Southern Baptist Voices: A Response to James Dew, Part 2

| By Ard Louis

This essay is a response to Dr. James Dew in the Southern Baptist Voices series, a dialogue between Southern Baptist seminarians and representatives of BioLogos. For a more complete description of the project’s history and aims, please see our introduction here

Dr. Dew's essay expressed three main concerns: Is macro evolution actually true? How does theistic evolution portray God's creative activity? Is it consistent to reject ID but to affirm the anthropic principle? Yesterday, Dr. Ard Louis responded to the first of these, and today he addresses to the second and third questions.

In the first part of my response to James Dew’s paper “Teleological Arguments, Theistic Evolution, and Intelligent Design,” I addressed Dew’s first question, “is evolution true?” In this second part of my response, I’d like to speak to his other points:

1) That many Southern Baptists are “uncomfortable with way Theistic Evolution portrays God’s creative activity” – i.e. divine action.

2) That “[t]here seems to be an inconsistency in the way theistic evolutionists reject ID, but affirm the anthropic principle

The question of divine action

On the topic of divine action, two of his two main concerns about BioLogos are

1) Frankly, this sounds like deism, not theism, and

2) There seems to be an unspoken allegiance to methodological naturalism in this position.

First of all, let me say that I have sympathy for these concerns. I sincerely hope that I don’t sound like a deist when I explain the science I love to my fellow believers. However, sometimes the reason descriptions of God working through evolutionary processes sounds like deism is because Christians have too low a view of the way that God normally acts in the world. They feel that God is only really present in miraculous acts. But that is an impoverished view of God’s sovereignty.

Elsewhere on this site I have written at some length about science and miracles and used a famous exchange between Newton and Leibniz on the stability of the planets to illustrate how God acts in the world. This traditional Christian viewpoint contrasts with deism. In short, I believe, based in part on Biblical grounds, that God most likely created much of the biological complexity around us using the "ordinary ways" he sustains the world. It is at least as glorious for God to create a process that generates the beautiful complexity we see in nature, as it is for him to create species (or kinds) de novo. That doesn’t mean I can definitively rule out the possibility that God used miracles in natural history; God is sovereign. But in general, we are dependent on direct revelation to determine what mode of action God has used. I am not aware of any theology of “miracle detection in natural history” that we could employ to otherwise adjudicate this question.

I realize that the paragraphs above don’t do justice to the complexities of the issues James Dew raises about God’s action. Thankfully Darrel Falk and William Dembski have discussed this question in some depth in their previous exchange in this series, and I recommend readers with further questions on this subject read those first.

To Dew’s second point, I am also not fond of the term “methodological naturalism,” but I don’t expect miracles in the lab, either. Miracles occur when God sustains the world in a different way than he normally does. The Bible teaches us that God doesn’t do this in order to show off like a magician. Rather, God does miracles to achieve his divine purposes. They are signs that point to him.

Thus, I can happily research the natural world and do normal science because science studies the regular ways that God sustains the universe, the “customs of the creator” to use some old-fashioned language. Besides, science derives its power precisely by limiting itself to studying things that are repeatable, or controllable. And you can’t control God.

In an age when science and faith seem so often at odds, it is easy for us to be surprised when we learn that early science grew out of theological considerations like: If there is a faithful God behind the universe, then we might expect regular laws that could be discovered (intelligibility), and we might expect these laws to be the same in different parts of the world (uniformity). Many of the founders of modern science were deeply influenced by their Christian faith. History shows us that science has deeply Christian roots.1 And in the same way, I believe that modern science fits naturally within a Christian worldview. Readers who are interested in more detail may enjoy this lecture on “The doctrine of creation and the science of nature.”

The arguments above tell us that—even though they could not be further apart metaphysically—a robust theism and philosophical naturalism would nevertheless both suggest that something like “methodological naturalism” is the best way to study the physical world. The term is awkward, and for each worldview the ultimate justifications for this conclusion are completely different. But I believe that theistic presuppositions provide a solid basis for the metaphysical prerequisites like uniformity, regularity and intelligibility upon which modern science is grounded. It is not at all clear how one would derive (rather than assume as a-priori) the underlying metaphysical principles that undergird science from the brute fact of pure naturalism. Given the deep and often unrecognized theological roots of modern science, it may be hard for naturalists not to inadvertently smuggle these concepts into their derivations.

The upshot of this argument is that I wish we could find another name for “methodological naturalism because a) this language masks the deep Christian roots of science, and b) it isn’t clear that naturalism can provide the metaphysical prerequisites of science in the first place. Rather, it is precisely the fact that we can do science that points to something beyond the laws of nature.

Contrasting ID and the anthropic principle

The third major issue raised by James Dew is that “there seems to be an inconsistency in the way theistic evolutionists reject ID, but affirm the anthropic principle.”

Indeed, I think there is an important difference between ID and anthropic principle arguments. In the space remaining, I will briefly explain upon why this difference matters apologetically, scientifically, and theologically. To start, a reflection on the apologetic: Both theistic and atheistic scientists agree on much of the physics and cosmology that leads to what might be called the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, which is also known as the anthropic principle. So in his book “Just Six Numbers,” for example, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, an agnostic, writes:

We seem to have three choices'... We can dismiss it as happenstance, we can acclaim it as the workings of providence, or (my preference) we can conjecture that our universe is a specially favoured domain in a still vaster multiverse.’

But while they largely agree on the science, theists and atheists disagree on the interpretation. What does it all mean? Is it providence or happenstance or a multiverse or some combination of the above? The philosophical literature on this topic is vast. A good place to start for Christians would be this article by John Polkinghorne, or for more background, this website by Robin Collins. I found this more technical article by Australian astrophysicist Luke Barnes to be very clear. And I can’t resist recommending this lovely little video where physicist turned priest John Polkinghorne tells the story of Fred Hoyle's discovery of where carbon comes from - and why it shook his atheistic beliefs.

By contrast, the arguments ID advocates make are heavily contested on scientific grounds. One wonders: if many Christian believers (i.e. theistic evolutionists) are not convinced by their science, then on what grounds would atheistic scientists find their arguments compelling? In fact, I fear that when Christian apologists use an ID argument like irreducible complexity as implicit evidence for God, they only reinforce the unfortunate public misperception that Christian faith is in conflict with mainstream science.

On the other hand, precisely because the science is agreed upon, careful use of cosmological fine-tuning arguments can help illuminate philosophical presuppositions and clarify the differences between mainstream science and philosophical atheism.

You may say, “Well, I agree with you that if the ID arguments are not scientifically compelling, then we shouldn’t use them in apologetics. But you still haven’t explained why you don’t find them scientifically convincing.” Part of the difficulty in responding to this legitimate challenge is that the ID movement employs a very heterogeneous set of arguments. Many of these call into question aspects of evolution definition E2 (mechanism). Their merits can only be properly assessed by going with some depth into modern evolutionary biology, which is outside of the scope of this essay, but is the topic of regular essays by Dennis Venema and others on the BioLogos Forum. (Editor's Note: See also Oliver R. Barclay’s series, Design in Nature.)

So lets turn this question around and ask, instead, “How would one go about making arguments in biology that are analogical to the fine-tuning arguments in cosmology?” In cosmology, fine-tuning arguments arise from exploring counterfactuals. In other words, you can calculate what the universe would be like if a certain physical constant was different, or “counter to the facts” as we actually find them. For example, if the energy of a certain excited nuclear energy level in 12C was just a few percent higher or lower, then we can show by quantum mechanical calculations that stellar nucleosynthesis would not generate enough carbon and oxygen needed for the life we observe on earth.

On the other hand, in biology counterfactuals are much harder to work out, and therein lies the nub of the problem. Cosmology is, in this sense, much simpler than biology.

Consider the following example: Changing water from H2O to deuterated water, D20, (with one extra neutron per hydrogen nucleus), has a relatively mild effect on its physical properties, e.g. the boiling point changes from 100 °C to 101.4 °C. But nevertheless, making this small change is toxic for most organisms. “Aha!” you might say, “Life is fine-tuned to very specific properties of water. If water were just ever so slightly different, we would not be around.” But not so fast. By slowly increasing the proportion of D20 over many generations, bacteria can evolve until they grow just fine in D20 and instead, H2O becomes toxic. Biology can adapt and respond in surprising and unexpected ways. We simply don’t know nearly enough about biology to explore the kinds of counterfactual arguments we routinely use in cosmology. In my opinion, it is this difference that makes biologists instinctively wary of the kinds of theoretical arguments the ID literature employs. How can one employ an explanatory filter that can distinguish between “design” and “non-design” when there could be (as has happened many times before) all kinds of surprises just around the corner that could completely change how you view the problem you have just analyzed?

The current state of biological knowledge cuts into this rhetorical space in other ways as well. Many claims like that of Gaylord Simpson, whose Evolutionism tries to extract metaphysical meaning from the science of evolution, are often based on a still-incomplete knowledge of the contours of what is possible in biology, on what its real constraints are. On the one hand, Archdeacon Paley, in a move not unlike modern ID advocates, saw the hand of God in the intricate watch-like “contrivances of nature,” while on the other hand, Richard Dawkins sees a pitiless and indifferent “blind watchmaker” in what he believes are the wasteful and purposeless processes of evolution. Although their conclusions couldn’t be more different, both are engaging in natural theology, that is, extracting theological conclusions from their observation of nature. One side is vulnerable to an accusation of God of the gaps, and the other side is vulnerable to the accusation of atheism of the gaps. It would be better if they both waited for our understanding of biology to become more comprehensive before attempting to extract either theology or a-theology from it.

This brings us to the theological difference between ID and standard accounts of the anthropic principle. Regardless of its scientific merits, however, I was initially puzzled by the popularity of ID in Christian circles. It doesn’t really solve the hermeneutical problems raised by evolution type E1 (natural history), i.e. geology and paleontology. Moreover, it self-consciously styles itself as a not-necessarily Christian movement. So why the attraction for evangelicals who would surely want to start with scripture? I am only guessing here, but as I discuss elsewhere on this site I suspect that a key factor in its popularity arises from the way it connects to popular views about natural theology.

"Given that science now allows us to understand so much more about the natural world, should we not use these advances to gain new knowledge about God?"

It is certainly tempting to think along these lines, especially as science acquires increasing cultural prestige. But evangelical Christians should be aware of the strong critiques coming from great theologians like Barth and Hauwerwas of the type of natural theology to which we tend to gravitate.2 Here I highly recommend Alister McGrath’s wonderful trilogy on natural theology, “The Open Secret,” “The Fine-Tuned Universe” and “Darwinism and the Divine” for some important correctives, as well as a vision for a way to move the conversation forward. McGrath develops an approach to natural theology that “is grounded in and informed by a characteristic Christian theological foundation. A Christian understanding of nature is the intellectual prerequisite for a natural theology which discloses the Christian God.”3 In other words, McGrath’s fundamental critique of the kind natural theology inherent in the ID movement, echoes my main concern: ID simply isn’t Christian enough.

With the posting of this second part of Ard Louis' response, comments sections are open for all of the previous posts, as well. If you would like to comment on a particular point in either Dr. Dew's paper or the response, we suggest that you do so on that particular post, in order to facilitate easier navigation of the multiple conversations that are likely to arise around the issues raised. As stated in the introduction, we will be more actively monitoring the comments as they are posted so that both tone and content are consistent with the BioLogos aim of creating a space of conversation, rather than confrontation. Please also review our commenting guidelines.


References & Credits

1. Readers who want to dig deeper into the complex and fascinating history of early science may enjoy the following BioLogos essays: Rediscovering the Science of the Middle Ages by James Hannam and Christianity and Science in Historical Perspective by Ted Davis.

2. A.E. McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology, Oxford: Blackwell (2008), p 4.

3. I’m grateful to Ted Davis for sending me this quote from John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science, chap 1: "The new natural theology differs from the old-style natural theology of Anselm and Aquinas by refraining from talking about “proofs” of God’s existence and by being content with the more modest role of offering theistic belief as an insightful account of what is going on. It differs from the old-style natural theology of William Paley and others by basing its arguments not upon particular occurrences (the coming-to-be of the eye or of life itself), but on the character of the physical fabric of the world, which is the necessary ground for the possibility of any occurrence… This shift of focus has two important consequences. The first is that the new-style natural theology in no way seeks to be a rival to scientific explanation but rather it aims to complement that explanation by setting it within a wider and more profound context of understanding. Science rejoices in the rational accessibility of the physical world and uses the laws of nature to explain particular occurrences in cosmic and terrestrial history, but it is incapable of itself to offer any reason why these laws take the particular (anthropically fruitful) form that they do, or why we can discover them through mathematical insight. The second consequence of this shift from design through making to design built into the rational potentiality of the universe is that it answers a criticism of the old-style natural theology made so trenchantly by David Hume. He had asserted the unsatisfactoriness of treating God’s creative activity as the unseen analogue of visible human craft. The new natural theology is invulnerable to this charge of naïve anthropocentrism, for the endowment of matter with anthropic potentiality has no human analogy. It is a creative act of a specially divine character.”

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.