Southern Baptist Voices: Essentialism and Evolution, Part 2

| By Bruce A. Little

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.


About the Author

Bruce A. Little

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. Dr. Little is published in academic journals and his latest book is titled God, Why this Evil? (Hamilton Books, 2010). He is also the author of, A Creation-Order Theodicy: God and Gratuitous Evil (University Press of America 2005), editor of a book with P & R Publishers titled Francis A Schaeffer: A Mind and Heart for God, editor of Defending the Faith and Engaging Culture: Essays in Honor of Dr. L. Russ Bush (Broadman & Holman) as well as contributor of chapters in other books. In addition, he has co-written four books with Russian professors from the Tavrichesky National University in Simferopol, Ukraine. Dr. Little lives in Wake Forest, North Carolina with his wife Nancy. They have one daughter who is married with two children. For more on Dr. Little’s writing and work as an apologist, please click here.


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