Let’s go back

The summer I went up to University I had a job decorating somebody’s house. Hearing I was a Christian and that I was going to Cambridge to study medicine, the owner tut-tutted and said it would be hard to keep my faith. I’m not sure if that was because religion has no answer to suffering, or because it has no answers period. One reason I didn’t lose my faith, though, apart from the stubborn desire to prove her wrong, was that I expected to run into all kinds of different belief-systems, promoted by people far cleverer than me, but I told myself that all other things being equal my beliefs were no less likely to be right than theirs. It actually worked, preventing me from being overawed by an idea’s sheer novelty – or its plausibility, in the sociological sense.

One of the things that repeatedly cropped up over the years was the theme that biblical Christianity is just, well, passé. That was succintly and typically expressed once as “You can’t turn your back on the Enlightenment.” I’d come across that idea well before University, actually. I had read John A T Robinson’s Honest to God
in the school library, whose central theme was that “modern man” couldn’t believe in a God “out there”, and certainly not one who performed miracles and other magic. It annoyed me slightly that at the age of sixteen I had peremptorily been excluded from the class of “modern man” because I could.

Mind you, a few years later it the next brief, but significant upsurge in religion came from the Charismatic Movement, as miracle-minded as any pre-Enlightenment savage would wish. That alone showed me that it was, indeed, eminently possible to turn your back on the Enlightenment, or on any seemingly unassailable philosophical given. Not infrequently it is an advantage to do so. For example the academic establishment had firmly decided in my day that Marxism infallibly held the world’s future in its hands. Even now they haven’t quite got their head round the possibility that they may end up with a universal caliphate rather than a socialist internationale. The truth is, as far as my own experience goes, that prevailing ideas seldom gain their hegemony in society by their intellectual strength, but by something more akin to fashion. “Postmodernism is the new black – discuss.”

I was reminded of all this as I’m ploughing through John Sailhamer’s magnum opus on the Pentateuch, which has nothing to do with creation or evolution at all as such but is fascinating. There’s a chapter on the interpretive history of the Old Testament, in which he points out that as soon as the Enlightenment began to influence Bible Scholarship, the first thing to go in Old Testment Studies was the doctrine of providence.

The Bible writers themselves, and pretty well all Christians up to that time, believed that God personally and freely influences many, if not all, events in the world. So the sacred history of Israel in the Old Testament, whilst it had special significance as the calling of a nation into covenant relationship with God, and whilst it involved very
particular signs and wonders, was not special for God’s directing its history.

But Enlightenment Deism axiomatically scorned not only the miraculous and the truth of the traditional stories of God’s involvement, but on the grounds of the primacy of reason, it rejected the idea of God’s provident involvement in the world. Since the work of Newton and his like was showing the world to function, like a clock, by rational laws, the God of reason could by no-means stoop to lesser means like contingency (ie choosing to change things).

Paradoxically it was against Newton’s own espousal of both law and divine choice that Leibniz made his accusation:

Sir Isaac Newton and his followers have also a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion.

Sailhamer describes how, in rejecting Deism, Evangelical scholarship nevertheless absorbed enough of its rationalism to have two particular results. Firstly, the doctrine of providence shrunk to God’s “miraculous” intervention in the history of Israel or the life of the Christian believer. God may well have delivered Israel from Egypt and given them Canaan, but that was “salvation history”, and he usually leaves the world to itself.

This actually flies in the face of the Bible. For example, in Deuteronomy 2 Moses says that the Lord had given the Ammonites the land of the Rephaites, driving the latter out before them, and likewise he gave the people of Esau the land of the Horites and the Caphtorites (from Crete) the land of the Avvites. Passages in Leviticus imply that all these movements were because of the wickedness of the displaced nations, just as was the case with Israel and Canaan. In fact both Deuteronomy 32 and Acts 17 say that God himself decides the boundaries of all the nations, the latter affirming that he determines “the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”

The second effect on Evangelical thinking was the tendency – very dominant in the nineteenth century but common in my own lifetime – to rationalise miracles away: the turning of the Nile to blood was an influx of silt from upstream flooding, and the other plagues followed naturally from that; the crossing of the Jordan was possible because of the known phenomenon of landslips further up; psychosomatic disease explains Jesus’s healings etc.

Now Deism went the way of all fads, and I’ve remarked before on how, amongst Evangelicals, biblical miracles are taken far more for granted than when I was younger. Perhaps the Charismatic Renewal influenced that – but perhaps it’s also the fact that, Hume’s parochial claims notwithstanding, accounts of miracles remain pervasive throughout the world .

Yet the echoes of Deism live on. Take, for example, this quotation from Deborah Haarsma of BioLogos about the survey which Edward Robinson dealt with here recently:

But we’d need a much more nuanced survey to separate out those who believe there are gaps in the natural order of things that need constant intervention from a divine agent (the typical Intelligent Design position), and those who affirm that God set up a natural process and actively sustains it without needing to intervene miraculously to bring about his desired goals (the typical evolutionary creation position).

Now, to me that position, given as that of most of BioLogos, seems indistinguishable from the position of Leibniz against Newton. It assumes that it is preferable for God to act through “natural law”, and that if he didn’t it would be through inability to “get it right first time,” (in Leibniz’s words, “make it a perpetual motion” ).

Similarly, much TE writing does what Sailhamer describes Evangelicals doing in response to Deism back in the day: accepting divine action in biblical miracles like the resurrection (but not necessarily the creation of Adam and Eve, or in the divine superintendence of Scriptural inspiration), and in the conversion and life of believers, but not in the governance of the rest of the world.

Evolutionary Creation treats divine action as a problem that nobody is quite able to solve, but without a strong doctrine of divine action (whether or not you have a philosophical theory like concurrence to intellectualise it) there cannot be the kind of doctrine of providence that underpins the biblical worldview.

If God does not act directly in nature, how can he determine the boundaries of nations? The subject isn’t brought up in origins questions, so it’s hard to know whether the question is left unanswered, or whether it is concluded that God doesn’t govern the nations that way, but that all is explained by secular historical concepts. Conversely, if God answers prayer directly, even on rare occasions, on what principle is it inappropriate for him to act beyond what natural law alone will accomplish in the created order?

My conclusion is that the principle involved, though buried by now in the subsconscious, is the same as that which led to the rise of Deism in the first place: that somehow for God to act in “personal” ways is messy and unsuitable to the cool loftiness of pure reason. A mathematical law looks beautiful: multiplying loaves and fish and leaving leftovers is messy. Or perhaps in the “religious” sphere such untidiness is acceptable. But in science, though it takes place in God’s world just the same, the equivalent would be that God himself determines the natures of the fish (perhaps they are Cichlids?) or influences their natural multiplication as he caused their miraculous increase. That’s just unreasonable.

And if that’s the case (and I can’t think of any more solid reason – just the very much less solid reasons of “free-creation” theodicy) then restricting God to “natural causes” in evolution is just an attempt to keep Deism on life support for a bit longer. Which is a bit passé, isn’t it?

A half-appropriate song to round off.

Let’s Go Back – Jon Garvey 2003

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.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Politics and sociology, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Let’s go back

  1. Hanan says:

    Alright. Let’s get our hands dirty a bit shall we? The fact that I am going to ask these questions just goes to show how difficult these concepts are (at least for me). I want to explore the two options (is there a third?)

    I have a choice between guided evolution vs. God working through nature? Are those the options?

    Ok, so let’s take the first. What is guided evolution? I used to think that it simply mean’t God created everything with the desired affect that everything He wanted would appear (or evolve). But from my understand of you Jon, that is not Guided Evolution. That is some sort of light-deism (jump in anytime if I misunderstood you). But anymore that, reminds me of a scene from Apollo 13; when one of the astronauts needs to pilot the module toward Earth, he has to add a little bit of thrust here, a little more there, tap the controller slightly more left, until he has the Earth perfectly aligned to let gravity do the rest and pull them in. The point being, without them interfering with the natural path of the module with all the slight thrusts, the module would have slipped out to space. I think the metaphor is appropriate here and reminiscent of what Liebniz was referring to (not that I know anything about him). I sounds like what you are saying is without God making slight modifications along the way, nature and everything in it would have run amok. But this contradicts features of nature such as predictability and the laws of nature. These two things seem to work together just fine. We know laws exist and it helps is make certain predictions. But how can we ever claim that there are laws of nature when really God is interfering with the law? How can we ever make predictions, which we already do if at any moment, God can steer things away from their “natural” path?

    As for the second…I forgot what I was going to say. A bit tired 😛

    • Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Hanan. I’ll jump in with my comment before Jon replies.

      Your post starts out well, and then, in the last four sentences, appears to go off the rails.

      I like your example from the Apollo 13 movie. That is how I picture “guided” evolution. Of course, the guidance could be very, very fine; it might occur at the subatomic level and might be non-detectable by our scientific methods. The point, however, is that, without the guidance, evolution would take a different path. Thus, for example, without God’s subtle steering, maybe life on earth would never have got beyond single-celled creatures. Or maybe it would have got to dinosaurs and no further, so that God had to steer an asteroid to earth to wipe them out. Or maybe it would have got to primates, but not beyond simple lemurs. Etc. The point is that in a “guided” model of evolution there is a special divine action that makes a difference to the outcomes of evolution. When I speak of evolution as being “guided” or “steered” this is what I have in mind. Among the TE/EC folks, the only one I know who clearly endorses such a model is Robert Russell (who sees God acting decisively but invisibly underneath quantum indeterminacy).

      On the other hand, if evolution is set up from the very beginning of life to unfold in a certain way, with certain precise outcomes, but all by natural causes, without any steering or guiding by God (however subtle), I would call that front-loaded or programmed evolution. Very few TE/EC people seem to endorse this model, but if anyone does, it is probably Denis Lamoureux. But one ID person endorses it, and that is Michael Denton.

      Now, to your last few sentences. You object that God’s steering would amount to tampering with the laws of nature to the point where our scientific study of nature would be invalid. But this need not be the case. In fact, evolution, at least of the Darwinian kind, does not proceed due to laws of nature anyway. It proceeds in accord with contingencies, i.e., particular events. For example, suppose an asteroid strike did wipe out the dinosaurs. Well, there is no “law of evolution” that forces asteroids to strike planets when dinosaurs are ruling, so that mammals can take over. It just happened that an asteroid struck. Maybe on some other planet dinosaurs still rule, because no asteroid struck. It’s all contingency, not natural laws, that determines what happens in Darwinian evolution. So if Darwin was right about evolution, how could God guarantee any outcomes? And the answer is: God couldn’t.

      But if you supplement Darwinian chance with adjustments by God, you can take even Darwinian evolution and guarantee outcomes, much as the astronauts in your movie brought the ship back on course.

      Does this scenario — God’s tinkering here and there — undermine science? Not at all. No one is saying that God changes the laws of physics, the laws of chemistry, etc. The planets will still go on obeying Kepler’s laws, Newton’s laws, etc. Hydrogen and oxygen will still make up water. Plants will still make food by photosynthesis. Male and female animals will still get together to produce young. It is only when evolution needs to be kept on track to produce certain desired outcomes, that God intervenes, and even then, he doesn’t change the laws themselves, but only adjusts their application here and there. So scientists can still go on treating the universe as law-bound. The only thing they can’t treat as law-bound is Darwinian evolution. But Darwinian evolution is not law-bound anyway; it works by a series of historical events, not by a series of scientific principles. All that God is changing is the sequence of events, not the basic rules of nature.

      Human beings do this all the time. If you hit a line drive in baseball, it might go right into the stands; at least it would go far into the outfield. That is what natural law would have the ball do. But if the shortstop leaps up and catches the ball, its flight is interrupted. Does that deny the laws of physics? Not at all. It just diverts the course of a particular ball, changing the historical outcome of that ball’s motion. The next time someone hits a line drive, the shortshop might miss the catch, and the ball would proceed as normal. The natural laws haven’t been changed at all. Rather, the course of events has been changed because an intelligent actor has entered into the picture. I don’t think you would say, that because a shortstop sometimes catches the ball, all of ballistics will have to be thrown out because we can never know that a ball will keep going on its course. I think you would say: The ball will carry on in its course unless someone or something gets in the way to stop it. It’s the same with guided evolution. Darwinian evolution will produce whatever messy outcomes it produces, in its stumbling blind search for workable forms, unless someone or something directs it along a path it would never otherwise take. So guided evolution is no more incompatible with good science than a shortstop’s catch is with good physics.

      What guided evolution is incompatible with is atheism — the doctrine that everything in the universe happens due to either natural laws or blind contingencies, because there exists no intelligence that could direct the universe to any ends or purpose.

      The TE/EC attitude to guided evolution is very strange. If you mention Denton to them, they will spurn programmed or front-loaded evolution as “too Deistic” — they say that the Biblical God is “mightily hands-on” and no distant programmer who merely sets the ball rolling. But then if you say, OK, God is guiding evolution, they are just as offended. They want God to keep his hands off and let natural processes do all the work. And since they are all neo-Darwinists, that means leaving it to chance whether or not man, or any other creature, will ever emerge from the process. Yet they say that God created man. In what sense it is “creating” anything to roll the cosmic dice?

      In other words, TE/EC folks are extremely mixed up, conceptually. They seem incapable of thinking in a straight line, of reasoning from premise to conclusion. How they got this way, nobody knows. But the typical TE/EC combination of American pietist, non-confessional, free-church mental culture and a philosophy-free scientific training seems to have a lot to do with it.

      • The apostle Paul told the people of Lystra that God had given them a witness by providing rains from heaven and fruitful seasons (Acts 14:17). Was Paul saying that God performed regular miracles by which rains fell on the plains of Lycaonia? If instead we were to point to Mediterranean weather patterns under natural laws governing evaporation, winds, condensation, etc., would we be refuting Paul’s point? Diminishing his point? Or can a natural law-based explanation of “rains and fruitful seasons” in Asia Minor be fully compatible with Paul’s message. Remember, Paul said that the life-giving patterns of wind and rain were “a witness” to God as benevolent provider.

        Likewise, then, why does it detract a whit from God’s glory to say that evolution, like the weather, can be fully God’s work, with ends entirely foreseen and planned for (even asteroid impacts) even if carried forward under God’s minded maintenance of lawlike regularities?

        • Edward Robinson says:


          I have no theological objection to God’s working through “lawlike regularities” (e.g., the cycle of rainfall). The problem is that neo-Darwinian evolution, as conceived by atheists and TEs alike, does not proceed by “lawlike regularities” but by a series of contingent events.

          When we explain the movement of a planet around the sun, we explain it in terms of lawlike regularities. When we explain the French Revolution, we explain it as the outcome of a series of contingent events. We do not say that the French Revolution was produced by any “law” of history. Neo-Darwinian evolution is more like the French Revolution than like the orbit of a planet.

          Would random mutations filtered by natural selection guarantee any particular result at any particular time? It appears not. Even leaving aside considerations of quantum indeterminacy, we have people such as Gould saying that rewinding the tape would produce a different result every time. So God can’t just set up a neo-Darwinian system, let ‘er rip, and count on the appearance of man, or any other particular creature. He has to be involved in a more intimate way than simply “preserving the natural laws.”

          Yet TE/EC folks, especially at BioLogos, don’t like talking about God’s intimate involvement in that way. They can’t make up their minds what they believe in: a God who is always personally active in what happens, or a God who gives nature authority to do the creating itself, and stands back with his hands off. And when you press them on this, they give obscure answers or go silent. Venema, Falk, Giberson, Applegate, Ard Louis, and many other American TE/EC leaders practice this studied evasion. They seem to be trying to negotiate a tightrope walk, not wanting to commit themselves to a God who actually makes a difference (because then they would face the scorn of secular humanist, naturalistic biologists) and not wanting to endorse a remote Deistic God either. Basically, they don’t know what they think, or do know but aren’t telling. And as long as they practice this evasiveness, as long as they won’t tackle the question of divine action in evolution head-on, they cannot possibly make any serious gains in the evangelical world.

          Evangelicals believe in a personal God who acts, and they want to hear TE/EC leaders saying that God acts — and acts in a way that makes a difference to evolutionary outcomes. To most evangelicals, the TE/EC God looks like a dice-roller who hopes that if he makes enough galaxies, eventually a dice roll will produce man. That’s not the Biblical God, that’s not the traditional Christian God, and true evangelicals will have nothing to do with such a God. TE/EC needs to find some intellectual clarity, and some public spine, on this question. Otherwise it will remain a liberal rump within the evangelical world. Most evangelicals will reject it, secular humanist scientists will reject it, and it will have to be content with its shrinking (down from 38 to 31 per cent) share of American support.

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    Good discussion guys.

    Eddie’s answered Hanan well, but one quick addition: for my money, either “preloaded” or “real-time guided” evolution do justice to a wise God, for the simple reason that his wisdom lies in deciding his goals (which include both the general result and the detailed outworkings, such as you and me) and creates the means to fulfill them.

    They both differ from the God who creates a largely ateleological system to see where it ends up, maybe making it likely that something intelligent evolves with hands or tentacles, which he then calls “man”. That is gambling, not creation, and is the model many TEs certainly hold.

    The problem with frontloaded evolution is that we have no evidence that it can be targeted that precisely – it’s no longer a Laplacian universe. One reason Apollo needed mid-course correction is that it’s impossible – even in theory – to calculate trajectories precisely when several bodies are involved (earth, moon, sun, planets, spacecraft). The means are insufficient for the effect: you just can’t create a Universe with initial conditions that guarantee the K-T event at the right time.

    I came across something about Cardinal Newman – no scientist, but a Darwin contemporary who covered some of the theological bases. In correspondence, he said he was happy with Darwinism as law-like (Laplacian) theory, as it was often then seen, in the sense that it showed God’s foresight – in other words, he was endorsing frontloaded evolution. However, he later criticised William Paley (probably unjustly as it happens!) for the determinism of his natural theology, saying:

    …because it speaks only of laws and cannot contemplate their suspension, that is, miracles, which are of the essence of the idea of Revelation. Thus the God of Physical Theology may very easily become an idol; for he comes to the inductive mind in the medium of fixed appointments, so excellent, so skillful, so beneficient, that when it has for a long time gazed upon them, it will think them too beautiful to be broken, and will at length so contract its notion of Him as to conclude that He never could have the heart (if I may dare to use such a term) to undo or mar his own work; and this conclusion will be the first step towards its degrading its idea of God a second time, and identifying Him with His works. Indeed, a Being of Power, Wisdom and Goodness, and nothing else, is not very different from the God of the Pantheist.

    That’s where I come from too (though I’d be more nuanced on the “natural-supernatural” divide). He voices much of what I say in the article (though I was unaware of him when I wrote). The fact that panentheism, at least, has been a prominent player in the “divine action” project seems to confirm his fears.

    One more thing. Ed Feser has a recent column on “laws and causation”, in which he mentions that the very concept of “natural law” is problematic, and certainly pushes us towards ideas like “violation”. It’s actually quite hard to contemplate where those laws actually are.

    It arose from a comparison with torah, essentially, specifically in order to “free” science from the ideas of final and formal causation. In A-T thinking regularity was explained by substantial form and teleology: if you like, God makes particles, or creatures, with natures that produce certain ends. It works just as well as law does, mathematically.

    But it gives a greater sense of space for contingency, for there’s no reason why God shouldn’t make each particle slightly differently, so that the regularity comes from the average of their action, rather than being a strict law each of them is tied to. That fits with Maxwell’s treatment of laws, actually, which are based on the statistical sum of what particles do, not what individual particles do.

    To reply to Darek’s point, one needs to understand that special providence (pre-Deism) simply did not mean regular miracles instead of, or as well as, natural events. Rather, providence says that all events are subject both to the regularity of God and his contingent choices – the regular seasons are his, but so is the witholding of rain in a particular time and place as a judgement, say. It is legitimate to pray for the weather, without expecting a miracle. I did something on that here.

    • Ed and John

      I come down closer to occasionalism than anything else–but with many qualifications, not to mention that I make no pretenses to skill in philosophical hair-splitting.

      The weather is a good example of a chaotic system that humans have no hope of predicting precisely but that is governed (most of the time, at least) by law-like regularities that can be studied and related to scientific observations. Of course God can intervene, beaking the course of his patterned working, or plan for specific outcomes for special purposes in advance without breaking those patterns. But clearly, I think, Paul in Acts 14 was citing God’s patterned working, processes we would we would frame in terms of laws of nature, as evidence of God’s existence and goodness. Since God actively maintains this
      patterned working and foresees its every outcome, he is not pushed out to a cosmic distance as a deistic clockmaker. That is what perhaps the TEs at Biologos are nervous about–without any justification in my view.

      And of course I do not believe that God is locked out by quantum indeterminacy; the fact that differences in certain outcomes in QM have no physical cause does not mean they have no mental cause, which they do and which is the divine purpose. God holds quantum events in his hands as much as any others.

      Evolution is a process of growth-with-differentiation. Like the growth of embryos or plants writ large. Notice what Jesus says about plant development: “For the earth brings for fruit of itself: first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear” (Mark 4:28). From one perspective the process occurs “of itself” or as a product of the earth “by itself.” Just as evolution from a materialist perspective seems to occur “of itself.” But Paul cites the larger reality, saying “God was making it grow” (1 Cor 3:7). God is the one empowering the process unseen except to the eyes of understanding and faith.

      The Genesis creation story begins with echoes of embryonic life–the watery darkness, the undifferentiated character of what is developing, yet superintended by the divine Spirit the whole time. Cf. Gen 1:2; Eccl 11:5.

      God appoints the deaf, the seeing, and the blind, not by miraculously striking babies with blindness but by foreseeing and taking responsibility for every such circumstance and providing for a positive eventuality (cf. John 9:3). Yet at the physical level birth defects are often the result of “random” mutations.

      I incline toward patience with those at Biologos. They are still learning, as we all are.

      • Jon Garvey says:


        I take your point about the weather passage – clearly in that context the main message is “God is reliable in his provision”, and if we’re relating that to science, it’s the lawlike processes that are in view. The problem only comes if that becomes the sum total of God’s activity and he’s not “allowed” to act in nature apart from “Law”. That leads inevitably to a Deistic position (or one that has been called “Semi-Deism”, where Deistic science is partitioned off from pietistic faith, in the latter case occasional divine action being admitted).

        Your use of the embryology metaphor for evolution is an interesting spin on the recent BioLogos reference to “Let the earth bring forth…” as an indicator of quasi-independent secondary causation. It’s reading too much into the Genesis text, but is a reasonable way of seeing things.

        I’ve said here (and at BioLogos) before that the root meaning of evolution is an unfolding of what is inherent – just like the emergence of plant from seed or animal from egg, and that seems to be implicit in what you describe. Many of the original TEs saw things that way. But it’s important to realise that Darwinian evolution was conceived as a deliberate denial of that whole viewpoint, as Étienne Gilson unpacks in From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again. That’s why Darwin didn’t use the word “evolution” until its popular usage by Spencer forced it on him.

        For “embryological-type” evolution implies that the information for the final result was inherent in the seed – whether that be seen as information in the evolving LUCA or in the environment and the laws by which it lived. Both inevitably suggest a designer who originally implanted that information. Both are problematic in terms of actually locating the information: natural laws contain minimal information (which is why they are regular), DNA shows no sign of implicit future evolution, and so on.

        Darwin denied that developmental view, and instead put the weight on random search and selection actually creating new information, which is why a designer becomes unnecessary (if it works). It seems to me that BioLogos, in placing its bets on “mainline science”, is either endorsing the “unfolding” model without realising it’s denying Darwin, or else is in a muddle in trying to make God the author of an undirected process.

        My problem with them is that they’ve shown themselves unwilling, over the last three years or more, to engage with serious critiques and discussions of such things, or even to state clearly which position they take. It suggests that, with the exception of guys like Ted Davis, they don’t really appreciate the important relationship between metaphysics and philosophy and the theological and scientific outcomes.

        They may still be learning, but if these issues have become obvious to a tyro like me in the five years I’ve been working on it seriously, then one would expect the guys with the expertise and the Templeton Grant to appreciate them too. Such issues, after all, were raised even in Darwin’s own time.

  3. Hanan says:

    Interesting quote from here.

    “I think it’s very important to recognize theologically that if God is the creator of the world, then all these natural processes of the world are expressions of God’s will. God works as much through natural processes as through any other means. God doesn’t only work by sort of poking a divine finger to push things this direction. God endows creation with those processes which will lead to very remarkable consequences.”

    • Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Hanan.

      I don’t think that either Jon or I would disagree with Polkinghorne’s statement as it stands. But how does Polkinghorne apply it to evolution?

      It’s one thing to say God doesn’t always have to be poking his finger in, but for Polkinghorne, is God ever poking his finger in? I would guess that P., like many BioLogos TEs, imagines that God “poked his finger in” for some New Testament miracles; I wonder if P., any more than the BioLogos folks, would be comfortable imagining God “poking his finger in” in the evolutionary process (between the Big Bang and the arrival of man).

      There is a definite preference among BioLogos folks that God should not poke his finger in, until it comes time for Biblical miracles. Thus, in the BioLogos picture, divine action is “deistic” until Biblical times, then “theistic” for the period of the Bible and maybe the early Church, and then (at least for those Protestant TEs who are cessationists) “deistic” again. So mechanistic, reductionist explanations for everything are the right approach except for Biblical miracles. For me, there is something rotten in Denmark with such a convenient deistic/theistic switch. It’s as if the BioLogos folks want to be good modern Enlightened people most of the time, but want to hold out a small private zone for miracles that is limited to concerns over Jesus and individual salvation. I don’t like such a compartmentalized model of divine action, which I think is neither Biblical nor traditional — or for that matter very philosophically consistent.

  4. Merv Bitikofer says:

    Eddie, since Polkinghorne refers to “all these natural processes”, and I’m sure Polkinghorne sees evolution as one of those, then it seems safe to conclude that Polkinghorne isn’t holding out evolution as separately excluded from being an expression of God’s will.

    I know such a brief teaser has none of the details you would want about exactly *how* Polkinghorne (or any TEs) thinks God’s will would be expressed in evolutionary processes, and that always seems to be the crux of the matter. You and Jon are frustrated with their perceived long-standing unwillingness to speak to those details.

    But I continue to maintain there may be an injustice in demanding this of TEs. After all, is there any theist of any stripe that can elaborate on how God makes it rain or brings bountiful blessings of food to our tables. If asked for details, any of us could talk about rain clouds, farmers, and super markets, and then rightly add that we thank God nonetheless because God is behind all those things. Someone could then go on to object: “well, yes –it’s all well and good for you to say God brought you rain, but exactly *how* was God involved in that, because you see, your explanation about rain clouds and weather patterns is indistinguishable from the atheist’s explanation, and therefore very unsatisfactory. Until you can clarify exactly how God is involved in making it rain, you are just adding an unnecessary theological gloss onto an already adequate explanation.” (and of course, we are right to reject this line of reasoning because of its faulty, embedded presupposition that different levels of explanation must necessarily be competing ones.)

    Could it be that the above hypothetical objection in quotes parallels your demands that TEs bear the burden of showing exactly where this “God-nature” interface is and exactly how it works?

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Polkinghorne’s an interesting “case”, it seems to me. On the one hand, he’s written paragraphs that are amongst the strongest I’ve seen on the moral imperative for God to allow creation its autonomy, and he is one of those who applies the Open Theist agenda to nature on that very basis.

      On the other hand, he’s been with R J Russell in suggesting direct divine action through quantum events and – at least at one point in his thinking – through chaotic events too. And here’s a quote from him in one of John Lennox’s books, which maybe addresses Merv’s last post:

      ‘We must not rest content with a discussion in such soft-focus that it never begins to engage our intuitions about God’s action with our knowledge of physical process … If the physical world is really open, and top-down intentional causality operates within it, there must be intrinsic “gaps” (“an envelope of possibility”) in the bottom-up account of nature to make room for intentional causality… We are unashamedly “people of the gaps” in this intrinsic sense and there is nothing unfitting in a “God of the gaps” in this sense either…’ As to the nature of God’s interaction it is ‘not energetic but informational.’

      Now to my ears, he’s positively affirming that God does act in real time in nature, by the input of new information, and that the world is made sufficiently different thereby to leave detectable gaps in the “bottom-up” evidence. Is that not how it sounds to you? If so, bully for him.

      What I can’t get my head round is how that is consistent with what he has written elsewhere about the fact that it would be wrong for God to “coerce” nature (“a puppetmaster God” is his own phrase) rather than leaving it free to make itself. But that is exactly what the input of new information is – divine formal causation, the opposite of autonomy. Indeed it’s a true case of ex nihilo creation, for something completely new (the information) has been added to the universe just as surely as if he’d input new energy or new matter.

      I’ve been reminded (twice) today that God is described as the “author of life” (Acts 3.15), which is a description of a very informationally complete creatorial role in nature, and thoroughly consistent with Hanan’s Polkinghorne quote if it refers to God’s natural law-like created processes, or to the input of new information as above. God wills, things happen – that’s the biblical doctrine of creation.

      But I hit a rock if Polkinghorne actually means that “God’s will” is that Creation should be “allowed to make itself in its own time and its own way”, free from the “puppet theatre” and “enslaved world” in which “everything dances to God’s tune” (all quotes from just one paragraph of Polkinghorne).

      So Polkinghorne too appears to be self-contradictory, or at least cryptic. How can we take quotes at face value when he seems to keep to contradictory views of creation at one and the same time? Nevertheless, I’m less interested by what one person’s position may be than by where the truth lies.

      I disagree with you, Merv, when you suggest the issue is about justified unwillingness to commit oneself on unknown mechanisms. When P, for example, speaks about God’s adding new information to the Universe, that is essentially a theological claim consistent with Scripture. The “How” is much less important than the “Whether”, though it’s legitimate to discuss the relative theological likelihood of God’s “frontloading” or “directing” nature. It would also, on P’s argument, be legitimate to discuss whether the known natural mechanisms are insufficient, which would indicate one of P’s “legitimate gaps” may exist for the input of information by God.

      In fact, nobody would be sensible to ask “how” God acts from a scientific point of view, because (to use your previous analogy, Merv), the scientific study of a book is logically incapable of telling you how the information came to be therein . The whole issue is theological and metaphysical, not scientific.

    • Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Merv.

      It seems to me that it is eminently reasonable to ask TE/EC leaders to clearly distinguish their view from atheism.

      What I get so far, from most TE/EC leaders, is: “The history of the universe is, physically speaking, exactly how the atheists depict it. Absolutely no intelligent design was ever needed to produce life or man. Natural laws and randomness can do it, without intervention and without planning. Just toss out the hydrogen atoms into space, and it will all come out fine. The only difference between me and an atheist is that in the privacy of my soul, and through the eyes of faith, I interpret all the material and mechanical causes and randomness and accidental collisions with asteroids etc. as having something to do with God and Jesus, in some fuzzy way that I can’t figure out, and don’t care if I ever can figure out. I just want to do my science in the lab from Mondays to Fridays without being troubled by religious doctrines, and on Sundays I want to praise Jesus for saving me without being troubled by metaphysical questions arising out of Christian theology. I leave the philosophy and the metaphysics to others.”

      To me, Merv, that is just not acceptable. But more important, it is not acceptable to the evangelical world in the USA, and if TE/EC leaders persist in this evasive answer, their numbers will continue to plummet, as people abandon TE/EC for atheism on one hand, fundamentalism on another, Pentecostalism on another, and ID on another.

      What I want to hear BioLogos say is that God intended every last outcome of evolution, and saw to it that all the physical causes were in place to guarantee those outcomes. I want to hear them say that nothing (regarding final outcomes, I mean) was left to chance or randomness, and that nature had no “freedom” to produce anything other than exactly what God wanted, when God wanted it. When I hear them say this, I will leave them alone. But in 5 years not one of them has said it. There has to be a reason why they won’t say it. I think it’s because they don’t believe it.

  5. Please note that informational content can be a tricky business. An algorithm can be brief and yet generate stunningly complex and beautiful results. Laws and initial conditions can seem simple, as well, but constitute the seed of immense complexity.

    Most of us would like to envision a working of God that leaves room for “free will” (perhaps “genuine will” is a better term since no human will is free in every sense) for intelligent creatures. And room for God to work in atypical as well as typical ways (“miracles” as well as law-like regularity). Some TEs, probably including Polkinghorne, seem to want to extend freedom to some unconscious physical processes, including those of evolution. One could draw a rough analogy to panpsychism, which is fairly popular among secular thinkers in philosophy of mind.

    The idea of freedom for unconscious processes to set their own creative course, presumably within certain limits, could be a kind of aesthetic choice. In a post-modern environment it might feel unnecessarily rigid and controlling (does the word “patriarchal” come to mind?) of God to set the plan of creation with only the will of intelligent creatures as the variable. The more I think about it, the more I suspect this is a matter of intellectual fashion. For myself, I scarcely see the need to confer freedom on unintelligent causes. Naturally, doing so will irritate those who incline toward traditional theism, while appealing to the process-minded and open theists.

  6. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Darek

    John Lennox (a mathematician of course) also mentions the question of algorithmic complexity (and information theory is one of those “must read” issues in these discussions – Yockey’s book is a good start – see the “Books we like” section). Basically, computer science shows that no algorithm (or mathematical equation) can generate information that wasn’t already inherent within it – it simply presents it in new ways.

    That leaves room, as you say, for generating some forms of great complexity from simple algorithms, an advanced example being the Mandelbrot series, but expressly not the kind of semiotic complexity that you find in Merv’s book metaphor or in living organisms. Fractals in organisms, then, can be algorithmic – but simple laws are just conceptually incapable of generating complex organisation as opposed to complex ordering.

    This is the question of Kolmogorov complexity. The shortest algorithm, for example, necessary to compute the human genome would be almost the same length as the code itself – longer, in fact, since we now know there is three dimensional, not just linear, functionality in DNA. The only bits you could compress are repetitive elements like ALU, where the algorithm could say “print [this sequence] 100 times”.

    The “freedom” issue is, as you’ll quickly see if you risk the search function, the biggest bugbear I’ve had with most publishing TE proponents, who see it as a theological necessity. You’ve correctly linked it to process-theology, which has had a big hold on the science-faith academic project on which current theistic evolution was largely based – they jettison the panpsychism but retain its consequences.

    But panpsychism apart (as it surely must be in a Christian context), it’s not so much about the non-necessity of granting freedom to unintelligent causes, as the frank incoherence of the idea. Freedom entails will, which entails rational consciousness. Therefore you can’t give unintelligent causes freedom, any more than you can give teaspoons the vote.

    Karl Giberson admitted recently that in these discussions “freedom” is actually being used as a metaphor for “chance”, confirming my long-standing assertion that the whole oedipal “patriarch-aversion” talk is empty rhetoric – but it’s rhetoric which is being used to invent a new theology of both nature and of God himself, which is serious.

    As soon as you say God “gives” unintelligent causes “chance” (ie he does not coerce govern that chance as in classical and biblical theology), you realise it means no more than that God gambles with his universe rather than governing it prudently. Secondary causes are, actually, submitted to the oppression of a determining fate apart from God rather than to his wise choice – their “freedom” is illusory, except that they have no capacity to distinguish illuison from reality.

    If I’m irritated by that it’s because it’s self-contradictory and promoted as theologically orthodox – indeed as a necessary replacement for historic orthodoxy.

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