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Belief in God in a World Explained by Science, part 3

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July 16, 2014 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now, Earth, Universe & Time, Science & Worldviews, Science as Christian Calling
Belief in God in a World Explained by Science, part 3

Today's entry was written by Jim Stump. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: BioLogos Content Manager Jim Stump recently gave a talk on science and religion at College Mennonite Church in Goshen, IN, the text of which we’re featuring this week. Today’s post is the third in this series—read the first post here.

I’d suggest that we shouldn’t be involved in trying to squeeze our God into the gaps in scientific explanations. Some try to preserve a role for God in this way, thinking that unless we keep God involved in at least part of the day-to-day business of the natural world, we’ll wind up with Deism. The god of Deism may start things off, but then just sits back and watches the world go according to the natural laws. It seems, however, that there is only a slight difference between that god and a god who just watches the world go most of the time, but every once in a while has to step in and tinker with the natural systems a bit to make them work right… then goes back to sitting and watching during the parts of the processes we do understand. And again, as science progresses and explains more of the gaps, there will be ever more sitting and watching by such a god.

In that sense, then, science has exposed a flaw in our theology. We’ve been seduced by our lack of understanding into thinking that God is the sort of creator who designed natural systems that were incapable of being described consistently in natural terms. So we have tied the action of God to the normal operation of those systems (I’m not talking about miraculous intervention here). Instead, we should allow the success of science to correct this understanding of God. God’s interaction with and sustaining of all creation must operate at a different level than the forces of nature. This should make us consider God’s relationship to creation to be more like that of a personal agent, rather than a force of nature. Then we can talk about God’s actions in personal terms like “willing” or “governing” or even “loving”, and we don’t need to worry that a new scientific discovery will prove this wrong.

To illustrate this point, British physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne asks us to consider the kinds of explanations that could be given for why a tea kettle is boiling. The physicist might give an explanation in terms of the closed electrical circuit with such and such resistance in the heating element of the stove, and this conveys heat to the bottom of the kettle, which in turn causes the water molecules to move more rapidly within the kettle; the increasingly rapid motion of the molecules eventually becomes sufficient to push the vapor pressure of the water higher than the atmospheric pressure, and the water boils. That is a perfectly legitimate and scientifically complete explanation. We don’t have to appeal to anything supernatural to explain that process.

But we might also give an explanation for the same event on another level. For it is also a correct description of the situation to say that the kettle is boiling because I want a cup of tea! This second kind of explanation is what we might call a personal explanation. It appeals to a different sort of reality—the reality of persons—and provides an explanation in terms more appropriate to that reality. If God is a personal being as Christian creeds attest, then it is perfectly legitimate to explore that personal aspect of reality in theological terms while at the same time encouraging others to explore the level of description more appropriate to the fundamental laws and forces of nature.

Science may well be comprehensive within its domain. When speaking as scientists we need not appeal to supernatural intervention to make our equations work. But theology might persuade us that there are limits to that domain. Natural explanation does not exhaust reality. Science became so spectacularly successful by limiting itself to natural causes, but does that success mean that natural causes are all there is? Chemists might give an exhaustive analysis of the elements and properties of an oil painting, or acoustic engineers might comprehensively describe the action of sound waves in a symphony hall. But if those scientific descriptions were all that were given, we’d be missing the central point of art and music. There is something more that cannot be reduced to forces and particles in motion. There is meaning over and above the physical description.

So too with the origin of the universe. Is the Big Bang as far back as we can go with a scientific explanation? Maybe, maybe not. I see no reason to take a definitive stand on that yet. If scientists can figure out ways to push back their explanations further, we Christians remain committed to the claim that they will not have explained all of reality. They may give a more comprehensive account of one aspect of reality, but if I’m right, there is another aspect to reality. Indeed, on my view, the central meaning of reality is a personal being who loves and sustains and cannot be exhaustively described by science any more than art or music or love can be.

So perhaps we are at a kind of impasse. The atheist cosmologist Sean Carroll discusses in very clear terms in an essay he wrote for a book I edited, why we don’t need God for explanations about the universe any more. But of course he’s talking about the gaps in scientific explanations. Science appears to be able to give a complete explanation for how things work. But he acknowledges that there is a different kind of question along the lines I’ve been suggesting:

“These are very different arguments, but they all arise from a conviction that, in various contexts, it is insufficient to fully understand what happens; we must also provide an explanation for why it happens—what might be called a ‘meta-explanatory’ account. It can be difficult to respond to this kind of argument. The ultimate answer to ‘we need to understand why the universe exists/continues to exist/exhibits regularities/came to be’ is essentially ‘No, we don’t.’ That is unlikely to be considered a worthwhile comeback to anyone who was persuaded by the need for a meta-explanatory understanding in the first place. It is always nice to be able to provide reasons why something is the case. Most scientists, however, suspect that the search for ultimate explanations eventually terminates in some final theory of the world, along with the phrase ‘and that’s just how it is.’” (Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity, p. 193)

So here are our options: that’s just the way it is, or God desired for things to be this way. Does the “personal explanation” reduce to the “scientific explanation”? Or are there different kinds of entities like persons and things like meaning which are incapable of being reduced to their constituent elements, and so science can’t give a comprehensive explanation for all of reality? These are two different ways of looking at the world, and I don’t think we’ll resolve which is correct through arguments.

I conclude instead with one more quotation, this time from one of my heroes from literature: Puddleglum of C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair from the Chronicles of Narnia. He’s a funny, melancholy character who helps lead the children in search of a lost Prince, and their journey takes them to a nasty, underground kingdom. There they find the prince, but see that he is under the spell of a witch. And she attempts to put them under the same spell through some incense in a fire and her soothing words that their memories of the world above and Aslan their king are just a dream of silly children. They all come to the point where that explanation does in fact seem perfectly reasonable and consistent with their experience. But then Puddleglum, in a herculean effort to break free from the spell, stamps out the fire and makes this speech to the witch queen:

“One word, Ma’am, he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

If our world is just matter in motion in the vast emptiness of space, that’s ultimately a pretty gloomy and dismal place. Maybe it’s true; again I doubt that I can prove to you otherwise. But even if it is true, I’d prefer to live my life living as much like a Narnian as I can, looking for the Overland.

Jim Stump is Senior Editor at BioLogos. As such he oversees the development of new content and curates existing content for the website and print materials. Jim has a PhD in philosophy from Boston University and was formerly a philosophy professor and academic administrator. He has authored Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues (Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming) and co-authored (with Chad Meister) Christian Thought: A Historical Introduction (Routledge, 2010). He has co-edited (with Alan Padgett) The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and (with Kathryn Applegate) How I Changed My Mind About Evolution (InterVarsity, forthcoming).

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Merv - #85982

July 16th 2014

Thanks, Jim for this heartfelt sharing—- we share much of the same tastes in literary heroes (Lewis) and in sci fi movies.  While I resonate with much of what you wrote, a couple points caught me up which I’d like to pursue.

I too have read much of Lewis, and the words he puts in his characters’ mouths are brilliantly thought-provoking.  As such, Puddleglum’s speech does reflect a common Lewis theme of critiquing the materialist view of the world.  But I think that speech should be read with care.  It sounds as if Puddleglum is hastily giving up (at least in part) on the notion that there really is an “overland truth” out there.  Silver Chair readers will recognize that it is part of Puddleglum’s character to express pessimism on all such matters.  The quoted speech you have here shows at the end, though, that deep down, Puddleglum really hasn’t given up his belief (his fervent hope!) that the overland world really is real.  So while it is tempting to see this as an endorsement of daydreams triumphing over “hard materialist truth”—- I don’t think Lewis would take it in that direction (well—the “superior” part—maybe, but I don’t think Lewis was conceding the “truth” part.)  That is, an essential part of our hope in Christianity is that it *really is* true.  If we thought it just a daydream (even a superior one), then we have deflated the essential content of our hope.  And the apostle Paul will have none of such mental gymnastics ... “if we are found to be false witnesses ... then we are to be pitied above all men,” says the man who has endured beatings and prison for the sake of a hope in a reality that will be his final reward.  I don’t imagine you disagree with this, and I didn’t read your essay as suggesting it.  I’m just heading off a misconception that some may see here if they didn’t know Puddleglum.

Secondly, I do critique (or perhaps fail to understand) something you wrote earlier in this part.  You wrote:

We’ve been seduced by our lack of understanding into thinking that God is the sort of creator who designed natural systems that were incapable of being described consistently in natural terms. So we have tied the action of God to the normal operation of those systems (I’m not talking about miraculous intervention here). Instead, we should allow the success of science to correct this understanding of God. God’s interaction with and sustaining of all creation must operate at a different level than the forces of nature. This should make us consider God’s relationship to creation to be more like that of a personal agent, rather than a force of nature.

I had to reread that several times.  If the first sentence is rephrased with some of the negatives removed for clarity ... it sounds to me like you’ve claimed that God *is* the sort of God who designs a universe capable of being described consistently in natural terms (excluding and preserving miraculous events).  Then you go on to say that God’s interaction must operate at a different level than the forces of nature.  This sounds like a very convenient way to entirely divorce God from having any material effect on the world—- safely out of reach of any scientific critique; a very dualist view compartmentalizing the spiritual world away from the natural.  If we can say (very correctly—I have used Polkinghorne’s example myself) that the tea kettle is boiling because I want tea, then my desire and purpose for tea has most definitely influenced a hard materialist reality in which thermal energy transfer is now causing water to boil.  That is, my will resulted in a very real and observeable natural phenomenon (the boiling water). 

So I would maintain that your solution (if indeed you were proposing it as such) does not get you off the hook or demonstrate much distance from a deist god.  We still have the hard (maybe impossible) work of trying to show *how* God has real influence over His creation.  I still think the TE is closer by asserting that God is the ever-present sustainer of ALL processes, regular or irregular, understood or mysterious.  It does not give scientific satisfaction, but it isn’t trying to.  It is a theologically given understanding. 

Thanks for any more clarifications you give in helping me unpack and understand your essay correctly.

James Stump - #85985

July 16th 2014

Merv, it sounds to me like we agree entirely on Lewis.  I don’t at all want to take the truth of the matter out of the equation, and don’t think Lewis (or Puddleglum) did either.  Just that not everyone sees the truth the same way, and Christian faith provides a way of seeing which, if not provable in the strict sense of the word, is more agreeable.  Much more to be said on this point.

On your second point, I’m not sure I have any more difficulty here than do others.  The interaction between between your desire for tea and the physical process set in motion is not explicable either.  I don’t mean to suggest that the world is the body of God, just that interaction between different realms or aspects of reality resists explication in terms that are used by either of the aspects.  I’m also very sympathetic to the sustainer or ground of being description of God’s interaction.

Jon Garvey - #85984

July 16th 2014


I hope you’re happy for me to carry on the conversation I started yesterday, in the light of this third post. Your conclusion seems to me, as I reflect on it, to be indistinguishable from Gould’s NOMA concept: the “how” of things is the domain of science, and the “why” the domain of faith. There seems an implicit assumption that there is an unbridgeable gap, as far as  our knowledge goes, between God’s purposes (let’s call it “final causation” as that term has a long pedigree) and the scientific means (efficient and material causation) he employs. But can that be maintained?

Did you not think that Sean Carroll was being a little gung-ho in his claim that science has the explanation for how everything works, quite apart from his conviction that nothing else matters? Why should we believe him, when he’s demonstrably wrong even in the example you give of water boiling. Science may explain why water boils, but can only explain why that water boiled by taking your final causation into account, since you put the kettle on. In fact, it can only explain the event by also accounting for the form of the kettle and the design of the heat source, whose formal cause (information content) is the result of human purpose. Sans those, there is no physics to see.

The only way even such mundane events can be reduced to scientific causes is by denying that you and your tea are anything but results of physical laws - a reductive materialism that must destroy science along with humanity.

Aristotle found he could not account for scientifc reality without final and formal causation, and behind them a First Cause - it took Aquinas to equate that with God. Modern science ignored the first as a hindrance (and eventually on naturalistic principle), and the latter because it seemed an empty concept. But every paper on evolution ever published shows that biology couldn’t advance without teleological concepts like “function” slipping in the back door. And formal causation begins to look essential in the study of information in the science of tea-making, quite apart from computational biology or the information content of the laws themselves.

I suspect the thinking Christian will not long rest easy in the comfort of this solution of the “separation of Church and Physical State”. It leaves too many key issues open. He will ask inevitably questions like these:

“If God’s purpose is behind the mechanisms of science, how extensive is that purpose? Should I even talk about things being ‘random’ or ‘accidental” like the naturalists do? Is it really fruitless in science to look for the purposes served by efficient causes? Are the natural causes science describes sufficient, in practice, for God to answer my prayers in the physical realm, for weather or healing? If so, did he answer my prayer by tweaking the constants at the Big Bang, and if not does he do millions of little miracles every day, to the detriment of the natural order? Or maybe the sanctity of the natural order makes prayer presumptuous? If, in fact, the natural order *can* be “adjusted” in response to daily prayer, why would God work differently where humans are not involved? Might his purposes today not warrant the input of new information, just as my wanting a cup of tea warrants putting the kettle on? Are not efficient causes *God’s* causes too? On what principle should they *not* point to his purposes and actions?”



James Stump - #85987

July 16th 2014

Jon, I don’t think it is the same as NOMA.  Gould separates the objects of inquiry by discipline (or magisteria): science gets the facts, religion is consigned to values.  What I’ve done (and the teapot story illustrates) is to say there are different ways of looking at and describing the same thing.  And none of those ways is exhaustive.

And I agree with you that evolution seems to involve teleological concepts that science is ill-equipped to handle.  I think Carroll and others are too optimistic that we can ultimately give comprehensive scientific explanations.  My point was just that EVEN IF they do, that doesn’t obviate a role for God.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85986

July 16th 2014


Very interesting and I agree with your conclusion.  Reality is basically Personal, rather than impersonal.

Let me point out some problems with modern Western dualist world view that you are critiquing.  It posits two aspects of life, the Physical and the Spiritual. 

Non-believers think that if humans can understand the universe or the physical, (which is very questionable,) they can understand the human and organic world.  If I may say so this is manifestly untrue. 

Science is good at solving scientific problems.  It is not good at solving the more pressing human problems of love, justice, and freedom. 

By now one would think that would be obvious, but it is not.  Even now the West is more confident that Western science will solve the ills of the world, rather than Western religion.

The fact is humans live at least three world, the physical material world, the organic living world, and the spiritual moral world.  We need to integrate these three worlds, rather than separate them, and only God Who is the Source of all of them can do this.

We believe that God is Personal, because God is Triune.  We know that humans are personal because we are made in God’s Image. But in what sense is the physical personal?  That is the issue I have tried to address and solve.

g kc - #85991

July 16th 2014


You use the words “explain” or “explanation” thirty-two times in this article. E.g. “as science progresses and explains more of the gaps… Science appears to be able to give a complete explanation for how things work.”

I had a thought today, that “explanation” is a poor choice of words in many contexts, but especially in the context of evolution.

Without the explicit use of a modifier, the IMPLIED modifier is something like “valid”, “true”, “verifiable”. And I think you may be implying those modifiers here. I’m sure we could find many examples of scientific “explanations” which were widely accepted but which later turned out to be wrong.

A parent can provide his four year-old child an explanation of how the gifts got under the Christmas tree (i.e. Santa). A physicist can provide an explanation for the seeming impossibility of our set of universal constants being dialed in randomly/accidentally (i.e. multiverse theory). Both are explanations. But in the former case, it’s a useful FAIRYTALE; in the latter, wild SPECULATION.

Science should not be in the business of providing “explanations”, per se. It should be in the business of providing  VERIFIABLE or PROVABLE explanations.

And I submit that evolutionary scientists have provided ZERO such explanations.



Based on my epiphany, I’m going to try to avoid using “explain/explanation” in the future, unless I provide a modifier. Even if it’s something more modest, like “an” (I.e. “an explanation”, not “THE explanation”).

James Stump - #86000

July 17th 2014

g kc, you’re of course free to use language however you’d like, but in the communities of which I’m a part, “explanation” is the term used for what science (or theology or philosophy) is trying to do.  We have certain kinds of experiences, and theories are explanations for why we’ve had that experience.  Some explanations are better than others, but very few of them are completely verified or proved.  That was the dream of positivism.  I think we have a more sensible understanding of science now.

By the way, I do hope you’ll continue to use our site and find some benefit from it.  But it feels like you’re more interested in fighting than in understanding.  I’m going to do my best to keep this a site where the latter is the norm and the former frowned upon.  There are lots of other places you can go to fight.

PNG - #85994

July 17th 2014

There is of course more than one meaning for “explanation.” One is that you provide a hypothesis, preferably mathematical, that summarizes the order observed in the system. That’s what science is about. The hypothesis is a good one to the extent that it fits the data under the conditions observed and predicts the behavior of the system under new conditions subsequently observed. With sufficient replication and extension to dealing well with multiple various instances, a hypothesis may come to be regarded as a theory and make it to the textbooks. (Sometimes flaky stuff gets to a textbook, but it’s usually out by the next edition.)There are also teleological explanations, which deal with the purposes and intentions of an agent. Psychology, archeology, anthropology and theology deal in that kind of explanation. Of course if the agent is acting purposefully in this universe, it will involve both final (the purpose) and proximal (physical) components. Aristotelian divisions are of some use here, and I’m sure Jon Garvey would be happy to instruct you, if you need it. Your assertions about evolution just indicate that you know next to nothing about the subject. You aren’t the only one here to make grand assertions in the absence of any detailed familiarity with the subject. I suppose it’s that repetition that makes it so tiresome. If you really want to learn, you could start with Dennis’s material here, which is really quite good, despite your previous comments. There’s also plenty of good material elsewhere on the internet. Avoid the YEC sites and Uncommon Descent - they’re all about culture war. Of course, if you really want to understand it all, you’ll need to go to grad school in a relevant area and learn to read the primary literature. Newspaper articles and the like are really only useful for pointing one to the original research articles. More often than not, I can’t tell from the journalist’s efforts what was actually done. Even reading the abstract is more informative than a news article, if you’ve learned the field by going to grad school. If, like some people who comment here, you refuse to learn the basics, you’ll just misinterpret what you read. You seem to have started down that road. I recommend you get off it, either by learning the relevant biology or by toning down your rhetoric considerably, and laying off the all caps.

g kc - #86002

July 17th 2014


To repeat, without caps:

I submit that evolutionary scientists have provided zero such explanations.

Nolan Archer - #86059

July 25th 2014

“There are also teleological explanations, which deal with the purposes and intentions of an agent. Psychology, archeology, anthropology and theology deal in that kind of explanation.”

Thanks for the great series Jim.  The quote above from PNG’s comment is where my brain went after reading it.  Neuroscience would have some things to say about someone wanting tea.  I find my faith stalled.  It seems that science has overruled many of the traditional beliefs in Christianity.  I’m not one to cling to sacred falsehoods and so the overwhelming challenge I find myself with now is, what’s left that I do believe?

g kc - #86060

July 25th 2014


You wrote “It seems that science has overruled many of the traditional beliefs in Christianity.”

From among the “many”, could you list a couple traditional Christian beliefs which you feel science has overruled (excluding Genesis 1-2 creation beliefs)?

Vanessa C - #86062

July 26th 2014

Jim, I really loved these series of articles. It’s nice to be able to relate to someone who lives in the seemingly small subset of belief which can have a friendly and open dialogue between religion and science.

Before college I was skeptical about evolution and the big bang, etc. My majors in college are psych/religion (I just graduated in May.) But through my religion courses I learned a lot of different perspectives of religion, and how some people are comfortable enough in their belief system to accept scientific fact. I really find myself agreeing on most things within process theology. I had to change my definition of God because it just interfered with the facts of nature/science. I believe that perhaps the idea of God “evolves” through time, and it was time that I realized God wasn’t unchangeable/omniscient/etc., and of course I don’t mean any offense when I say this, as I don’t see God as a lesser entity with these alternative attributes. 

I really loved your tea kettle metaphor. How I understood it to mean, is that overall science and religion asks the same questions but have a different answer/view, which doesn’t mean one is more correct than the other or better than the other. And this train of thought is what made me so comfortable balancing myself between religious and scientific thought. Science and religion serve different purposes, so it’s not fair to try to mush them together, or to say one is right and the other is wrong. Science deals with the objective tangible world, and through a belief system (Christianity) we can have a sense of purpose and meaning within our covert world. I believe that there are traces of God through love and creativity. (My apologies for the wall of text!)

The whole reason I commented was to say thank you for these wonderful insights to your beliefs, and how your beliefs came about. I have great respect for someone who can reference great thinkers on the vast spectrum of disciplines. Hopefully you’ll do more writings like this (or perhaps make a list of references containing books/people who can find balance within science and religion, I would love that…so bored after graduating!) It really helps my faith when reading pieces like this, it certainly makes me feel less alone. God bless.


g kc - #86063

July 26th 2014


Congratulations on your graduation! Although I’m sorry to hear you’ve been so bored since then. Perhaps I can ask some questions which might relieve your ennui.

You wrote “But through my religion courses I learned a lot of different perspectives of religion, and how some people are comfortable enough in their belief system to accept scientific fact.”

I think a “scientific fact” would be something beyond dispute by any legitimate scientist or any rational person.

What would you consider a “scientific fact” of evolution? In fact, what would be the one most impressive and compelling of these facts?

If you’ll be kind enough to answer, please stick just to evolution, the process of evolution, and not to when it occurred. [The discussion of “deep time” is really an entirely different subject.]



“I had to change my definition of God because it just interfered with the facts of nature/science.”

I don’t understand this. Could you give an example? [Again, if you do, please stick just to evolution itself, not when it is said to have happened.]



You give an indication that you’re a Christian. Do you believe that Christianity includes the belief that God ““evolves” through time” and is not “unchangeable/omniscient”? Assuming such sentiments are not part of historic, traditional Christian core teaching, do you feel comfortable holding such beliefs?

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