t f p g+ YouTube icon

The Miraculous Meniscus of Mercury

Bookmark and Share

December 19, 2013 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now, Science as Christian Calling
The Miraculous Meniscus of Mercury

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

Diagram of Boyle’s barometer, with the mercury standing at 30 inches, from New Experiments and Observations touching Cold (London, 1665). It was in this book that Boyle coined the word “barometer,” in order “to avoid Circumlocutions,” when referring to “the whole Instrument wherein a Mercurial Cylinder of 29. or 30. Inches is kept suspended after the manner of the Torricellian Experiment” (The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 4, p. 237). I described the experiment of Evangelista Torricelli, which gave rise to the barometer, in an earlier column.

Does God act in nature? If so, should scientific explanations occasionally include divine action as part of the causal nexus accessible to scientific inquiry? Surprisingly, Boyle’s experiments with air raised just such questions. Although Boyle himself didn’t initiate those conversations, his answers are important—and highly relevant to contemporary discussions of “naturalism” in science.

Boyle’s Barometer and God’s Absolute Power

Robert Boyle didn’t invent the barometer, but he was the first person to call it that. He also experimented extensively with it, even building a portable version of the instrument that worked tolerably well and—Boyle suggested hopefully—might perhaps be modified to be “serviceable at Sea,” though he “had no opportunity to try” one under those conditiions (A Continuation of New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, in Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 6, p. 93).

As I pointed out in an earlier column, some of Boyle’s experiments led to fascinating debates about the space above the meniscus in a mercury barometer: is it really completely empty of matter? It wasn’t a purely physical question; a metaphysical dimension was also prominently present, as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer have shown. Even today, metaphysical issues are not entirely separate from science (despite the reluctance of some scientists to acknowledge it), but during the Scientific Revolution they were almost ubiquitous.

One of Boyle’s most vociferous opponents on this occasion was Francis Line, an English philosopher who spent much of his life in exile on the Continent, partly as professor of mathematics and Hebrew at the College of the English Jesuits at Liège. Line was born into a Catholic family, and England had strict laws against propagating Catholicism, dating back to before his birth. Thus, as his biographer says, “no doubt, Francis was baptized in secret” (Conor Reilly, Francis Line, p. 5). He went on to become a Jesuit priest, making him persona non grata throughout the English realm and placing him effectively under a death sentence, if he were discovered to be pursuing his calling in his homeland. Nevertheless, Line quietly returned to England at some point in the 1650s, not long before Boyle started exploring the properties of air.


Book cover: “New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air”

New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching The Spring of the Air (1660), was the first of Boyle’s scientific books to be published—although a devotional book about the love of God was printed the previous year, and he had already written portions of other scientific books that came out later. When air is compressed and the applied force is removed, it will “spring” back to its original volume. This phenomenon, widely used in athletic shoes today, is related to many of the experiments described in this book. The “new pneumatical engine” mentioned in the title was the air pump, built by his extraordinary assistant Robert Hooke, an Oxford student who went on to become one of the greatest scientists of his generation.

When Boyle’s famous book about the air pump came out in 1660, Line read it right away. He had done some pneumatical experiments of his own at Liège, but he did not believe in the possibility of creating a vacuum so he interpreted them differently. The following year, he challenged Boyle’s views in a Latin treatise, Tractatus de corporum inseparabilitate (1661), or “A Treatise on the Inseparable Nature of Bodies,” arguing that a genuine vacuum is impossible. The apparently empty space above the meniscus in the barometer was the subject, and the need for nature to avoid a vacuum was the problem. What was the solution? Line proposed that something he called a “funiculus,” formed from the “rarefied and extended upper surface of the mercury,” functions like a string adhering to the top of the glass tube, upholding the column of mercury in the tube and preventing a vacuum from forming (translation from Reilly, Francis Line, p. 66). In this way, Line believed he could preserve the Aristotelian principle that “Nature abhors a vacuum.”

How could this be possible? How could the mercury itself expand almost magically in this way, as if on demand in order to prevent a vacuum? According to Line, such a thing was at least possible “divinitus”—in other words, by God’s absolute power—and therefore it had to be consistent with the nature of matter. The sound of Boyle taking a deep breath is audible even now. “None is more willing to acknowledge and venerate Divine Omnipotence” than me, he replied, entirely without exaggeration. “I say, that our Controversie is not what God can do, but about what can be done by Natural Agents, not elevated above the sphere of Nature. For though God can both create and annihilate, yet Nature can do neither: and in the judgment of true Philosophers I suppose our Hypothesis would need no other advantage to make it be preferred before our Adversaries, then that in ours things are explicated by the ordinary course of Nature, whereas in the other recourse must be had to miracles” (Defence Against Linus, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 3, p. 48).

“Our Hypothesis would need no other advantage …” Those are very significant words, barring the door to the direct invocation of God’s absolute power as an explanation in natural philosophy. Boyle was fully persuaded that God had worked numerous miracles, and that even now God could set aside “his ordinary and general Concourse” (as Boyle liked to put it) for some special purpose. But natural philosophy could not be built on rare acts of God that we cannot control or replicate. Invoking God in that way was nothing more than a shell game, hiding our inability to know the real cause of a phenomenon.

For example, consider the cause of the dark skin of Africans. Boyle was not impressed by those who “would have the Blackness of Negroes an effect of Noah’s Curse ratify’d by God’s, upon Cham; But though I think that even a Naturalist may without disparagement believe all the Miracles attested by the Holy Scriptures, yet in this case to flye to a Supernatural Cause, will, I fear, look like Shifting off the Difficulty, instead of Resolving it; for we enquire not the First and Universal, but the Proper, Immediate, and Physical Cause” (Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 4, p. 88).

Boyle objected to traditional Aristotelian explanations for similar reasons: they were a cloak for ignorance. Aristotelian forms and qualities were said to explain how the physical properties of bodies were produced. Why does snow dazzle the eyes more than grass? Here is Boyle’s opinion of the traditional Aristotelian answer:

“to say, that these and the like Effects are perform’d by the substantial Forms of the respective Bodies, is at best but to tell me, what is the Agent, not how the Effect is wrought; and seems to be but such a kind of general way of answering, as leaves the curious Enquirer as much to seek for the causes and manner of particular Things, as Men commonly are for the particular causes of the several strang Things perform’d by Witchcraft, though they be told, that tis some Divel that does them all” (Origin of Forms and Qualities, in The Works of Robert Boyle, vol. 5, p. 352).

The devil, it seems, was not to be found in the details.

Methodological Naturalism

What Boyle was driving at is one of the most contentious ideas in the contemporary controversy over origins: methodological naturalism, the idea that scientific explanations ought to refer only to “natural” causes, such as “natural” laws, mechanisms, or forces. Basically, Boyle endorsed methodological naturalism. At the same time, he completely rejected ontological naturalism, the belief that nature is all there is, denying the existence of God and any other “supernatural” entities. All Christian thinkers reject ontological naturalism—at least they ought to, if they want to be taken seriously both as Christians and as thinkers—but many Christian scientists accept methodological naturalism. Proponents of Intelligent Design typically do not accept it. In their view, it collapses all too easily into ontological naturalism. I discussed this important issue more fully in a separate column that some may want to read in conjunction with this one.

Questions about the nature of scientific knowledge, including the limits of naturalism and the implications of God’s absolute power for our ability to understand the “natural” world, are not capable of easy answers that will be obvious to all. Science itself doesn’t answer normative questions like these. They go beyond science into metaphysics—a way of thinking that contemporary scientists tend to disparage and ignore, such that they sometimes find themselves in the unenviable state of being ignorant of their own ignorance. That is why conversations like this are still relevant.

I’ll close by stepping back into history from philosophy. Historians don’t actually know very much about the history of naturalism and the (philosophical and theological) debates surrounding it. Last winter I read a short paper at an academic conference about that very topic that might result in a book about it, but I don’t expect it to be the last word. Suffice it to say that scientists have talked about these things for thousands of years, and I doubt the conversation will end any time soon.

Looking Ahead

My next column, coming in early January, explores more fully a theme I’ve already touched on in this series: Boyle’s heartfelt commitment to the design argument. After that, we’ll see how Boyle did invoke God’s absolute power in support of experimental science—not as a component of scientific explanations themselves, but to justify doing experiments in the first place. If that intrigues you, come back to see the details. In the meantime, MERRY CHRISTMAS to all—celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, the most shocking of all miracles.

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

This material is adapted from Edward B. Davis, “Robert Boyle’s Religious Life, Attitudes, and Vocation,” Science & Christian Belief 19 (2007): 117-38. Additional information is from Conor Reilly, Francis Line S.J.: An Exiled English Scientist 1595-1675 (Institutum Historicum Societatis Jesu, 1969); Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press, 1985); and Edward B. Davis and Robin Collins, “Scientific Naturalism,” in Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction, ed. Gary B. Ferngren (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp. 322-34. Several quotations are from The Works of Robert Boyle (Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), 14 vols., ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis.


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

< Previous post in series Next post in series >

View the archived discussion of this post

This article is now closed for new comments. The archived comments are shown below.

Page 1 of 1   1
Roger A. Sawtelle - #83971

December 19th 2013


A wonderful Christmas to you and yours too and  great 2014.

I do have a problem with methodological naturalism, in large part based on the definition of “nature” and “natural.”  It seems to me that Scientism has defined “nature” and “natural” as purely physical, that is composed only of mater and energy.

If this is the case as they define it and others seem to agree, then nature has no rational or spiritual dimension, only a physical dimension.  In part this is the result of Western dualism whereby logically there is a bright line between the natural and the supernatural.

However common observation should note that we live in at least three overlapping interconnected worlds, not only the physical world, but also the bio world of plants and animals, but also the human world of people. 

In fact most of our experience comes from the human world, rather than the physical world which physical science studies.  Clearly it is the human world which is most important to almost all people refuting the emphasis that Scientism places on the physical.

As long as we are trapped in the Dualistic world view, we are caught in a false world view that favors materialism because it takes the rational and meaningful out of nature.     

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83972

December 19th 2013

Boyle noted the belief of some that

“the Blackness of Negroes an effect of Noah’s Curse ratify’d by God’s, upon Cham;.....”

For the Record:

There is much that is troubling about the “curse of Canaan” besides the fact that a curse is not a natural cause.

  1. While Noah was angry at Ham for seeing him naked while drunk, but the curse inexplicably fell on Canaan who was not involved.
  2. “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants he shall be to his brothers.” Was this because the Hebrews were in conflict over the Promised Land?
  3. Ham was the father of the Hamites who are African peoples.  This is why blackness is associated with Ham and thus the curse, even though Ham was not cursed.
  4. The problem is that the Canaanites are not Hamites, they are Semites.  They are not African and they are not black.  Their language and culture are Semitic much like the Hebrews.
  5. The Canaanites were not servants of servants or slaves.  They were an ancient and highly civilized people living in the area of Phoenicia as well as the Promised Land.  
  6. The Curse of Canaan was used to justify holding of Africans in slavery by European Christians.
  7. However Jesus reversed the curse by blessing the Canaanite woman.           

GJDS - #83973

December 20th 2013


I do not think that Boyle would agree with you that he endorsed ‘methodological naturalism (MN)’. The term naturalism has been a philosophical term, and its proponents have opted for MN, perhaps, in opposition to philosophy of science, which is the domain for such discussions. Naturalism has been the project of those whose philosophical position is that ‘reality is nature, containing nothing ‘supernatural’, and the scientific method is sufficient to investigate all areas of reality, including the ‘human spirit.’

I think Boyle would have disagreed with this most emphatically. MN is now used to claim, amongst other things, that all matter has some sort of consciousness, that a continuum regarding intelligence and consciousness is present in all matter, species, culminating in a complexity that finds its expression in the human brain. Their goal is obviously the separation of any spiritual or religious element from human thinking – the attempt by some religious people to accommodate this outlook by separating MN from some type of ontological notion of naturalism is incorrect. Just the fact that MN is an –ism, is sufficient to show that it is a philosophical position that seeks to place naturalism as an integral component of the scientific method – I again emphasise that scientist practice the scientific method, not some hair brained naturalism with all of the baggage that comes with it.

Jon Garvey - #83974

December 20th 2013


I think it’s worth contrasting the contexts of Boyle’s time and now. The barometer incident shows that, when investigating a train of efficient causes in nature (and especially in a lab), it was absurd to posit that God left gaps to be filled by helpful miracles, as Line suggested.

But there are other factors. Firstly, I assume that Boyle, like most others then, had a classical view of providence - that in some way God was the primary efficient cause of natural events, though that was neither amenable nor useful to science. It was gratuitous miracle, rather than divine causation, that was the issue. So the secondary causes, however long the chain, were *God’s* secondary causes. Likewise, although divine final causation as a scientific concept was passé mediaeval stuff, especially in utilitarian Baconian science, I’m sure he had an implicit notion that efficient causes worked towards God’s ends. So if he’d discovered how his gas-compression experiments related to meteorology, he’d have said, in wonder, “So that’s how God does it.” “Natural” for him meant, I think, “secondary” rather than “autonomous.”

Secondly, he was living when the best science of Dr Ussher had precisely dated the earth to 4004BC, and the assumption was of a 7-day creation, God’s “rest” implying it had now ceased. Science, then, was the study of the maintenance, not the creation, of a young fixed universe. Vague as Aristotelian formal causation seemed for science, I don’t doubt but that he’d have given it due weight in Genesis 1: creation was *ex nihilo* and not subject to methodological naturalism. Two things have changed: scientifically the creation is now seen as a process prolonged over 12bn years, with Christians viewing evolution and analogous processes as God’s means of creation. That would make for an interesting discussion with Boyle, I think, over whether God could even in principle create by secondary efficent causes. Boyle being dead, it’s one *we* have to consider seriously. We’ve also understood better (or some of us) that the Bible doesn’t teach that creation ceased in Genesis 1: the Father is still about his business, so once again, a modern Boyle would need to ask anew, “What *is* his business then, in relation to natural causes?”

Thirdly, Aristotelian formal causes were vague and general, I suggest, because nobody had appreciated the concept of information as it has emerged through IT, Turing, Shannon, DNA etc. The concept of Paul Davies etc that information is as fundamental to the universe as matter and energy hasn’t fully penetrated science, but is obvious to most TEs in cosmological fine-tuning, and to ID people in biology. I personally see no reason why “information” should not be seen as a synonym for Aristotelian “form” that takes it from irrelevance to centrality - yet it is completely outside Boyle’s methodological framework.

The danger is not (for believers) so much that methodological naturalism will lead to outright unbelief, but that they will wrongly dichotomise natural and divine causation by:
(a) Considering secondary efficient causes as autonomous of, rather than used intrumentally by, God.
(b) Losing theological sight of divine primary efficient causation because of its irrelevance to science.
(c) Following irrational Enlightenment prejudices by assuming that knowledge of efficient causes excludes final causes.
(d) Similarly trying to explain formal (informational) causes by efficient causes as if they were comparable, thus lagging behind the insights of the information sciences.
All these dangers are as real for Creationists and Intelligent Designers as for TEs.

Ted Davis - #83975

December 20th 2013

Your comments are thoughtful and appropriate, Jon. Thank you for them.

I will have more to say about Boyle’s views on design, creation, and divine/natural causes in future columns. I’ve written about certain aspects of those things at greater length in the scholarly literature; so have many others, and obviously I can’t boil it all down to a couple of columns without losing a lot of the (crucially important) subtleties. I’ll try to say a few things without losing those subtleties, but I can hardly give the full picture in this series.

Your instincts about Boyle’s general theological approach are on target, Jon. We do indeed need to keep in mind the historical distance between his day and our own, and the contexts in which these issues were being discussed. When I said, “Basically, Boyle  endorsed methodological naturalism,” I opened with the adverb “Basically” on purpose. The issues weren’t framed precisely in the same way we would frame them today, but there are important continuities. The term itself was probably not used until the 20th century (see my comments at http://biologos.org/blog/science-and-the-bible-intelligent-design-part-3), and it might not always mean the same thing to all who have used it (I’d want to see all the references before drawing a conclusion), but I do think that Boyle was saying in that passage something that matches precisely the definition that Robin Collins and I give in the article cited in this column—which might actually be the first such article (giving a history and analysis of various types of naturalism) in the literature, though I’m not sure about that. We defined it as “the belief that science should explain phenomena only in terms of entities and properties that fall within the category of the natural, such as by natural laws acting either through known causes or by chance.”

Now, of course, much more can be said about what precisely ought to fall within the category of “natural.” Indeed, when ID advocates criticize the way(s) in which most scientists exclude “intelligent” causes from that category, they are making a different sort of distinction than Boyle was making, between “natural” vs “miraculous” causes. Boyle certainly believed that “intelligent” causes are real, and that “nature” cannot be fully understood without them. Indeed, my next column proclaims Boyle as basically (recall what I just said about my use of this adverb) the founder of ID, as you will see. At the same time, he felt that science could not explain things in terms of miracles. That view is thousands of years old, and so is naturalism itself (at least in that form).

Overall, Boyle felt that “natural philosophy,” a broader category than “science” as it is usually understood today, properly included final causes—in a cautiously limited way. I’ll talk about that very soon. Interestingly, I think Polkinghorne would say pretty much the same thing. He recognizes (as a modern scientists, not a 17th century natural philosopher) that science today isn’t about metaphysics. Yet, he also recognizes that science doesn’t come with any specific metaphysics attached at the hip—not atheism (pace Dawkins), not theism, not anything else. He thinks that theism makes more sense of our whole experience of the world than atheism does, including our experience of “nature” and our ability to understand it in deep and subtle ways, but he doesn’t see this as an inference following direclty from the experiments, as it were. I explained this in my columns about his work. P places science in a larger metaphysical framework, and design arguments are part of his thinking process; but, at the same time, he (like Boyle) affirms that experimental science itself doesn’t invoke the divine.

You’ll look long and hard for references to God in Boyle’s experimental works, for they are few are far between—such as in the context explained in this column. He didn’t think you can put God in a test tube, even though he certainly understood that what he was studying was “the ordinary concourse” of nature, which God had indeed created and which God continued to sustain faithfully. Polkinghorne would entirely agree, I think.

Ted Davis - #83976

December 20th 2013

Let me gloss this sentence, which I just wrote: “He recognizes (as a modern scientists, not a 17th century natural philosopher) that science today isn’t about metaphysics.”

I should have said, “science today isn’t about metaphysics to the same degree that it was in Boyle’s day.” That would be more accurate. Indeed, my column says that you can’t completely take the metaphysics out of the science. It was far more openly discussed in Boyle’s day, however, just as it was openly and widely discussed in the short period when quantum mechanics was being formulated. I tend to think that the metaphysical issues come to the surface more readily when scientific paradigms are changing.

I need to step away for a bit, but I may have more to say later.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83977

December 20th 2013

Ted wrote:

I tend to think that the metaphysical issues come to the surface more readily when scientific paradigms are changing.


In the last 100 years or so we have experienced no one but two scientific revolutions, 1. the Einsteinian relational revolution and 2. the Quantum revolution.

We have a harvest of fresh wine.  We need new wineskins in which to contain and ferment this new wine for the new millenium.  It is the wine that is impportant, not the wineskins  

So why are we still using old metaphysics and old theology based on old metaphysics?  God does not change, but the way we understand God’s universe and ourselves changes. 

Why doe many people seem to think that Western dualism is sacrosanct and a triune worldview is not worth discussing? 

Science does not invoke God, but good science recognizes that the universe is rationally ordered and thus is understandable.  That ordering comes from God and is the Rational aspect of Reality.

Science does not invoke God, but good science recognizes that the universe is a harmonious whole.  God is the Source of this harmony, which results in the Beauty and Meaning of Life. 

We see today that people who take God out of their understanding of Reality, also take Rationality and Meaning out of it.  This leaves our metaphysics in one big mess, which is not true, or real, or moral.  

In my view the Bible does give us the Key to understanding cosmology when it says, “In the Begining was the Logos.”  We do not need the old metaphysic based on Aristotle, but a new metaphysics based on the Logos.          


GJDS - #83978

December 21st 2013

The notion that science and philosophy were part of an overall activity in Boyle’s time is well understood, and natural philosophy is the obvious term for such activity – indeed the post-graduate title PhD is a recognition the candidate was recognised as a doctor of that branch of philosophy. An interesting and informative discussion of science and religion is given by Fuller in Science vs Religion, 2013. He states (p 25) “Matters are further complicated by the fact that science itself is a historically religious concept ...... but what marks this process as “Western” lies in its specific religious roots.” He goes on to indicate the convergence in popular remarks by physicists, such as “the mind of god”, and geneticists “playing god” that drives science towards a global ascendency, and that it finds a great deal of its motivation, ambition and persistence from this. I have often stated that aggressive atheists are motivated by these same things, although they may believe they are ‘doing away with god’ by their desire to convert others to their point of view.

It is thus fascinating to try and trace the development of scientific thinking from that of those such as Boyle (God is the creator of heaven and earth .. the basis for their outlook), to the current view that “scientists can play as god” – Fuller suggest that this world view enables scientists to gloss over some of the devastations that science has brought on this planet and its inhabitants. It is surely a fertile area for scholarship by historian and sociologists. I as a scientist become more self-aware of my own outlook as I become better informed of the historical and sociological aspects of science and religion.

Merv - #83980

December 21st 2013

Illuminating, as always, Ted.  Thanks.

I am challenged, like others here to tease out how Boyle would think of our situation today—always a speculative enterprise, of course.  But maybe the challenge is more soberly couched as:  How would a “Boyle intellect” (both pious and robust—aspiration of many of us here, I trust) think in today’s new climate;  and what is really “new” today?

Your quote from Boyle is powerful, and I’ll repeat most of it here again since I want to react to it.

 ...I suppose our Hypothesis would need no other advantage to make it be preferred before our Adversaries, then that in ours things are explicated by the ordinary course of Nature, whereas in the other recourse must be had to miracles.

I can’t imagine a more indisputably an MN statement (despite the fact that others here dispute it).  So what do our last several centuries bring to us that might influence Boyle to either change or nuance his conviction on this?  Here is my conjecture, building on Jon’s proposed “...so that’s how God did it…” attribution.

I propose that a “Boyle intellect” today would examine the additional layers of efficient causes that have been discovered/explicated/or convincingly proposed and might then nuance this “So this is how God did it” exclamation by making an additional concession something like this.

searched out or wholly unexplored that is not underneath God’s sovereignty. 

Would that statement pass muster for a proposed contemporary “Boyle-intellect”?

Merv - #83981

December 21st 2013

Trying again ... through a pasting accident I deleted the most important part ...

I wanted to build on Jon’s “So this is how God did it” exlamation by making an additional concession something like this.

This layered enterprise of so many wonderful discoveries/explications/and variously convincing proposals is to be sought to the limits of our intellectual endurance.  And my conviction remains that whether we in any inquiry reach a full-stop up against a Divine first cause, or whether the advancing boundary of our knowledge perpetually tapers off into new frontiers of mystery—in either case, the Divine is there at the end of it; and not just at the end but was there all along in the whole process.  There is no domain—either searched out or wholly unexplored that is not underneath God’s sovereignty.  This is my (at the end of the day admittedly fidiest), and solidly Scriptural stand.


There.  I think I recaptured my previous words (and added a couple more.)  Now to hit the post button before anything more happens…

cfauster - #83983

December 22nd 2013

Another excellent post in an excellent series, Ted.  I look forward to the next post in the series, especially as it deals with Boyle’s views on living things.  I read somewhere that Boyle did not think the mechanical approach worked for living organisms; in hindsight, perhaps that was mostly because so little was then known about biology and organic chemistry.  In any case, many of Boyle’s insights are timeless, or at least applicable today in modified form. 

In my opinion, neither God-of-the-gaps nor naturalism-of-the-gaps are helpful or necessary within science itself.  When a reasonably probable natural explanation can’t be found, all one can say within science is simply that the question remains open.  Methodological naturalism properly guides the search for scientific explanations. Ways of reasoning beyond science can lead to inferences of divine design, miracles, etc. Such non-scientific inferences need not interfere with science; indeed, as long as they are not presented as scientific explanations, they can be fully compatible with scientific explanations.  Robert John Russell, for example, has developed a modern proposal for how God might direct the course of evolution; while his proposal is consistent with scientific understandings, in contrast to ID Russell is clear that his proposal goes beyond science.  See, for example:


cfauster - #83985

December 23rd 2013

Should have added that Robert John Russell’s proposal was also featured last year on BioLogos (in particular, see Part 3 of the following series):


Ted Davis - #83987

December 23rd 2013

I’m glad you like this series, cafauster. Your thoughts on naturalism and gods of the gaps are good—which is only to say that we agree. 

We’ve introduced our readers to Russell on my initiative, so (again) this is only to say that we agree he’s good. One of the big problems with public perceptions of TE is that the people who do the serious theological work are rarely the people who popularize the view. When readers ask hard questions (often appropriate questions) about God and evolution, the place(s) where they are most likely to get the best answers are also (unfortunately) usually not available for free on the web and not very accessible anyway—since they were written for scholars, not “real people.” I’ve worked to bring digestible pieces from the best scholars to BL—Russell and Polkinghorne so far, but more will be coming—to help address this very serious problem. 

Your final sentence (on Russell vis-a-vis ID) is on target. IMO, this is one of the 2 or 3 basic differences between ID and TE: whether design inferences—and the inference to deny a designer—are fully “scientific”, even though scientific information is used in drawing such inferences. Another basic difference (the attitude toward MN) has already been mentioned, in the final section of this column.

cfauster - #83989

December 23rd 2013

For me, the distinction between ID and TE is pretty mundane and practical, not theological or even very philosophical: I just don’t see how we can put very much stock in isolated tentative, preliminary, and speculative probability calculations. 

ID can’t calculate estimated probabilities for design scenarios if the unidentified designer is potentially supernatural.  So, ID can’t compare two or more estimated probabilities for design vs. non-design explanations.  Instead, the design scenario gets a “pass” as the default option (no probability calculation available for it!). ID is then left comparing the estimated probability for each (“any and all”  - another issue) non-design explanation with some lower limit (such as a universal probability bound).  

I can accept in theory the idea that if an explanation’s probability is extremely low, we can set it aside for now.  But given how often the best available explanation’s probability zooms upward by orders of magnititude once new information (data as well as explanations) becomes available, to me our probability calculations are useful in practice only when compared to those for other explanations, not to a universal probability bound.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83986

December 23rd 2013

Thank you for that reference to the article on Russell.

However the deeper we get into this, the more I see that we, both the science and the theology are barking up the wrong tree in understanding how evolution works.

Let us take the example of an automobile. There are at least three ways to control and guide it.

The first is the accelerator.  One can push down on it and the car goes faster or ease us and the car goes slower.  This is the way Darwinism looks at evolutionary change through Variation.  More Variation, more evolutionary change.

However unless you wnat the auto to move in a straight line, you need to guide it with a steering wheel.  This is the purpose of Natural Selection.

Life does not develop in a linear, straight line, which is the problem of Darwinism.  Darwinians confuse nonlinear with indeterminate and not directed.

Just as a car is guiding around corners and curves, Natural Selection guides species through changes in nature.  Natural Selection also gives direction and purpose to evolution which is not particualry evident in Variation alone.

A third way to control the vehicle is with the brake.  At the end of the journey it is necessary to stop, to put on the brakes.  This is death or extinction, which the end of our journey.

Of course the breakes are also used to slow down and pause, which is more the role of Natural Selection guide the species to our destination.  Natural Selection is a multidimensional process in itself.

God is not a two dimensional simple Being, no matter how hard we try reduce God to fit the Trinity into our dualistic world view. Humans are not simple dualistic beings.  Nature is not simple mechanistic two dimensonal reality. 

Science needs a complex/one model of life and nature to better understand ourselves and the world we live in.         

cfauster - #83988

December 23rd 2013

I agree.

Directing mutations is only one way we could imagine God steering the course of evolutionary history. 

On a related note, in addition to multiple ways of imagining the “how” of divine action, I see value in the multiplicity of ways people have imagined what the world’s past/present/future “look like” from God’s perspective. 

Are any outcomes of the processes of divine creation truly undetermined, or even unpredictable, from God’s perspective? Is there anything God cannot, or (alternatively) kenotically and freely chooses not, to know until perhaps the future unfolding/becoming of some parts of reality?   Though I realize that answers to these questions have implications for systematic theology, I think multiple answers are consistent with Christian orthodoxy.

Ted Davis - #84066

January 6th 2014

Let me add this point, from nuclear physicist William Pollard (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_G._Pollard), in Chance and Providence, p. 56: “The phenomenon of gene mutation is the only one so far known in these sciences which produces gross macroscopic effects but seems to depend directly on changes in individual molecules which are in turn governed by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.”

Eddie - #84070

January 7th 2014

Hi, Ted.

What does he mean by “changes in individual molecules which are in turn governed by the Heisenberg uncertainty principle”?  I thought that the Heisenberg uncertainty principle applied to our knowledge of the velocity and location of subatomic particles, e.g., electrons, not to the interaction of larger molecules.  The changes in the genome in mutations are at the level of larger molecules, e.g., the addition or subtraction of nucleotide bases.  How does the Heisenberg uncertainty principle come in at that level of chemical activity?


Ted Davis - #84071

January 7th 2014

You ask an excellent question, Eddie. I don’t remember enough physics to answer it—if indeed I ever did know the answer. Pollard wrote this in 1958, just a few years after the structure of DNA had been deciphered. In context (pp. 55-56 in that book), it doesn’t seem like he is talking about radiation-induced mutations, but perhaps that is what he had in mind. Or, perhaps he meant what your question implies—that the biochemical equivalents of biological genes are subject, at least once in awhile, to QM-induced changes, apart from radiation-induced changes. If so, I can’t fill in those blanks. Sorry to disappoint.

This much, however, I will venture to say. If Pollard was thinking partly or entirely of genetic changes resulting from radiation, then surely he was right. Genetic changes do result from radiation—a quantum phenomenon. I don’t know the percentages; I don’t even know if the percentages are known; but, we’ve known for a long time (http://www.dnaftb.org/27/bio.html) that many mutations result from radiation, and not just from x-rays for that matter.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #83990

December 29th 2013

cfauster wrote:

ID can’t calculate estimated probabilities for design scenarios if the unidentified designer is potentially supernatural.  So, ID can’t compare two or more estimated probabilities for design vs. non-design explanations.

If I understand what cfauster wrote he or she said that one cannot compare design senarios if one of the designers is supernatural, because God is not bound by natural limits. 

Good point, but misses the real issue.  The question is not is there a natural designer or a supernatural designer, but is there a design or designer period. 

The Greeks believed that the Logos , which we would call natural, gives the universe its rational structure and design.  Christianity in the form of John 1 says that the Logos is Divine in the form of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Science in the form pf Jacques Monod and his philosophy says that there is no Logos.  The Universe has no rational form and meaning, because it cannot think and it was not created by a rational Being or Agent. 

Therefore the issue as Dawkins & Co have framed it is a non-rational, meaningless evolutionary process or a rational, meaningful living history.  Nothing in between and they claim that science support their view of a meaningless life.

Interesting enough Dawkins & Co. admit that life appears to have meaning and purpose, but they claim that this appearance is false. 

In other words they say that the experience of meaning is false, but the theory that meaning does not exist is true, thus standing the scientific method on its head.  Science says that theory must be backed up by experience, that is, experimentation or careful observation.   

The rational structure of the universe is not speculation, but a fact.  If the universe does function based on rational laws and processes, than it functions strictly on random chance.  Not even Dawkins believes that this is true.         

Scientism has framed the issue in a way that its view should be easy to refute, No meaning vs Logos, Chaos vs Order, Random vs Process.  The sad fact is that we have not really challenged this deeply flawed way of thinking.     

cfauster - #83991

December 29th 2013

Science in the form of Jacques Monod and his philosophy says that there is no Logos.

Claims regarding the existence of Logos - whether the claim is for or against its existence - are philosophical (metaphysical) and theological.  I agree with what you say, including your point that these metaphysical/theological questions are the real issues. My point was simply that science itself can only distinguish design from non-design when the possible designer, even if unidentified, is assumed to be constrained by natural laws.  Again, science is very limited, and not equipped to address the important metaphysical/philosophical questions.  So again, I completely agree that we should not uncritically accept the metaphysical perspectives of scientists who claim that their metaphysics is merely science.

Jon Garvey - #84000

December 31st 2013

“God is not a two dimensional simple Being”

Well, he wouldn’t be dimensional at all, now, would he, according to the doctrine of divine simplicity believed by virtually all Christians for 2000 years (until last Tuesday, when modern philosophers and their disciples finally succeeeded in misunderstanding it and plumped for univocalism)? That’s why we also have the doctrine of divine immensity (no dimensions, see?).



Page 1 of 1   1