - #52924

March 1st 2011

R Hampton (re 52910, 52910):

Now, back to the dodged question.

Your comments after your Aquinas quotation are ambiguous.  It is unclear whether are you assenting to the notion that God would have to have overridden human free will in order to make sure that Jesus was born to Mary, or whether you are affirming it sarcastically, as what you take to be my argument, and an invalid one.  I am not going to respond to comments when I am not sure of their purport.  If you desire an answer from me, I would suggest that you rewrite these comments in an expository fashion, setting forth your own view about how God ensured that Jesus was born, and then making the comparison to the example of the marine worm and the evolution of man, again setting forth your own view.

Note that I did not speak of “randomness” in this context.  The word is an obsession of yours, and of many TEs, but it completely obscures the question I’m raising.

Finally, you continue to dodge the question.  How did God ensure (not foresee but ensure) that man would evolve from the marine worm?  Or, taking it back further, from the Big Bang?  Answer now, without further evasions, or I declare myself the winner of the debate by default.

R Hampton - #52925

March 1st 2011

Thus, while God certainly can intellectually contemplate (and I presume did intellectually contemplate) the possibility of a second term of the Kennedy presidency, he cannot “foreknow” or “foresee” it in the technical sense that I am employing.

Exactly! God knows of contingent events that are not actualized. God knows how a second Kennedy administration would develop, how a worm’s death would alter the evolution of Man, and how Jesus would come to die if Judas remained loyal. Yet God only sees the one future he planned.

Free Will and Randomness introduce infinite contingencies that will never come to fruition, none the less, God’s plan is guaranteed to materialize without his usurping the autonomy he grants to a thing (by its inherent nature). Catholics agree with both suppositions, the Reformers disagreed. You split the two without any explanation.

R Hampton - #52926

March 1st 2011

How did God ensure (not foresee but ensure) that man would evolve from the marine worm?

Now you’re getting it!

God ensured (not foresaw but ensured) Man’s evolution from random mutations in exactly the same way that God ensured (not foresaw but ensured) that Mary’s free will led to her choose to remain a Virgin and Judas to betray Jesus.

If Providence can guarantee that his Plan will succeed in every detail and yet allow for Free Will to operate without his direct control of the choices made, then Providence can also allow for Contingency to operate without direct control of outcomes.

Rich - #52929

March 1st 2011

R Hampton (52922):

Your reference to Aquinas arrived only after I had already posted my passage from the same Article and Question, but it is quite revealing.

You chose to reproduce “Reply Obj. 1” and “Reply Obj. 2” from Qu. 9, without indicating that you were quoting replies to objections rather than Aquinas’s systematic statement from the “I answer that” section.  But of course the Reply to Objections section is meant to be read only in light of the “I answer that” section.  The “I answer that” section in Q. 9 shows that (as I predicted before I knew the source of your quotation) you misinterpreted the Reply Obj. comments.

I can think of 3 possible reasons for the selective quoting: (1) You grabbed the passage via keyword search, reckless of context; (2) You read the whole Question, but did not grasp the bearing of the “I answer that” section; (3) You read the whole Question, but deliberately avoided quoting the “I answer that” section, knowing that it supported my position.  (1) Means you were mechanically proof-texting; (2) undermines your credibility as an Aquinas expert, and (3) indicates intellectual dishonesty.

There might be other explanations, but these are the ones that occur to me at the moment.

Rich - #52931

March 1st 2011

R Hampton (52925):

“Exactly! God knows of contingent events that are not actualized. God knows how a second Kennedy administration would develop, how a worm’s death would alter the evolution of Man, and how Jesus would come to die if Judas remained loyal. Yet God only sees the one future he planned.”

How dare you pretend that this is what you were saying all along, and that I have just figured it out now?  It is only due to my painstaking research, exposing your gross error in reading Aquinas, and my careful prose clarification of the issues broached in your abysmally unclear theological statements, that it has become clear to readers here that “God only sees the one future he planned.”  The clear intention of what you wrote earlier about Aquinas, when you “corrected” me,  was that God sees *all* the futures, including the ones he never intended to actualize.  What you *should* be doing is admitting your interpretive error, and apologizing for writing so unclearly, and thanking me for saying what you were trying to say more clearly than you did.  The Jews have a word for what you are displaying here:  chutzpah.

Rich - #52933

March 1st 2011

R Hampton (52926):

Incredible!  You haven’t answered my question, and don’t even realize that you haven’t answered it!

“God ensured (not foresaw but ensured) Man’s evolution from random mutations in exactly the same way that God ensured (not foresaw but ensured) that Mary’s free will led to her choose to remain a Virgin and Judas to betray Jesus.

“If Providence can guarantee that his Plan will succeed in every detail and yet allow for Free Will to operate without his direct control of the choices made, then Providence can also allow for Contingency to operate without direct control of outcomes.”

Translation:  God guaranteed that man emerged from the marine worm without intervention, in the same way that he guaranteed that Jesus would be born to Mary without intervention. 

Follow-up question from Rich:  Got it!  And how did God do the latter?

Answer from R Hampton:  (silence)

You’re basically saying that God “provided” through his “Providence”, which is like saying that a sleep-inducing drug works because it has sleep-inducing properties.  In place of an explanation you offer a tautology.  It’s obvious that you’re not even close to grasping the causal problem, so let’s drop it.

R Hampton - #52935

March 1st 2011

I’m glad that you finally understand, even if you can only do so with insulting commentary. 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.

Predestination most certainly and infallibly takes effect; yet it does not impose any necessity, so that, namely, its effect should take place from necessity ... But not all things subject to providence are necessary; some things happening from contingency, according to the nature of the proximate causes, which divine providence has ordained for such effects. Yet the order of providence is infallible ... So also the order of predestination is certain; yet free-will is not destroyed; whence the effect of predestination has its contingency. Moreover all that has been said about the divine knowledge and will must also be taken into consideration; since they do not destroy contingency in things, although they themselves are most certain and infallible.

Whether predestination is certain?
Summa Theologica, Part I, q. 23 art. 6

Rich - #52936

March 1st 2011

R Hampton (52925):

Before I go, let me add that your comments about my position vis-a-vis Protestantism and Catholicism are gratuitous and speculative. Also, your generalizations about “Protestant” and “Catholic” positions in theology are unreliable, as within both Protestant and Catholic thought there is a wide range of positions on a wide range of subjects.

You make the common error of equating “Catholic” thought with the thought of Aquinas, but in fact there have always been many Catholic thinkers who have serious reservations about aspects of Aquinas’s thought, and there is certainly no rule that you have to be a Thomist in order to be a Catholic.  That the Catholic Church has embraced some views of Thomas I do not deny; but there is no Catholic position that Aquinas’s thought is true in its entirety or that accepting it wholesale is required by orthodoxy.  If you think otherwise, you have been propagandized by neo-Thomist thugs.

As for Protestant thought, given that you have been offering opinions about “TE” for a year now without having read a single work by any Protestant TE, it’s likely that your opinions about Protestant theology generally are based on a similar lack of acquaintance with the sources.

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