One of the bitterest points of contention between many TEs and ID supporters is whether God’s existence or activity can be detected by science, granted that it is real. The bitterness shows that there are ideological issues lurking behind what ought to be just an intellectual question. But I want to leave those aside to ask what Christian biblical teaching actually says on the matter.
Biblically speaking, the enterprise of natural theology, in all its forms, is mainly justified by a few well-known texts. The principle one, often cited by those critical of statistical deism’s distancing of God from the act of creation, is Romans 1.18-20:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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 people are without excuse.
I will major on examining what that passage actually says, but also draw in a couple of others; Psalm 19 1-4a:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
And, also somewhat relevant, Psalm 8.1-4 (apparently prefiguring the “mediocrity principle”!):
Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
The basic message of all these is that God’s existence is clear from the natural creation. But the first thing to observe from Romans is that, in practice, that isn’t the case, because men (probably meaning all men, apart from God’s grace) have suppressed this truth because of wickedness. Yet that does not, in itself, mean that “science cannot detect God”, because Paul regards it as a spiritual failure that results in God’s wrath. One might perhaps detect God’s work, but simply refuse to recognise it as such. It clearly tells us why we can’t expect all scientists to see God through creation, but let’s unpack what that failure entails. Let me note that, since I’m writing for Christians, who have received grace to open their eyes, I will primarily be unpacking in what way Christians ought to be able to perceive God through what he has made.
“What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” “Plain” here translates a Greek word derived from the root “shining” – it would probably be fair to paraphrase it as “blindingly obvious.” In what sense, though?
Paul explains. “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 people are without excuse.” Now see what he’s saying here. God himself, and his nature, are invisible – a word which is linked to material existence, not simply optics. But in some way, what is visible – ie created and material – and actually not itself divine, makes at least some of his nature – that is his eternity, his power and his divinity – visible to us. There is, or ought to be, apart from spiritual blindness, something in the ordinary human perception that correlates what we find and see in the natural creation with those qualities in God. So what kind of perception is entailed?
The key to this lies in one word, “understood”: “…his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”
ELPS word studies speak of its root:
3539 noiéō (from 3563 /noús, “mind”) – properly, to apply mental effort needed to reach “bottom-line” conclusions.
Strong defines it thus:
1. to perceive with the mind, to understand: absolutely, with the addition τῇ καρδία, John 12:40 (Isaiah 44:18); with an accusative of the thing, Ephesians 3:4, 20; 1 Timothy 1:7; passive: Romans 1:20; followed by ὅτι, Matthew 15:17; Matthew 16:11; Mark 7:18; followed by an accusative with an infinitive, Hebrews 11:3; the absolute equivalent to to have understanding: Matthew 16:9; Mark 8:17.
Νους, then, is the seat of reflective consciousness: perception, understanding and feeling, judging & determining. So what is in mind in Romans is a cognitive, reasoning process. Paul could have used the word “heart” (καρδια), which is a more general word for the source of human activity, encompassing reason, emotion and intuition. So “καρδια” can imply “understanding” (eg John 12.40), but νους is much more limited to reasoned deliberation.
So we can conclude that in Romans, it is reason (or at least right reason, not tainted by sin) that takes us from the observation of nature to the knowledge of God’s eternal power and deity. It isn’t, therefore:
(a) The imposition of a pre-existing theistic worldview on a creation that rationally teaches only agnosticism or atheism, as some sociologists say.
(b) An ecstatic direct apprehension of God by experiencing nature, as in mysticism.
(c) An emotional intuition prompted by awe, as in Romanticism.
(d) A purely philosophical approach based on abstract principles, as in scholasticism.
(d) A mere design inference that could equally be fulfilled by a non-eternal, non-ominipotent or non-divine agent, as in ID.
The process is, rather, that of cognitive reflection and mental effort on the visible, ie physical creation, leading to an understanding of the reality of God’s invisible nature. Failure to see it is an inexcusable futility (meaning “becoming void of result”, like the thoughts of the wise in 1 Cor 3.20) of reasoning (διαλογισμος = inward questioning: hence our “dialogue”).
The same idea of mental application to propositional truth is found in the Psalms. In Ps19 the heavens “declare” God’s glory and “proclaim” his works. The skies pour forth “speech”, and display “knowledge”: they have a “voice”, and “words”. Later this is compared to the “other” word of God – torah, which is also apprehended and understood by rational, though also devotional, study. So we are not talking about “spiritual” experience as it is sometimes understood – this is a mental, intellectual, process.
Similarly Ps 8.3 speaks of considering God’s heavens (literally raah = see, or behold, but often used of drawing inferences from what is seen).
With that foundation laid, can we say whether such understanding can be “scientific”? It depends on your definition of science, which is a notoriously slippery matter. A dictionary definition would suggest the affirmative:
1. the sciences collectively that are involved in the study of the physical world and its phenomena, including biology, physics, chemistry, and geology, but excluding social sciences, abstract or theoretical sciences, such as mathematics, and applied sciences
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
To quote Michael Flynn “Modern usage restricts ‘science’ primarily to the natural sciences: the systematic and analytical study of Nature using evidence, logic and reason.” Such a restriction would certainly not exclude what is described in Romans. But philosophers of science see that science now is even more restricted than that. Peter Dear lists six characteristics of the modern approach:
- The view of the world as a kind of machine.
- The distinction between “primary” and “secondary” qualities.
- The use of deliberate and recordable experimentation.
- The use of mathematics as a privileged tool for disclosing nature.
- The pursuit of natural philosophy as a research enterprise.
- The reconstruction of the social basis of knowledge around a positive evaluation of cooperative research.
It’s hard to argue that any one of those precludes conclusions about God’s existence or nature – those, one assumes, come at the stage of reflection and analysis – the human theory that , for all science, is imposed upon the data to give it meaning.
Dear, however, for some reason, excludes from his list one feature of science as it is now practised: methodological naturalism. Perhaps he doesn’t consider it as essential as some. Such methodology would not, itself, be a problem, even if it restricts the area in which reason is, arbitrarily, allowed to operate. Nothing in Romans, or Psalms, suggests that examining efficient causation is any less capable of pointing to God’s invisible nature than, say, Aristotelian teleological science. It is not, strictly, the restriction of methodology that keeps God out of the scientific picture, but a restriction on theoretical conclusions: a theoretical, not a methodological, materialism. That restriction is not, in any real sense, different from metaphysical naturalism, because the theory level of science (or at any rate the meta-theory level) is always informed by metaphysical assumptions.
I would argue, then, that deducing the existence and nature of God from the study of nature is not only a valid thing for a scientist to do as a human being, but is valid even as a scientist, unless metaphysical naturalism is accorded a privileged status within what we now allow to be called “science”. If so, that would be a sociological issue, with nothing of universal significance to say about the phenomena in the world, the power of reason, or the nature of God.