Southern Baptist Voices: Essentialism and Evolution, Part 2

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July 18, 2012 Tags: Science & Worldviews

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

Southern Baptist Voices: Essentialism and Evolution, Part 2

Note: Today we continue the fifth installment in our ongoing Southern Baptist Voices series–a collection of seven essays from Southern Baptist scholars with BioLogos responses to their concerns and arguments. You can read more about the series here, and in Dr. Kenneth Keathley's introductory essay. Other installments have included Dr. William A. Dembski's exchange with Darrel Falk on Darwinism's theological neutrality, Dr. James Dew's conversation with Dr. Ard Louis on Teleology, Theistic Evolution and Intelligent Design, and Dr. John Hammett exploring Evolutionary Creationism and the Imago Dei in conversation with Dr. Tim O'Connor.

In part 1, Bruce Little introduced the concept of essentialism, drawing from a long tradition of philosophical thinking going back to Plato and Aristotle. Suggesting that it was most consistent with the biblical idea of the fixity of species, Little argued that essentialism constitutes a challenge to evolutionary origins of life on earth. Here in part 2, Dr. Little makes the case that modern science has unjustifiably marginalized essentialism because it does not fit within a purely physical understanding of reality. We hope and pray that this dialogue will bring greater clarity to the issues at hand, charity towards those with whom we disagree, and glory to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Essentialism and Naturalism

Whereas essentialism enjoyed major position status well into the 15th century, a question that begs an answer is why essentialism has fallen upon hard times? A strong argument can be made that essentialism did not fade because it lacked evidential support, but rather with the ascendancy of naturalism in the western world, metaphysical naturalism simply could no longer tolerate the implications of essentialism. Metaphysical naturalism thins out reality, divesting it of any vertical dimension. It is rather easy to see how metaphysical naturalism, once accepted, disallows anything beyond the physical as part of any explanation of reality. In this view of reality, there is nothing that transcends experience and reality is only explained in terms of the particulars and function. The argument here is not that science does not know the physical world well (it does and all of us are beneficiaries of the knowledge), but that there is more to reality than can be measured by the instruments of science. Science is good at understanding functional matters within creation, but impotent to give answers of meaning. The claim that science provides the best framework for understanding creation begins with the commitment that all there is to reality is material. That, however, is a philosophical commitment, not something that can be demonstrated by science.

It appears that scientists in some cases, at least, have not denied the metaphysical in a Christian sense---they affirm the reality of God. Rather, it seems they have drawn a very thick line between the physical and the metaphysical, keeping reality compartmentalized. By this, they can affirm a transcendent reality but with only tangential implications for explaining the true nature of reality. Under these conditions, it is rather easy for assumptions of metaphysical naturalism to exert a subtle influence on the thinking of Christians doing science. This compartmentalizing of reality effectively translates into the idea that science is the primary agent for interpreting the truth of creation even though the transcendent is affirmed. Practically speaking, this disallows for any serious connection between that which transcends experience and how one should understand the true nature of reality—not just how it functions in our experience. This does not mean that the Bible is left out of any explanation, but only as an addendum made to fit what the tools of science have found. It is as if understanding of reality is shut up to the scientific method.

Certainly the scientific method has, as Francis Bacon promised, demonstrated amazing power to explain and understand how creation works even within metaphysical naturalism. However, it must be recognized that metaphysical naturalism comes with philosophical commitments/assumptions that themselves have not been obtained by the scientific method. For example, the assumption that all there is to reality is the material. The naturalistic assumption denies that the transcendent participates in the particular by way of essentialism. In this case, all there is, is the material where DNA and associated biological/chemical elements say everything there is to say about the nature of reality of this creation. Such commitments then limit what can and cannot be said about the nature of reality.

One’s methodical commitments often limit what one can and cannot say about reality. A case in point is Isaac Newton’s methodology. It restricted him from saying God was the cause of gravity as he said he could not form that as an hypothesis that he could later test. Of course Newton was clearly a theist, but he could not speak as a theist at this point because his scientific method would not allow it. In this way, we see how even a theist could allow his scientific methodology to exert unwarranted epistemological pressure on the work of interpreting the facts. It is precisely these commitments that can also subtly influence those doing science who on the one hand hold to theism, but on the other hand when it comes to understanding the totality of reality fail to take into account the idea of universals when interpreting the facts.

Facts are not self-interpreting. One’s interpretative processes and inferences drawn from the facts are limited to the range of possibilities his worldview sanctions. Therefore, the Christian should see how a view that God created should shape the interpretation of the facts discovered by observation. In addition, he must remember that the nature of an object determines not only what can be known about the object, but also how it can be known. One’s interpretative method must not draw a circle too tightly around creation that would, a priori, squeeze out some aspect of reality in favor of another. Whether scientist or theologian, all must think seriously about the logical extensions of beliefs as well as the influence of a priori epistemological and ontological assumptions in the interpretative process in the search for truth. It must be remembered that epistemology and ontology cannot be divided. All epistemological claims are about some piece of reality. Furthermore there is no way for science to out-of-hand reject essentialism simply because scientific tools cannot measure the claims of essentialism. To do so would entail a circular argument---all that exists is the material, science measures the material, science does not see essences, therefore all there is to reality is material.

The suggestion put forward here, however, is that essentialism is part of the explanation of why a being is what it is. That is, a being is not defined merely in biological or chemical terms. This being the case, it is necessary to discuss how or if evolution might work within a creation view of reality where essentialism is part of that view. In addition, in order to have a robust theology of Genesis 1- 3, one must realize that it was spoken into existence. This means that what came into being begins with an idea in the mind of God, an idea that determines the shape of what is. As such it has enormous ontological implications for how one understands the nature and sustainability of creation. Furthermore, whereas facts are not self-interpreting (the reality of being is more than developmental), one needs an ontological framework to guide in the interpretation of this wonderful creation as observed by humans.

This raises certain questions. As Christians, is our worldview shaped by our methodology, or does our worldview shape our methodology? If essences do not exist, then what implications would that have for the incarnation of the Word of God? Historically the church as held that Jesus had the essence of man and the essence of God. If he did not have the essence of God and the essence of human what does that mean for the Christological claims in the Bible? Furthermore, in Jesus we have two essences that remained distinct and did not emerge into a third kind giving the impression that essences do not produce new essences. Another question is whether or not Dawkins is right in his suspicion about essences and evolution? If he is wrong, we still must demonstrate why he is wrong. It seems to me that these are questions that must be answered before dismissing the claims of essentialism or the relationship between essentialism and evolution. If in the end essentialism prevails, it seems to have serious implications for evolution as Dawkins suggests. Still, we must be brave enough to follow the evidence where it leads. But it is not just the evidence that counts as so often revealed in the TV series CSI, it is the proper interpretation of the evidence. So the argument is not fundamentally over the evidence, it is over on what grounds are we justified in using certain evidence to support a particular claim. There is the work for all of us.


Bruce A. Little, a native of New England, is Senior Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary where he has been on faculty since 2001. He serves as the director of the Francis A. Schaeffer collection, and since 2008 he has been the Director of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern. He received his Bachelors degree from Baptist Bible College of PA, a M.A. in Apologetics and a M.R.E. from Liberty University, a D. Min from Columbia Biblical Seminary, and a PhD from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Since 1995 he has maintained an active apologetic ministry in Eastern Europe where he has been invited by various state universities and schools to present lectures on different subjects as understood within a Christian worldview. He has been a plenary speaker at conferences including scientific conferences in Eastern Europe and is regular speaker at the European Leadership Forum as well as the Cambridge Scholars Network.

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Darwin Guy Dan - #71253

July 21st 2012

Dr. Bruce A. Little,

As I ponder your, Ernst Mayr’s, and Richard Dawkins’ discussion of “essentialism” as applied to organic beings over Earth history and then consider the various definitions of “essentialism (philosophy)” via Google and also the response of BioLogos by Dr. Bishop—- it occurs to me that the time frame discrepancy needs to be emphasized. That is, we might consider the “essence” of humans and other species today, or even the similar horizontal slice of time when Genesis was written. Or we might consider, as would be the subject of Natural History, the essence of various kinds of organic beings, i.e., various lineages, over the eons—- vertical time. Surely, Dr. Little, you don’t believe that humans are today of the same physical form as the “species” was eons ago. Or do you?

Next, is there some reason that philosophers would have a different definition of “materialism” than scientists who in turn differ from the vernacular? Whose benefit is served by such definitional muddle? Is the role of academia to solve problems or to create problems?

I applaud your explication of “fact.” In my view, the appropriate understanding of “scientific fact” has long been absent in Natural History research. However, as one who sees no confirmation for common ancestry in the fossil record, I also see little rationality to subscribing literally to either or both of the two creation myths of Genesis. Clearly, Earth history does tell us that there has been a progression over the eons. It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect fossil elephants to show up in the cretaceous time period.  Agree? Surely, you must realize that a cow was not always a cow but rather had a beginning and was perhaps preceeded, most likely, by a combination of essences.

And thus, the molecule phycocyanobilin essentialistically says, “Let there be light!”

Dan a.k.a NaturalHistoryGuy a.k.a.EuclidGuy


Bruce Little - #71269

July 22nd 2012

As for physical form, I am not quite sure what you mean that is to what extent you are implying, however, essence and physical form are not necessary related. that is, as I state in my article accidental forms change without changing the substantive form essence to use the language before us). So, surely that are some changes in physical forms in  human beings which would be in keeping with what I mentioned in the article. Diversity in accidental forms definitely, but always within certian boundaries or so it seems to me.

Thanks for your comment.

B. Little


GJDS - #71298

July 23rd 2012

Prof. Little,

Essentialism is, as you say, an ancient concept. Intrinsic however, may also be a term that could be debated regarding the material world. By this I mean that what science regards as ‘laws’ may be our articulation of what is intrinsic to that which constitutes the physical world, including non-physical aspects such as beauty, symmetry and so on. I also refer to universal constants. Do you have any comment on ‘intrinsic’ when considering essentialism? The main point I have in mind, is the formation of molecules from atoms (rather than biological types). The combination of wavefunctions leads to a distinct entity that can be fully characterised (a molecule), just as the atoms that form that molecule possess their own distinct properties. It is not possible to consider the atoms ‘passing on, so to speak’ their properties to the resulting molecule.


Bruce Little - #71299

July 23rd 2012

well, you do raise an interesting thought. I am not sure I have thought sufficiently about the matter as you mention in your last sentence to make an intelligent reply. I find that in some of these matters one can go just so far with any measure of confidence and the rest is possible explanation. I have, however, thought that ‘intrinsic’ is something different than essentialism, however not necessarily unrelated. However, I do think there are such universal concepts such as beauty, goodness and so forth (Augustine).


Nathan Rice - #71322

July 23rd 2012

I’m sorry, but this is so much poppycock.  One can not possibly acquire evidence against essentialism because it operates at the level of metaphysical philosophy.  The goalposts are constantly moving.  One can point to evidently transitional organisms like Tiktaalik, but essentialists will simply say that they represent their own essences.

If one wants to actually demonstrate the validity of the idea, as opposed to merely siding with people who believed in the Hellenic elements, then one has to demonstrate biological barriers that prevent “accidental” traits from becoming “essential” or biological mechanisms that protect “essential” traits from changing.  Otherwise, it’s just useless philosophy.


Darwin Guy Dan - #71326

July 24th 2012

Dr. Little and GJDS,

I am wondering if Nathan’s comment may be one of those theosophical “facts” that Evolutionists assign to some hypotheses / theories. You know, some supposedly true theory / hypothesis, like Evolution, becomes, via group consensus, a supposed scientific fact.   That way the argument is ended. After all facts are facts.

In a comment to Dr. Bishop, GJDS #71317 wrote:

I think it is possible to consider ‘intrinsic’ with specific aspects of the material/energy in that we may contemplate at the particle, the atomic, the molecular, and the complex molecular, as being distinct in itself. This area is worthy of greater intellectual effort. It is fascinating that we may combine two distinct entities (e.g. H2 and O2) to obtain an entirely distinct entity (2H2 + O2 => 2H2O) water which has its own completely characterisable properties.

“‘Extending’ these remarks to the uniqueness of human beings is a very complicated task; nonetheless we all consider ourselves as ‘self’ and we also confir identity to other human beings as if this too were ‘intrinsic’ to being human.”

Well, GJDS has at least considered one ESSENTIAL ingredient for all life, water.  But we are a long way from discovering that which is INTRINSIC solely to humans.


Darwin Guy Dan - #71327

July 24th 2012

Dr. Little, JDS (cont.)

Both phycocyanobilin and cytochrome c are found in cyanobacteria, some of the earliest organic beings found (I assume globally) in the fossil record.  Phycocyanobilin provides a material pathway for light/energy.  “Cytochrome c is any essential component of electron transport team where it carries one electron.” 

Surely that which is ‘intrinsic’ to specific kinds/species must come at increasingly higher levels of organisations, perhaps as what some complexity physicists label as “emerging properties of complex bio-chemical systems.”  How do you all rigorously differentiate, definitionally, between intrinsic and essential?

NOTES:  (1) Wikipedia quoted regards cytochrome c.   (2) There is lots via google. I understand wavelengths of light can vary infinitely—- an enormous potential for differential information at global biogenesis. (3) Stuart Kauffman regards emergence from complex bio-chemical systems might be of interest. Like many physicists as they grow older, Kauffman has also written on religious matters.


Darwin Guy Dan - #71351

July 25th 2012

ERRATA: (1) JDS ==> GJDS     (2) Any ==> an in Wikipedia quote.  A better quote is “Cytochrome c is a component of the electron transport chain in mitochondria. The heme group of cytochrome c accepts electrons from the b-c1 complex and transfers electrons to the cytochrome oxidase complex.”   See Wikipedia for much more.

Also note:  Stuart Kauffman accepts the prevailing view, Evolution.  It is highly unlikely he would endorse my non-Evolutionary understandings.


GJDS - #71335

July 24th 2012

reply to Dan #71327

Emergence is discussed, as for example, by P. L. LUISI in “Foundations of Chemistry 4: 183–200, (2002)” who makes the point that chemistry embodies emergence (for him at least). Most chemist (including myself) do not use this term (and rarely reductionism) because it implies that there may be something hidden in molecules that ‘emerges’ as complex molecules are formed. Some bio-people have even suggested ‘laws of nature’ emerge’. This to me is bizarre; I use the the term intrinsic because this also includes laws of science as part and parcel of the entities we consider, whatever their complexity. Every chemical reaction can only occur by very complex chemical kinetics that are defined by chemical laws (chemical kinetics) and these are also subjected not only to the combination of wavefunctions, but also energetics (exothermic and endothermic) and generally treated using the Gibbs equation. My example of the formation of water, is treated by chemical kinetics using a number of reactions, each with its own specific (lawful if you wish) information. These reactions and rate constants do not ‘emerge’ when water is formed. The same can be said for larger molecules. The reactions involving oxygen, and photosynthesis, are being studied and the insights we have of them also show that the reaction routes are comprehensible (albeit very complicated) and follow laws of chemistry. The notion of emergence is poorly considered. On essentialism, I have a difficulty with it as it suggests an immaterial presence in a material entity. I am a Christian, so as an overall viewpoint, I believe (not as a scientific proof) the act of creation by God is what ensures all entities that make up nature are intrinsically (made) to act according to the laws of Nature. The fact that any molecule (from water to larger molecules and systems) can be distinctly characterised as being that entity ONLY, is a very strong argument for intrinsic (isotopes almost challenge this view, but these can also be identified; the necessity for optical isomers for life forms is a huge problem for emergence thinking).


Darwin Guy Dan - #71371

July 26th 2012

GJDS - #71335

You write that you are a “Christian.”  Have you checked with biochemist Geogia Purdom’s boss, Kenneth Ham on this?  My understanding is that Ham (at AnswersInGenesis) has pretty strict rules regards who is and is not a “Christian”.  I have seen reports that apparently Ham has even attempted to kick William Dempski out of Christendom or at least to brand him as a heretic. Such egomaniacal thinking and activity doesn’t seem very Christian to me.  But then, who am I to judge——a reincarnated William of Occam?

What’s your take on Michael Behe’s apparent solution?  Does he really believe that “God” created but one bacteria flagellum and packed enough code in that single one to create all others?  In my view, that complex of molecules, flagella, was also a naturalistic global event.


GJDS - #71336

July 24th 2012

Reply to Prof Little,

Just a clarrification; the universal constants I refer to are from physics (e.g. speed of light). I agree with the notion that things such as beauty and symmetry are universal and are accesible to human beings also.


GJDS - #71380

July 26th 2012

Dan #71371

I stated I am a Christian to indicate my overall view, which I am sure is influenced by my faith. My background is very different from those you mentioned so I cannot comment. My general views on evolution have been given in various posts on this interesting web site. Generally as a scientist I have a ‘strict’ view on what I accept as a theory, let alone a proven fact of science. I cannot see Darwinism as having met this criteria, so I consdier it a hypothesis awaiting to be thrown out by a more rogorous and sound bio-theory. ID seesm to be an argument by analogy, but I think any attempt to kick-start effort at getting something better then Darwinism (or is neo-Darwinsim thes day?) cannot be such a bad thing. My emphasis is to understand what we mean by laws of science and how our understanding as scientists of the natural world depends on this meaning.


GJDS - #71383

July 26th 2012

typo errors again ... (consider,   rigorous,   seems,  than,  )


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