Teleology already has a foot in the door

I’ve just read a lecture by Steve Fuller, in which he mentioned that, at around the time of the Scopes trial, it was pretty well impossible to find a scientist working in a Christian institution (and I assume this largely means US denominational universities) who would accept the reality of either miracles or the physical resurrection of Christ. I would suggest it would have been almost equally hard to find a theologian in the same institutions who believed in them either, at that time. I’ve not checked any sources, but it makes sense – even when I was young there was a strong feeling that science and the supernatural were simply incompatible.

But things have changed.


Society is complex, and there has been increasing secularisation, the rise of militant atheism and so on. Yet it is now not at all rare to find Christian scientists who have no problem at all in accepting the miracles of Christ as miracles, rather than explaining them away in naturalistic or legendary terms. BioLogos would be an exemplar of this attitude, of course. And so I ask, why has the situation changed?

There may well be obvious reasons. Science itself, with the advent of relativity and, particularly, quantum theory, has lost is comfortable determinism. Cosmology’s realisation that the Universe is neither boundless nor eternal has raised the discussion of creation again. Then again, Evangelicalism has had a resurgence in the Western church, and therefore there have been more conservative theologians entering the academy. The charismatic renewal has, rightly or wrongly, placed the miraculous back on mainstream Christianity’s agenda. Science and theology theorists like Robert Russell have even suggested ways in which God might act without “breaking” natural law. All of these and more could be factors, but I want simply to note the fact that, 90 years ago, the miraculous was quite implausible even to scientists calling themselves Christians, and now it is no longer implausible.

I’d give a fair bet that, for most scientists open to the miraculous, it is none of the factors I mentioned that have wrought a change, but simply that cultural ideas are, sad to say, largely absorbed by osmosis, and they change, to speak metaphorically, by genetic drift rather than by evolution. Quickly to mollify Gregory, I would say that the underlying mechanisms are actually neither evolutionary nor genetic, but are the vastly complex interaction of discoveries, ideas and choices by people. But as a mass-effect, attitudes change like prevalent fashions, by imitation.

Yet to judge from BioLogos (from personal experience) and from scientific discussion more generally, though Christians are willing to accept the miraculous in Jesus’s ministry, even if miracles might disrupt the closed system of the Universe, they still have a cultural taboo on allowing miracles in nature. Just as with the “impossibility” of miracles in the 1920s, there is plenty of justification of this stance, partly prompted by creationism and, even more, by ID. But it’s hard to find a really watertight reason for excluding supernatural agency in nature a priori. I would not be surprised – no, I would even predict – that in years to come the possibility of divine activity will be as uncontroversial to Christian natural scientists as Biblical miracles have become now.

In the field of evolution, anyone interested in this blog will agree that old certainties are fading fast. BioLogos is, once more, an indicator of this. For a year or two some of us have been asking why it is dominated by staunchly Darwinian theory, with scarcely a mention of the tantalising indicators of new and directional mechanism in work on epigenetics, natural genetic engineering, emergence theories and so on. But now Matt Rossano has done two parts of a series examining some of these, and the whole question of randomness, not in the dismissive “randomness doesn’t mean chaotic, you know” way of recent times, but in the manner of suggesting that evolution may, after all, have a direction. The genetic drift has begun.

Convergence gets pride of place, and that may be because Simon Conway Morris, its champion, is both a respected evolutionist and a Christian. It also suits the current climate that he is, apparently, a “theological naturalist” interested in explicable mechanisms rather than supernatural interventions. But convergence, like emergence theory, seems better at decribing what is than at discovering concrete mechanisms for how it is. Convergence happens, and increasingly it will be found that other forms of directional evolution do too – it’s not at all easy to say why it does.

In my view, satisfactory mechanisms for this more sophisticated brand of evolution are going to remain, for the greater part, poorly explained. And for this reason: if God has actually planned his creation teleologically, as a preparation for his goal, then an adequate account can never be given by bottom-up cause and effect. And this is for the old, but still true, ID reason that information has necessarily been put into the system to realise that goal. But note that this is not only design information, though that might be of some importance. The information in life needs to be approached from a telological, final-goal-orientated direction, and ID so far has made no attempt at that. We need to start to understand what signs one might find, in the creation, if it were planned not from the bottom up (cause and effect) but from the top down (means to an end).

I mean to do some serious thinking about that. But I already think that it requires a God who remains active in governing creation, rather than merely sustaining it, and that therefore such a creation would appear different from one that was developed from the ground up. Of course, nobody will be looking for such an appearance unless they are comfortable with the idea of a continuously governing God. But Steve Fuller’s observation gives some hope that there will come a time when that is true.

Then things might change even more.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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