Science and Natural Theology: "Explaining" versus "Explaining Away"

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Ard Louis’ scholarly essay addresses common Christian misconceptions about the nature of science and its relationship to God's involvement in our world. In this post, he focuses on efforts to find evidence of God in nature, historically known as “Natural Theology,” and popular in many Christian circles today.

 

Science and Natural Theology

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

-Psalm 19:1

For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

-Romans 1:20

I wonder at the hardihood with which such persons undertake to talk about God. In a treatise addressed to in?dels they begin with a chapter proving the existence of God from the works of Nature . . . this only gives their readers grounds for thinking that the proofs of our religion are very weak. . . . It is a remarkable fact that no canonical writer has ever used Nature to prove God.

-Blaise Pascal, Pensés, iv, 242, 243

The Bible repeatedly proclaims that the whole of the cosmos declares the glory of God. It even goes so far as to say that men are without excuse because God’s eternal power and divine nature can be understood from what has been made (Rom. 1). This must surely mean that, however vaguely, people can perceive attributes of God by their own observations of nature. Extracting such knowledge about God from nature is called “Natural Theology.”

Since these passages of inspired Scripture apply to people of all cultures over all of human history, it must be the case that, in the words of James Barr:

It is easily available public knowledge [that is seen] by everyone…not…information that is not otherwise known: it is rather…new insight into matter that is already “naturally” known and familiar’1

It is therefore unclear how modern science fits into this picture. Nevertheless, given that science allows us to understand so much more about nature, should we not be able to use these advances to learn more about God? It has certainly been tempting to think along these lines, especially as science increasingly acquired cultural prestige. Attempts at such a natural theology reached their apogee with William Paley’s Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1802), and the subsequent Bridgewater Treatises written to demonstrate the “power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in the creation.” My favourite title is: Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion: Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1834), written by William Prout (1785–1850). Finding God in digestion? Really.

It should be noted that even during the nineteenth century heyday of natural theology, there was considerable Christian pushback. The more evangelical wing of the church worried that these arguments didn’t put enough emphasis on the Bible or the saving work of Christ. More famously, Cardinal Henry Newman, perhaps the most important British theologian of the nineteenth century, was deeply unimpressed, arguing that natural theology would lead to atheism. Later, Karl Barth, perhaps the most influential Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, famously rejected natural theology with an empathetic “Nein!”:

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son our Lord, in order to perceive and to understand that God Almighty, the Father, is Creator of heaven and earth. If I did not believe the former, I could not perceive and understand the latter.

—Karl Barth2

These great theologians were unhappy with the accommodation of natural theology to the rationalistic presuppositions of the Enlightenment and its independence from revelation and the centrality of Christ. They didn’t think this approach could lead to reliable theological knowledge.

In spite of this sustained critique by many theological heavyweights (which continues today), modern versions of Paleyesque natural theology remain surprisingly popular in Christian apologetics. In part this is a reaction to an equally a-historical anti-Christian apologetic that makes use of a similar type of natural theology to argue that God does not exist (Richard Dawkins would be the best known exponent). Both sides are beholden to the same rationalistic evidentialism that Newman, Barth and others (e.g. Plantinga and other exponents of Reformed epistemology) so emphatically reject. Until they understand their shared underlying presuppositions, both sides will continue to be locked into a destructive symbiotic embrace.

The attraction of a Paleyesqe natural theology may have other roots as well. As Mark Noll points out in his essay, Evangelicals, Creation, and Scripture: An Overview, written for last year’s BioLogos meeting, another popular assumption, widely shared by many Christians and their atheist interlocutors, is univocity:

once something is explained clearly and completely as a natural occurrence, there is no other realm of being that can allow it to be described in any other way.

This leads to well-known fallacies such as conflating mechanism and meaning:

Why is the kettle boiling? Because a heat source transfers thermal energy across the container wall into the fluid, increasing the mean-square velocity of the H2O molecules, <v2>, which is proportional to the temperature T. When T reaches 100 degrees C, there is a collective phase transition from a condensed liquid state to an expanded gaseous state. We call this process boiling.

Why is the kettle boiling? Because I fancy a cup of tea, would you like one?

The mechanistic explanation does not exhaust all layers of meaning. Explaining something scientifically does not explain it away. Nevertheless the conflation of mechanism and meaning and related fallacies such as “nothing buttery” (i.e. if we are made of chemicals, is love “nothing but” a (bio)chemical reaction?) are extremely common in public discourse on the meaning of scientific discoveries.

Another widely shared fallacy, fed by univocity and Paleyesque natural theology, is that “where we come from determines who we are and how we should then live." This fallacy is exploited by the new atheists, and also lies at the origin of a great deal of the Christian resistance to the concepts like common ancestry. Of course Christians should recognize that answers to the questions of human identity and purpose come not from nature, but from Scripture. But until the grip of nineteenth-century style natural theology is weakened, discussions about biological evolution will be hard.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Louis, Ard. "Science and Natural Theology: "Explaining" versus "Explaining Away""
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 27 July 2016.

APA

Louis, A. (2011, February 2). Science and Natural Theology: "Explaining" versus "Explaining Away"
Retrieved July 27, 2016, from http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/concerns-about-the-implications-of-biologos-science-pt-3

References & Credits

1. J. Barr, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, Oxford:Clarendon Press (1993), p. 83.

2. Citation from K. Barth, Church Dogmatics vol III (1948) p. 29.

About the Author

Ard Louis

Ard Louis is a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, where he leads a interdisciplinary research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology, and is also director of graduate studies in theoretical physics. From 2002 to 2010 he was a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. He is also an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. He has written for the BioLogos Foundation, where as of November 2011, he sat on the Board of Directors. He engages in molecular gastronomy. Prior to his post at Oxford he taught Theoretical Chemistry at Cambridge University where he was also director of studies in Natural Sciences at Hughes Hall. He was born in the Netherlands, was raised in Gabon and received his first degree from the University of Utrecht and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University.

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