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Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 4: Demarcation

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December 27, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Monopolizing Knowledge, Part 4: Demarcation

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

In his new book Monopolizing Knowledge (available for purchase now), physicist Ian Hutchinson engages with the world-view he calls “scientism”: “the belief that science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge” (page vii). In Hutchinson’s eyes, this erroneous world-view is at least indirectly responsible for the apparent friction between science and religion that many see today. In this series (taken from the larger book, which engages the topic in a much fuller and deeper fashion), Hutchinson will attempt to both explain and dismantle “scientism” by examining both what we mean when we say “science”, and how the scientistic worldview oversteps this definition and becomes a philosophical and metaphysical framework. In parts two and three, Hutchinson described two key characteristics of science that underlie its immense power but limit its scope: reproducibility and Clarity. Today he looks at the challenging of defining what is and isn't science.

Demarcation: What is or isn't science.

Is there a clear enough definition or understanding of what natural science is to justify distinguishing it from non-science?

In 1952, Nobel-prize-winning economist F. A. Hayek wrote about sociology's development as follows:

During the first half of the nineteenth century ... the physical and biological disciplines ... came to exercise an extraordinary fascination on those working in other fields, who rapidly began to imitate their teaching and vocabulary ... to vindicate their equal status by showing that their methods were the same as those of their brilliantly successful sisters rather than by adapting their methods more and more to their own particular problems. ... in the hundred and twenty years or so, during which this ambition to imitate Science ... has now dominated social studies, it has contributed scarcely anything to our understanding of social phenomena ...1

Please note that this assessment of scientism in sociology is not by me or any other scientist but by a world-leading practitioner of one of the most distinguished social disciplines. Hayek attributes the start of this fruitless trend in sociology to the "Positivists" Henri Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte. Their ambition was to show that "there were laws governing the development of the human race as definite as those determining the fall of a stone". Their aim was to turn social history into a new science modeled on the natural sciences.

Secularist advocates object to calling scientism a religion because they say scientism lacks the clerical hierarchic authority and public rituals that characterize most theistic religions. A remarkable feature of early nineteenth century scientisms, however, was the attempt to embody them in explicit new religions, complete with all the trappings of traditional faiths.The last of Henri Saint-Simon's works published in his lifetime was entitled New Christianity. His followers set out to found the organized religion of this new belief. Their efforts began with a short-lived journal, progressed to public lectures on the Doctrine de Saint-Simon, and thence to services, public confession of sins, itinerant preachers, and the founding of local centers throughout the country. It ended in a move to a monastic community complete with menial labor and vows of celibacy.

Auguste Comte quickly disassociated himself in the 1820s with the Saint-Simonian religion. But in his later teaching (1851-) he founded his own new Religion of Humanity complete with hierarchic priesthood, and a high-priest (Comte himself). Comte's obsessive detail prescribes nine personal sacraments, eighty-one annual festivals, the saints, the icons to be used in Positive churches, and that they should all face towards the source of their enlightenment: Paris. The Religion of Humanity attracted some influential figures, for example philosopher John Stuart Mill and novelist George Eliot.

For much of the twentieth century philosophers of science sought mightily for methodological descriptions or definitions of science: either to identify and explain the methods that science uses to obtain its knowledge, or more modestly to supply criteria that distinguish science from non-science. The current opinion in philosophical circles is that both of these programs have failed, and in particular that demarcation between science and non-science has no clear solution. This failure gives rise to a paradox. Despite having concluded that there is no satisfactory working definition of what science is, the History and Philosophy of Science has not collapsed and vanished as an academic field. I conclude that, despite what HPS says, there actually are some intuitive ways by which science is identified, as evidenced by the pretty clear boundaries of the topics that HPS does actually study.

These matters of demarcation have been brought very much into the American public eye in recent years by the role they play in battles about high-school biology. Although the guilty Scopes verdict in 1925 was overturned on the absurd technicality that the $100 fine exceeded the judge's authority, anti-evolution law remained on the statutes of Tennessee and several other US states. Text-books worked cautiously around these laws until in 1968 the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down its anti-evolution statute, and was followed in this action by Mississippi two years later. Thereafter, repeated attempts to introduce creationism into the curriculum have repeatedly been overturned by the courts. The strategy adopted by `Creation Science' activists increasingly, in the face of these reverses, was to portray creationism as science and to argue that, as such, it should be taught alongside evolution. A statute worded along these lines in Arkansas was struck down in 1982, after testimony from a host of expert witnesses. Louisiana's similar statute arrived by a tortuous legal route at the US Supreme Court on 10 December 1987. Its defenders argued that it was not religious but scientific. Seven of the nine justices were unconvinced. Thereafter, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement went to even further efforts to ensure that their ideas were free from religious taint. Eventually, in the celebrated case in Dover, Pennsylvania, 2005, Judge Jones' ruling identified ID as "a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory" and castigated the school board for precipitating a pointless trial.

These high-profile legal decisions hinge on the question of whether certain opinions and teachings are or are not science. That this has become the deciding question is a remarkable sign of the dominance of scientism in our culture. Scientism leads to acrimonious arguments about whether opinions are or are not science because the scientistic ethos gives special status to science that it does not give to non-scientific disciplines. The result is that the demarcation of what is or is not science becomes not merely an academic philosophical discussion, but a vital legal matter that decides practical questions of deep importance and emotional significance in the minds of most of the American public.

Since the attempt to define science by uncovering its logical methods or even to establish what is or is not science is judged to have failed, and since this question has become a high-profile legal matter I am in dangerous waters. I am asserting that there are two identifiable characteristics of science, reproducibility and Clarity. Am I therefore claiming to have solved the demarcation problem? No, what I am observing is that, despite the difficulties that undoubtedly exist in specific demarcation, there are in fact identifiable characteristics of science. These characteristics don't provide algorithms either for the practice or the identification of science, but they are nevertheless truly part of science. I am not setting out to provide a comprehensive solution of demarcation, but I am claiming to be able to identify some characteristics of what any solution must look like. Modest answers to parts of problems are sometimes what one must settle for.

Another plea in mitigation of my apparent hubris is that the difficulty of demarcation is substantially amplified by scientism. First, philosophically, demarcation between science and non-science in the context of scientism is equivalent to the demarcation between sense and nonsense, rationality and irrationality, knowledge and superstition. One should not discount the identifiable characteristics of natural science just because of failures of this wider program. Second, politically, since scientism has embroiled the problem of demarcation in high-profile legal questions that raise emotions on both sides, the difficulty of demarcation is made significantly greater. But my whole aim here is to repudiate the scientism that leads to the enhancement of these difficulties. If, as I am saying, science is not all the knowledge there is, then the weight that demarcation has to bear is reduced to a scope that is both more manageable and less sensitive.

Finally, I am content to see the characteristics of repeatability and Clarity as partial definitions of what I mean by science. Any perception of chauvinism in this position arises from the self-same scientistic viewpoint I am at pains to deny. I have no intention to discount or disparage academic disciplines that I regard as not being science. That political science, for example, is not a science in the way I mean it does not change its scholarly or practical value. I do not subscribe to scientism. I believe there is deep meaning, truth, relevance, and insight in non-scientific studies pursued with intelligence and rigor. But their merits have to be really their own, not the reflected glow of a terminological anachronism.

The discipline of History and Philosophy of Science does not have simple answers to the questions, what is or is not science? Or what methods does science use? But HPS, like science itself, nevertheless appears to have intuition about what science is. Natural science is what HPS studies. Although strict demarcation is fraught with a peril greatly enhanced in recent debates by a scientism that artificially inflates the stakes, there are identifiable characteristics of science. Attempts to turn other disciplines, especially social disciplines, into explicit positive science, after the manner of the natural sciences, have a long history - of failure.


1. F A Hayek. The counter revolution of science studies on the abuse of reason. Free press of Glencoe (Macmillan), New York, 1955.

Ian H. Hutchinson is professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His primary research interest is plasma physics and its practical applications. He and his MIT team designed, built and operate the Alcator C-Mod tokamak, an international experimental facility whose magnetically confined plasmas are prototypical of a future fusion reactor. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Cambridge University and his doctorate in engineering physics from the Australian National University. He directed the Alcator project from 1987 to 2003 and served as head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering department from 2003 to 2009. In addition to over 200 journal articles on a variety of plasma phenomena, Hutchinson is widely known for his standard monograph on measuring plasmas: Principles of Plasma Diagnostics. For more, see Hutchinson's book Monopolizing Knowledge.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #66808

December 28th 2011

This whole thing is out of whack. 

Science is knowledge.  That there are many kinds of knowldge is obvious.  However scientism, which is a strong influence in the intellectual community today wants to say that Natural (physical) Science is the only real or true type of knowledge, every thing else is subjective or false.

This is manifestly false, but to admit this would mean that Reality is composed of more than the physical, which is what those who are committed Monists and atheists are unable to do.  

Jon Garvey - #66827

December 29th 2011

Leaving aside the merits of his restrictive definition of science, Hutchinson appears to be saying that if the natural sciences are stripped of the accretion of scientism, they will prosper by working happily within the restricted area of natural phenomena at which they excel.

And those of us here who believe that science is not the only source of true knowledge will say, “Amen.”

But it’s a bit like those children who are trotted out as examples of preternatural wisdom when they say, “The world would be much better for children if all the grownups stopped fighting.” The trick is making it happen, and that takes a paradigm shift.

It’s not just that the popularisers of science like Dawkins, Sagan or Attenborough market their scientism in the same glossy package as their science (often at the expense of the science). It’s also that those in science with the greatest influence (and power) have no wish at all to separate one from the other, as it serves their purpose well to conflate them (witness the Dover trial or the Sternberg affair). Indeed, as Jerry Coyne’s response to this very series shows, they can’t even distinguish them (http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/guest-post-biologos-on-scientism-part-3/).

In Soviet Russia the power structures only began to crack when people as a whole stopped believing in them. The most useful thing a series like this can do is to encourage ordinary people - especially scientists - to some introspective assessment of how scientism has contaminated their own understanding of the world.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66848

December 30th 2011


I agree with much of what you say, but I disagree with your approach.

The issue is philosophical cosmology.  Scientism to its benefit is clear that it has a monistic cosmology.  Others probably have a dualistic philosophical world view, which is 1) not made clear and 2) hard to explain and defend. 

Thus critics are fighting against Scientism with one hand behind their back.  They are against it but do not have a viable alternative. 

Scientism uses the post Marxist, materialist, monistic thought of Monod is its intellectual foundation.  In my last book I did a deep critique of Monod, but I do not see where anyone else has.  Indeed one one BioLogos blog he was quoted in a positive manner. 

Thus it seems to me that all those who are concerned about Scientism need to do the heavy philosophical spade work of critiquing Monod et al and providing a viable philosophical framework beyond monism and dualism for science and all intellectual endeavor. 

Papalinton - #66832

December 29th 2011

“These high-profile legal decisions [Dover etc] hinge on the question of whether certain opinions and teachings are or are not science. That this has become the deciding question is a remarkable sign of the dominance of scientism in our culture.”

Sour grapes.  Characterizing such decisions as signs of rampant ‘scientism’  is simply that of a faithhead [Hutchinson] who’s personal form of woo has been challenged in the courts and found very sadly wanting.  Hutchinson should be thankful that his woo had two thousands years of unfettered cultural dominance and shouldn’t feel aggrieved that it is being levered out of the driving seat of the role in co-ordinating, harmonizing and integrating  social growth and development.  

There is a paradigm shift occurring through which religion features an increasingly diminishing role in society. He can bitch and moan all he likes, but science is here to stay, and until something better comes along, will be the principal interface through which humans will continue to build knowledge and deeper understanding of their relationship with the environment, the world, the cosmos and each other.  People are basically cutting out the middleman, and doing good for goodness’s sake alone.  And where once the community turned to church leaders they now invariably turn to the courts.  Fairness and justice all round.  A win-win situation.
beaglelady - #66835

December 29th 2011

Remember that people of faith were among those who fought to keep Intelligent Design  out of the science classroom in Dover.  This was settled in the courts because the US has separation of church and state.

James R - #66837

December 29th 2011


To be accurate, what the plaintiffs tried to keep out of the classroom at Dover was a two-minute statement indicating that a theory of intelligent design existed, and that a book would be available in the library for anyone interested in reading it.  No actual lessons on intelligent design were scheduled to be taught.

However, even if intelligent design—in the proper sense—had been taught in classrooms at Dover, there would have been no violation of the separation of Church and State, since intelligent design presupposes no religious convictions and teaches no religious doctrine.  The violation of Church and State at Dover came with the motivation of the school board trustees, who were creationists hoping to use “intelligent design” as a way of sneaking some religion into science class.  The judge rightly condemned their policy as unconstitutional based on that motivation.

Unfortunately, the judge then proceeded to make pronouncements on matters of science and theology that were far above the intellectual pay grade of someone whose training was in neither science nor theology, but in law.  He should have simply struck down the school board’s policy on the grounds of illicit motivation, and left the whole question of the status of intelligent design for scientists and philosophers and theologians to debate at the university level.

Using the standard applied in the Dover case, Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species would be ruled unconstitutional for science class, since it is loaded with implicit and explicit theological judgments.  But I would not want students to be forbidden from hearing the arguments of Darwin in biology class, any more than I would want them forbidden from hearing the arguments of Newton in physics class.  Neither would the Founding Fathers of America have wanted their principle of separation to be employed in the service of such censorship.  They were Enlightenment thinkers who believed in the free exchange of ideas.  Had they known of the existence of Darwin and Paley, they would have said that the views of both thinkers should be presented for debate, not that the views of Darwin should be given a monopoly and the views of Paley rendered illegal. 

Jon Garvey - #66846

December 30th 2011

Your juxtaposition of Paley and Darwin is interesting, James. I’ve just been reading the former (on the basis that any influential writer universally claimed to have been debunked probably hasn’t been). I find his line of argument generally weak in a post-evolutionary context, but remarkably parallel to Darwin’s in OoS, which is not surprising as Paley was a major early influence on Darwin.

So where Paley says, “Look at this wonderful thing in nature - see how it evidences the skill of its Creator”, Darwin in very similar style says, “Look at this wonderful thing in nature - see how it evidences natural selection.” The actual standard of evidence differs little, except for Darwin’s greater experience as a hands-on naturalist.

It’s very hard to see why the viewpoint of two ancient books, in essentially the same genre, and both equally influential in their time, should not be given equal exposure. Except on the basis that “history is written by the winners.”

On the education thing, I’m interested to discover that there has been a great resurgence in theistic philosophy in the last half-century, so that materialism is even said to be on the wane in such circles. Does the separation of church and state mean that only the outmoded materialist philosophy can be taught in US schools?

ZeroG - #66851

December 30th 2011

One of the reasons they are turning away from religion is because religious people insist on playing in the physical world. We are failing as “fishers of men.” Religion can have a viable role in society today, but we (believers) must not fall into the trap of the battling in physical world (science) and wedging a God in there as Creator. Instead, we need to address the rapant greed, devisive hate, high stress levels, and moral decay. We shouldn’t do this with laws but instead by good clear role models. Role models that make people ask “what does he know that makes him so happy?” That is where religion can have value in society.

Classifying all these views and opinions of the real world into scientism, creationism, ID, and whatever else, does nothing to show His people what His kingdom can be like.

Jon Garvey - #66860

December 31st 2011

Zero G

“wedging a God in there as Creator”

You are, of course, entitled to hold whatever views you like. But this construction of things is insupportable - either theologically, historically, philosophically or scientifically.

The theological interests me most - God has never been other than Sovereign Creator in the whole of Christian and Jewish history. It is his role as Creator that underpins his role as Saviour, and it is his new act of Creation that is the goal of that salvation. That is not wedging him in as Creator - to deny it is is unnaturally (and blasphemously) to squeeze him out.

You’re right, of course, to say that the main role of Christians is not to argue about science but to present Jesus as Saviour - and that’s why only a minority of them have any interest in issues like this. But as my Christian musician friend said of my involvement in science-faith issues, “It’s the kind of thing I’m very glad someone else is doing.”

Because God is Creator, and Jesus the Word by which he creates, the whole world is his. It’s right that there are Christians doing music, accountancy, loocal government, school-teaching, medicine - and biological science. And even those seeking to undo the damage to humanity that materialist science has done by seeking (unsuccessfully in my view) to deny God as Creator.

Papalinton - #66861

December 31st 2011

“Because God is Creator, and Jesus the Word by which he creates, the whole world is his. It’s right that there are Christians doing music, accountancy, loocal government, school-teaching, medicine - and biological science. And even those seeking to undo the damage to humanity that materialist science has done by seeking (unsuccessfully in my view) to deny God as Creator.”

Where do the other 6 billion people in the world fit into this perspective, that acknowledges their rights, their cultures, their families, their societies?  
How do the other 6 billion people in the world fit into this perspective, with equity of respect for their beliefs and customs, together with  equality, justice and fairness and fairmindedness? 

How does this perspective fit with the celebration of diversity, heterogeneity,  multi-culturalism, and variety?

Is this perspective negotiable in light of finding a true path to peace and prosperity among all peoples?
Roger A. Sawtelle - #66862

December 31st 2011


The question is What is true?, not What do most people know? 

Relatively very few people understand science, but that does not mean that everyone is not subject to the laws of nature.

Materialistic Monism does not does not fit into diversity and variety.  Indeed it is based on a particular Western culture.  Christianity is found in all parts of the world in many forms.  In fact it is often criticized because it is so diverse.

With whom do you want us to negotiate?  With Islam?  With Marxism?  With Dawkins?  With you?  I am certainly ready for dialog, any time, any place. 

Jon Garvey - #66863

December 31st 2011

Papalinton, discussing with a self-confessed Christian like ZeroG about the implications of his theology does not require addressing atheist denials of our shared presuppositions.

It’s not relevant to my exchange, it’s not relevant to the subject of the thread, and it’s of dubious relevance to the purpose of this website, which is the rapprochement of science and faith.

You’ll excuse me, then, for not sidetracking the thread by responding.

I will, however, succumb to the temptation of pointing out that equality, justice, fairness, fairmindedness, diversity, heterogeneity, multiculturalism and variety, nor even peace and prosperity can be established as scientific values on materialist presuppositions.

Papalinton - #66879

December 31st 2011

“I will, however, succumb to the temptation of pointing out that equality, justice, fairness, fairmindedness, diversity, heterogeneity, multiculturalism and variety, nor even peace and prosperity can be established as scientific values on materialist presuppositions.”

Of course they can.  Materialist presuppositions are then only operating requisites available.  Universal access to healthcare, a liberal education, and a place to shelter is all that is required to reduce the anxiety and fear and worry about how one is going to look after him or herself and their family.  With these basic needs attended to all the other things follow.  Scientific values and materialistic presuppositions have been the fundamental vehicles through which humans have improved their life chances and reduced existential anxieties.  Religion on the other hand, has never established improved health, physical and knowledge outcomes for its adherents.  Indeed there is a direct correlation between being poor, high crime rates, levels of abortions and unwanted pregnancies,in relation to the level of religiosity in a community.  Religion feeds off people’s existential fears.  Remove those fears and the level of religiosity reduces.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66986

January 7th 2012


That is what Marx and Lenin thought. 

It did not work out that way.

ZeroG - #66865

December 31st 2011

These lines of demarcation between what is and isn’t science are a religious construct. I contend that this line is a man made line, which is in place because of the Creation story conflicts with what science tells us is true. 

As science reveals more about our universe, the reason for the Creation story comes into question. Why must there be a Creator? For purpose? So we can have an answer for the awe we feel when we learn about the complexities of our world? 

I think the Creation story falls apart big time when you look at it from the point of view of the Papalinton’s of the world. Who’s God is The creator? It just doesn’t work and it takes us away from His word. It is a distraction and it is very un-loving of your neighbor to insist that the Creator of our world is your God. The Norsk have a story which say everyone came from two tree trunks on a beach. Tasmanians have a story which says we came from Kangaroos. You know the Hebrew story. As we become more conscious of the world in which we live, the Creation story loses it’s impact. But that is not to say that belief in a concept which is bigger than ALL of us is no longer needed. He is not out there in space, at the beginning of time, He is in you.

Jesus was all about life through death. In this case the Creation story must be pruned from evangelical dogma so that the real message of Jesus can shine through His people. Telling Christians what is and isn’t science doesn’t really help, as science is what it is. Religion is the tough stuff to explain. ID makes us look like idiots to the Papalinton’s of the world, and they are the ones who need to see the love and compassion we are supposed to be showing.

Jon Garvey - #66867

December 31st 2011

It’s a brute fact that people have always pruned away “evangelical dogma” (by that, I take it you mean “universal Christian doctrine”) for whatever purpose they like - to comply with their own view of what science has proven, to accommodate to those who don’t believe in God, or to those who believe we came from tree trunks, or to get down to their take on “the real message of Jesus”.

But supposing God disagrees with what you are pruning? Supposing Jesus believes God created the world*? Supposing he doesn’t agree with what you say his real message is?

Supposing God actually did “make the world and everything in it”, “gives all men life and breath and everything else,” and “make every nation of men, so that they should inhabit the whole earth” “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out to him and find him”? (Acts 17 24ff). Are you really showing love to people by denying a means God gave them to find him?

Come to that, supposing that many people find that the more conscious they are of the world we’re in, the more the creation story resonates, takes wings and engenders worship? Why should they prefer your dogma to what Jesus and his apostles taught?

* He does, as shown by his words in Matt 19.4, 25.34; Mark 13.9.

ZeroG - #66874

December 31st 2011

Are you implying the only way to find God is to believe that He is the Creator? Does this mean there will be math involved? I wouldn’t be surprised if a scientist had an epiphany while pondering the Big Bang. People find God in their lives, usually it is in something they know very well. I am not a scientist, and by no means am I even close to knowing what Mr. Hutchinson knows. Mr. Hutchinson has shared his logic process for drawing this line of demarcation. If it helps him get closer to God, then more power to him. I disagree with the approach and find it problematic. There are many more ways to find God, and probably much more effective in transforming lives. I’m sorry, but knowing God designed DNA, does nothing for me spiritually, emotionally or morally.

The two “creation” quotes of Jesus in Matthew are good examples of how the belief in the Creator keeps us from understanding the real message of Jesus. In Matthew 19 Jesus is talking about divorce and how important it is to stay faithful to your wife.  Matthew 25 is the parable of the talents. The message here is to make the most of what God gave you. Also, Paul in Acts 17 echos this Giver as opposed to Creator aspect.  I much rather prefer to look at God as the Giver as opposed to Creator.
I think it was a rhetorical question, and forgive me if it sounds disrespectful to ask, but Jon, how do you know what God “disagrees” with?

Jon Garvey - #66884

January 1st 2012

Are you implying the only way to find God is to believe that He is the Creator?

Not at all. I’m just saying that God in his word claims to be our Creator, and that he says it’s an important way for people to approach him. But perhaps we’re talking across each other - I don’t see a dichotomy between God’s Giving and his Creation. He creates out of love, and he gives what he has the right to give having made it. We’re talking about the Father of all, not merely some philosophical First Cause.

Both Jesus and Paul use God’s role as Creator to underpin their teaching, which I agree is not in itself about creation. But for Paul to say in Acts, “God made you, gives you every blessing and overlooks your ignorance - so now it is time to repent,” hardly gives them room then to say, “OK, we repent - so can we just forget about God’s creating us now as we disagree?”

Equally not wishing to sound disrespectful, I wasn’t implying that I know whom God disagrees with, but that maybe you don’t either. How would one tell? My suggestion is that one is on safer territory looking at what Jesus, the apostles and prophets teach than most other grounds.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #66987

January 7th 2012


The Church based on the Bible has decided that the best way to understand Who God is is through the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or Creator, Savior, and Holy Spirit. 

This means that all of our eggs are not in one basket and we do not one Person of God over another.  God the Creator created humanity and the universe, God the Messiah saves humanity and the universe, and God the Holy Spiirit empowers humanity and the universe.  The Three all work together as One God.   

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