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Oxygen and Co-Creation

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October 13, 2012 Tags: History of Life
Oxygen and Co-Creation

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

In the mid-seventeenth century, John Mayow conducted a series of experiments in which he showed that burning candles in bell jars consumed one-fifth of the enclosed air before extinguishing. Remarkably, mice placed in bell jars did exactly the same thing (although the conclusions of these experiments were rather more terminal for the living subjects than for the candles). He concluded that a substance making up 20% of air was necessary for both combustion and respiration. More than a century later, Joseph Priestley showed that a mouse in a closed container would not die if a plant was included. Apparently plants were capable of restoring nitroaerus, which Priestley called "dephlogisticated air," removed by animals.

In 1774, the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier replicated the relevant experiments in more controlled ways to demonstrate that mass was conserved during combustion. He also renamed the part of the air that burned 'oxygène.' English scientists resisted the French scientist's new name, not least because the English Priestly had already published his discovery of the gas. 'Oxygen' nonetheless entered the common English vocabulary in part due to one of the first popular science books, The Botanic Garden (1791), which included a poem praising the gas using the preferred French name. By coincidence, this book also promoted some early ideas about biological evolution (specifically, it suggested that sexual reproduction might be important to evolution, which might help to explain the popularity of a book of poems about science). It was written by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, who first proposed the modern form of the theory of biological evolution in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species.

150 years later, we are discovering that the lines connecting evolution and oxygen run deeper than the Darwin family tree. We now know, for instance, that for roughly half of the Earth's 4.6-billion-years of history, there was little to no oxygen in the atmosphere. Instead, oxygen entered the atmosphere in two major pulses, with one between 2.4 and 2.2 billion years ago, and another between 0.8 and 0.54 billion years ago. Recent evidence suggests that the first pulse may have actually been the largest event in a series of fits and starts beginning at around 2.7 billion years ago that finally produced a stable low oxygen atmosphere by around 1.8 billion years ago.

Remarkably, both episodes of atmospheric oxygenation happened just before explosions in biological diversity. We have spotty evidence of unicellular eukaryotes (cells with nuclei) before 2.4 billion years ago, but the first fossil evidence for large, diverse eukaryotic communities comes at 1.5 billion years ago. If you are a human, this is part of your history; humans are multicellular eukaryotes descended from one of these early unicellular pioneers. Multicellular animal life is an innovation that seems to have required more oxygen: animals don't appear in the fossil record until about 0.61 billion years ago, toward the end of the second pulse of oxygen.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that major evolutionary events in the eukaryotic family tree, including the origin and diversification of the animals, would be tied to or even driven by major changes in atmospheric oxygen abundance. Eukaryotes generally, and animals specifically, are oxygen lovers. As the subjects of Mayow and Priestly died to prove, we require oxygen for respiration. In general, the larger and more organizationally complex we are (for instance, a human versus a slime mold), the more oxygen we require.

But where did all the oxygen come from? Ultimately, it was produced by the bacterial equivalents of the plants in Joseph Priestley's experiment, a group of photosynthetic microbes called the cyanobacteria. These bacteria are the first and only organisms to have evolved the ability to produce oxygen by photosynthesis. In fact, plants are able to photosynthesize only because their cells harbor descendants of one of the early cyanobacteria. We call them chloroplasts and think of them as little cellular organs, but they are actually the great-great-great... granddaughters of a cyanobacterium that long ago gave up its independence in exchange for the stable environment inside a eukaryotic cell. In any case, photosynthesis is the only known geological process capable of producing oxygen at the rates required for the two pulses of atmospheric oxygenation. The first pulse was probably largely accomplished by cyanobacteria, while the second pulse was probably mostly associated with the cyanobacterial denizens of eukaryotic algae.

What is remarkable about all of this is the extent to which modern life and the atmosphere are products of each other's evolution. The tiniest of photosynthetic organisms played one of the most important roles in shaping the sky, and the sky helped to usher in the age of animals! As a Christian and a geobiologist, I do not believe that this relationship is anticipated or predicted by the Biblical creation accounts.

But then again, why should it have been? The original audience for these accounts would have found concepts like bacteria or even oxygen incomprehensible. The people for whom the Bible was originally addressed thought about origins primarily in terms of ongoing national conflicts and the current human condition. Faced with a variety of violent creation myths that reinforced national conflicts, Genesis said that the universe was created to be good, peaceful, and orderly by one god. It specifically listed things worshipped by other nations as creatures of that god, and in the climax of the creation account, Abraham was called by the same god to be a blessing to all the nations through Israel.

I am not claiming that the Bible cannot be read in a way that can shape us in real and meaningful ways today. In fact, for those who believe that the Bible is inspired, part of the meaning of inspiration has to be that the Bible is God's powerful word to both those with no concept of modern science (most of the world's population, both today and in the past) and to those deeply engaged in its practice. But, and this is a big but, we contemporary Americans read the Bible best when we are sensitive to the assumptions of the original audience, carefully observe how the Bible transformed those assumptions, and look for opportunities to do the same thing with our thinking.

I think that it is important for Christians to reflect on the view of origins that science has given us in light of the thinking evident in the Biblical creation accounts. We have to do this because science gives us a story that is inherently without philosophical or theological meaning; it is up to us to give it meaning by understanding it in relationship with our beliefs. For instance, some see the evolutionary history of life and the Earth and give that history meaning by elevating chance and necessity to the level of prime actors in their own modern creation account. This meaning is not inherent to the theory of evolution; it is supplied by an atheistic belief system external to the theory. I suggest that this view mistakes created things (chance and necessity) for the Creator.

Others have preferred to see the regularity of the universe as the action of an orderly God. This is an old approach to natural theology that was popular among many early scientists, and saw God as responsible for doing such things as maintaining the planets in consistent paths around the sun. Still others look for God in the unexplained. This is a newer approach that sees God as acting primarily in short bursts not explainable by the regular, orderly function of the universe. Looking for God in these ways is a little like trying to capture him in a bell jar, an approach that worked perfectly well with oxygen for Mayow, Priestley, and Lavoisier, but one that is unlikely to impress the Creator described in the Bible.

I prefer to see the same history in the light of a God who desires to share aspects of his nature with his creation, notably including his creativity. Just as he has made humans to be creators (with a little 'c'), he has given the rest of our world the gift of being instrumental in its own creation through the process of evolution. This surely must have been part of what God saw when he described his creation as good! It is my hope that the modern American church can learn to see the goodness of creation in things like the evolutionary history of life and the atmosphere, as well.

This post first appeared in October 2009

Mike Tice is a geobiologist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Geology & Geophysics at Texas A&M University. He conducts research on the evolution of the earliest forms of life on Earth and the ways in which life and the environment have shaped each other through deep time. He is also interested in exploring the interface between the theory of evolution and the Christian doctrine of creation.

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Bilbo - #73629

October 13th 2012

Tice: “These bacteria are the first and only organisms to have evolved the ability to produce oxygen by photosynthesis.”

And how, exactly, did those organisms evolve the ability of photosynthesis? 


“...he has given the rest of our world the gift of being instrumental in its own creation through the process of evolution.”


And what exactly does the process of evolution consist of?  Chance and necessity?  Or something more?  Is the “rest of our world” consciously evolving itself?  Or is God guiding the process?  Or all of the above? 

Jon Garvey - #73630

October 13th 2012


I pretty much agreed up until the last paragraph. The concept of man as “creator” only came into Christianity through Renaissance humanism, maybe 500 years ago. Before then, the emphasis was on man as the creation of God, and therefore as his reflection and imitator, both in Christianity and Judaism before it.

The innovation is exemplified by the rewriting of the Adam story in the early Renaissance to make him the hero who brought knowledge to the world (ignoring his sin), and then by its replacement with the pagan Prometheus myth, emphasisng man the artist, scientist, and creator - increasingly independent of God (Prometheus, of course, stole fire from the gods for mankind).

One would be hard put to it to find any biblical stand of teaching that talks about man as creator. Image, servant, priest, vice-regent, skilled worker yes - creator: the Holy Spirit didn’t think to say that. In fact, Scripture never, ever, uses “create” of any other agent but God himself, because God is the only source of everything.

As for nature as co-creator through evolution, that is the invention of a few writers in theistic evolution over a couple of decades or so - maybe a little less than half my life as a Christian - and the most coherent expressions of that have been via Process Theology or Panetheism.

Are you saying that nature is a rational agent with free-will, to make choices about its destiny other than what God has willed for it? Are the Scriptures lying when they quote God as saying that he alone made everything that exists, seen and unseen? Or is it merely a euphemism for “God used secondary causes”, which is scarcely the same as their being “instrumental in their own creation.”

Sorry to be contentious, but rewriting Christian teaching by the back door seems far too common in TE.

HornSpiel - #73636

October 13th 2012

I love this word: dephlogisticated. Have you tried to pronounce it? So what did Priestly want to call oxygene, phlog? I suppose he was from London where it is very phloggy.

HornSpiel - #73638

October 13th 2012


And how, exactly, did those organisms evolve the ability of photosynthesis? 

How exact an answer do you want? What is your point? I am assuming you are challenging the word evolve, not the evidence that biological processes appeared on the earth oxygenating Earth’s atmosphere in the suggested time frame.

Are you suggesting an act of special creation? Does the “two pulse” time line, with life changing pulses separated by 2.6 billion years, fit more comfortability in an ID interventionist scenario or a gradual evolution scenario?

Interestingly, the second pulse corresponds to “the origin and diversification of the animals,”  the so called Cambrian explosion, something ID proponents often bring that up as supporting ID.

So exactly how did those organisms evolve the ability of photosynthesis? I have no idea. But I do know that ID will not help answer the question, it will only question the answer.

Eddie - #73650

October 13th 2012


ID scenarios do not necessarily have to be interventionist.  Nor does ID require “special creation,” if by that term you mean God created the sky, the earth, the plants, the birds, the land animals, and man, as a series of discrete actions with no historical connection to each other.  In fact, ID is quite compatible with a “gradual evolution scenario,” to use your words. 

There is certainly nothing incompatible with ID in any historical relationship between changes in the oxygen content in the atmosphere and surges in the development of life.  From a consistent ID perspective—one which views not just life but the whole cosmos as designed—the properties of oxygen were themselves designed specifically with life in mind.

Bilbo - #73639

October 13th 2012

Hi Hornspiel,

I’m suggesting that Tice is assuming something for which there is no evidence:  the evolution of photosynthesis.

HornSpiel - #73642

October 13th 2012

I agree that there is no direct evidence (yet) for how photosynthesis came to be.

Would you be happier with Trice if he had written: “These bacteria are the first and only organisms to have gained the ability to produce oxygen by photosynthesis.”

Or do you think it better we assume God created new photosynthesizing organisms that were not related by common descent with earlier organisms? 

My point: common descent + change = evolution. The evidence from DNA is that all organisms are related. Therefore species apparently developed by changes that occurred in certain subgroups of the population of earlier species. That is all the evidence one needs to say a characteristic peculiar to one subgroup of life evolved.

So as a Christian scientist what do you do? Look for evidence of a natural evolutionary pathway? or decide it is more God-friendly to try and prove that here is a barrier that evolution could never have overcome? Both quests may be futile, but I suggest it is more God-honoring to look as hard as possible for a natural explanation.

Eddie - #73649

October 13th 2012

Hi, Bilbo:

He is also assuming something else, for which he may have some (very slight) evidence, but certainly no proof:

“In fact, plants are able to photosynthesize only because their cells harbor descendants of one of the early cyanobacteria. We call them chloroplasts and think of them as little cellular organs, but they are actually the great-great-great… granddaughters of a cyanobacterium that long ago gave up its independence in exchange for the stable environment inside a eukaryotic cell.”

Notice that he states as fact (even uses the word, “fact”) what is (in fact) a conjecture by evolutionary biologists, based on theoretical considerations.  No one was around to observe the transformation that he was talking about, and there is no way, given present methods, of confirming that it actually took place.  We do not have proof for even the more widely accepted Margulis parallel account of the mitochondrion; that, too, is accepted because it fits in with the general tendency of evolutionary speculation, not because Margulis or anyone else could give even a sketchy plausible series of steps by which such a transformation could have taken place.  Where are the scientific articles, for either of these transformations, which show:  Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, ... from the separate entitities to the final combined entity?  

The point here is not that what the author is saying is false; for all I know, it may be true.  Nor do I have anything at stake if it is true.  The point is that speculation driven by theory is being asserted as fact; and this is scientifically irresponsible.  At the very least he should have employed cautious phrasing such as:  “Most evolutionary biologists now think ...”  or “Many evolutionary biologists currently opine ...”

beaglelady - #73653

October 14th 2012

What is the ID explanation?

Eddie - #73657

October 14th 2012

The phrase “the ID explanation” is misleading, as it implies that ID is a monolithic view, rather than a collection of related positions.

If you are asking specifically about the origin of chloroplasts, I don’t know what any ID person has written about that.

Note that I have not said that Tice’s statement about the origin of chloroplasts is false.  I have said that his degree of certainty is unwarranted by our level of knowledge.  No one on the planet knows how chloroplasts arose, and if Tice makes out that he knows, he is either deluding himself that current speculations are facts, or trying to bluff his readers (and students) into taking those speculations as facts.  I’m simply asking scientists to be much more honest and publically forthright about the difference between what is conjectured and what has been demonstrated.

And that applies to other sciences as well—cosmology, for example, which is rich in story-telling and extremely short on demonstration, and changes, it seems, about every two years these days, if one follows the science news.  (But each change is of course pronounced as the decisive new truth that shakes the foundations of earlier views.)  The problem with modern scientists—at least in the historical sciences—is that they are so eager to “make a splash” with their claims that they have forgotten the duty to be guarded, tentative, and qualified in their statements of what is “known.”  They use the word “know” far too loosely, on the basis of evidence and interpretations that a historian or philosopher (or for that matter a lawyer or physician) would find disputable.  Three-quarters of the duty of a scientist is to doubt claims to knowledge, including his or her own.  If evolutionary biologists, among others, could learn that from the philosophers, the world would be a lot better place.  And I’d apply that to interpreters of the Bible (whether literalist-inerrantist or loosey-goosey liberal) as well:  three-quarters of the effort of any Biblical interpreter should be in the serious consideration of the possible truth of arguments that count against one’s cherished position.  If all theologians and church leaders could learn that, the world would be a lot better place.

PNG - #73696

October 15th 2012

Photosynthesis is not an expertise of mine, but I’m pretty sure the conjecture about cyanobacteria and chloroblasts in not driven by “theory” but by a long list of remarkable similarities between the two. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to go to the literature or even a textbook and find that list of similarities, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are papers with coherent speculation about the process of endosymbiosis proposed to lead to incorporation of cyanobacteria in early algae. Intracellular parasitism isn’t rare and if the interaction turned out to have mutual benefits, there’s no reason it shouldn’t become permanent. Dave Barry once humorously referred to one of his books on the cover as a “fact-free book.” This seems to be a “fact free” discussion driven solely by the biases of the discussees.

PNG - #73697

October 15th 2012

I should have added that, since Mike studies these things, maybe he has relevant references handy.

PNG - #73752

October 18th 2012

Let me add my voice to those complaining about this editor. I posted a comment with these references, and the editor deleted it for no apparent reason when I posted another comment. Here’s another try.

Chloroplast symbiosis in a marine ciliate: ecophysiology and the risks and rewards of hosting foreign organelles  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22969760

Evolving a photosynthetic organelle http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22531210

What makes a chloroplast: Reconstructing the establishment of photosynthetic symbioses     http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22547565

Endosybiotic evolution in action: Real-time observations of chloroplast to nucleus gene transfer    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22479690

The first, second and fourth articles are free.

PNG - #73756

October 18th 2012

The second reference I gave concerns an interesting species, Paulinella chromatophora, an amoeba, that has apparently acquired a cyanobacterium as an organelle much more recently than the single endosymbiosis believed to lie in the ancestry of nearly all chloroplasts and similar photosynthetic organelles. There seems to be enough evidence to be pretty sure that Paulinella represents the second known primary endosymbiosis event, one that happened recently enough that traces of the process may still be present.

Eddie - #73700

October 15th 2012


You seem to be implying the typical argument that similarity in structure justifies an inference to historically connected origins.  But it doesn’t—not in strict logic, anyway.  Something other that the similarity in structure is needed to clinch the argument.  

If similarity in structure (or other things) were all one needed to clinch arguments for ancestry, we wouldn’t even need genomic evidence at all.  We could just say:  “A chimp and a man look a lot alike, have very similar internal organ setups, can catch a lot of the same germs, display some similar social behavior, etc.  Since they are so similar in so many ways, they must be related by common ancestry.”  All that the genomics arguments do is add more to the list of similarities; the logical bridge from “A and B are an awful lot alike” to “A and B share a common ancestor” isn’t thereby crossed.

Of course, as I’ve already indicated, I have no objection, theological or otherwise, to the inference of common ancestry.  I’m not disputing conclusions, I’m objecting to a theoretical and didactic attitude.

Back to chloroplasts:  I don’t think that either Margulis’s inference about mitochondria or any parallel inference about chloroplasts should be regarded as fact.  They are conjectures.  Whether they are strongly or weakly supported conjectures, I’m not arguing about.  They may be quite strongly supported.  But their logical, or rather epistemological, status is “conjecture” or “hypothesis,” not “fact.”  The article above reported the conjecture about the origin of chloroplasts as fact, and it’s precisely that assumption of certainty that I’m protesting.  (And notice that even if there exist journal articles such as you imagine—and I don’t doubt there are such articles—“coherent speculation” in those articles wouldn’t make their conclusions “facts,” any more than the “coherent speculation” about the existence of the luminiferous ether made the existence of the ether a fact, or than “coherent speculation” about string theory or multiverse makes strings or a multiverse a fact.)  

I’m just pleading for a demonstration of the much-vaunted scientific humility here.  Why can’t evolutionary theorists learn to say:  ”Most evolutionary biologists now believe that chloroplasts arose as a result of ...”?  When things are said with that kind of humility, I’m inclined to say, “OK, let’s take that as a working assumption for the time being,” whereas when someone says, “We know it happened this way” about an event 2.5 billion years ago, for which there is zero fossil evidence and no way of recovering the original genome sequences of the organisms that supposedly merged, I find myself wishing to make difficulties.

It’s the brash confidence of evolutionary theorists, more than what they say, that bothers me.  And I have the same objection to cosmologists.  It’s interesting that experimental scientists, who are dealing with stuff that’s in front of us right now, that we can measure, and control in repeated experiments, and who would therefore be warranted in being more cocksure rather than less, are typically very cautious, stressing what they haven’t proved, what factors their experiments couldn’t control for, etc., whereas the guys who claim to tell us what happened 4 or 14 billion years ago, under conditions we can neither observe nor duplicate, seem to speak with a breezy certainty a good deal of the time.  Odd, that.

PNG - #73749

October 18th 2012

Actually, I think genomic evidence does cross the bridge from mere similarity, because in the case of some genomic features we know how they come to be from observations of things happening now and even in experiments. We don’t just know that chimps and humans share several million repetitive sequences at orthologous positions in the genome. Those sequences are still being inserted and causing genetic disease in people today and they can be observed to transpose in cultured human and other mammalian cells, so we can reason pretty directly to identical, complex mutational events in the past that gave shape to both genomes. If we wanted to we could estimate the odds against all those events happening independently in parallel in the two species and it would be an extremely small number. That’s more than a mere similarity in structure. The logical power of similarities depends on what they are and how many of them there are.

Eddie - #73758

October 18th 2012


I think you will find, if you examine the argument carefully, that you can’t get by strict logic from similarity to historical connection without assuming exclusively naturalistic causation.  And maybe you do make that assumption; but as we’ve discussed elsewhere, your TE brethren will not commit one way or the other on that assumption.  And until they do, they can’t argue rigorously from similarity to historical connection.

The other comment I have is that your line of argument seems almost exclusively gene-focused, i.e., seems to regard evolution as simply the result of changes in the genome.  This assumption, which was the working assumption of 20th-century evolutionary theory, has been challenged in recent years by a number of leading evolutionary biologists, including James Shapiro; these challenges have never been acknowledged by any BioLogos columnist.  I claim no expertise here, but merely mention that if Shapiro is right—his book has been called “a game-changer”—a good deal of what has been said about evolution, not only by Gould and Dawkins and Coyne, but also by Miller and Collins and other TEs—is going to need serious revision.  

PNG - #73766

October 18th 2012

When you quit assuming ordinary, natural causation, science is out the window. You can account for any set of evidence one might come up with by positing miracle, positing design (which necessarily requires some miraculous mode of implementation, even if undetectable) or saying in the simple man’s way, “God just did it that way.” But when there are known natural mechanisms that could have brought something about, it seems fair to ask, why should we invoke miracles, or why would God “just do” something in a way that looks for all the world like it happened by a known natural process? Is He trying to fool us? If so, He will get it right and we will be fooled. Note that here I am only talking about evidence for common descent, not a mechanism of evolution.

I haven’t read Shapiro’s book but I gather that he has made much of the fact that there are some very complex modes of mutation, recombination, and reassortment of genetic material, and there may be stress conditions in which cells increase the rate at which these things happen, and some parts of the genome may be more subject to particular kinds of mutations than others. None of that changes the fact that all those changes happen in one individual and don’t affect a species unless they achieve fixation, either by drift or selection.  I suppose one could propose that God mutates all the members of a species in the same way at the same time, but I doubt that Shapiro resorts to that so if he has anything earthshaking to say about how fixation happens, I’m unaware of it. It’s also true that as far as we know, those kind of complex changes do not occur in any selective way in respect to possible function of the resulting sequence. The transposon has no way of knowing if the location it is inserting into will result in some new function, although of course God does. 

I would be willing to bet that evolution is simply the result of changes in the nuclear genome and the genomes of organelles, which of course includes changes in the enzymes that mediate epigenetics. There are minor flourishes in things like prions, which can cause inherited traits, but prions are coded by genes just like any other protein. It’s interesting that a gene expressed in one generation can have effects on subsequent generations, but it doesn’t change anything fundamemtal.

I can’t pass judgement on Shapiro’s work, since I haven’t looked at it, but I know there are quite good scientists who think it is all much ado about not much - that it doesn’t really change anything fundamental about evolutionary theory. New kinds of mutation and cellular responses may continue to be found, but it takes more than that to be a game-changer. Amateurs, especially those with an ideological axe to grind (I don’t necessarily mean you), are a lot more apt to be blown away by someone who claims to have revolutionary insights than are the trained practitioners of a field. I lost count of the number of books I received ads for in my career that were “guaranteed to overturn the dogmas” of my field, but subsequently disappeared without making a ripple.

Jon Garvey - #73772

October 18th 2012


The problem with science is not what it explains, but the limitation of the kinds of explanations it chooses to deal with, which truncate reality and, when promoted as the “whole truth”, impoverish human life.

For example, at the one end, your discussion below of God’s using evolution etc for his purposes assumes a primary causation which, Aristotelian-style, is quite compatible with science’s efficient causation. Apart from miracle, what other means is God going to use apart from natural causes?

Yet if “sufficent natural causes” implies “God not involved”, and miracles are excluded on the grounds that God wouldn’t be right to “interfere”, then atheism is actually built into ones system - the most God can be is the hidden mains supply.  But God’s primary causation works determinatively through regular laws, chance and even human decision. And miracle too, if necessary.

At the other end, ignoring final causes is unscientific when it comes to human artifacts (one cannot begin to understand an artifact without accounting for its purpose), and according to an increasing number of thinkers (Thomas Nagel most recently) has also unduly tied the hands of natural science. They merely point out the limited (and now dated) philosophical and metaphysical assumptions to which science has tied itself, and so offer a valid critique.

PNG - #73806

October 20th 2012

I don’t think that natural causes exclude God being involved, and I don’t think that miracles are excluded. I just don’t think that science can deal very effectively with them. You go as far as you can with explanations that rely on known or plausible natural phenomena. When you encounter something that seems maybe beyond that (say the origin of life), if you have any sense, you change research topics, while interminable internet argruments ensue about the problem. The philosophers take over and speculate, until someone thinks of a testable hypothesis. I personally think science needs the assumptions that it has, although it’s fine for philosophers and theologians to speculate as they wish with different assumptions.

Eddie - #73773

October 18th 2012


On your first paragraph, of course science will go out the window if you start postulating non-natural causes all over the place.  But you yourself, in another column, admitted to me that you thought that God does a bit of tinkering with evolution.  So right away, you are saying that you don’t think that every evolutionary event is naturally caused.  If you think that, it follows that you can’t safely back-reason on the assumption of an unbroken chain of causes.  This means that, for example, the population genetics calculations used to “disprove” a recent Adam and Eve may not be reliable—how do you know how many times God has tinkered between the first humans and today?  (I’m not arguing for either tinkering or a 6,000-year date for Adam and Eve, by the way, just making a point about the inconsistency of TE arguments—naturalistic one minute, open to divine intervention the next, with the latter option rendering the argument in question—from mere genomic similarity to common ancestry—dubious.)    

I’m not saying that Shapiro is right; nor am I any worshipper of revolutionary views for the sake of revolution.  However, Shapiro is a qualified evolutionary biologist, with articles on evolution published in good secular journals specializing in that subject.  His work is being given the most careful attention by the evolutionary biology community.  Even those who disagree with him are taking his ideas seriously.   And there is no doubt that Shapiro explicitly attacks the neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology (which has been the one promoted by virtually all TEs, whether here or in the ASA journal).  Any TE biologist who is intellectually serious about keeping up with evolutionary theory will be reading Shapiro (and the Altenberg group, and other critics of NDE).  But I’ve seen zero evidence on this site that any TE has read any of these people.  And to me that is intellectually shameful. 

PNG - #73805

October 20th 2012

I don’t take it as established or not that God “tinkers” with things to make evolution happen. He may, or may not. I don’t expect to catch Him in the act. I think He gets what He wants out of it. Whether that involves “tinkering” or not, I am agnostic. 

About your last comment, see my quote from Claude Bernard. We scientists are incorrigible. We don’t care if philosophers think we are intellectually shameful.

Eddie - #73807

October 20th 2012


On your first paragraph:  either you have backtracked, or I misunderstood what you said under another column.  I thought you had said that you personally believed that God tinkered and/or front-loaded a bit, even though you didn’t claim scientific proof for that.  So I gave you credit for being more forthright than other biologist-TEs.  But now you are saying that even on the personal level, you never committed yourself to anything beyond “maybe.”  So I’m putting you back in the category with every other biologist-TE known to me:  “Won’t answer the question/don’t think the question is important enough to have a position on.”

On your second paragraph, it doesn’t matter to me whether scientists care about what philosophers think, but they should care about what other scientists think, especially those who are more advanced in a certain area than they are.  Shapiro is far more advanced, and certainly has more published, in evolutionary biology, and teaches at a much more prestigious institution (University of Chicago) than any biologist-TE known to me (other than Simon Conway Morris).  But none of the biologist-TEs seems to care in the slightest about the work he’s done in the past decade, or his ground-breaking new book.  He hasn’t even been mentioned here.  Nor has the ground-breaking work of the Altenberg conference people, who are, again, specialists in evolutionary biology, not geneticists or cell biologists (like Francis Collins and Ken Miller) with a general interest in evolution but who have no publications in evolutionary biology.  And I find this odd, as Karl Giberson used to preach regularly on this very site that only the specialist had any right to interpret the data.  So why aren’t the specialists in evolutionary biology being respected here?  Why aren’t their results even being discussed?

Also, you have misunderstood my point about Shapiro; see my other reply to you regarding him, below, in the appropriate place.

PNG - #73814

October 20th 2012

I didn’t say the point about tinkering is unimportant, only that I regard it as possible but I simply don’t know. What I said that may be different from some other TEs is that I think God got what He wanted in terms of species, now and then.  Exactly how He did that I don’t know and don’t expect science to tell me with any certainty, although it might suggest things to speculate about. I doubt that this is very different than what many other TEs think, but they would have to speak for themselves. 

Eddie - #73759

October 18th 2012


In my previous note, I hope you will understand that “simply the result of changes in the genome” was meant to be supplemented by “filtered by natural selection.”  My point is that the random mutation plus natural selection model is now under serious scrutiny and criticism, if there is much more going on in evolutionary change than this, inferences made merely from genomic comparisons (which is pretty well what TEs focus on) will be misleading and inadequate.     

PNG - #73770

October 18th 2012

One thing you learn in biochemistry is that there are limits to the precision that biological (and chemical) mechanisms can achieve. In order to get greater accuracy, you have to spend more energy, and there is a limit to the accuracy that can be achieved without slowing down cellular processes to a crawl. There are about 1.6 million transposable elements inserted at the exact same sites in chimp and human, and that leaves several million more older elements whose sites may be obscured by accumulation of mutations. I think it is safe to say that no natural enzymatic mechanism could be accurate enough to account for all those insertions happening in parallel in multiple species (many are present in gorilla and other primates as well), especially as there is no common target sequence beyond a short preferred site. The only hypotheses that can account for it are that they didn’t happen in parallel because each site represents one event in the past (common descent) or miracles (I assume God can be as accurate as he wants to be.) Nothing that Shapiro or anyone else comes up, no speculation about programmed mutation is is going to change this.

Eddie - #73774

October 18th 2012

I would suggest that you read Shapiro before anticipating and refuting his argument.  And I have made no assertion anything like what you are apparently trying to refute in the above statement.

PNG - #73804

October 20th 2012

My point is that, while Shapiro may be of interest on his own, I don’t need to read him to say that no natural enzymatic mechanism is going to account for the parallel occurrence of the features we see in the genomes of different species (and I assume Shapiro isn’t dealing in supernatural mechanisms.) There are very fundamental reasons for that which I’ve hinted at above. 

You think I’m being inconsistent. Let me clarify my thinking. If a particular body of evidence can be accounted for in terms of known natural mechanisms, I think that is what we should go with. It’s always possible to opt for miracles, but when we do, the discussion is pretty much over. Miracles can always match any other explanation. In the case of the genomic evidence for common descent it can be accounted for by genetic events that are exactly like what we observe today, plus speciation, which as a general phenomenon is well documented. Even a well informed young earth guy like Todd Wood accepts that speciation occurs, even if he doesn’t accept speciation to give rise to humans.

On the other hand if there are phenomena that can’t be accounted for by any known or plausible natural explanation (say, the origin of life or the origin of the photosynthetic complex as examples of things that might be put forward - not that I am putting them forward) then maybe miracles should be considered. That’s what the ID folk think they have shown. I don’t think they have, but if miracles are going to be suggested, that’s the point to do it. I gather that most ID people would say that you can’t get from a chimp-human ancestor to humans without miracles, but, while I don’t think they have shown that, my main point would be that the genomes tell us that there either there was a common ancestor, with miracles or without, or God went to a lot of trouble to make it look like there was a common ancestor.

Eddie - #73808

October 20th 2012


I think you have conflated unrelated points that I am making.

The point I made about miracles/interventions/tinkering and how that would affect back-reasoning was an epistemological point of general relevance to all knowledge claims and therefore to science/theology discussion.

The point I was making about Shapiro was nothing to do with miracles or tinkering.  Shapiro does not endorse miracles or tinkering.  He accepts common descent, and believes that the whole evolutionary process occurred through entirely natural causes, and he is much clearer about that than any TE I have ever read.

The point I was making about Shapiro is that he frontally and brazenly challenges the neo-Darwinian paradigm in key respects, and that the neo-Darwiniam paradigm, with or without slight modifications, is the one favored by nearly all TEs.  So TEs have to deal with Shapiro if they want to be taken seriously as commenters on evolutionary biology.  If they are content just to go to ASA conferences and publish semi-popular articles in the ASA journal for an audience of Christian scientists, that’s fine; but if they want the scientific world (Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Yale, Cambridge, etc.) to take their judgments on evolutionary mechanisms seriously, they have to get out and read current literature.  And they have to produce peer-reviewed articles on evolutionary biology on their own.  I’ve seen literally no such articles, other than those by a couple of paleontologists (Keith Miller and Conway Morris).  From most of the biologist-TEs, I’ve seen only semi-popular and popular discussions of evolutionary theory.  Such discussions may have value for introducing church folks to basic evolutionary concepts, but they have no effect on the scientific discipline, and they have no claim to be taken seriously as research science or even up-to-date critical commentary on research science.

I have never disputed common descent.  I questioned one of your lines of reasoning to establish common descent; or rather, I said it was not demonstrative in the strict sense until a commitment had been made to the position that there was in fact no tinkering.  If there was no tinkering, then I agree with you that the reasoning is demonstrative.  And I think that in fact the vast majority of biologist-TEs believe both as scientists and as Christians that there was no tinkering, and I wish they would have the courage to say so directly.  It’s easy:  “God could have tinkered, but I personally believe that evolution was driven exclusively by natural causes from bacterium to man.”  See?  Now why can’t any biologist-TE get those words out of his mouth?

I never put forward miracles as an alternative explanation for the origin of photosynthesis.  I simply noted that the origin of photosynthesis is not known, and that any scientist who claims it is known is either deluded (doesn’t know the difference between fact and conjecture) or is bluffing.

Yes, one can always hide one’s head in the sand on questions like the origin of life.  The fact is that the best explanation for the origin of life at the moment is that intelligence was brought to bear on matter to give life its first organization; chemicals sloshing around randomly in a primordial ocean so far looks like a very unlikely explanation.  If you choose not to tentatively adopt the best explanation at the moment, that is your right and your business; but I suspect that deep down you are waiting for —no, more than waiting, hoping for —a wholly naturalistic answer involving unsteered, unmanipulated molecular interactions with a good deal of randomness involved.  But try asking yourself why a Christian should hope that.  Why is it in the interest of Christianity that a seamless naturalism should be able to account for the entire history of the universe?

PNG - #73813

October 20th 2012

The only reason I would sort of expect a “natural” origin of life is that I think it would be a supremely good trick to design the universe to do that and I think it would something God could rightly take glory for doing, if He did it that way. It would amount to starting life with His hands tied behind His back, so to speak, and while I concede that at the moment it looks more likely that He used a miracle, I have a nagging suspicion that He would choose to do the thing in the most impressive way possible, by crafting laws and original conditions that would make it inevitable. It makes sense to me that God might do things that way, but I see no reason to conclude, as Howard Van Til did, that He _must_ have done it that way. I gave up on figuring out how it was done myself a long time ago.

It would also do something else that seems to be generally the case. It would leave God’s action mostly hidden. I agree with Pascal that that is how things look.

“What meets our eyes denotes neither a total absence nor a manifest presence of the divine, but the presence of a God who conceals Himself. Everything bears this stamp.” (Pascal)

Don’t be so sure you can read someone’s mind because you know what “camp” they fall into. (If you want to guess at what I think, find out what Ted Davis thinks and what Pascal said. I find that I almost invariably agree with those two.)

On your last point, I have somewhere a quote from Warfield around 1900 in which he expressed his certainty that science would soon show the Bible to be unquestionably inerrant and the conversion of the world to Christianity would soon follow. It didn’t happen (and how Warfield could have expected it at that date is hard to fathom.) I can’t escape the impression that the whole ID thing is driven by a similar hope, that God will (or has) show his hand by way of science, so every reasonable person will be forced to concede his existence. I don’t think it has happened or that it will. Pascal perceived something basic about the world, the hiddeness of God, and I think he was right and I don’t think that will change. It may seem to us that a bit of sky-writing by God would sure help things, but I don’t think He sees things that way.

Eddie - #73827

October 21st 2012

I agree with you about Van Till’s overstatement.
Your metaphor of God operating “with his hands tied behind his back” is a good one, and very revealing.  I think it is in fact the metaphor that most biologist-TEs have in their heads when they conceive of divine action in evolution.  The difference is that you are being a bit franker here, in indicating that you have an aesthetic preference (above and beyond any formal theological argument) for this model of divine action.  (Many of the differences between TE and its critics are over the kind of God that people would like to believe in, and hence are in the final analysis aesthetic.)
I myself to some degree share your preference.  I was steeped in it during my youth.  I absorbed it from my incessant reading of authors like Sagan.  It’s also shared by ID proponent Michael Denton.  (Whose naturalistic evolutionary account, strangely, most TEs refuse to endorse, discuss, or even read.)  But we must recognize that it’s an Enlightenment preference.  The question for a Christian is not whether it would seem really cool if God created in that way, but whether that is a Christian conception of divine action.
Pascal notwithstanding, I see very little evidence that this was the conception of divine action in either the Bible or the early Church.  The Bible in particular represents God as ever active, not merely in “sustaining natural laws” (though the term “natural laws” is of course not Biblical), but in what we might call “special divine action”—singular actions to accomplish specific purposes.  And there is no division between “nature” and “history” in that regard.  God’s sphere of special divine action stretches over both; he is Lord of both.  The apparent attempt by many TEs to say that in reference to “nature” God restricts himself (ties his hands behind his back) to natural laws, whereas in “history” (the life of Israel, and of Jesus) God frees himself to act directly, is a revisionist reading of the Bible performed to make Christianity compatible with teachings about origins advocated in modern times.
I am not denying that God is represented in the Bible as lending to the world a certain stability and orderliness.  In that sense, the Bible is compatible with natural science.  But there is no teaching that the origin of the world is from “natural laws,” that the world “pulled itself up by its own bootstraps,” improving itself, reorganizing itself by its own powers, to move from simple to complex, disorderly to orderly.  That conception is found in modern times, and in pagan pre-Christian philosophy and religion around the world; it’s not the Biblical conception.
The Biblical conception of God as specially active in origins was still held by Newton, Kepler, Boyle and many others.  It wasn’t until later, with Kant and Laplace and Lyell and Darwin, that origins were transferred from the realm of theology to the realm of natural science. 
The view of divine action in origins that TEs like to represent as traditional or Biblical is historically speaking a new one.  That doesn’t make it wrong; but attempts to make it seem traditional by appealing to out-of-context statements of Luther about the hiddenness of God, or to Pascal (who is quite late in the tradition, and has no authoritative standing in any branch of Christian teaching), or to “Wesleyan” ideas of “freedom” in nature (which no Wesleyan until about 40 years ago ever endorsed), won’t pass muster.  I would have fewer objections to TEs if they would openly call for a new and revised Christian theology of creation, and stopped pretending that what they teach is what the Bible and tradition intended all along.
PNG - #73750

October 18th 2012

I should add that I’m not very concerned about whether endosymbiosis is regarded as a “fact” or not. “Fact” is not a technical term and doesn’t seem to be very well defined. Some people seem to mean that anything that they can’t see happening in front of them can’t be a fact. Call it a very well supported conjecture if you like. You can probably deduce my relative interest in philosophical disputes about science and the science itself from the fact that I left philosophy to became a biochemist.

Eddie - #73761

October 18th 2012

There is nothing wrong with switching from philosophy to biochemistry.  But philosophical disputes about science are not completely irrelevant to discussions of evolution.  Much of what TEs say—about methodological versus metaphysical naturalism, about NOMA, about randomness being combined with providence, etc.—requires philosophical analysis and is very questionable.

Regarding the question of “fact” it seems to me that you are blowing my original remark far out of proportion.  Tice asserted as a fact something which he does not know, and which no human being knows.  He does not know how chorloplasts originated.  No matter how confident he is in his conjecture, he does not know.  Science articles and textbooks, and especially popular writings and popular talks, where the lay audience doesn’t have the critical ability to detect overstatements, should be scrupulous in indicating the difference between fact and conjecture.  If they don’t, they are propaganda, not scientific exposition.  That’s all I wanted to say.

PNG - #73767

October 18th 2012

“In a word, if men of science are useful to philosophers, and philosophers to men of science, men of science remain free, nonetheless; and masters in their own house; as for myself, I think that men of science achieve their discoveries, their theories and their science apart from philosophers. ... As for Bacon and other more modern philosophers who try a general systematization of precepts for scientific research, they may seem alluring to people who look at science only from a distance; but works like theirs are of no use to experienced scientists; and by false simplification of things, they mislead men who wish to devote themselves to cultivating science.”

Claude Bernard’s 1865
_An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine_

I got this quote from George Murphy. I think it captures how things work. Scientists do what they do without thinking about philosophy of science. The philosophers trot along after and try to figure out how the scientists do what they do. That’s an interesting question in itself, but it’s also an interesting thing that once you have been through doing a research doctorate, you know how to do research. You don’t have to ask the philosophers. Unlike a lot of scientists, I actually like philosophy and still read it on occasion, but I guess I like being able to actually answer questions rather than just frame them well. When one of my philosophy professors suggested to me that Xeno’s paradoxes were not really solved by calculus, I decided to go with the calculus.

You referred to “strict logic” above, which sounds like proof. I really think proof is a concept that belongs only in logic and mathematics. Scientists don’t prove things. At best we get very good evidence for things. The evidence is often better than can be easily explained. And there is the phenomenon that the evidence in your own field always looks more convincing to you than that in other fields, partly because you understand better how it was obtained and what controls are routinely employed and partly because you don’t know the details about evidence in some other field. In your own field when you know there is a lot of good evidence, there is a tendency to say, “Yea, we know that” even if the philosophers want to quibble.

Eddie - #73771

October 18th 2012


I agree with you that the academic field called “the philosophy of science” is not something that scientists usually need to worry about.  I did not mean that before scientists publish their conclusions, they needed to go to, say, Karl Popper, and have him  check them out.  That would be silly.

I was speaking of philosophy more generally.  Philosophers think a great deal about knowledge and the conditions of knowledge; about the difference in meaning between words like “demonstration,” and “conjecture”; about how tacit assumptions ground the activities in various fields (science, history, economics, etc.).  Whereas scientists and historians and others from time to time critically review certain assumptions, the whole life of philosophy is a constant critical review of assumptions—those of the philosopher himself, as well as those of everyone else.  Thus, philosophers at their best have extremely high standards.  They have a built-in radar that detects overclaims.

To say that we “know” that such-and-such an evolutionary event happened 2.5 billion years ago is an overclaim.  Our backwards extrapolations are simply not that reliable, and anyone who pretends otherwise is either dishonest or does not know his biological and geological sciences well enough.  There is vast room for error.  We don’t know what most of the genome does; we don’t know the relative importance of non-genomic factors; mutation rates are widely debated, and if they are miscalculated, false conclusions follow (a striking example, embarrassing for some of the statements made here by geneticists about human ancestry, is covered by Torley on UD in a very recent column); etc.  Good working scientists admit to the possibility of error in all these areas; ideological scientists, and their journalistic promoters, cover it up and pretend there is no doubt about their inferences.

It is ludicrous to pretend that inferences about what happened 500 million years ago to a hypothetical organism, for which we could have no DNA even if the organism had ever lived, are every bit as reliable as inferences from a coroner’s report about a murder that happened last week for which we have a body, fingerprints, DNA, blood samples, ballistic test results, etc. 

I am sure that Hawking thinks he “knows” that we can get “universes from nothing” without a creator.  I am sure he thinks that amateurs like you and me have no right to judge the “evidence” he finds for that.  But in fact Hawking’s judgment is deeply flawed, because he equivocates on the meaning of “nothing.”  By “nothing” he has in mind a “quantum vacuum” which is not “nothing” in normal parlance.  But the average citizen, bedazzled by “quantum vacuum,” wonders if maybe the scientists have finally disproved God.  The philosopher, however, recognizes the equivocation immediately:  the quantum vacuum is not “nothing”—for physicists speak of “fluctuations” of it.  You can’t have “fluctuations” of nothing.  There has to be a “something” that fluctuates.  And a philosopher can “know” this—in the real sense of the word “know”—without knowing any physics at all—simply because philosophers are trained to use words properly, and reason out the implications of concepts properly.

Philosophers can perform similar checks upon historians, etc.  Not to tell the historians how to do history; that would be idiotic.  But to keep the historians honest, by stopping them from overclaiming, faking knowledge they don’t have, etc.  That is why, not philosophy of science as a technical field (which in my view is boring and unproductive), but philosophical thinking generally, remains of use even in a specialist age.  The philosophers can help guard the world against intellectual imperialism by the specialists.

PNG - #73816

October 20th 2012

I am glad you have found a use for philosophers. Now if you could work on a reliable method for them to get paid, I’m sure you would be their hero.

Eddie - #73828

October 21st 2012


Of course, philosophers don’t have the advantage of a military-industrial-medical complex, financed by the taxpayers to the tune of billions or trillions of dollars, to help them along, as scientists do.

I might add that we are mirror-images in some respects.  You moved from philosophy into science.  I started out on a science scholarship—and one of the subjects that most interested me was evolution—but left the field after seeing that most scientists were not interested in asking broad questions about the nature of science, the history of science, science and theology, etc., but merely wanted to get on with their tiny corner of research.  I was driven to philosophy and theology in order to ask the questions I wanted to ask about science, nature, etc., because most of the scientists weren’t asking them.  

That said, I appreciate your interest in things beyond science.  Your love of epic poetry in particular is striking to me, and is a love that I share.  It is a refreshing image for me to picture a TE reading Dante or Milton in his spare time.

GJDS - #73658

October 14th 2012

It is useful to obtain some hard data and considered information on this topic; this approach will show the interested reader, in an unbiased way, some of the extraordinary obstacles facing those who would wish to provide a sound understanding of a number of factors, including how such a reactive gas like oxygen, is present in such abundance on this planet. An example is the recent review by Falkowski and Godfrey, “Electrons, life and the evolution of Earth’s oxygen cycle,” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2008) 363, 2705–2716. For those who may not be able to access this paper, I provide a this quote, “It is not entirely clear if the initial oxidation of Earth’s atmosphere in the Late Archaean–Early Proterozoic aeons was mediated solely by cyanobacteria, or whether photosynthetic eukaryotes may also have contributed. Regardless of the pathway(s) that led to the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis, the biological process was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to allow for a net accumulation of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. The key reaction in oxygenic photosynthesis is the water-splitting oxygen-evolving complex that contains a quartet of Mn atoms and an essential Ca atom. The origins of this metal cluster are unclear; however, the quartet of Mn atoms is clearly essential to the key reaction. Through sequential single photon driven electron transfers, the Mn atoms remove electrons (without protons) one at a time from two water molecules, ultimately liberating O2. Ca appears to stabilize the intermediate O, until the second atom is released.

I suggest that we can write a very large book containing all of the things we do not know about these matters, and a very thin book of all that we can say with any reasonable degree of certainty (sigh).

Eddie - #73661

October 14th 2012

The tentativeness and frank admissions of uncertainty expressed in the quoted article express my ideal of good science.  I praise the authors.  If only all evolutionary biologists, especially those who embroil themselves in popular debate—on the internet, in magazines and books, on television and radio, and on the stage at college campuses—would write with such scientific and scholarly discipline!  The substitution of “I conjecture, based on our sketchy preliminary evidence, that possibly ...” or “Many biologists, working on the tentative assumption X, have suggested ...”  in place of “We know,” or “Evolutionary biology has established,” ought to be the first writing lesson taught to anyone who wishes to become an evolutionary biologist.  The apodictic tone of popular evolutionary biology is scientifically presumptuous, and simply turns the American public even more against evolutionary biology than it already is.

PNG - #73754

October 18th 2012

It’s true that people express more certainty than is warranted on occasion, but the truth is that usually the expert is intimately familiar with a large body of evidence that the amateurs are not aware of at all. Under those circumstances it’s not surprising that there is a disconnect in the perception of how current expert opinion should be expressed. A lot of laymen don’t like it when the neurosurgeon says, “this kind of tumor is almost invariably fatal,” and run off to find an “alternative” guru who will tell them something else. But the neurosurgeon is almost invariably right.

Eddie - #73762

October 18th 2012

Your example proves my point.  The neurosurgeon, by saying “almost invariably” is behaving like a true scientist, saying exactly what he knows, and nothing more than what he knows.  The evolutionary biologist who says “chloroplasts originated by endosymbiosis,” without adding some qualifier like “probably” or “perhaps,” is not exercising the proper scientific caution.  (And I note you have made a somewhat strained comparison, since the doctor is basing his generalization on actual documented cases, whereas the evolutionary biologist is basing his generalization on extrapolation to events that happened billions of years ago and cannot be observed or replicated.)

It’s not a question of expert vs. amateur.  It’s a question of accurate statement versus exaggeration.  In the popular debates over evolution, evolutionary biologists make all kinds of exaggerations.  They should simply stop doing so.  First, for tactical reasons, because once people detect the exaggerations, the evolutionary biologists will lose all credibility.  But more important, because scientists are supposed to be concerned with the truth, not with winning an argument.  I consider the creation/evolution debates to have been very bad for science, because they have caused many scientists to become less concerned with fully accurate representations of what is known, and more concerned with winning the argument.  And there are offenders on this score from all camps.  I don’t mind people from “my” camp being called on their exaggerations, and I hope you don’t object when it’s people from “your” camp that are called for the same.  Best wishes.  

GJDS - #73765

October 18th 2012


I have some sympathy with the position of the expert and how he may regard data and observation with confidence based on years of experience. I also know from experience that the notion of certainty and uncertainty in high level scientific research, in the ultimate analysis, is fairly subjective. After all, if I (or anyone else) were not confident of my research, the approach, and understanding, I would find it hard to do it (and I am sure, in that case, I would not do it well).

However, I take the view that when science is used to explain (or if it seems to be used) the big questions, caution and expressions of limitations are preferred. I heard the Noble lauriate (astro-physics)respond to a question regarding the the beginning of the Universe, and he described himself as a militan agnostic. In general I agree with his outlook.

Jon Garvey - #73678

October 15th 2012

Interestingly, I see Mike Tice is cited in GJDS’s paper.

Bilbo - #73667

October 14th 2012

It could be that the process of photosynthesis, which I believe is the same in prokaryotes and eukaryotes, did indeed evolve, meaning that it came about through a completely naturalistic, unguided process.  And I have no problem with someone assuming that and searching for ways that it might have happened.  But that’s different than just stating it as a fact.

But the part of Tice’s article that bothers both Jon and me the most is the utter vagueness of his idea that nature is some kind of “co-creator” of evolution.  Would it be too much for him or for BioLogos to offer some idea of what he or they means by that?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73671

October 14th 2012

Actually this article is not about evolution, it is about ecology. 

Ecology is about the relationship between plants and animals with its environment, which means oxygen.

The discovery of the relationship of plants with oxygenation was made by ecology, not evolutionary biology.

The process by which eukaryotes were formed was by symbiosis, an ecological process.

The interactive harmony between plants, animals, and the environment is found in ecology, not evolution, which teaches conflict. 

Thus this post is basically true except for one big lie, which is that evolution is in the forefront of the study of our world.  Ecology is. 

Evolution does not care about humans or the environment.  Ecology does.  If humans get bogged down in in evolution, they will end up like the dodo.  


GJDS - #73672

October 14th 2012

To (perhaps) clarify the purpose of my previous post (and to keep my posts shorter) – we need to see understand that evolutionary processes are insufficient, and instead inorganic event are then invoked (i.e. …. the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis, the biological process was a necessary, but not sufficient,)… I add the following from the same paper, as a sober reflection on the state of knowledge that the most advanced scientific thinking has to offer us:

“The evolution of the network of non-equilibrium redox reactions that came to be the primary energy transforming pathways of life on Earth remains largely unknown. It was not inevitable that oxygen became the ultimate electron sink. The biological chemistry of oxygen is still a mystery; we do not fully understand how oxygen is produced in the photosynthetic reactions, or its feedbacks in metabolic and biogeochemical cycles. The first of the two fundamental questions posed above reflects our ignorance of basic chemistry of the electron transfers that bring the ensemble of molecules in cells to ‘life’. Despite 150 years since the publication of ‘The Origin of Species’, the origin of life remains a black box.”

I ask two questions: (1) Is this the type of knowledge that NT, TE, ID and BioLogos would consider sufficient to base one’s faith regarding what God may or may not do?” and (2) “Just how honest have evolutionist been when they insist that their (odd) theory of evolution is supported by science?”

It is easy to say, ‘but we are not discussing how life has originated”; however this paper (and many others) show evolutionary thinking is absolutely predicated on these virus/bacteria/ whatever/Achaea etc., and how they are supposed to have evolved. You cannot separate one from the other.

All that is left is for a ‘Hoyle of biology’ (an attempted pun) to work out the astronomical odds that so many events could possibly occur in a random fashion (even if we give them some lee way on accuracy and sheer speculation (?)), and we will have another ‘epiphany’ from these people, saying, “It just cannot occur by chance”. Off, course, this conclusion would then be taken up by NT and TE etc., as ‘another way to understand how God intervenes’.  Both of these responses are wrong – it is not wise to accept error when using God’s name. Look up the Ten Commandments if you think I am wrong!

I am simply presenting science; there is no way the science may be rationalised or modified by appealing to so many gene sequences and how they may be conserved /mutated etc. All of these matters have been considered in works such as the paper I have referred.

We all must think for ourselves after science presents the information.

HornSpiel - #73673

October 15th 2012

It could be that the process of photosynthesis…did indeed evolve, meaning that it came about through a completely naturalistic, unguided process. 


I think you are hung up on the mechanics of change. I do not think evolution requires one make a philosophical commitment to “completely naturalistic, unguided.” Like I said above Common descent + Change = Evolution. DNA and RNA is as far as I know are the only mediators of inherited change. Tice assumes that life before photosynthesis existed, and that life with photosynthesis was derived from the life that preceded it—in that case the word evolved is perfectly appropriate. If God guided that change, it is still evolution—at least in my view and I assume Tice’s. 

Disproving the mechanisms of current neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory  does not invalidate evolution. Evolution can only be falsified by showing evidence for life without any biological connection life that already existed. The options seem to be special divine creation and panspermia. If God has done multiple acts of special creation He seems to not have been too cooperative. There are many ways that God might have left His fingerprints in DNA. But again and again common decent is shown by astronomical odds to be true. I know of no serious evidence for Panspermia. So evolution is the only scientific option.

As a result, I accept evolution as a scientific fact that simply is not in dispute. I agree that some tentativeness might be appropriate when describing the mechanisms, the evolutionary pathways, the probabilities. But Tice is not talking about a mechanism, he is simply stating the scientific fact that life is derived from the life that preceded it. No need for qualifiers there.

Eddie - #73676

October 15th 2012


“Evolution” is a broad term that can mean many things, and therefore you are right to say that it does not necessarily imply completely naturalistic or unguided.  Neo-Darwinian evolution, however, is understood, and was intended to be understood by its proponents (Julian Huxley, Gaylord Simpson, Mayr, etc.), as completely naturalistic and unguided.  Modern TE attempts to say otherwise are pure revisionism, and modern TEs have never provided a single passage from any of the NDE founders to establish their non-standard interpretation.

You write that disproving neo-Darwinism would not disprove evolution, but I have no idea why you would think that Bilbo, Jon Garvey or I ever thought it would.  None of us have written against “evolution” per se.

Bilbo is not “hung up” for being concerned about the “how” of evolutionary change.  Some proposed understandings of “how” clash with certain Christian teachings.  Jon Garvey has brought this out well.  But it is very hard to get either biologists or geologists to ground their theological talk in the authoritative texts of the Christian tradition—the Bible, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, etc.  They seem to prefer vague modern theological notions such as co-creativity, the freedom of nature, etc.  These ideas spring from the Enlightenment, from existentialism, and from other sources, but they don’t appear to spring from the core teachings of the Bible and the tradition.  And Jon Garvey in particular is not against theistic evolution at all; he’s against theistic evolution formulated in a theologically unorthodox way.  But he can’t seem to get the TEs here to engage him on the theology.  They don’t seem interested in the question whether their theological ideas pass historical muster.  To interpret his continuing frustration as opposition to “evolution” is to miss his point entirely.  I don’t know Bilbo’s position as well, but I gather he has some similar concerns.  As do I.

By the way, I replied to another of your comments earlier, up above.  Best wishes.

GJDS - #73682

October 15th 2012

“I accept evolution as a scientific fact that simply is not in dispute.”

I understand a commitment by some to evolutionary thinking, but I cannot understand how something can be both a scientific fact with much of this fact in dispute. To derive life from something that preceded it would lead to either (a) a provable fact on commencement of life, and I do not know of any evolutionist who would claim this, or (b) an infinite regress.

Some additional information on oxygen and related matters: Antoine Lavoisier carried out experiments in which HgO was heated to decompose into O2 and Hg. He reversed this experiment to show Hg combined with oxygen to form HgO. His remarkable experiments provided that one atom of Hg had combined with one atom of oxygen – a great accomplishment at that time. Lavoisier and Dalton began to use chemical formulae (e.g. Dalton wrote water as HO). Berzelius (Sweden) added to this understanding (formula electropositive and electronegative species) and identified 22 elements of the periodic table; these are staggering achievements ; he however had disagreements with Davy on chlorine – Berzelius believed these gases were oxides Davy had announced that he could not find oxygen in oxymuriatic acid (chlorine), and inferred that the latter must be an element (Cl). These people (and others of this era) laid the foundations for chemistry – many learned societies around the world describe chemistry as ‘the central science).

HornSpiel - #73685

October 15th 2012


but I cannot understand how something can be both a scientific fact with much of this fact in dispute.

It may be in dispute, but it is a dispute powered by emotions and philisophical/theological arguments, not by the scientific facts. I am sympathetic to the opinions held by those that are looking for an approach to science that seems more God-friendly. I too was in that camp. 

However I found that I had been confused by the difference between scientific observations, facts, and scientific explanations, theories. For example, that the universe is 14 billion years old is a fact because that is what astronomical observations indicate. Likewise, evolution is a scientific fact because all life appears to be genetically related.

The controversy is not over what is observed, but over explaining the observations.

GJDS - #73687

October 15th 2012


The point(s) that I put forward, in fact, would not use terms such as theistic evolution.

By this I mean, theistic matters have been (and continue) to be dealt within my framework of Orhtodoxy - this results in non-conflict between faith and science. Thus no emotional powered dispute is present.

As a scientist, I doubt a great deal of science, and place ‘fact’ certainty on matters such as constants (speed of light, charge on electron, knowledge of elements in the periodic table, and such). On these I think the scientific community would declare ‘no dispute’.

On evolution, there is so much to dispute and doubt, that I am almost bewildered by the language on sites such as this. I understand there is history behind this. However, I have also noted similar certainty regarding evolution from atheists.

I am not saying evolution is a lie - I agree that data shows the world has been around for many many years, and other data obtained using well established experimental methodologies - indeed I had forgotten there are people who still think it is a ‘young earth’. However, I have provided papers on this site from well respected evolutionsits who say repeatedly, this is inferred, this is uncertain, this is uknown. This equates with doubt, which is the contradiction of fact.

It is inappropriate to use religious arguments (or atheistic points of view) to bolster, or support, any scientific speculation of theory. Having said that, I understand that few people working in the bio-areas exercise their intellect to doubt and, or create, and alternate outlook. The result is constant revision and re-writing of Darwins thoughts.

Jon Garvey - #73674

October 15th 2012


DNA and RNA is as far as I know are the only mediators of inherited change.

Not a development of the discussion, but a reminder that biology has concentrated on genetics far too much: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.39.110707.173441?journalCode=ecolsys



Roger A. Sawtelle - #73681

October 15th 2012


The science of evolutionary biology is just that, biology, which means it studies organisms.  Ecology is an interdisciplinary discipline which studies how organic and inorganic aspects of the environment interact with each other.  

Oxygen is inorganic and how it is produced and impacts on organisms is by definition ecological research.  If you look at today’s theory of how new species are formed, that is, natural seclection, you will find that it is based on adaption to as particular niche, which is an ecological concept.     

Thus without ecology evolution does not make sense, because evolution is much more than genetics, even though evolutiionary biology is primarily about genetics.  This is the achillies heel of neoDarwinism.  

HornSpiel - #73684

October 15th 2012

Interesting link. Thanks for the reminder that the mechaisms of evolution are more complex than genetics alone. There is no limit on the creativity of God.

Jon Garvey - #73686

October 15th 2012


Amen to that - everything new we find out becomes a new part of the cosmic worship space!

It’s only the alleged creativity of the created I have problems with.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73689

October 15th 2012


Do you doubt the creativity of humanity which is created?

Why is it not possible for God to be so creative and wise that God can delegate or transfer some of the divine creativity to the Creation in all its aspects?

The problem for Scientism is to explain the creativity and order of the universe without the Logos or Telos.  This is their problem and we must press this advantage.


Jon Garvey - #73691

October 15th 2012


We can speak loosely of human “creativity” as a function of rationality, but I’m right in saying that it came to be regarded as a key human attribute only at the Renaissance, as a direct challenge to Christian teaching, and it’s in point of fact improperly used for what, actually, is always the re-use of what God has made, imitating or interpreting what he has already done, the thinking of his thoughts after him. I speak as one who’s written music for the last 50 years: if I call it “Creation” I’m actually engaging in self-flattery, since it’s the same beast only by extreme analogy.

It’s also true that Scripture says nothing about “creativity” in relation to the imago dei, or anywhere else for that matter. Which is an odd omission from the inspired text if it’s God’s main priority for us (and for the creation itself).

But Mike, and you, are not talking about humans, but “the Creation in all its aspects”, meaning the irrational Creation. So lets see what that “Creation” entails.

In Hebrew thought, it is bara, used only of God through the whole Old Testament, as the sovereign act of bringing cosmic order out of primaeval chaos by his wisdom (Proverbs 3). It’s what distinguishes God from the false gods of “mortal man, animals, birds and reptiles”. It’s the glory that in Isa 42 Yahweh insists he will not give to another.

In wider Christian theology, “creation” is the bringing of material existence and rational purpose ex nihilo, and its sustaining in being by the word of his power. In nature (from “what has been made”) it is the most accessible evidence for his eternal power and divine nature, the suppressing of whch truth brings judgement on mankind.

So that’s what is to be delegated? And to what? “The Creation” - can you tell me just what entity “Creation” is, and how this created thing creates itself? And can you tell me exactly what it means for inanimate matter to be “creative”, and how it assesses or enjoys what it has done?

Have I transferred some of my own “creative” power to my computer by writing this post on it?

Since we’re making up theology that never saw the light of day in the Bible, why don’t we also rejoice that God has delegated his Deity to the snakes and scarabs, and delegated his power to save from sin to Creation too.

When will TEs turn away from man-made teachingand return to the basic Christian doctrine that we have one Creator, our Father God, who made all things - not who told all things to make themselves? Is it really so hard to accept God’s own word?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #73692

October 15th 2012


Did not your father and mother create you?  Do not birds create nests and beavers create dams? 

All creatures procreate.  All creatures are creative in their efforts to survive, to find food, to find a mate.

God’s power is not displayed by being a control freak.  God’s power is most evident in God’s Faithfulness to God’s people and I would say God’s Creation. 

God gave God’s order to the universe, including snakes and scarabs, through the Logos, Jesus Christ.  Humankind broke that order through sin.  Humankind needs salvation from sin, but the rest of the universe does not.  It needs salvation from us who are sinful.

Certainly I agree that God created everything, but if you insist that the Creation has no autonomy, no freedom, then you have the same point of view as pantheism.

I thought we were in agreement with teleology.  Teleology is not direct control, but pointing way and having others follow.    


Jon Garvey - #73702

October 16th 2012

If there is evidence that man is a creator, it’s in his ability to produce Christian doctrine ex nihilo.

(1) Procreation is not creation, which is why it’s a different word. Biblically “beget” our own kind rather than “create” another. It’s a great gift. But in any case Mike Tice was not saying “God gave reproductive abilities to orgnaisms).

(2) God’s power is shown by what he does - creating everything from nothing out of love. The Bible says that. If you say that’s being  a “control freak” it’s a purely emotive assertion with no authority, and not a little impiety. A “control freak” is afraid to allow others to act in their own domain. God, in contrast, is managing his own domain.

(3) God did create everything. I do insist that the Creation has no autonomy, in the sense of self rule, though by analogy one can say it does have its own set of “laws” from God, by which he governs it, which is a valid, but less common, meaning of “autonomy”.

(4) I also insist that the Creation, excluding rational creatures like men and angels, has no freedom because that is an incoherent concept. Freedom presupposes will, and will presupposes intellect. But I also insist that is absolutely not pantheism, but bog-standard Christian doctrine for the last 2,000 years.

(5) Once again, we have definition of teleology. Teleology is merely setting an end and achieving it, whether that is by oneself or through others. “Pointing a way and having others follow” sounds more like what Girl Guides do. But even if it were “pointing a way”, others follow the pointer’sd way, not their own. It has nothing to do with creativity.

Can somebody, anybody, put some flesh on this nebulous “freedom”? What in creation has it? What powers do they use to exercise it? And most of all, why is there nothing in the Bible about it, which is supposed to be where Evangelical doctrine comes from (rather than the panentheism and process theology that introduced this novel doctrine into the theistic evolution creed?

PNG - #73693

October 15th 2012

Dorothy Sayers pointed out in The Mind of the Maker that in the passage where it first says that God made Man in His image that the aspect of God on display was as Creator. Is too big a jump to say that at least part of the image is sub-creation? (I think that was Tolkien’s word - one of the few people who have in imagination actually created a whole world.) Can theology not deal with anything new? I agree that the idea of Creation participating in its own creation generally doesn’t make much sense, but perhaps if we distinguish what Michaelangelo, bowerbirds and one Oxford philologist did by calling it sub-creation we could deal with the obvious fact that humans and even some other creatures have a creative impulse.  

Jon Garvey - #73703

October 16th 2012


Dorothy Sayers was an important 20th century Christian Humanist thinker, and also of course primarily a “creative writer”, which is I guess why her emphasis was on creativity in her assessment of Genesis 1 - that, after all, was where her book was trying to go in grounding human inventiveness on God’s creativity.

But even she does not have the authority to define Christian doctrine - which is the sacred legacy of the whole Church, not a private enterprise in novelty. If there’s anything new that has some real authority on “image”, it’s the discovery of the concept in the ANE literature, in which the emphasis is on representation and authority - which isn’t far off the historical understanding based on “rule, subdue” in the text itself.

Yes, it is too big a jump from her speculation to making “sub-creation” part of the imago dei, because God expressly excludes it by arrogating Creation to himself in many places in Scripture.

But let’s grant, for the sake of discussion, that Sayers is right, and your projection too, and that “sub-creation” is indeed part of the specialness of the image of God in mankind. If that’s the case, it’s not part of what is given to the non-rational creation, and creation did not create itself.

Michaelangelo’s genius was that of a rational, spiritual being with free-will: David is great art because it captures, apparently, God’s existing ideal of manhood. It is following the Master’s footsteps.

Bowerbirds do just one thing well, and we assume they do it because of the inheritance of their genes, epigenetics or whatever. Did they choose to make their bowers that way out of creative inventiveness, or did God create them that way to show his creativity, their genetics being a secondary cause as the software on my computer is a secondary cause of this post? And if neither, then what? Do the heavens declare the glory of God, or the creativity of galaxies?

I agree that the idea of Creation participating in its own creation doesn’t make much sense…

Well, we agree on that, at least, then. How come so many TE’s treat it as an article of faith anyway, then?

PNG - #73747

October 18th 2012

Jon, I’m not a Catholic. I don’t believe there is a designated group which has sole authority for guarding Christian doctrine. Every revision of doctrine began as a suggestion from someone. I’m not really concerned anyway whether human creativity as part of the divine image becomes part of doctrine. It seems obviously true to me. And on a weaker basis I think there are signs of creativity elsewhere in nature. No two bowerbirds build bowers that look alike - there are individual choices made. Maybe that’s still merely mechanical, but I don’t know. I’m not sure God is as jealous of His perogatives as you seem to want Him to be. It’s quite true that human creativity is limited to arranging the things God gives us, but isn’t that what Adam and Eve are described as doing right after they were created? After all, what is gardening but rearranging God’s stuff? As far as the Creation participating in its own creation, we know that it happens to some extent because it changes over time and gives rise to new things (atoms, solar systems, etc.) That’s built in, and God certainly deserves the glory. But if He figured out how to make a remarkable kind of tinker toy that if you put the right pieces in a big box and shook it for a prescribed time, out would pop a very sophisticated robot, I think that would be even more impressive (glorious) and I don’t know that He hasn’t done that. If he did, the glory goes not to the tinker toys or the robot but to the One who dreamed the whole thing up and set it in motion. That, to me, makes sense, but talk about atoms or molecules having “freedom” doesn’t. I never wanted to get into a squabble with Howard Van Til on the old ASA list, but I never thought his scheme made any sense, for that reason.

Jon Garvey - #73757

October 18th 2012


Choice and inventiveness as “delegated” or “built-in” functions” are fine - akin to Aquinas’ notion of inherent teleology. What’s key there is that it’s an unfolding of what is put into it by the Creator, rather than an add-on - as indeed is your self-assembling robot (because it’s created so it can self-assemble in that specific way when shaken).

That’s why I quibble in a discussion like this over the word “create”, though it has come to be used innocently of human art etc, and I even use it thus - as you describe A&E rearranging God’s creation in good and original ways.

If bower birds etc make aesthetic choices, that would count too, though whether they do is a question that raises quite profound metaphysical issues about the nature of will. 

Maybe it would have been good if you had squabbled with Howard van Till, though, since his process-theology ideas seem to have defined the whole nature of theistic evolution as popularly presented.

Jon Garvey - #73760

October 18th 2012


I’m not a Catholic. I don’t believe there is a designated group which has sole authority for guarding Christian doctrine.

Me neither - but the Church understood spiritually and corporately is the custodian of apostolic doctrine. In that sense individualistic Protestantism has largely lost its catholicity, whilst Catholics have institutionalised it.

Eddie - #73763

October 18th 2012


You’ve just struck on a major point.  Theistic evolutionists rarely disagree with each other in public.  If they did, they might find that on many points, they are closer to some ID people than to some other TE people.  For example, I agree with you entirely about Van Till.  I agree with you about the nonsensical nature of “freedom” of atoms and molecules.  But that very idea has been promoted by prominent columnists on this site—and no TE commenter has stepped in to object.  

HornSpiel - #73698

October 15th 2012

Certainly creativity is not directly addressed in the Bible, but I think it is there as a minor theme.

Sing to God a new song. Psalm 96:1

At the very least God is pleased by us striving to be creative in worship. Although songwriters and worship leaders are inspired by God, it seems more natural to think that they are inspired by God’s presence, attributes and blessings rather in the details of what they are saying. Does it really make sense for God to dictate his own worship songs?

What about good works?

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10

The king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.” 2 Samuel 7:2-3

Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2:7

This is more complicated. Whether or not good works are creative may depend on your theology. We can see that God encourages us to do good works that are in our heart. If God has a selection of good works that we are supposed to do in our lives (non-creative option), then we are failing God when we miss opportunities. On the other hand, if good works are a sign of a living, growing faith, it may not be the specific works that are in view. Rather it would be their effect on developing a Heart of Faith that is willing to trust God.

One might say of good works, it takes an act of creative faith to get to a place of blessing, but when you get there you find that God is all ready there.
“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter;
    to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”
Finally this verse can be seen to support the creative activity of scientists. I think it is important to understand the development of scientific theories as a creative process. Theories are limited human efforts to describe God’s Works. In a sense they are akin to our efforts to glorify God through theological descriptions of His character and attributes
Jon Garvey - #73704

October 16th 2012


I don’t radically disagree with you on this, except that by letting the non-biblical term “creativity"loosely  into the conversation about humanity as opposed to the Biblical ideas of skill, wisdom, intelligence and so on, one invites those overblown comparisons of man’s wonderful inventiveness with God’s unique ability to create… as evidenced by this article and so much recent TE “theologising”.

God creates ex nihilo, to work his divine purpose out in all that has been made (including us), to sustain everything in being, etc . The word “creative”  then invites the extension of the same illicit comparison into “nature”, whatever that is, and eventually produces this novel and incoherent idea of creation creating itself, by which time one has reversed the entire meaning of the Biblical doctrine of creation. Which is no small thing for a minority interest group to have presumed to do.

I’m interested that all your examples (human examples of course - you seem to have wisely avoided the inanimate creation that hoists itself on its own bootstraps) entail  activities in which God’s Holy Spirit is especially active, like worship, Christian good works, the  wisdom of anointed kings (cf Solomon) etc.

So I agree that, recognising the ambiguity of the English word “creative” and keeping it in bounds, what we offer to God that is new and inventive is part of what he put us here to do in returning worthy worship to him for all his works.

But co-creation of the world it ain’t, even if we’re talking about the sons of Adam rather than creative cyanobacteria.

Karl A - #73723

October 16th 2012

Hi Jon,

I appreciate this discussion.  Thanks for stepping back and asking some theological questions.  I have a question for you.  Your view as you’ve stated it, is, “Creation has no autonomy” and no freedom.  Now if we’re talking about the putative ability of bacteria to self-organize, colonize new territory, compete for resources, etc., this issue could quickly devolve into a more general discussion of Calvinism vs. Arminianism and how much freedom anything has besides God.

When we call our dog, and our dog apparently decides whether to come or continue whatever it was intent on already, it seems like it is exercising some form of free will or agency.  Is this just an anthropomorphic interpretation?  Would you categorically deny any sort of agency to all but humans?  Is that a necessary reading of Scripture?  At first blush, I don’t see the Biblical writers really taking up this issue.

Thanks for your input.

GJDS - #73699

October 15th 2012

God as creator is understood from His revealed word. The creation testifies, or points, to its creator. The aspect of the creation that is beyond human capacity is that it is created (from nothing) into a purposeful and meaningful creation that also includes the capacity for human beings to exercise freely moral choices (to differentiate between good and bad.)

At the level of God’s power and will, all has been determined – we may try and articulate this as God having created the material in all dimensions, including time, so that all has been predetermined by Him from beginnings, to ends, and also beyond our human comprehension.

The material (including human beings) has been separated from God because of sin and rebellion against His will. This also testifies in a negative way, on the overall nature of nature.

At lower levels, human beings are the only entity in the creation that is not ‘subject’ to the materially determined nature of nature, in that we can acquire knowledge and we have the ‘creative’ ability to use this in contradistinction to the regularities in nature. This too is part of the nature of nature, in an overall sense, so to speak. This also means that human beings have (and will continue to increase in) the ability to change the course of biological processes and ecological systems.

“Theories are limited human efforts to describe God’s Works.”

Scientific endeavour is more than descriptive – it changes the scientist in how he comprehends and uses knowledge, and on a larger scale, it enables humanity to bring changes through practical applications, using technology, in every sphere and every part of the planet. This imparts power that is beyond anything any other entity is capable of. This means that human freedom may defy nature; human beings however, defy (and also define) God’s will and His good purpose – this brings separation from God. Thus science and scientists, just as creative artists, need to commence with an understanding of human attributes, to arrive at a good grounding of the purpose and use of scientific knowledge – understanding ourselves for good purposes is far better then using nature in an attempt to describe God’s works. Obtaining understanding from God’s word provides the foundation for human understanding. The Bible is filled with examples of human misunderstanding and consequences.

Jon Garvey - #73726

October 17th 2012

Hi Karl

May I put in a caveat first as a reminder of the issue I addressed: whatever we say about animal, or human, “choice” is clearly far removed from the ability of “creation” to create itself: my dog, who came in as I was reading your post, makes no decisions about his genetic makeup, and cyanobacteria even less so.

Agency is certainly attributed, even in Scripture, to animals - in passages lauding God’s creation horses snort proudly, leviathan disdains the hunter and so on (talking snakes and donkeys probably don’t count!). That, of course, is common observation and is not explored metaphysically in the Bible, except negatively by contrasting the rational, moral and wilful nature of people, as opposed to brute beasts. Animals aren’t held accountable for their actions except practically (bull kills man, bull put down).

People like Aquinas do, of course, do such thinking and make distinction between the “appetites” of irrational creatures and the “deliberations” of rational creatures like man. And the freedom to reason out alternatives, especially moral and spiritual ones, is the big distinction between animal agency and free will.

In terms of cognitive science (cf D and A Premack) humans develop a “theory of mind” early on, by interacting with others and perceiving that “they” are like “me”. That “I-ness” is absent even in the higher apes and so, presumably, in all animals. It is not only what makes moral action possible for me by recognising “your” personhood, but what makes us anthropomorphic - we see personhood in our dogs, in protozoa “bravely” evading an amoeba and even in teddy bears. That makes judgements about animal “will” risky, since we see them as we are even if they’re not. Theory of mind also, presumably, enables the abstract thought that is essential for free will: I can see myself having a pizza or a burger and make a choice between the two scenarios. But my dog, at best, sees a pizza it wants and my threatening look and chooses from immediately available alternatives purely on balance of fear and desire.

All this is closely related to neurological complexity: we may wonder about choice in apes or octopi, but the issue simply doesn’t arise in Euglena or Eucalyptus. So as soon as someone wants to talk about “autonomy” and “freedom”, I want to know which “self” is autonomous and which will “free”. Otherwise it seems to be a euphemism for “randomness”. I heard of someone this week whose leg was taken off in a random accident with a farm machine whilst walking his dog. God’s role in such circumstances is a significant matter (and it’s addressed in Ex 21.12-13, though NIV uses a misleading euphemism), but nobody sane would discuss it in terms of the victim’s “freedom” or “autonomy”, nor that of the combine harvester.

Peter Hickman - #73735

October 17th 2012


I’m curious about what you think God’s role might be in an accidental homicide.

Jon Garvey - #73736

October 17th 2012

Hi Peter

Basically I follow the biblical and classical theist position that chance events, like everything else, are subsumed under the wise, but often inscrutable, providence of God.

The passage I quoted, of course, speaks literally of “God delivering him into his hand”, which is fairly clear. But the whole Bible speaks of our lives being in God’s hands: “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away.” That’s why euthanasia is called “playing God.”

It would be strange to have God’s assurance that we can entrust him with our lives for the day ahead and for him to have to say when the truck hits us; “Hell, sorry, I never saw that coming.” Or even, “My hands were tied by the laws of physics”.

It would have been even worse, of course, if the unexpected truck had hit the Lord Jesus the day before Easter!

lancelot10 - #75560

December 20th 2012

Its all there in the law - levicticus - deuteronomy  -  I think the guilty party was to go to a  designated safe city - if you google up 

Merv - #73742

October 17th 2012

The suffering may also find the other apparent alternatives distasteful as well:

“I did see that coming but decided to let it happen to you anyway ...”

Or even:  “I orchestrated this because your time was up and my plan is to have you with me now.”

I am not an open Theist myself, but I can at least recognize and sympathize what might drive some folks to consider the other alternatives.  And we often imagine we have “imagined all the alternatives.”

In the end it seems we are simply called to put away the theodicizing and just weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice; trusting God as any young child trusts a loving parent.


Jon Garvey - #73751

October 18th 2012

Hi Merv

Peter, a doctor like myself, asked what involvement God might have, rather than what one would say to a victim - clearly different.

Yet to trust God as a parent requires that we (a) believe him when he says he loves us, (b) believe him when he says he is trustworthy, and probably also (c) believe him when he says his ways are past finding out.

That’s helped, rather than hindered, by having in mind the hundreds of Scriptural incidences, and specific teaching too, that chance is within the boundaries of his sovereignty. That, presumably, is why it was revealed rather than a dualistic theology with “chance” as a power independent of God.

After all, one might trust ones Father in a dangerous or painful situation if he says, “Trust me, I’ve got it under control.” But “It’ll be fine, barring accidents,” is not so encouraging.

Actually, your second scenario might play out well, given that it would be accompanied by the beatific vision. Paul, after all, gave the edge to being executed rather than surviving given that he would be with the Lord.

wesseldawn - #73793

October 19th 2012

The science in this article is truly fascinating…and then comes this:

The people for whom the Bible was originally addressed thought about origins primarily in terms of ongoing national conflicts and the current human condition.

Only someone that did not understand its true nature would so carelessly place the Bible within these narrow confines. The Bible’s originality is only evident when you use the interpreting rule mentioned in the words itself; the repetition reveals that it’s a highly complex puzzle.

Problems occur when human beings attempt to explain divine words via their own understanding.

PNG - #73812

October 20th 2012

The statement quoted doesn’t say anything about the Bible. It is about the people that it was originally addressed to.

wesseldawn - #73820

October 20th 2012

It fails to realize that the Bible would be a book that would be as relevant to people in any generation!

Jon Garvey - #73824

October 21st 2012



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