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Nature Abhors a Vacuum—and Boyle Abhors “Nature”

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October 31, 2013 Tags: Earth, Universe & Time, Science as Christian Calling
Nature Abhors a Vacuum—and Boyle Abhors “Nature”

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

This image of the Solar System (with the Sun at S) comes from René Descartes’ enormously influential book, The Principles of Philosophy (1644). Offering mechanistic accounts of several natural phenomena, Descartes believed that the whole universe was completely full of matter, with no truly empty spaces and no attractive or repulsive forces. He hypothesized that the Solar System is a great “tourbillon” (whirlpool), in which the tiniest particles of matter circulate around the Sun, dragging the Earth and the other planets around in their orbits—just as leaves might spin in the eddies formed when water flows past pillars (to offer an analog of my own). Descartes did not invent the mechanical philosophy, and other natural philosophers offered their own versions of it, but they all sought to explain things in terms of particles of matter that move and interact in predictable ways. Boyle promoted his own version of the mechanical philosophy in several experimental and theoretical works.

Boyle and the Mechanical Philosophy

During the Scientific Revolution, no idea was more influential—or more important for the future of science—than the “mechanical philosophy.” Mechanical philosophers conceived of nature as a great machine, an intelligently constructed system of unintelligent matter in motion rather than a living organism with a “soul” or “intelligence” of its own. No one did more to advocate for the mechanical philosophy—and to explore its theological dimensions—than Robert Boyle. The magnitude of his enthusiasm for it is best captured by this fact: when he published a treatise on The Excellency of Theology, Compar’d with Natural Philosophy (1674), it was coupled with a second work devoted to “the Excellency and Grounds Of the Corpuscular Or Mechanical Philosophy.”

The mechanical philosophy was essentially a modified version of ideas originally put forth by the ancient philosophers Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus. As they had presented it, atomism came with strong overtones of atheism: all things are composed of eternal, uncreated, invisibly small, indivisible particles, called “atoms” because they cannot be “cut’ into smaller pieces. The atoms move randomly and without purpose in an infinite void, bumping into one another to form macroscopic objects, including living things.

During the Scientific Revolution, however, atoms mostly lost their irreligious image, as Pierre Gassendi and others “baptized” atomism. Their general approach was to postulate atoms as divinely created particles of inert matter, with properties and powers given to them by God, who guided their motions to form larger bodies. In 1659, Boyle’s friend Henry More called this idea the “Mechanick philosophy,” and two years later Boyle himself called it “the Mechanical Hypothesis or Philosophy,” marking the first use of that exact term that I am aware of (Certain Physiological Essays, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 2, p. 87).

The Christianization of atomism was a crucial step, for it enabled the adoption of a new worldview—a complete change in the way in which nature was conceived. For nearly two thousand years, the prevailing concept of nature came not from the atomists, but from Aristotle and Galen. This notion depicted “Nature” as a wise, benevolent being, capable of acting almost like a conscious agent, as seen in phrases such as “Nature does nothing in vain,” “Nature abhors a vacuum,” or “Nature is the wisest physician.” By contrast, for Boyle and other mechanical philosophers, the world was a vast, impersonal machine, incapable of acting consciously. Perhaps surprisingly, Christian theological beliefs helped drive this enormous conceptual shift that lies at the heart of modern science, in ways that historians have not fully appreciated until fairly recently.

Boyle was a crucial player in this important process. He believed that the traditional notion of “Nature” was both theologically and scientifically unacceptable. I will say more about the theological part in future columns. For now, let’s focus on the scientific part.

As Boyle saw it, Aristotle’s system suffered from a fundamental conceptual problem that had to be eliminated before scientific progress could be made. It implicitly gave matter the ability to think: how else (to offer an example of my own) could a body return to its “natural place,” unless it knew that it had arrived there? Properly speaking, Boyle argued, matter is utterly incapable of obeying “laws” (a term Boyle nevertheless employed often), because it lacks innate intelligence and cannot know whether or not it has obeyed. Likewise, when we use “such Phrases, as, that Nature …, or Suction, doth this or that,” we “ascribe to a notional thing, that which, indeed, is perform’d by real Agents; as, when we say, that the Law punishes Murder with Death, that it protects the Innocent, releases a Debtor out of Prison, when he has satisfied his Creditors (and the Ministers of Justice) on which, or the like occasions, we may justly say, That ’tis plain that the Law, which, being in it self a dead Letter, is but a notional Rule, [and] cannot, in a Physical sense, be said to perform these things.” What really does perform things in nature, according to Boyle, is “those Powers, which [God] gave the Parts of Matter, to transmit their Motion thus and thus to one another” (A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Reciev’d Notion of Nature, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 10, pp. 464 and 457). Here we have the mechanical philosophy in a nutshell.

Aristotelian philosophy also explained many aspects of nature in terms of immaterial “forms and qualities” inherent to bodies. Boyle and other mechanical philosophers found such analyses vague and incapable of providing convincing explanations. As the prominent Anglican cleric Simon Patrick frankly observed, “To them that have once tasted of the Mechanicall Philosophy, formes and qualities are like to give … little satisfaction” (A brief account of the new sect of latitude-men: together with some reflections upon the new philosophy, 1662, p. 22).


Experiment of torricelli

In the experiment of Torricelli, a glass tube filled with liquid mercury (on the left as shown here) is inverted and immersed in a bath of mercury. The liquid drops until the pressure of mercury within it balances the pressure of the air outside the tube. The space in the tube above the mercury appears to be empty, and (as Boyle and others showed) it behaves as if it were—but this was a controversial claim at the time. Torricelli’s experiment is the basis for the “barometer,” a term that Boyle coined in 1663. When I taught high school chemistry many years ago, I used to demonstrate this experiment in class, something that is no longer permitted for environmental reasons. To see it done, watch this video.

To see why Boyle regarded mechanical explanations as superior, consider the maxim that “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Boyle flatly rejected that idea. “When I consider, how great a Power the School Philosophers [i.e., followers of Aristotle] ascribe to Nature, I am the less inclin’d to think, that Her abhorrence of a Vacuum is so great, as they believ’d” (A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Reciev’d Notion of Nature, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 10, p. 536). Drawing on dozens of experiments he had carried out with an air pump, Boyle concluded that for practical purposes one could indeed create a vacuum, even though (in his opinion) the formal philosophical question of the actual existence of a space completely empty of all matter could not be settled with certainty. The ultimate inspiration for many of his experiments came from an experiment carried out in 1644 by Vincenzio Viviani, a former assistant of Galileo who was a student of Evangelista Torricelli. (See the caption to the image for more information.)

As Boyle observed, “when the Torricellian Experiment is made, though it cannot, perhaps, be cogently prov’d, … that, in the upper Part of the Tube, deserted by the Quick-Silver [mercury], there is a Vacuum in the strict Philosophical Sense of the Word; yet, … ’twill to a heedful Peruser appear very hard for [followers of Aristotle] to shew, that there is not One in that Tube.” Considering “the Space deserted by the Quick-silver at the top of the Pipe, … One may be Invited to doubt, Whether a Vacuum ought to be thought so formidable a Thing to Nature, as they imagine She does, and ought to, think It?” (A Free Enquiry, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 10, pp. 536-7)


Diagram of apparatus

To test the idea that “Nature abhors a vacuum,” Boyle used the apparatus depicted on the right in this plate, from A Continuation of New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air, and their Effects (Oxford, 1669). Because he typically provided readers with highly detailed, very carefully written descriptions of his experiments and the practical difficulties he had to overcome—in this instance, the account runs to four pull pages supplemented by the figure—they could more easily be replicated, lending credibility to his conclusions.

Furthermore, the strength of the vacuum—corresponding to the height of the mercury in the tube—depended only on the pressure of the atmosphere, not the ability of an imaginary being called “Nature” to prevent it. To investigate “the old Doctrine of the Schools, which would have Water raiseable in Pumps to any height, ob fugam vacui [to avoid a vacuum],” Boyle mounted a long metal pipe on the side of a house “about 30 foot high,” with a reservoir of water on the ground and a transparent glass tube at the top in order to observe the level reached by the water as the pump was operated. (See the figure.) When “the height of the Cylinder of Water was measur’d,” it came to 33½ feet, but no higher— regardless of how hard the pump was worked. At that point, “I return’d to my lodging, which was not far off, to look upon the Baroscope [barometer], to be informed of the present weight of the Atmosphere, which I found to be but moderate, the Quick-silver standing at 29 inches, and between 2 and 3 eights of an inch.” Boyle knew that mercury is about 13½ times the density of water. Thus, he concluded that “the difference between the height of the Mercury sustain’d by the weight of the Atmosphere in the Baroscope, and that of the Water rais’d and sustain’d by the Pressure of the same Atmosphere in the long Tube did not appear to differ more than an Inch or two from the proportion they ought to have had, according to the difference of their specifick Gravities” (A Continuation of New Experiments, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 6, pp. 70-73).

Boyle interpreted such experiments in terms of the mechanical philosophy. Instead of saying vaguely that “Nature abhors a vacuum,” which implied that water and mercury could be raised to any height by a pump, he said more precisely that “the weight of the Atmosphere” balanced the weight of the water in the metal pipe and the weight of the mercury in the glass tube. This explained precisely why water and mercury rose to specific, quite different heights.

Altogether, we might say that Boyle abhorred the Aristotelian notion of “Nature” much more than “Nature” abhors a vacuum.

Looking Ahead

My next column, in about two weeks, uses additional excerpts from Boyle’s great treatise about God and nature to see just why he found the traditional notion of an intelligent “Nature” so deficient theologically—only adding to his enthusiasm for the mechanical philosophy.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

This material is adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38, with additional information from the introduction to Edward B. Davis and Michael Hunter, Robert Boyle, A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1996). Quotations are from The Works of Robert Boyle (Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), 14 vols., ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis.


Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. At Messiah, Davis teaches courses on historical and contemporary aspects of Christianity and science and directs the Central Pennsylvania Forum for Religion and Science.

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sy - #83330

October 31st 2013


Well, it looks like I have the honor of making the first comment to your excellant post, and thereby also initiating the resurrected comment policy on Biologos. I thank God for that, and for the wisdom of the Biologos team in reinstating comments and for your wisdom and talent.

I find this discussion of mechanical philosophy both fascinating and very important for a deep understanding of the roots of our modern scientific world view. I have long maintained that science and Christian theology have much in common as compared with their true philosophical nemesis, magic. Magic, which has never died away, and has made several comebacks in recent times, is what we are praising when we personify Nature.

The other thing that struck me while reading the essay was the parallel with biology and evolutionary theory. Darwin’s idea was a sort of mechanical philosophy of life, and is meant to counter statements such as “Life strives for perfection” or the ideas that animals and plants try to find ways to prosper and overcome adversity. The entire concept of natural selection takes the concept of “Will” out of the biological equation. Even the picture evoked by “Sruggle for survival” or “survival of the fittest” is somewhat distorted, as many think of animals engaged in bloody contests to see which will have their germ line passed down.

Of course, when we get to human being, the picture no longer applies. We DO have and exercise will, and we DO do all those magical things that we mistakenly ascribe to Nature in the case of other living creatures. We are the exception, when it comes to magic, and that to me, is proof of our divine creation, Imago Dei.

Lou Jost - #83386

November 2nd 2013

I think it is the other way around—we are applying our own attributes to nature and to gods, because those are the attributes we are familiar with. We have created gods in our own image.

Merv - #83337

October 31st 2013

The question can be fairly leveled at us Christians:  How can you make any distinction between ‘supernatural’ and ‘magic’ apart from the piety bestowed upon the former term?  (Lou—if you’re around, I can here you asking such a question, and I’ll agree it is a good one.)

On a (perhaps related) point, it is interesting that as much as Boyle wanted to ‘de-attribute’ any volition from nature, yet he along with most of us today cannot escape the poetic personifications we find so apt and employ to help explain a phenomenon.  Do we all have a blind spot towards the notion that there can truly be a vacuum of “will” in something?

beaglelady - #83353

October 31st 2013

As I understand it, magic is bending the will of the gods/supernatural forces or whatever  to get what you want.   So you have magical incantations, brews, spells etc.     Contrast that with prayer: God answers all prayers but his answers are not our answers.

Of course, some religious practices can seem indistinguishable from magic.  I’ve always been puzzled by reading “novenas”  published in the newspapers; they are described as “never been known to fail.”


Jon Garvey - #83364

November 1st 2013

Well said, beaglelady.

It all depends not on whether you put the sun or the earth at the centre of the universe, but on whether you put God or man (or woman, I guess) there.

In the latter case even your religion ends up as magic - how to get God to do what I want. In the former case evert prayer is a recognition that we are dependent on God for everything - even what we assume by right, like waking up in the morning.

sy - #83367

November 1st 2013

I agree with Merv and Beaglelady that magic has a way of creeping into some kinds of religious practice. It is a human tendency for us to fall into magical thinking, but as Ted shows us, this is as much true of scientific thought as it is in religion. And not just at and before Boyle’s time. One can see a huge influence of magical thinking when we speak of “not harming the Earth” and “Saving the Planet”. The amount of magic in a typical TV special on nature or the environment would make Boyle, um…boil with frustration. (sorry).

beaglelady - #83368

November 1st 2013

What magical thinking would be in nature shows or talk about saving the planet?

sy - #83375

November 1st 2013


I have a very long answer to that question, in fact I wrote a book on it. (“Where We Stand”).  It might be a bit outside the framework of Ted’s post, and given recent history here, Im a bit reluctant to use the comment section to go on too long about tangential issues. I will simply say that the planet is in no danger, (although certain species might be) the Earth is not a living being (despite Gaia and related fantasies) and I would be happy to reply in much more depth by email.

beaglelady - #83377

November 1st 2013

But aren’t the inhabitants of earth in a lot of danger from various things?

sy - #83382

November 2nd 2013


Lou Jost - #83387

November 2nd 2013

Not sure what you mean here, Sy. Many species (perhaps the majority in some groups) are in serious danger of extinction in the next century because of human activities.

beaglelady - #83383

November 2nd 2013

Tornadoes? Hurricanes? climate change?  Superbugs unaffected by antibiotics? Viruses? 10,000 known near-earth asteroids?   

Jon Garvey - #83391

November 2nd 2013

Life? Don’t talk to me about life.:-(

sy - #83394

November 2nd 2013

Beaglelady and Lou

I wrote a long and comprehensive comment in answer to your questions, but I decided not to post it, in respect to Ted, and his post. I would love to discuss the misuse of science related to the environment further, but this is not the place.

Lou Jost - #83395

November 3rd 2013

Sy, it is hard to see how anyone could deny that many species are endangered by human activities. I wish it were not the case. I’ve just come back from the Amazon where, over my ytwenty years of observation of a lightly-impacted area, I have seen the almost complete disappearance of the large macaws (Red-and-green, Scarlet, and Blue-and-yellow), the largest monkeys (wooly and spider), the giant anteater, the giant armadillo, the White-collared Pecary, the Harpy Eagle, and others. Now, oilfield dlares are atracting and roasting tons of night-flying insects every night, and this will have large effects on pollination of plants and on populations of bats and birds. That is in a lightly-impacted area. In areas where colonists have settled, there is virtually nothing left alive large enough to eat.

When I worked in the US (Texas) on monitoring and protecting endangered bird and plant species, birds like the Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler were on the verge of local extinction, and it took a large amount of work and money to keep them alive. The story repeats itself around the globe. Most places are even worse than the US; China particularly comes to mind.

From your comment I can’t tell whether you are denying that there is a problem or whether you are just turned off by some exaggerated claims by some conservation organizations. But the magnitude of the problem is hard to exaggerate. It is real, and anyone who pays attention can see it where they live. Just look at the decline of migratory songbirds over the last 40 years everywhere in the US. I’ve been keeping records since then, as have others throughout the country, and the decline is dramatic.

beaglelady - #83397

November 3rd 2013

And who would argue that coral reefs are in great shape?  The examples of environmental degradation are beyond number.

Merv - #83398

November 3rd 2013

Sy—maybe if Jon gives his blessing, you could post something of this on The Hump so that I and others too can see where you are going with this.

Lou Jost - #83399

November 3rd 2013

If you do that, Sy, could you please post a notice here? Thanks.

sy - #83401

November 3rd 2013

Well, thanks to popular demand I will do that. I will just state here that I am a lifelong environmentalist, and worked in environmental health research for several decades. I am certainly not a denier of environmental impact by man. My original comment that started this firestorm was that environmental science (and many other fields of science) can be just as distorted by magical thinking (of the kind Boyle struggled against) as can religious practise.

I will cite just one example of magical thinking here. Beaglelady said “The examples of environmental degradation are beyond number.” That sounds like a lovely spiritual statement, and it would be if the words “God’s miracles” replaced enviornmental degradation. But it isnt science. What is the context. Degradation defined how, and as opposed to what? Does the continual and dramatic world wide decrease in atmospheric SO2 pollution count? Does the 95% drop in environmental lead and blood lead levels mean anything. Does the end of the Ozone depletion crisis, or the algal blooms caused by phosphate pollution, or the return of bald eagles, or the recovery of the Great Lakes, come into the equation, or are we only looking at one side? Is the remarkable, unexpected and continuous linear increase in human life span (all over the world) count at all?

As I said, I wrote a book about this. I dont claim all is groovy. Lou’s point about species extinction is true and tragic. CO2 has not been controlled, and some forests are in great danger. But the magical thinking that permeates the very word “environment” has taken science out of the picture, and led us all to believe in a doom that is simply false, and dangerous. The enormous recovery that the world has made from the precipice of true environmental catastrophe in the past few decades, due to strict regulation of environmental conditions, could be in danger, if this improvement is not acknowledged, and if the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the other laws that are behind this recovery are perceived as having had no real effect.

I wont continue this debate here, I know that very few people agree with me, because we live in a culture of dread. I will see about posting something somewhere for further discussion.

beaglelady - #83403

November 3rd 2013

 That was just a bit of hyperbole, not magical thinking.  

If we have made improvements it is because people did become alarmed and then did something about the situation.    And I do see improvements being acknowledged.    





beaglelady - #83404

November 3rd 2013


I’m wondering if you sent your book to other scientists for review, and if you did, what they had to say.



Lou Jost - #83405

November 3rd 2013

Sy, when Beagellady said “But aren’t the inhabitants of earth in a lot of danger from various things?” you answered “nope”. Now you are giving a more sensible and nuanced response, which sort of changes your “nope” to “yes”.

Also it seems you are making a bit of a straw man here. No conservation biologist would deny the enormous impact of the laws you mentioned. Those laws don’t go far enough, but things would be far worse without them. And biologists are the first to disparage the magical thinking behind much of the Gaia idea. To be continued elsewhere….

Eddie - #83406

November 3rd 2013


I would be surprised if “very few people” out of the BioLogos readership agree with you.  Your post immediately above makes good sense.

I think that your unexplained use of the word “magical” threw some people here off your meaning, but it seems that, now that you have clarified what you were driving at, most of those posting here agree with much that you have written above.

I agree with you that the “culture of dread”—promoted in the past by folks like Al Gore—is counterproductive.   And too much of modern environmentalism operates in the service of certain political agendas—anti-Western, anti-American, anti-industrial, etc.  There is also the likelihood that certain scientists have exaggerated certain dangers: apocalyptic scenarios which alarm the public and the politicians are more likely to justify larger research money outlays, and are more likely to increase the influence of those scientists upon public affairs, enabling them to do a little mixing of science with politics.  A less politicized, less mythologized, more scientifically informed approach to environmental issues is to be preferred.

Jon Garvey - #83414

November 4th 2013

Sy’s book’s very good, by the way. You should read it.

This sub-discussion points back to the mechanisation of nature thing again. If, once, nature was populated by beings with will and purpose, then desecrating it would be a profound moral issue.

It’s slightly harder to formulate a justification for preserving the balance of nature if one wholeheartedly buys into its being a mere mechanism to be understood and adjusted to the desires of the one will left in it - us.

I remember talking to a biologist who was quizzical about a New Scientist editorial on Japanese whaling that trumpeted that some moral issues are bigger than mere culture.

My friend wondered how a journal committed to a worldview in which indifferent and impersonal evolutionary forces create and destroy species constantly should think the preservation of whales to be of paramount importance.

If the only logical conclusion is that we benefit from the whales being alive, it’s just as cultural as the Japanese position. Yet few will stop making moral judgements on it even so, and quite rightly - but naturalism is a poor basis on which to make them.

So there are congitive gaps in the mechanical universe theory which are beginning to become obvious in what is rapidly becoming a post-materialist age.

Lou Jost - #83417

November 4th 2013

Jon, I agree that it is challenging to justify ethics under materialism, but the Christian alternative to a materialistic philosophy does not necesssarily make it any easier to justify species conservation. One can pretty much choose biblical passages to support any position on this subject. The political party that most Christian fundamentalists belong to is the party that tries hardest to roll back the important environmental laws Sy mentioned. Some Christian missionaries have even spread the anti-conservation message to my adopted country, Ecuador. They argue that these are the Last Days and since the end is near, there is no need to conserve, or to think about the well-being of future generations.

Lest you think this is a fringe position, there is polling data showing a large percentage of Americans believe these are the final days. Numerous Republican lawmakers have held this belief. Most famous was James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Reagan, who worked hard to gut environmental laws partly for this essentially religious reason.

beaglelady - #83421

November 4th 2013

I think you are right, Lou. Just look at the Rapture Industry of fundamentalism,  with the Second Coming always just around the corner,  with Jesus coming to burn the earth to a crisp,  especially  everyone who doesn’t belong to the church of [fill in your own denomination here].   Talk about a culture of doom!

Jon Garvey - #83422

November 4th 2013


American Christianity pretty much in toto is a fringe position. Very few see that their doctrine is a self-centred pick ‘n mix, as often as not based on their political views (choice of two).

I can read an Eastern Orthdox catechism from Moscow, a Calvinist statement of faith from Westminster or Geneva, or the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers from Turkey and get pretty much the same or closely compatible views not only on salvation teachings, but on God’s creation, stewardship of nature, and even the need to make the world a better place because of the second coming.

As soon as I come to an American website, I see the whole thing done on the fly, with little regard either to responsible Scripture exegesis, or to 2000 years of careful scholarship, or even to the creeds of the faith.

There are exceptions - Sy being one of them, and Ted another. But I sometimnes wish Americans would let their minds, at least, travel more.

beaglelady - #83430

November 4th 2013

How can you judge a church by its web site?  Besides, there are an astonishing variety of Christians in this country.  

Jon Garvey - #83431

November 5th 2013

...there are an astonishing variety of Christians in this country.

Which could, of course, be translated “astonishing fragmentation.”

What a contrast to having just two political parties, which seem to be the main religious unifying factor.

What I see from across the world, as an oversimplification admittedly, is that you could roughly sort all the denominations into two piles corresponding to Republicans and Democrats. Those in the former pile would support gun lobbyists against their Democrat brethren - those in the latter would speak up for atheists against Republican fundamentalists.

And on both sides their freedom to decide their own doctrine would trump the historical doctrines of the faith.

It’s a national spiritual malaise, beaglelady - which has been documented by a number of US scholars -and as Lou says, because of America’s influence (not only on Ecuador) it’s a malaise with global consequences.

PNG - #83432

November 5th 2013

Yet another book on the subject thas just come out and is being well reviewed (I haven’t seen it.):

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen

beaglelady - #83435

November 5th 2013

Of course that’s how you would translate it.  We do have our problems, and as a matter of fact I’m about to read “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” by Rob Douthat.    But you overgeneralize big time.  

And, I’m wondering how you can judge American churches by looking at a few web sites. Please give the url for your church’s web site. 





Eddie - #83439

November 5th 2013


It’s ROSS Douthat.  He has often written for First Things—a journal I’d bet that Katie Schori and Gene Robinson don’t like, but don’t let that put you off.  He’s also Catholic, and, if I’m not mistaken, not a cafeteria Catholic but an orthodox one.  So I strongly encourage you to go ahead and read his book.  

I have a hunch that Jon Garvey’s understanding of American Christianity is based on much more than a glance at a few web sites.  In any case, certainly it is true that the leadership of many of the mainstream American denominations (United Church of Christ, Episcopal, etc.) has long since abandoned traditional Christian theology for various heresies, and it appears that the evangelical churches are increasingly taking the same route.  The fact that some TE leaders can call themselves “evangelical” while promoting a view of creation in which God doesn’t have control over what evolution produces (and according to some of them doesn’t even foresee it, let alone control it) shows how little “evangelicals” are under the discipline of traditional doctrine.  Christian doctrine, for many Americans, has become literally a matter of taste.

beaglelady - #83486

November 8th 2013

His post suggests he was looking at American web sites and forming his opinion from that. 

Eddie - #83491

November 8th 2013


Jon knows a great deal more about American religion than he has gleaned from glancing at a few websites.  In any case, one can quite often learn a lot about a church from its website, if that site contains a statement of faith.  The statement often enables one to determine whether the church in question is faithful to historical Christianity unfaithful to it.

beaglelady - #83522

November 14th 2013

Yes and no, Eddie.  Sometimes a church cannot afford a web site, especially these days, with churches taking a hit from the recession.   A tiny church not likely to have a web site, especially if there is no technical expertise in-house.  Or the developer could leave the church, leaving the web site abandoned.   And sometimes the pastors (especially older ones)  think a website is unimportant and take no interest in content development.

At any rate, I want to see the URL of Jon’s church, since he brought up the subject.

beaglelady - #83487

November 8th 2013

We don’t have just two political parties, although you may have heard of just the two major ones.

Lou Jost - #83440

November 5th 2013

Jon,  if I had been raised in Europe I probably would not have felt the need to argue against fundamentalist Christian beliefs. The US is very different, as you say.

beaglelady - #83443

November 5th 2013

Creationism is  more common in the USA, but it has spread to other countries.

beaglelady - #83420

November 4th 2013


I also don’t understand your claim that progress in conservation and pollution control is not acknowledged.  I see it acknowledged all over the place.  

Merv - #83373

November 1st 2013

Thanks, Beaglelady and Jon.  I agree those are great answers.

Beaglelady, I’ve never heard of a ‘novena’.  But you’ve got me curious enough to look it up…

Lou Jost - #83385

November 2nd 2013

Merv, yes, that is a good question, thanks for bringing it up. And thanks BioLogos for allowing us to have these discussions again.

GJDS - #83363

October 31st 2013

Once again a very interesting historically relevant discussion. Looking back (as we are now able to do), I am inclined to agree with Boyle and Descarte; we can discuss a vacuum, but can we scientifically discuss nothing? Descarte can be shown to be correct, in that he thought space is extension from a body, while Boyle would have considered space as a vacuum; nowadays we view things as energy and matter, and space if filled with every sort of particle/radiation. Yet is is almost impossible to conceive of ‘nothing’ (albeit we use zero in maths).

These chaps should inspire us today for their intellectual rigour and passion for the truth.

Jon Garvey - #83378

November 2nd 2013

Boyle’s espousal of a mechanistic view of the universe undoubtedly helped science - just as literary analysis apart from the writer’s artistic aims can help in the study of books.

The atomistic view was, though, one of a number of possible models - for example a de-personalised Aristotelianism considering “natures” rather than “laws” would have been an alternative.

The danger was, however, that mechanistic thinking becomes the be-all and end all of our view of creation, which is why Catholic scholars, for example, blame Protestantism for dis-enchanting nature.

Did Boyle, for example, see animals as just mechanisms moved by particles? Does that explain his lack of concern for animals in experiments (that doesn’t necessarily follow - I’ve done plenty of animal experimentation myself)? Nevertheless it has become the dominant view not only in evolution (organisms are acted on by blind forces) but in science - the voluntary actions of animals are seen as epiphenomena.

And as materialism grew, so people too were seen that way - which I’m sure Boyle would have rejected.

I have forcefully agreed with his separation of the rational from the irrational creation regarding “freedom” here, but that doesn’t mean the natural creation is “merely” mechanical. Alister McGrath wrote an excellent book on that theme  called “The Re-Enchantment of Nature.”

Ted Davis - #83379

November 2nd 2013

The mechanical philosophy was substantially about the “de-enchantment” of nature. This relates closely (as you will see in upcoming columns) to the “de-deification” of nature that Boyle believed to have been achieved by the mechanical philosophy. As he noted, there is no word in the Hebrew Bible equivalent to “nature” as it was used by the Aristotelian philosophers. The late Reijer Hooykaas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reijer_Hooykaas) made much of this in various places; he was basically a modern Robert Boyle himself. http://books.google.com/books/about/Robert_Boyle.html?id=p_7YAAAAMAAJ

PNG - #83400

November 3rd 2013

This discussion of Nature reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s discussion of Natura in The Discarded Image. Lewis is concerned in that book with helping the modern reader understand Medieval literature by tracing some central ideas back to their fragmentary origins in classical and early Medieval literature (because classical literature was only known to the Middle Ages in fragments.)

He says, “Nature may be the oldest of things, but Natura is the youngest of deities.” Back in what he calls the genuine mythopoeic era, there were gods of tree and sky and earth and stream, but there was no god Nature. The invention of Nature was, according to him, due to the pre-Socratic philosophers, and could only occur after abstraction became a habit. Natura as a literary goddess metaphor and allegory was used occasionally by classical authors, and widely by Medieval writers, but was never a god that was really believed in by anyone, because it began as a intellectual generalization. By that time, it was too late to become a pagan god.

He notes that as long as Nature refers to everything, it isn’t possible to say much about it, but when you limit it in some way, it becomes useful as a metaphor. Aristotle limited it to created things, which makes possible the concept of the supernatural, which of course made it amenable to Christian adoption as a concept.

Lewis was only concerned with understanding Medieval literature, so he didn’t deal there with the “de-deification” of nature in the 17th century. Since no Christian philosopher believed in an actual god called Nature, it seems like what they were exorcizing, so to speak, was the teleological thinking of Aristotle. It always seemed to me when studying Aristotle that he generalized ideas that he got from the apparent teleology of biology to include inanimate things as well. If that’s true, what Boyle and friends were doing, was not so much de-enchanting nature as de-biologizing physics.

Lou Jost - #83402

November 3rd 2013

That’s very well said. And now, in the post-Darwin era, the great success of this approach to physics leads us to de-biologize  biology itself. And it seems to be working well.

Jon Garvey - #83407

November 3rd 2013


You’ve probably studied more Aristotle than I, but people like Ed Feser are careful to distinguish teleology in nature (of the type: “it is the nature of heavy objects to seek the lowest place”) from will or conscious purpose. And if that’s true it’s just the kind of thing non-Aristotelians would, perhaps, latch on to (“Aristotelianism is vitalism in a cheap tuxedo.”)

Lewis himself is interesting - the personalised view of things-in-nature seemed to appeal to him at least as something to play with - if you remember the dryads in “That Hideous Strength” - which book was, of course, at root a protest against scientistic materialism.

Again, in one of the Narnia stories, when one of the children says that some venerable character can’t be a star because in his world “a star is just a ball of gases”, the child is told that even in his world, that’s not what a star is, but only what it’s made of.

His point about the shortcomings of nature as an entity - even a metaphorical one - is surely valid. There’s very little one can say about “nature” in that sense that actually means anything.

Jon Garvey - #83415

November 4th 2013

A nice essay on this issue by CS Lewis is reproduced here.

PNG - #83434

November 5th 2013

Interesting essay by Lewis. When Lewis wrote it, in 1952, things were probably near an extreme of de-enchantment, between logical positivism, Gilbert Ryle, and Skinner’s behaviorism. Seemingly intelligent people were trying to deal with the mystery of our consciousness by basically denying that it exists. You can’t de-enchant any more than that. I think things have pulled back some from there. Human and animal consciousness are taken seriously now, although plenty of materialists regard it as a reducible problem, because given their commitments, they have to.

Since Jon has pointed to this essay, I’ll add another quote on the same subject from The Discarded Image that I had sent to him privately.

In a discussion of daemons (‘genius’ in Latin), creatures believed in the Medieval era to have an ‘aerial’ body and domain, as opposed to ethereal (angels) or terrestrial, Lewis says:

“It would detain us too long here to trace the steps whereby a man’s ‘genius,’ from being an invisible, personal and external attendant, became his true self and then his cast of mind and finally (among the Romantics) his literary or artistic gifts. To understand this process fully would be to grasp that great movement of internalisation, and that consequent aggrandisement of man and dessication of the outer universe, in which the psychological history of the West has so largely consisted.”

I should also add some clarification from reviewing a bit more of The Discarded Image. Aristotle actually distinguished Nature (physis) from Sky (uranos), marking the boundary at the moon. In the Middle Ages this view was accepted, although Aristotle used “divine” in regard to his stars and planets, where the later Christians would have regarded the inhabitants of those regions as angels, supernatural but not divine.

The Medieval writers were also familiar with Cicero’s Dream of Scipio (from his Republic) in which great leaders became gods as stars after death. That’s what’s  behind the remark in Narnia. In the Middle Ages that wouldn’t have been taken literally, I don’t think, but of course Dante used it in the Paradiso.

GJDS - #83380

November 2nd 2013

“..... is utterly incapable of obeying “laws” (a term Boyle… employed), because it lacks innate intelligence and cannot know….”

We constantly use terms such as ‘laws of nature, or of science’ but as scientists we are unable to give a meaning to such language. Strictly speaking, scientific statements are outcomes to the human senses (and to reason) from nature’s activities, or phenomena - these responses may be quantified by observation and hypothesis and tend to suggest an instrumentalist attribute of a human being in a world of objects. It is not too difficult to show where the Hellenics were ‘unscientific’, because they themselves preferred philosophical deliberations to what we now regard as the scientific method. However, as Boyle and others probably understood, human beings articulate the statements that are regarded as laws; it is incorrect to think we bring such laws into being, or that matter and energy is ‘forced’ to obey these articulations by human beings. The dynamics of any natural system would be the same whether these were, or were not, understood.


I will not post a lengthy comment, although it is obvious that this area has been of particular interest to me and my notes can get lengthy. I will say however, that science attempts to provide explanations or descriptions believed to encompass the universe, but we are constrained by our limitations. It may appear, however, that ‘mega-knowledge’ may enable a human being to attain to a complete understanding of the phenomena and its objects, (this tendency is especially prevalent in discussions on evolution as a complete theory or fact); such effort may provide an intellectual perception, or inference, that objects behave according to some principle; or, objects are required to be as they are by a ‘something in their being-ness’. When we consider the thinking and discussions of people such as Boyle, Descartes, Newton, and others, we have the benefit of additional knowledge, and we can see that they were sometimes correct even in their disagreements (I commented on how a vacuum and nothing as space devoid of all things, may now be considered).


The notion of regularities and the philosophical discussions regarding necessity or contingency has been mentioned in previous posts. I have suggested that the real understanding of laws would be found within a theological discussion of the Law as determined by God in the act of creation. Does this agree with Boyle that, “those Powers, which [God] gave the Parts of Matter, to transmit their Motion thus and thus to one another”? This impressive intellect may have foreseen a notion that can be articulated today, in that the phenomena of matter and energy is the result of ultimate-real entities. As a religious utterance, I tend to think this is where all our understanding of nature is derived by the application of reason (why the Universe is intelligible).

I understand why nature may be said to be de-enchanted, but the mechanical outlook has ‘materialised’ it to an unacceptable level.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83381

November 2nd 2013

This discussion illustrates the dangers of Western dualism that considers something A or not A, but never an intermediate form between A and not A.  The Nature is either living or dead, thinking or not thinking.

This ignores the obvious fact that most of nature, at least that humans encounter, is alive in the form of plants and animals.  It also should be noted that all of these life forms have some kind of “nervous system” which enables even plants to adapt to their environment and in some sense think.

Furthermore it must be noted that in our time humans have created machines that can think as we have created computers and added computers to all sorts of other mechanisms so they can work more effiiciently, so they can better adapt to their environment.

Thus the lines between organic and inorganic, human and non-human have become blurred, while at the same time Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has blurred the once absolute line between matter and energy, space and time. 

Again the problem is not that our thinking has changed as we understand reality and nature differently, but that our philosophy has not kept up with our knowledge.  Western dualism does not really work.

Western thought is divided between Modernism which is the old Newtonian mechanical universe and basically the conservative view, while Post Modernism is a pseudo Einsteinian relativistic universe and is the liberal point of view.  Both have strengths and definite weaknesses.

Niether is adequate for the third Millenium.  That means for Christians we must go back to the Drawing Board, Back to YHWH as revealed in the Bible in the NT and OT to discover the true nature of Reality. 

For me that is the Trinity and furthermore for me the Trinitarian worldview works much better than Dualism, Monism, Modernism, or Post Modernism.   




Lou Jost - #83384

November 2nd 2013

Boyle’s approach to physics (banishing “mind”, or at least pushing it back a few levels) is closely analogous to Lyell’s approach to geology, and Darwin’s approach to biology. As the case of Boyle clearly shows, it was not a presupposition based on anti-theist philosophical prejudices. It just worked better than animism, and that is why it became the dominant approach in 18th and 19th century physics, and modern geology and biology.

Ted,  you write “The Christianization of atomism was a crucial step, for it enabled the adoption of a new worldview.” This has a flip side. It implies that Christianity’s worldview before the 1600s held back progress in physics.

Merv - #83390

November 2nd 2013

“The Christianization of atomism was a crucial step, for it enabled the adoption of a new worldview.” This has a flip side. It implies that Christianity’s worldview before the 1600s held back progress in physics.

That doesn’t follow from what Ted writes of Boyle here.  The comparison seems to be between anthropomorphism, or at least attribution of wisdom to (what we now call ‘material’) things and things like animism or seeing gods in every corner.  The trajectory here is to go away from all these things towards the distant monotheism and atheism (which both looked to be very similar, closely clustered things to ancient eyes.)  Now to our modern eyes we identify large differences to argue about; but historically it looks as if western Christianity did much of the heavy-lifting to draw [western] natural philosophy into its current mechanistic approaches.  That doesn’t mean Christianity is necessarily friendly to scientific philosophy now—a very separate question.  But I think Ted uses Boyle here to show us a fairly good case that it was then.

Ted Davis - #83392

November 2nd 2013

Actually, Lou, as an historian I’m reluctant to speak about things “holding back progress,” as if progress were inevitable and there are simply things that “hold it back.” However, if I were to cast my historical caution to the wind just for a moment, I’d say that it was the enormous explanatory power of Aristotle’s natural philosophy, which was effectively without a rival until the Scientific Revolution, that “held back progress” in physics. The mechanical philosophy replaced it during the Scientific Revolution, and Christian theological beliefs had an important role in this.

I don’t want to be understood as saying that “Christianity caused modern science,” since a claim of that sort cannot IMO be substantiated; one might as well say that some other important factor, by itself (e.g., an increasing reliance on Archimedean mathematical methods), “caused modern science.” But, I am saying that Christian beliefs were a very important part of the story.

Natural philosophy prior to the Scientific Revolution was profoundly Aristotelian in its metaphysical base. Pagan Greek views were given a very strong institutional home by something that Christian Europe invented—namely, the university—but they were pagan Greek views, without a substantial contribution from Christian theology.

Ted Davis - #83393

November 2nd 2013

Lou (and anyone else interested in this particular question),

For a carefully written account of some of the (usually subtle, but nevertheless significant) ways in which Christian beliefs influenced the content and reception of the mechanical philosophy, see Keith Hutchison, “Supernaturalism and the mechanical philosophy,” History of Science 21 (1983), 297-333.

This article would be on any short list of sources I would recommend for understanding the interplay between scientific and religious beliefs during the Scientific Revolution. It was ahead of the wave of research published since then which, taken together, have largely debunked the traditional view that the “rise of science” was about the triumph of reason over religion.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83388

November 2nd 2013


That is not correct.  That which held back science was the Greek Aristotelian view which Aquinas accepted.  Aquinas worked with the best he had available, so you really can’t blame him or Aristotle.   

Protestant Christianity accepted the new mechanistic view in contrast to the old Greek understanding to which the Catholic Church continued to accept.

In other words it seems to me that this is primarily a philosophical problem rather than a theological one.  When the Catholic Church accepted Thomism as its standard it made a mistake of making one imperfect philosophical system the basis of its theological thinking.  This is the problem with Eddie’s point of view.

Both Thomism and a mechanistic view of nature are flawed, but each has its virtues.  They need to be reconciled by a third view yet to be firmly established. 

This is our task.  The problem is that neither side is willing to move from its established positions.  

Eddie - #83408

November 3rd 2013

Roger wrote:

“When the Catholic Church accepted Thomism as its standard it made a mistake of making one imperfect philosophical system the basis of its theological thinking.  This is the problem with Eddie’s point of view.”

I have never endorsed Thomism as the correct or final version of Christian theology.  In fact, while I certainly admire Aquinas far more than most theologians of the past 200 years, I have serious objections to a number of things in the Thomistic approach.  

Of course, given a choice between Thomas and the so-called “Wesleyan” personalistic approach advocated by many TE leaders, whereby even slime molds and protein molecules and anteaters are conceived have “freedom” from God’s “tyranny” over nature, I would take Aquinas without a moment’s hesitation; but then, given the same reference of comparison, I would take Calvin without a moment’s hesitation, Luther without a moment’s hesitation, Augustine without a moment’s hesitation, Origen without a moment’s hesitation.  So that hardly makes me a Thomist.  It shows only that I prefer theologians whose brains are disciplined by logic and Classical learning to modern scientists moonlighting in theology and offering an account of nature and creation which often seems to amount to little more than “I love Jesus and I believe in evolution.”

I do not see any need to “reconcile” Thomism with mechanistic views, or vice versa.  The language of “reconciliation” is not scholarly or scientific language, but diplomatic, political, or personalistic language.  It has no place in theoretical matters.  In theoretical matters the goal is to determine what is true and what is false, not to make sure the various proponents of those views feel “reconciled.”  How people feel about a truth is irrelevant to the reality of the truth.

Perhaps you do not mean “reconciliation”, but “intellectual synthesis.”  But even that assumes too much.  Not all contrary positions can be synthesized into a new unity.  Sometimes one of the positions is simply wrong, and the other simply right.  Or sometimes they are both wrong, but nonetheless remain incompatible with each other.  The tendency to always wish for synthesis is dangerous to clarity of thought.

Of course, one should always be open to any intelligent proposal for synthesis, where the situation warrants such a proposal; but the assumption that it is our duty always to synthesize is the assumption of the diplomat, the person who doesn’t want to offend the proponents of either view.  Synthesis is sometimes the right way to go, but sometimes it is motivated by a simple lack of courage to call one thing correct and another thing incorrect.  Thus, I would say that it is reasonable to seek some sort of synthesis regarding wave theory and particle theory, as there are strong reasons for endorsing both; I would not say that the case is nearly as strong that we need to synthesize Thomism with mechanistic science.  It might be that we have to ditch Boyle, or ditch Aquinas, or ditch both.



Lou Jost - #83396

November 3rd 2013

Thanks all for your answers. I still find it hard to see how it is possible that 15th century theology suddenly “enabled” atomism to be acceptable to Christian scholars, unless the previous theologies did not enable it.

Ted, thanks for the reference, and I should not have used a loaded word like “progress”. But the point remains that mechanistic atomism was proposed very early, long before Christianity, and you say that it was a change in Christian theological thinking that allowed atomism to revive after 1500yrs of neglect by Christians. You say it that it was previously considered an atheist  point of view. This does imply that the previous theological views did not allow atomism to flourish.

This is part of a broader form of argument used here (eg the discussion of voluntarism and its role in promoting scientific advances). Every time  there is a claim that a new theological point of view promoted successful scientific advances, there is an implication that something about the previous theologies did not promote those advances.

Eddie - #83409

November 3rd 2013


I agree with your logical point here:  Christian theology must have changed if at one point it was resolutely opposed to atomism and at a later point it embraced it.

I think that Ted’s argument here is subtle, and goes something like this:  when Christian theology “changed” to embrace atomism, the change wasn’t an absolutely new direction in Christian theology, but rather, a recovery of ideas about God’s omnipotence that had been buried in the intervening years by the overreliance of Christian theologians on Greek philosophical concepts about God.  It was, so to speak, a return to the original Biblical idea of an omnipotent God; and an omnipotent God creates matter out of nothing and gives it what properties he will.

Thus, atomism in the Christian context was quite different from ancient Greek atomism, in which there was no omnipotent God and in which the atoms eternally existed, and were governed not by laws but by purely accidental collisions which happened to create some viable life-forms.  In Christian atomism the atoms behave in a lawlike manner, and the lawgiver is God.  So they act in a mechanical way which makes a clockwork universe possible.  

Thus, while there was a definite change in Christian theology, relative to the mainstream of medieval theology, it was a change brought about by returning to the idea of God’s omnipotence, an idea which had been partly obscured by the influence of Greek ideas about nature.  It was a change that was, arguably, a change back to a purer form of Christian theology, and therefore not really a “new” Christian theology at all, but what Christian theology would have been all along had it not been interpreted through Greek philosophical eyes.  Had Plato and Aristotle not been so influential, Christian theology might have taken up atomism and transformed it in light of God’s omnipotence many centuries earlier.  Science might have got started sooner.

That’s how the historical argument goes.  I’m not asking you to accept it; but it’s the sort of argument one finds in Hooykaas and Jaki and Oakley etc.  And I think that it is this argument that Ted is trying to narrate in his comments about Boyle, atomism, mechanism, and Christian theology.

Lou Jost - #83412

November 3rd 2013

Thanks for elaborating on that. I mainly wanted to point out that the argument that a certain theology helped science implies that the preceding theology impeded it. As you have often said, scientists can’t completely escape from their cultures, so it is not surprising that there would be effects in both directions. 

Ted Davis - #83454

November 6th 2013

Thank you very much for such a clear explanation of this line of thinking, Eddie. I haven’t gotten to this yet, although I will in future columns. I don’t know whether I’ll fully develop it, since to do so would extend the series much longer than I’d like; but, the argument you make here is basically right. The names you give at the end are in the right ballkpark, too. I’m very sympathetic with Francis Oakley and Reijer Hooykaas (though I disagree with Hooykaas’ view that this was a necessary development); I’m less sympathetic with Stanley Jaki, since I don’t agree with him that ancient science was “stillborn” for theological reasons. IMO, cultural factors were much more important to that part of the story.

Since this goes well beyond what I want to accomplish here, for BL readers, I won’t take this any further. But (again), thank you very much.

Ted Davis - #83453

November 6th 2013


Both Plato and Aristotle, not to mention Galen—the three most important natural philosophers from antiquity—all rejected the ateleological approach of the atomists. All 3 of them worked hundreds of years before the first Christian natural philosopher (probably John Philoponus). In other words, the natural philosophy that was taught in the medieval universities—the natural philosophy that Christians inherited from the Greeks—was teleological, not ateleological. Atomism was already marginalized long before Christians baptized it.

Lou Jost - #83482

November 8th 2013

Yes, Ted, I understand that. But if the act that brought atomism back to life was a theological change, then the previous theological attitude must have been facilitating atomism’s coma, even if it was not what knocked atomism into the coma in the first place.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83410

November 3rd 2013


You seem to have a strange view of history.  If Christians neglected atomism, then so did pagan Platonists and Arostitelians.  The problem was not theology, the problem was philosophy.

The issue was not only atomism.  Mechanical philosophy is more than ancient atomism.  The fact of the matter, at least as I see it, is Christians took an old idea which never had a strong philosophical backing and gave it the scientific and theoretical foundation necessary to make it acceptable and dominant. 

It was an idea whose time had come and it was Christian thinkers using Christian science and philosophy who made it come.  Yes, there were Christian Aristotelians who opposed because they were Aristotelians, not because they were Christians.  

One cannot say that Newton’s ideas about gravity impeded Einstein’s ideas, because historically and theoretically Newton’s ideas had to come before Einstein’s.  However Newtonian Modernism has opposed a pseudo Einsteinian Post Modernism. 

Christian philosophy provided the framework for Newton’s Laws.  New philosophy needs to provide the philosophical framework for Einstein’s Theory.     

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83411

November 3rd 2013


The terms “reconcile” and “reconciliation” are not scientific, but Biblical and thus theological.  I am sorry if you do not approve.  It is not the same as synthesis.

Reconciation means “bring things together,” but it is not an arbitrary process.  It must be based on the truth based on the fact that Jesus Christ is the Logos.

I wish you would stop using Personalism as a strawman an excuse so you don’t have to address the crisis in science, philosophy, and theology today.  

Personalism is an attempt to address this issue.  If you disagree with this solution, please suggest a better one.

If you think that my solution, which is not Personalism per se although God is best understood as a Person, to this problem is mistaken, please show some evidence that you understand what I am saying before you give your reasons for rejecting it.  

Eddie - #83426

November 4th 2013


In referring to “Wesleyan personalism” I was speaking not of you but of many TE leaders, some of whom are or have been associated with BioLogos.  I mentioned specifically the allegedly “Wesleyan” doctrine that God is not a tyrant and therefore leaves the evolutionary process “free” to develop whatever it wants, rather than imposing his divine ends on it.  This doctrine is of course not Wesley’s but a fabrication invented by certain TE leaders and dignified by Wesley’s name.  In any case, it is not the Christian doctrine of creation.  But it is nothing new for TE leaders to believe and promote doctrines that are not Christian.  

I do not know whether you hold to this doctrine—that God “loves the world so much that he gives it freedom” and therefore did not decree that lobsters, anteaters, elephants, and man should exist, but let evolution improvise (so as not to violate nature’s “free will”) and then blessed whatever it spit out by chance.  If you do hold to that doctrine, I disagree with you.  But it was not you I was attacking.  As I’ve said before, you insist on getting in the middle of the food fight between ID and TE people, and therefore you keep getting spattered.  

As for “reconciliation,” it has its place in personal relationships.  I don’t speak against it.  But it has nothing to do with intellectual matters.  And even if you mean nothing more by it than “bring things together,” it still presumes too much.  Why must we bring Thomism and mechanism together?  What if one of them is dead wrong?  What if both of them are dead wrong?  Who is to say that the truth must lie in some combination of Thomism and mechanism?  

Of course God is understood as personal (in a qualified sense) in Christianity.  But there is a difference between saying that God has a personal aspect, and saying that God would never violate the freedom of molecules and slime molds, and therefore would let them evolve blindly in accord with random mutations, without any plan for what they are to become.  Every farmer is a personal being, and the farmer quite plainly interferes with the freedom of his horses, cows, pigs, and crops.  He makes these things serve his purposes.  So again, even if one stresses the personal aspect of God, one doesn’t arrive at the silly teaching of some of the TE leaders.  

As for “the crisis in science, philosophy, and theology today,” you must mean what YOU consider to be the crisis in those areas.  But different people have different views on what the crisis consists of, and some would deny there is a crisis at all.  For the atheists, the crisis is caused by the fact that fundamentalism exists, and all problems will be solved if we get rid of fundamentalism, and the best way to do that is to get rid of God.  That’s not your position, nor mine.  For the Thomists, the crisis is that modern thinkers have failed to realize that Thomas Aquinas is the greatest philosopher and theologian that ever lived and that his system (as interpreted by THEM) is the final truth in philosophy and theology; we must therefore junk modern philosophy and theology and return to Thomas Aquinas.  That’s not your position, or mine.  For the deconstructionists, the crisis is that there are reactionaries who still believe there is such a thing as objective truth, when in fact all truth is merely social and political construct and everyone really seeks power, not truth.  That is not your position, or mine.  Etc.  So when you speak of “the crisis,” you have to specify what crisis you are talking about, and for whom it is a crisis.  One man’s crisis may be another man’s golden opportunity.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83425

November 4th 2013

Jon wrote:

So there are congitive gaps in the mechanical universe theory which are beginning to become obvious in what is rapidly becoming a post-materialist age.

For some reason I cannot use the reply button.

Please do not think that thnk that Conservative American Christianity is not materialistic.  It is not a chance event that big business and Evangelicals are close partners in the Republican Party.

Evangelicals and New Atheism are two sides of the same Modernist absolutist coin. 

As I have been trying to say Darwinism is basically a mechanistic, atomistic view which does not value the environment.  Ecology is a very different holistic world view.    

We live in a post modern time where there is no effective world view and massive confusion.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83458

November 7th 2013


Thank you for your response.

I will try to address the problem, which is the problem of freedom and autonomy.

When we talked originally you said that you agreed with Wesley over against Calvin when it came to free will.  The issue is the same, how does the Sovereign God reign if humans have free will?

Whereas the universe does not have free will, Christians believe that it is autonomous and separate from God in that we do not believe in Pantheism.  That is the theological issue.

The scientific issue is How does God control or guide evolution?  This is what I have been trying to address, but you and others seem to have missed.  I do not find convincing ID theology and science, although I sympathize with it goal of teleology. 

The truth is, no person or life form is totally free or totally determined.  All of God’s creatures live in a given environment and their success and failure depends how they adapt to that environment.

I believe that God is able to control and guide God’s people without compromising their freedom and to control the Creation without violating the separation between the universe and God that God ordained.

The question of course is how?  Are you interested in my ideas or not?           

Eddie - #83483

November 8th 2013

Of course the natural world is distinct from God.  But that has nothing to do with the issue Jon and and I have raised.

Nor does human free will have anything to do with the issue Jon and I have raised.  That is why the quarrel between the so-called Calvinist and the so-called Wesleyan position on free will is irrelevant.  Calvin and Wesley were in 100% agreement on God’s relationship to nature, however much they differed on God’s relationship to human free will.

The issue is whether or not God ordains the outcomes of evolution and sees to it that what he ordains comes to pass.

God does not have to violate the will of any moral free agent in order to get the results that he wants out of evolution.  So the concern about “compromising the freedom” of anyone or anything is entirely out of place.  It is a distraction from the issue that the critics of TE are raising.  No one has said that God does or should override human free will.  Bringing in questions of human free will to discuss God’s control over sub-human nature is a sheer category error.

ID is about design detection, not theology.  There is therefore no such thing as “ID theology.”  There are, of course, private theologies of individual ID proponents.  When I make theological comments here, I do not pretend to speak for “ID.”  I speak for myself.  And if I am wrong on any theological point, that does not affect ID one way or the other.  Arguments against ID and arguments against my theology should therefore be kept separate, not confounded.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83488

November 8th 2013


I am trying to open the door to discussion and you keep slamming it shut.

As I said the scientific issue is “How does God control or guide evolution?”  I really do not know why you or any other Christian would not want to discuss this question. 

Our understanding of science does have an impact on our theology.  Otherwise why do we have this argument which it tearing apart the Christian community. 


Eddie - #83492

November 8th 2013

“How does God control or guide evolution?” is not a scientific question.  It is a metaphysical question, or a theological question (though it might be informed by scientific knowledge).  As for your statement that I don’t want to discuss the question, it is too ignorant for reply.  I’ve been begging, pleading, down on my knees practically, asking any TE leader who will talk to me what it is that God does in evolution.  Not a single one will speak to me, or to Jon Garvey, or to Crude, or to anyone else who dares to ask that apparently nosey and socially unacceptable question.

The reason I keep “slamming the door shut” is that conversation with you is pointless.  I go to great trouble to write and rewrite my posts, to make them as clear as possible.  I make very precise distinctions.  I try again and again to show that you have misunderstood my point, have not read me carefully, are making category errors, are asking questions completely different from mine, are imputing views to me that I do not hold, are mischaracterizing ID, etc., but nothing has any effect.  You never retract, accept factual correction, apologize for misrepresenting me, modify your understanding of ID, modify your understanding of Christian theology, etc.  You just keep making the same old set of points, over and over again.  You don’t want dialogue with me.  You want me to listen to your orations from your hobby-horse.

Take my post immediately above.  It is obvious that you either did not read it, or did not understand it, or are unable or unwilling to respond to it, since you did not address any of the points that I made in it.  It is not “slamming the door shut” to refuse to converse with someone who will not engage with one’s points.  If you want responses, take the time to understand, and answer, each of my specific points.  Otherwise, give it up.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83494

November 9th 2013

Eddie wrote: 

Bringing in questions of human free will to discuss God’s control over sub-human nature is a sheer category error.

Are you saying that humans are not a part of God’s created order?

Eddie - #83497

November 9th 2013

Of course I’m not saying that!  How could you possibly get that idea from the sentence that I wrote?

It’s right in front of your eyes, Roger.  The distinction I made was between human and sub-human nature.  God does not interact with humans the way he interacts with a fungus or an armadillo or a rock.  Those other things do not possess free will.  Do you, with your divinity degree, find that hard to understand?  Do you find that controversial?  What theologian of the Christian tradition has ever found that controversial?

When you appear to have trouble understanding basic distinctions such as that between human and sub-human, or between between beings with free will and beings without it, can you really wonder why I don’t enjoy interacting with you?  How can we hold a graduate-level theological discussion when the elementary freshman concepts aren’t yet understood?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83499

November 10th 2013


What I understand is that God puts the same love and care into all of the other of God’s Creations as God puts into humanity.  God is not a Human that God discriminates for humans or against other creatures. 

Every creature has its role in Creation, which is the reason why God treats different creatures differently, but that does not mean that God does not care for and respect every creature.  “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”  

I apologize if this goes against philosophy. 

Eddie - #83501

November 10th 2013


Your reading comprehension leaves much to be desired.  You continue to criticize me for things I have neither said nor implied.

I never said that God did not “care for” other creatures.  What I said was that he did not leave the coming into existence of other creatures to an open-ended “freedom” of nature.  The evolutionary process—for a Christian, that is—can never be regarded as a “free-for-all” in which any old thing can happen, and whatever happens, God is happy with that.  For any true monotheist, the evolutionary process operates with a view to divine goals.

So yes, God cares for the sparrow.  But neo-Darwinism—and the biologists of BioLogos—hold to a view of evolution that implies that the sparrow was an accident that might just as well not have existed.  The traditional Christian view, on the other hand, is that God ensured the coming into being of precisely those sparrows that he loves.  Your own theological position is muddy, since I do not know whether you believe that God guaranteed the existence of sparrows or not.    

Your concern about God “discriminating” for or against particular creatures, the way we speak of “discriminating” against particular sexes or races or nationalities, is another example of theology driven by sentimentality and the improper transfer of conceptions from the human/social world to the created cosmos.  Until you stop making these sentimental anthropomorphizing arguments, you will never be a competent Christian theologian.

Your final comment about philosophy is silly.  No on has pitted “philosophy” as an entity against you or anyone.  But you should not scorn philosophy, for two reasons:  First, it’s impossible to be a Christian theologian without an understanding of philosophy.  (The philosophical conceptions may be more implicit than explicit, and the the original sources of the philosophical ideas may not always be known to the theologian, but the philosophical conceptions are always there.  The moment you start talking about time vs. eternity, omnipotence, omnipresence, three persons in one substance, etc., you are talking the language of philosophy.)  Second, people trained in philosophy are trained to pay careful attention to the meaning of words; to demand and to offer clear definitions; to make proper distinctions which clarify things when the discussion becomes muddled and confusing; and to modify their positions when they are shown to be in error.  In all of these areas, you could use some improvement.

So what do you think Roger?  Did God leave nature, and hence the evolutionary process “free” to produce whatever it happened to produce?  Or did he demand certain things of that process?  Did he insist on sparrows?  Did he insist on the lion, and the lamb?  Did he insist on man?  Or would he have accepted whatever random mutations and natural selection just happened to spit out, be that dragons, unicorns, or super-bright squids in the image of God?  

That is the question that Jon and I and Chip and others have put on the table here, Roger.  And I have no intention of replying to you again until you give a direct and unambiguous answer to it.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83503

November 11th 2013


Thank you for your response.  It really clarified some things.

The main thing that it clarified was that your concern is results, while mine is process.  Your concern is whether God explicitly planned to create humanity and sparrows, and mine is how God created humans and sparrows. 

Thus the answer to your question is yes and no.  God created a process which we will call evolution and God had a a Purpose or Telos for this process, which included humans and sparrows. 

Is the Telos humans and sparrows?  Not really, but it certainly does involve humans and sparrows. 

Again God is primarily concerned about the Telos and the process that results in the Telos, but God is also concerned about the creatures that are produced to obtain the Telos.

In our dualistic thinking we are not accustomed to valuing both process and result, but God is.  In our materialistic view we tend to value result over process, which we should not.

To repeat again Darwin’s Theory of Evolution does not describe a process which works and adequately explains the universe in which we live (although it may be a step forward.)  

That is the real issue that we need to be discussing and is the source of all this confusion.  We need a real working concept of Natural Selection before we can understand evolution and what it is scientifically as well as theologically and philosophically. 

I guess my question fo you is, What in your understanding of God’s Telos?  

Did God plan to create you and me or did God create God’s plan and give us, who are created in the divine Image, the opportunity to participate in it?             

Eddie - #83504

November 11th 2013

Well, at least we are half-communicating now.  Your middle paragraph, the one with the terms “dualistic” and “materialistic” in it, unnecessarily confuses the issue with jargon that is not necessary, and could be cut out without any intellectual loss to the point you are making, but otherwise, your post makes some sense.  I respond as follows:

My main concern is “results” because BioLogos claims to be concerned with “evolutionary CREATION.”

Roger, do you know why BioLogos (along with many others who support TE) prefers “evolutionary creation” to “theistic evolution”?  The alleged reason is this:  the phrase “theistic evolution” makes the noun “evolution” more important than the adjective “theistic.”  What comes across is:  “I’m an evolutionist, and oh, yes, I also happen to think that God is the cause of evolution.”  But supposedly BioLogos wants to convey the idea:  “I’m a believer in Creation above all else, and I just happen to think that evolution is the means by which God created.”  “Evolutionary creation” then puts “God created” as the central idea, with “evolution” in a supporting role.

Now that’s all very fine with me.  However, in practice, what BioLogos does —and what the majority of TE leaders do —especially those who are biologists—is to put the emphasis on “evolution” and leave God in the back seat, coming along for the ride, as it were.  You don’t hear the biologists here (or elsewhere where TE/EC is championed) talking a lot about evolution as a form of CREATION.  If the main focus were “creation” much more would be said about how God is involved in the process.  Much more would be said about God’s will, God’s aims, God’s plan, God’s reason, God’s design, God’s sovereign control, the purpose of man’s being in the image of God, etc.

For TE to be about CREATION it must be at least as much about God as it is about random mutations, synteny, fossils, natural selection, horizontal gene transfer, etc.  In Christian theology the God who creates is a God of reason and will, a sovereign over the universe, Lord of history AND NATURE.  But you don’t hear much about sovereignty from TEs.  You hear far more about randomness.  

So my focus on “results” is not arbitrary.  It is based on the stated ends of the TEs themselves and BioLogos in particular.  They speak of evolutionary CREATION.  But the doctrine of creation is nothing without a sovereign God who wills and accomplishes what he wills.  That is essential to the Jewish and Christian understanding of creation.

One would think that an organization like BioLogos, which claims to be striving to put together Bios and Logos, biology and theology, organism and God, would spend at least as much time talking about Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, the Bible, etc. as it does about genomes and whale skeletons.  But that in fact is not what we observe.  What we observe is a predominance of Bios over Logos.  Logos, so to speak, is made to serve a particular conception—the Darwinian—of Bios.  Neo-Darwinian biology is given veto power, so to speak, over what theology can say.  

The Bible’s focus is different.  It puts the emphasis on the ends or purposes of God.  It stresses that God has a plan or design and that the plan or design is always achieved (even if in the human case God allows us to pretend to ourselves that we can thwart it, as Joseph’s brother thought they could dispose of Joseph).  

What Jon and I and others have been saying is that the sovereignty of God, the certainty of the achievement of God’s purposes, has been lost in the presentation of evolution as a non-teleological process, which by its nature can have no end or goal in view, but only stumble along, reacting mindlessly to the next thump or bump along the journey.

I certainly do not claim a full understanding of the purposes of God.  However, the Bible tells us some of those purposes.  Genesis 1 tells us that the creation of an orderly world was God’s purpose.  It tells us that this world was to contain living and the non-living things.  It tells us that man was to have dominion over the other living things.  The whole account of Genesis 1 is teleological.  Any account of evolution, then, will have to fit into that teleology.  I am not arguing that Genesis 1 should be read as history or that there is no room for a process of biological evolution.  I am arguing that biological evolution must be understood in terms of divine ends and therefore as under the control of a mind.  And that is not what comes across in TE/EC writing.

Yes, God gave human beings the opportunity to “participate” in the world.  But the world in which they “participate” was produced by his sovereign will, not by blind processes which he just stood by watching, hoping for a favorable roll of the Darwinian dice.  The TE/EC people have not convinced me that their proposed “means of divine creation” is anything more than a roll of the Darwinian dice.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83506

November 11th 2013


In many ways I am in agreement with you, which makes your arguing with me very hard to understand.

The primary difference between us is that I am trying to provide a scientific alternative to Darwinism which shows how God can and did guide evolution in a way that is both scientifically true and theologically acceptable.

It appears that BioLogos is saying that they believe that science and Christianity are compatible so we are going to accept Darwinism as true until they find out that it is not.

I think that we are saying that good science and good theology are compatible, but Darwinism is bad science.  I am trying to show exactly how it is bad science, which ID does not except in a general theoretical manner.

That is why my book is important because it spells all this out.       

Eddie - #83507

November 11th 2013


I am glad we have some agreement, though why it has taken so long, I have no idea, as I have been saying exactly the same thing, using similar arguments, ever since I started posting on this site.

I have always said that good science and good theology are compatible.  But of course everyone agrees on that; it’s a motherhood statement.  Even the folks at BioLogos say that good science and good theology are compatible.  So do all ID people.  So do YECs.  So do OECs.  The problem is that there is no agreement on (a) what counts as good science; (b) what counts as good theology.

Jon and I have been concentrating on the second point, i.e., on trying get theological statements out of BioLogos—or at least, out of individual TE/EC folks associated with BioLogos.  And it’s like pulling teeth.  TE/EC people—at least the biologists—seem to avoid making public theological statements as much as possible.  When they do make such statements they tend to be bland, insipid, “safe” ones such as that God “ordains” the results of evolution (which means nothing unless one explains how God enforces what he has ordained), or that the truths of God’s two books (nature and the Bible) are in harmony.  It’s the refusal of these people to be explicit about their theology (combined with their sharp attacks on the theology of everybody else—ID folks, YECs, OECs, etc.) that has got Jon and myself worked up.  And again, that has nothing to do with you.  The target of the critique is Collins, Venema, Falk, Giberson, Applegate, Louis, etc., not Sawtelle.

Finally, on your remarks about ID and Darwinism:  I don’t think you can have read very much ID writing if you can say that ID hasn’t tried to show exactly how Darwinism is bad science.  Michael Behe’s two books argue in great detail for how Darwinism is bad science.  So do Michael Denton’s two books, especially the first.  Dembski and Wells, too, have argued at great length, in many books, how Darwinism is bad science.  There are many columns over at Uncommon Descent and on the Discovery website which purport to show how Darwinism is bad science.  As you do not seem familiar with any of this material, I gather you get your impressions of ID secondhand.  And generally speaking, secondhand impressions are unreliable.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83508

November 11th 2013


I appreciate your concern for good theology however:

The people you are picking on are not theologians like you are. 

On the other hand I am not impressed by your theology.  Just because you have a traditional orthodox view does not mean that yours is the best theological understanding of the situation. 

I see the need for both you and BioLogos to improve their theology.  

I have read ID material on this website and in the original.  I checked out Shapiro at your urging.  I do not find them wrong, but wrong headed.  They nitpik Darwinian concepts of Variation which is the strongest aspect of the theory. 

On the other hand you reject out of hand my attempt to criticize Natural Selection.  It is as if you do not agree with Natural Selection, but you fear to examine it because it might be true.

Natural Selection is bad science and why you cannot see this does not make sense.

I am not attacking you as you seem to assume.  I am suggesting that we work together.  If BioLogos won’t speak to us, we will speak to each other.  If we have something to say, others will learn and BioLogos will have to respond or lose out. 

Did you see the list of issues that I posted on the From the Dust: Framing the Dialog Blog?  They could be the basis of a fruitful discussion.

Eddie - #83510

November 11th 2013


It is no excuse for the TE biologists that they are not theologians.  If they make theological claims, they have to defend them; otherwise, they should not make theological claims at all, but should stick purely to biology.  

Whether or not either my personal theology or traditional Christian theology is correct is a matter of indifference for the argument I am making.  The argument I am making is that the traditional theology of God and Creation, right or wrong, appears to conflict with certain claims made by many TE/EC writers, most of whom claim to embrace Protestant evangelical theology.   If I am right to say this—and I think I am— then the TE/EC writers need to respond.  They can do this by returning to the beliefs of their evangelical forefathers; or they can do this by saying outright that some of the Protestant beliefs that have been held since the time of Luther and Calvin, and even some of the beliefs of the Church Fathers, are just plain bad Christian theology and have to be scrapped.  Either response would show integrity and courage, and I could respect either response.  But I’ve received no response at all.  

Regarding natural selection:  ID writers are critical of the whole neo-Darwinian structure, which includes natural selection as well as variation.  In neo-Darwinism, it is the filtering of variations by natural selection which pushes evolution along.  Of course, ID people do not deny that variation occurs, and they do not deny that natural selection occurs.  What they deny is that these two things, even in combination, could accomplish what neo-Darwinians claim—major macroevolutionary change—unless they were supplemented in a major way by some intelligent guidance or planning.

I do not think that ID writers have ever claimed as baldly as you do that natural selection is “bad science.”  Behe, for example, admits that natural selection can explain a limited number of things in the area of microevolution.  But he and the others think that natural selection is a poor explanation for the broader sweep of the evolutionary process.  Thus, they say that Dawkins and the other extreme selectionists are wrong.  So there is some agreement between you and the ID people, and between you and me, over the inadequacy of natural selection.

I certainly have never said you were wrong to criticize evolutionary theorists (e.g., Dawkins) who rely too much on natural selection.  You seem to have misinterpreted my remarks—which is unfortunately a common occurrence, even though I go out of my way to rewrite my posts until they are crystal-clear.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #83515

November 12th 2013


My main concern has been that you have criticized my views without understanding my views as you have demonstrated just now.  Are you really looking for truth or just defending your point of view?

We agree to some extent in our criticism of Darwinism and T/E.  The question is do you want to try to work with me to develope an alternative to the BioLogos point of view? 

If you don’t, just say so.  You don’t have to be so defensive. 

Eddie - #83516

November 12th 2013


If I have sometimes not properly understood your views, the cause is that your writing is often neither clear nor coherent.   But in many cases I have understood what you meant, and have detected errors, and have offered corrections.  But whether the corrections concern dualism, Trinitarianism, natural selection, Jews and Greeks, etc., you have steadily refused to alter your statements.  That makes conversation pointless.

As for “defensive”—there’s that psychological, personalistic language again.  I’m a scholar and philosopher.  I argue about ideas.  I therefore sometimes criticize the ideas of others, and I sometimes defend ideas of my own.  But defending is not the same thing as “being defensive” in the sense that you mean it.  

As for your question, I’ve already answered it many times.  We may agree on a few things now, but overall our approaches to science, philosophy, and theology are so very different as to make any combined effort quite useless.  Besides, numerous alternatives to BioLogos already exist, in the writings of Michael Behe, Michael Denton, Vincent Torley, Jon Garvey, etc.  There is no need for us to reinvent the wheel.

Roger, you have been at this for a couple of years now, trying to find allies for your eclectic approach on BioLogos.  You have had no takers.  Would not sheer common sense suggest that you should try marketing these views elsewhere?  Have you tried Telic Thoughts?  Uncommon Descent?  Or one of the creationist sites?  How about Methodist church sites?  Or other Wesleyan sites?  For example, Nazarene sites.  I think the Nazarenes would very much like to hear your ideas, which appear to have much in common with theirs.

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