Can God use ateleological processes to meet his aims? – 2

If God is the universal author of natural events in the way described in the previous post (following the position of classical thinkers like Aquinas in denying the univocity of God and affirming his concurrent acton in the world) we would expect that, in their own domain, natural processes should give a complete explanation of events. God is evidenced by such explanations, not by their absence. God acts from within nature. And so they are right who say that it is a wrong approach to look for gaps in knowledge to demonstrate God, for that is to limit God’s activity to the miraculous.

This does not mean, however, that the hand of God is invisible in natural events. To recognise the ordering and purposes of God is not a “God of the gaps” argument, any more than recognising the human origin of a book denies that it was produced by physical means.

To give a more specific example, scientific laws can predict generalities, but as they are abstractions they cannot explain the specifics that make up reality. That suffering Job is born because one sperm in millions fertilises one egg in thousands, from two individuals of multitudes, is a full biological explanation. But it does not explain at all why that particular individual is Job, in his special time and testing circumstances for the enlightenment of the world. Or since Job may well be a mainly literary figure, likewise embryology does not explain how the greatest OT prophet was born 6 months before Christ to his cousin, in fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy and God’s word to John’s father Zechariah. Likewise, natural processes may, perhaps, account for changes in species – but not that certain species, including man, will arise, which is from God’s creative ordering of the world.

And so that is how God may guide evolution, but always (assuming it to be a “natural” process) in accordance with the nature of the secondary causes. If evolution produces its outcomes by physical laws, known or unknown, they are designed by God for that purpose and operate as exactly as he intended (which may more flexibly than we commonly assume physical laws to act).

If it involves what we call chance, we need to understand that chance is random only with respect to our understanding, not to God’s government. As I pointed out recently any statistical distribution implies inherent order, and that even includes quantum events with, apparently, no predictable causation in the material world. I quoted philoospher Ed Feser in that recent post:

Chance presupposes a background of causal factors which themselves neither have anything to do with chance nor can plausibly be accounted for without reference to final causality, so that it would be incoherent to suppose that an appeal to chance might somehow eliminate the need to appeal to final causality.

So in the design of the statistical distribution, and in the events occurring under it, God’s guidance is at work to move all things towards the desired ends, thoroughly consistent with their natures.

I hope that you can see that no natural process can even in principle be either independent of, nor count against, God’s intimate and sovereign control. And the theology on which this conclusion is based is exactly that which deals with core issues of Christianity such as grace and election, answered prayer and general providence.

One thing more needs to be covered, and that is the principle of sufficient causation, which is only of relevance once the foundation of divine action is firmly established. It is not enough simply to assert that God can do anything, as a way of shoehorning divine guidance into a process that one claims to be unguided. As I said in the introduction, that is simply a logical contradiction, unless  one affirms (as I did) that what is unguided at the level of natural processes is actually thoroughly teleological at the deepest level. It follows that if one has a natural theory, its natural mechanisms must be sufficient to produce the observed outcomes reliably. God’s tools of governance must be suited to the goals he sets.  If not, ones theory is either plain wrong, or one is forced re-introduce miracle as the mode of divine action, rather than concurrence.

For example, it has been pointed out that the Lord’s changing of water into wine at Cana used no materials or processes that are not found commonly in nature. But this is a little disingenuous, for it’s equally true that no processes conceivable in nature would ever cause water in household jars to turn into fine wine. To explain it naturally one would need to discover a truly unprecedented theory. In fact one has to accept the miraculous explanation. To say that God could produce the wine from the storage jars naturally, because he is all-powerful, would be as crass as to claim he could make a stone fall upwards by Newton’s law of gravity. That is the level of argument that seems to be used when saying that God can “use unguided evolution” to produce the outcomes he desires (ie he can guide unguided evolution).

But I have presented a standard, orthodox, theology in the last two articles that strips away unwarranted metaphysical claims about “unguidedness” to allow that Darwinian evolution could be guided by God without any denial of its natural mechanisms. Nevertheless one could hold that theology, and yet believe that Neodarwinism’s sufficiency for the job is implausible on evidential grounds. It would be a matter of science, not of theology as such, though one might also doubt on philosophical principles how a system without intrinisic teleology could, in practice, attain so many apparent targets, goals and functions.

In such a case one would have the options of either finding a better natural theory, or perhaps a series of them, or of considering a supernatural element in life’s development. The former is being attempted on a number of fronts nowadays, but seems to require the discovery of wholly new scientific principles in order to suceed. That might prove fruitful in extending science beyond materialism, though in practice it sometimes smacks of a desperate attempt to keep God out of the picture at any price.

The latter ought to be theologically unexceptionable, despite some claims from Analytical Thomists and others to the contrary, since creation itself is still, by definition, a supernatural affair of bringing something from nothing. The question is only whether the succession of species is to be understood as creation, or like reproduction, as a feature of already-created nature.

I’m not sure any Christian has the authority to pronounce confidently on that yet.

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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32 Responses to Can God use ateleological processes to meet his aims? – 2

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    On your last sentence:
    How much authority would any Christian need to pronounce on these questions?
    What kind of authority are you thinking of?

    • Jon Garvey says:


      I’m basing the distinction on “creation” as meaning God’s distinct new action – making something from nothing – as opposed to the usual operation of secondary causes. That would, of course, include “special creation”, but in my view also the endowment of life with new information, such as one might find in progressive creation.

      But secondary causes, albeit in my view always under the providential control of God as to outcome, would include any causes that could be fully described scientifically. So were the evolution of species shown finally to proceed fully via such natural processes, I’d be wary of regarding it as “creation” any more than microevolution or growth should be seen as such.

      Of course, that distinction depends on a “philosophical” definition of creation – as you no doubt know, Hebrew bara has more to do with God’s organisation to function rather than solely ex nihilo, and the word is sometimes used of his creation from something else, eg the creation of Israel as a nation.

      After I’d written that final sentence of the OP, I pondered whether or not it’s correct to regard the birth of a new baby as “creation”, and concluded that within the categories I was using it is not, since procreation is fully within the realm of secondary causes. That said, Catholics would say each “eternal soul” is separately created. And in any case I’m by no means intending to deny that God providentially makes each of us the person we are as individuals. But the ability to “go forth and multiply” was God’s gift of creation – not the ability to create.

      Turning to your specific question, then, I had in mind the lack of authority of the A-T’s I mentioned who might say that evolution, being fully natural (on which the jury is still out), is a kind of generation rather than creation, creation being restricted to the Big Bang or, perhaps, the first life. Or those TEs, who despite regarding Darwinism as “naturally” watertight and undirected to boot, still term it “evolutionary creation“. Or any of us, in fact, who in the absence of a complete theory of evolution presume to say to what extent it’s natural or supernatural.

  2. GD says:


    I will begin my comment by acknowledging that I have continued to struggle with the arguments that seek to include God in some way with what the Sciences provide in terms of insights regarding Nature. Having said that, I am trying to understand the arguments put forward in what is presented as a “science-faith” discussion.

    I have prefaced my remarks in this way so as to encourage a discussions that may center on your statement: :…. in their own domain, natural processes should give a complete explanation of events. God is evidenced by such explanations, …”

    I can understand the initial portion of this statement (natural processes give a complete explanation) as saying science may eventually (or theoretically) provide us with a complete description of nature (in the very distant future), but how would God be evidenced in such an endeavor? Should we seek the exception that when the Sciences reach their ultimate goal, and provide a complete and accurate explanation, we may anticipate some type of statement regarding God?

    I do not think I am pedantic, because I think this may go to the heart of these discussions, which I again restate as “science-faith’. We may adopt a Thomistic-Aristotalian outlook if we wish, to arrive at some type of overall view on causality, efficient causation and final forms, but this in itself cannot completely address the outcomes of the physical sciences. We cannot simply consider the outcomes of science and then automatically make conclusions about humanity, faith, or similar matters – this is the mistake atheists and anti-theists make, and they are motivated by a belief that all is material-physical, and thus they negate all other aspects of the human condition. I am not overly concerned with materialism, but I continue to ponder the notion of theism(s) that seeks something from science regarding faith. I make these comments as a form of enquiry and not as a critique of anything in particular.

  3. Jon Garvey says:

    Hi GD

    Maybe it will help if I suggest that science could never give us an explanation of everything, but only (potentially) of everything scientific, ie the general, abstracted, natural principles on which the world operates.

    If I avoid the currently more obscure world of biology, and pick an area where, perhaps, one might say the science is fairly complete – perhaps Eddington’s hunorous example of an elephant sliding down a grassy slope – one might have a good scientific understanding of the gravity, masses and friction involved; enough to predict accurately where he ends up, and how quickly.

    But the very existence of such scientific laws, as Aristotle and Aquinas after him reasoned, though not using the later “law” concept of course, is evidence for the existence of the lawgiver. And the more functional, beautiful and complex the products of such laws – as any laws behind biology would need to be – the richer the wisdom and power of the lawgiver is shown to be.

    But I went on in the OP to suggest that God is also evident in the specific, significant, events of the real world – such as why that particular elephant ended up sliding down that slope, and who and what was affected by it. We now have a good idea that science is incapable of approaching such questions, not least because its laws are not fully determinative of reality, especially at the quantum level.

    I don’t think I was suggesting that science can show us any more about God than Romans 1 indicates regarding the capabilities of natural theology. On the other hand, if as believers we already accept that God exists, we ought at least to resist the deistic temptation to place scientific explanations outside of God’s governing activity, which means having at least some general concept of how he interacts with the physical world. That, to me, means that one cannot consistently believe that God acts purposefully, and that he does so through undirected processes.

    It is, I suppose, possible to compartmentalise ones mind, and act in the lab as if there is no God, and in church as if there is. But then one is living as inconsistently as those materialists who insist free will is an illusion, but at the same time say that anyone who actually lived by that belief would be a psychopath.

    • GD says:

      Hi Jon,

      I am not suggesting we compartmentalise anything. On the contrary, I am trying to focus on a ‘science-faith’ discussion as part of an effort on my part to try and understand the way science is discussed in this vast area. We agree that if we believe in God, than it is axiomatic that all the creation is from God and it serves His purpose. Perhaps I have taken atheist arguments mixed up with materialists/Darwinists too seriously and am trying to understand something that is not there? It is still a puzzle to me, in that as a scientist I may be expected to try and see God (or His handiwork) in a distillation column or a reaction vessel. I guess the same may be said for someone looking at a growth in a petri-dish, or in a single photon experiment.

      But back to your interesting article – a belief that God acts purposely, as opposed to an alternate outlook. I am suggesting that it is difficult to consider such a statement as meaningful, as I cannot see anything countering God’s will and purpose. So how do we argue that God works through evolution, if we accept the theory is formulated by people who negate within their scientific outlook that God may not act, to use your terms, with purpose (and we may extend it to include design)? Obviously you and I would say it (whatever science provides) serves God’s purpose. In that case, how would we modify a scientific theory (say Neo-Darwin thinking) from the way it is formulated, into a form that can include God’s purpose. I find it difficult to even articulate these things because I sense so many contradictions – but hopefully it continues your discussion in some way.

      • Jon Garvey says:

        In that case, how would we modify a scientific theory (say Neo-Darwin thinking) from the way it is formulated, into a form that can include God’s purpose.

        In one sense, that may be the wrong question, don’t you think? If we’ve restricted science to the general operation of secondary (efficient) causes, as I have suggested here, then a normal scientific theory shouldn’t need reformulationg. Maybe that’s the proper use of “methodological naturalism”, the only difference from modern science being an overt recognition that science is no more of a complete explanation of the world than mechanical engineering is of car ownership. Science may not “do” teleology, but for that very reason it can’t deny it.

        As a believer would nowadays, we’d look at what happens in the test tube and, perhaps, admire how usefully the results help humanity, or perhaps how unexpected a universe with such properties must be apart from God.

        Beyond that, an understanding of divine action by, for example, concurrence, ought not (according to how I’ve been describing things) to change the science, except in terms of recognising there is more to it than the science, much as the understanding and appreciation of literature (or even a Ferrari) goes far beyond the sciences involved in their production.

        Darwinism, however, is not a normal theory – not so much because of the theory itself, but because of the metaphysical talk of randomness, undirectedness, etc, that are by now almost integral to its role in our culture.

        Let’s suppose (by some magic!) it could be shown that orthodox Neodarwinism is indeed a sufficient account of the origin of species. That would be non-problematic theologically. Any problems would come from the non-demonstrable issues like ateleology, which cannot justifiably be part of any scientific theory.

        Also, as I indicated above and in reply to Ian, it would be a nice theological question whether one ought to refer to the process as “creation” or as something else.

        Ian may have a different slant, as he’s been working on an approach to science that starts with God.

        • GD says:

          Hi Jon,

          “….. shown that orthodox Neodarwinism is indeed a sufficient account of the origin of species. ”

          These discussions all seem to focus on Darwin. I will continue – the theory as formulated states there is no purpose or meaning to it all. We may argue any way we choose, but unless someone can modify the theory, it cannot accommodate or include purpose or end result – unless someone can come up with a modified or alternate theory.

          • Jon Garvey says:

            As ever, GD, there is confusion as to whether ateleology is actually a component of the theory or not – people tend to add or subtract it according to their whim at the time. It’s in most of the the textbooks, but not in the formula “breeding surplus to requirements, variation random with respect to outcome, and natural selection.”

            The randomness in that is contentious, because it cannot be proven, but supposing it to be true, it would be compatible with God’s provdential guiadance of the process, since providence applies to chance events.

            But lack of purpose overall shouldn’t be part of any scientific theory, because no science can demonstrate it, even in principle – it’s no more than smuggled metaphysics.

        • Ian Thompson says:

          I have indeed been developing an alternate approach to how God interacts with the nature, and how this relates to laws of nature.

          Basically, I think ‘laws of nature’ are over-rated. Rather, we should start by looking systematically at how effects follow from causes, where causes are built in to the nature of an object such as its dispositions, powers and propensities.

          There is a big movement these days in this direction within the philosophy of nature. See this paper by Stephen Mumford.

          It as theological consequences, as I found also in this paper, and which I develop much further.

          This approach is indeed going back to Aristotle, but not developing him as Aquinas did. Rather, we try to give an ontological significance to powers without subsuming them into either form or matter.

          • Jon Garvey says:


            Thanks for these two links, and especially the Ben Page one, which I found very clear. If we disagree, it’s either on minor issues or I’m bad at explaining myself, for I would endorse the whole thrust of that article alongside my OP.

            For my part, I am, of course, trying to cover the ground in general terms for the range of readers here, many of whom may find the questioning of “laws” novel – not to mention the other things in my piece. For example, clearly my continuing to use “law” terminology having taken an Aristotelian “natures” position is strictly inconsistent, but it still seems to me a useful shorthand for the consistent features of nature in the discussion, given its familiarity.

            I’m not entirely sure what your sticking point with Aquinas is – perhaps you could clarify? Page says he disagrees with Mumford about what Aquinas actually does affirm, but it seemed to me that nothing in Page’s article suggested any problems with seeing powers as an aspect of form rather than anything else. Powers surely aren’t, themselves, efficient causes, so would one have to add a fifth mode of causation to Aristotle’s existing four?

            In any case, Page seems to be singing from the same hymn sheet as I am regarding concurrence – even citing the same authors.

            • Ian Thompson says:

              In fact, I do see powers as efficient causes. That is, powers are another way of describing causes.
              Everything ever caused by an object arises from its powers, either as an action or an interaction. (I think that is only controversial when ‘laws’ are supposed to ‘do the work’).

              My problem with Aquinas, is that I want to distinguish structure from powers. I view structure as what can be determined by looking at something now, and powers as what can be determined only by means of future counterfactuals.

              So size, trajectory, shape, microscopic arrangements, etc are all structure.
              And energy, force, cause, propensity, etc are all power.

              My trouble with Aquinas is that he wants to include all of structure and power in ‘form’. For him, ‘form’ becomes a very general word. It includes causes, shapes, scientific principles, etc. It blurs too many things together. It even, when pushed, includes minds, intellect, spirit, etc. No wonder Feser complains that no-one understands A-T ‘form’ properly. All these things are so different from each other, and should at least be discerned separately.

              (Perhaps you should blog on how you see causes as arising from the A-T framework that consists of ‘form’ and ‘matter’).

              • Jon Garvey says:


                I’m somewhat reassured that my impression that your distinction is intended to rescue efficient causation was correct.

                On the face of it I’m not sure what problems subsuming “powers” under “form” causes, The AT framework having lasted many centuries and having a good number of adherents today. Or for that matter whether dividing them might not cause more. But I’m neither philosopher nor scientist enough to pretend to understand all the issues; I’ll have to give it more thought and read around.

                Even so, we’re agreed, I think, that the way out of the rather unsatisfactory concept of natural laws leads back in the direction of Aristotle, and that also reintroduces finality/teleology, and makes room for a strong doctrine of providence. I’m happy to be flexible beyond that (indeed I have little choice, because it’s above my pay grade).

            • Ian Thompson says:

              Here is an example of Michael Denton using ‘form’ from Aristotle to do all sorts of wonderful things.

              • Jon Garvey says:


                I’m not qualified to pontificate on this question of efficient causation, but it seems to me one that Aquinas dealt with quite thoroughly, and also with reference to God, for example in his Second Way, the argument from motion.

                Is not the whole question of potency and act the issue of how things actually happen as opposed to being possible (owing to the “tendencies” of form)?

                So to him, for efficient causes to be separate (autonomous?) “powers” within substances would suggest the illogical situation of a thing causing itself. That’s why he argues back to God as as the First Efficient Cause of every event, or the finger that pushes the system to bring about change (which in his terminology is “motion”).

                In so doing one has the idea of God as pure Act “reducing the potentialities” inherent in form to actualities, which in turn become secondary efficient causes doing the same thing down the causal chains that science studies.

                Although the terminology is mediaeval, that all makes good sense to me – but I can’t get my head round the idea of “powers” as a type of causes separate from formal natures. What is their specificity, if not form? How do they act at particular times and not others, if not ultimately caused by God, apart from panpsychism?

              • Edward Robinson says:


                Could you elaborate on that last comment? It’s unclear whether you are praising or blaming Denton. In what sense do you see Denton as a genuine follower of Aristotle, and in what sense as departing from Aristotle? I ask this because Denton is a thinker I have spent much time on, and I like to understand how different people interpret him.

  4. GD says:


    The discussion with Ian is very interesting; I want to make this comment in the hope that the discussion may continue to include the role of human reason in all of this. The dynamics of any natural system would be the same whether these were, or were not, understood – even if one were to think to conform to such dynamics. Science attempts to provide explanations or descriptions believed to encompass the universe. A ‘law’ as something that may be considered as arising from reason applied to an object is unnecessary. It may appear, however, that ‘mega-knowledge’ is sought to enable a human being to attain to a complete understanding of the phenomena and its objects, and this may provide an intellectual perception, or inference, that objects behave according to some principle; or, objects are required to be as they are by a ‘something in their being-ness’.

    I suppose I would question the notion of metaphysics in this activity, mainly because it is a continuation going back millennia, and thus it builds on previous outlooks, perhaps taking with it previous errors. As an alternative, can we believe that there is something yet to be discovered by human reason which may provide a mega-explanation of the Universe, and in this way reconcile knowledge that we regard as scientific? My remarks are derived from a belief all of this may be consistent with the intelligibility of the Universe, or its accessibility to human intellect (obviously a theistic outlook).

    • Jon Garvey says:


      I note that the modern tendency, especially among scientists, to disregard metaphysics is partly a rejection of classical metaphysics as if it were the entire subject, and partly a failure to recognise that they have replaced it with an unrecognised metaphysics of their own, which has many problems.

      As Ed Feser never tires of saying, metaphysics is the foundation that makes any physics (or other knowledge) possible, so it’s just a question of which metaphysics is adopted. Ideally it would be that which is most rationally coherent and able to account for phenomena.

      For example, to study causes in science one first needs to decide what a cause is. As the last exchange between Ian and I shows, not only are questions of form and finality, excluded by modern science, still vitally important, but even the nature of efficient causation, the stuff of science, is open for discussion – and especially so if we wish to give God his due as Creator and Governor.

      I’d like you to expand on the non-necessity of law in your first paragraph. Clearly “law” is a human metaphysical conceptualisation of nature’s regularities, to which there are alternatives, such as the broadly Aristotelian “natures” in the two articles from Ian. The latter has several advantages – I’m struck anew by the “externality” of the law concept, which creates problems of logical consistency and even more for concepts of divine rule (I now see why it’s said to tend to occasionalism, and why that’s not good).

      Behind either concept, however, is whatever the actual truth about such regularities may be. There is no guarantee that it’s accessible to us, but given a theistic belief in a high degree of intelligibility, we’re right, I think, to feel our way towards the most useful and reverent explanation possible.

      In the meantime, given the weakness of post-Cartesian metaphysics, and the paralysis that would result from any serious attempt to eliminate metaphysics, I’m all for building on the “last good configuration”, and I think classical metaphysics covers more bases than anything else.

      • GD says:


        “..I’d like you to expand on the non-necessity of law in your first paragraph.”

        Before we can have any discussion on a scientific law, or laws of science, we should begin by obtain an answer to the question, :What is a law of science?”

        This is an area that is in itself discussed and questioned. I do not think that regularities will suffice, since that is what such things are, making observations and noting any regularities.

        I am not advocating doing away with metaphysics – simply pointing out that the present discussion on laws of science may not be clearly understood within metaphysics that I may understand – this does not mean that philosophers should not labour on this subject. A mega-knowledge that hopes to find a fundamental principle of Nature however, is one that some scientists, such as myself, imagine as a possibility. Perhaps your outlook may include a hope for such an outcome – however I do not see how Aristotle would help us.

        • Jon Garvey says:


          Purely personally, I don’t expect the discovery of a single principle within nature to explain nature… God being the only such principle, and beyond nature (and finally inscrutable to us).

          And as I wrote in a recent post, not only the likes of Thomas Kuhn suggest a final theory of everything to be impossible, but some mathematical treatments recently suggest it’s logically impossible.

          The question “what is a law of science” is the one that’s being addressed in the articles Ian linked. Ultimately it’s a human metaphysical category, and so not even ultimate since one can do without the concept completely and still have science.

          • GD says:


            I detect a hint of circularity in your statement, but let that be, my suggestion does not deal with a theory of everything, nor a scientific statement that subsumes laws – I am thinking more along the lines that particle physics bring to us, in that underpinning everything may be something that science may yet discover (such knowledge would imo be mega knowledge as it would provide the principle component of the creation. It would be from this that we may be able to say science now brings us closer to theological statements such as God is the prime mover, or the cause of all causes.

            • Jon Garvey says:

              Yup – just as fine tuning and the big bang tend to confirm them.

              The empirical problem is that “ultimate building blocks” tend to reveal endless new labyrinths, so we might well find that fine tuning, big bang, and ultimate components all disappear in the light of an ever greater reality, and science remains provisional.

              Separately from those empirical approaches, though, I find myself questioning whether there mustn’t be some limits to the intelligibility of the universe in principle.

              Children of Adam are, after all, limited beings even if bearing God’s image, and earth, not Everything, is our proper realm before Christ comes.

              Equally, if one is (analogically speaking) trying to trace everything back to the second cause, God alone being above scrutiny as the first, it seems intuitively likely that there are a good number of causative levels beyond our capacity to comprehend before we reach the limits of human science.

              In other words, I’m grateful that God shares his wisdom with us, but believe he retains much for himself and the angels.

              • GD says:

                No problem Jon – I tend to question and enquire things from science – I am more careful when considering theological statements, for the obvious reason that I am not a theologian.

  5. Ian Thompson says:

    As we read above (from Feser), metaphysics is the basic set of concepts needed for science, so we certainly be not timid when considering these questions.

    I agree that the parts of metaphysics are like grains of sand that keep moving relative to one another, and we rarely have a strong foundation to build on. Instead, we need rock. Rock is just sand grains joined together. (Not a new pair of metaphors, of course!) We need a strong framework of metaphysical concepts that have been joined together. That is, we have to think logically about what can exist and persist and act and interact. We need to make clear ideas about structure and form and substance and action that all fit together as much as possible. Inconsistencies must be avoided at all costs, and paradoxes should be repelled.

    The person who tried to do that properly was Aristotle, so we come back to him as if to a starting point. However, we need to use Christian insights about the importance of love and wisdom in daily action even for God: that takes us a little away from Aristotle’s ‘pure intellect’. This means we cannot avoid theology either.

    It continues to surprise me how many people’s different ideas about nature derive from their different ideas about God. Cornelius Hunter frequently reminds us “Religion drives science, and it matters”.

    (Did you realize Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy was driven by a desire for the survival of his son who died in WWI? Whitehead was not successful there, but it influenced his mature system in Process and Reality. How differently are Christians going to proceed?)

    • Edward Robinson says:


      I had not heard that story about Whitehead. Does Whitehead actually admit to this, explicitly, or is it something some biographer inferred? It’s actually a pretty major charge, to say that one of the most celebrated philosophers of the first part of the 20th century developed a metaphysical system, not out of love of theoretical truth, but because of personal turmoil about the death of a loved one. I’d want to see some pretty strong documentation before I would accept such an interpretation.

      But supposing it’s true, if Whitehead wanted a guarantee that his son would live on, why did he not embrace traditional Christian faith? I guess Whitehead had some respect for parts of Christianity — I think he spoke highly of the Gospel of John — but from what you are saying, he did not think that Christian claims were adequately grounded to guarantee individual survival. Can you clarify your remarks, by telling us more about Whitehead’s religious views?

      Also, note that above, I asked you a question about your remark on Denton. You may have missed it, and there is no “reply” link after it, because the space has become too skinny.

      • Ian Thompson says:

        Saw it! You asked: “Could you elaborate on that last comment? It’s unclear whether you are praising or blaming Denton. In what sense do you see Denton as a genuine follower of Aristotle, and in what sense as departing from Aristotle? I ask this because Denton is a thinker I have spent much time on, and I like to understand how different people interpret him.”

        I think that Denton does not really know the source of the constancies of biological forms that he sees so often. He does not classify himself as a theist, so he sees Aristotle as a source of some ideas which may be useful for solving that problem.

        Denton talks approvingly, therefore, of “Aristotle’s notion of forms as active agencies in nature, responsible for the generation of the particular set of biological forms or types manifest in life on earth.”

        My issue with this kind of explanation is that he is following Aristotle too closely. This explanation makes ‘form’ into a ‘active agent’. To modern ears that sounds very strange: how can a ‘form’ or ‘shape’ be an ‘active agent’? That strangeness is made more difficult when we read Aristotle’s ‘formal cause’ as ‘what characteristics does an object have?’ Where is the active agency there?

        Only in Z.17, 1041a9 do we have “substance is some sort of principle and cause …”. But even there it is not ‘form’ which is the causal principle. It is, as Denton also says, a “underlying ground plan”. I agree. A ‘plan’ and ‘form’ are in the same metaphysical category.

        In Aquinas, however, ‘form’ aka ‘substantial form’ became a fully fledged causal principle. I now disagree. A ‘form’ and a ’cause’ are NOT in the same metaphysical category. That is because form-as-structure is static and of itself has no consequences for the future, in strong contrast to causes.

        That is, Denton is reaching back into the A-T philosophy, but in doing so he makes visible the conflicting meanings of ‘form’ in that philosophy. (Of course, we can always just attribute to ‘form’ all the meanings given in the A-T tradition, as Feser does, but you thereby risk too many inner tensions.)

        • Edward Robinson says:

          Denton has from time to time referred in a loose way to ideas as “Platonic” or “Aristotelian”. I have the impression that he does not have a very detailed grasp of either the Platonic or the Aristotelian corpus, but does correctly see that their notions of nature are quite different from the purely mechanistic idea of nature found in modern thinkers (Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, etc.); and, seeing the flaws of applying the approach of such modern thinkers to evolutionary theory, he turns back to the Greeks in search of notions and terms that might help to construct a better evolutionary theory. I do not think he intends his remarks as exact scholarly exegesis of Plato or Aristotle, but rather to note that Plato and Aristotle provide some suggestive points of departure that are very helpful in breaking the spell of Darwinian thinking.

          I think that what he is driving at (and is still in the process of working out for himself) is a view of life in which something that we might call “form” is actually an active principle, not simply a passive description. When we say that a picture depicts the “form” of a cow, we mean something passive — the shape of the cow as an inert thing that can be transferred to a picture or statue. But for both Plato and Aristotle — in different ways for each thinker — the “form” of something is not something passive but something active, something which gives reality and effectiveness to a thing. I see Denton as trying to say something like that, and to apply that conception to evolutionary theory. This is perhaps less clear in the article that you cite than in some of his other writings.

          In his recent articles in BioComplexity he discusses the difference between the “adaptationist” or “functionalist” (i.e., Darwinian) school of evolutionary theory and the “formalist” school. He points out the differences between the thought of adaptationists such as Coyne and Dawkins, and formalists such and Gunter Wagner and Stuart Newman. He himself identifies more with the “formalist” school, though I suspect that his view, when it reaches its mature form, will go beyond anything Wagner and Newman would care to assert.

          I will not say much about either Feser or Aquinas, except this: I am not convinced that Aquinas is as close to Aristotle as Feser seems to think he is, and I am not convinced that, where the two (Aquinas and Aristotle) differ, that the advantage is always on the side of Aquinas (as I think Feser believes). But my study of teleology (and related ideas) in Aristotle is far from complete, so I won’t at this point make any strong claims.

      • Ian Thompson says:

        About Whitehead, it is clear (here in footnote 7) that Whitehead was deeply affected by his son’s deaths.

        I recollect Whitehead’s view that death is necessary to actualize fully an individual’s life as an element of “the all-inclusive experience of God’s becoming”, but do not have the original reference.

        Here: North and Jessie were of the opinion that Eric’s death was behind their father’s turn to theism.

        However, I do not have the precise source for the connection of these things with his desire for survival of bodily death. Not yet, anyway.

        • Edward Robinson says:


          Thanks for these references. I read most of the long article. Very interesting. However, there is a misfit between what you are now saying and what you said above. Here you speak of Whitehead’s son’s death as connected with Whitehead’s “turn to theism.” But a “turn to theism” in itself doesn’t produce any particular philosophy, and above you said that there was a connection with his philosophy, and specifically, with Process and Reality. Your original claim sounded very much like: “Whitehead’s philosophy as expressed in Process and Reality was essentially a response to the death of Whitehead’s son in the First World War.” And that may be the case, but neither the footnote nor the essay you have linked to establishes such a connection.

          I’m far from denying that events such as the death of a loved one can have an impact on a thinker’s thought. What’s not clear to me is that Whitehead’s process approach to philosophy was a product of his grief over his son’s death, i.e., was in some sense his way of coping with his son’s death. I’ve never heard this claim before. And from a statement in the article about Whitehead’s undergrad philosophical activity, it seems that he leaned toward a Heraclitean view of nature long before he had any children and long before WW II. One possible logical development of Heraclitean thought would be process philosophy, and it’s not clear that any personal loss of the philosopher would be necessary for that development.

          Further, it’s unclear to me how Whitehead’s process philosophy would be very consoling. Even Whitehead’s God changes over time, so it is hard to see how Whitehead’s son would survive in any recognizable form under process philosophy. Indeed, it seems that the essence of process philosophy requires abandoning all hope of “survival” as Christians (and religious people generally) have understood the notion. The most logical emotional reaction to the death of one’s son in the First World War would be to throw oneself back to one’s early religious beliefs (Whitehead after all came from a family of clergymen) and console oneself that one’s son was now in the bosom of Christ in heaven and would live forever in blessedness, not to adopt a philosophy that somehow his son’s scattered atoms, or perhaps his son’s deeds during his life, would contribute as tiny factors to future states of the universe, and therefore that in some sense his son lived on. Of course, in making this latter point I am moving a little away from the strictly religious-biographical realm and moving into a more general critique of the adequacy of Whitehead’s philosophy, but I don’t think the comment is unfair, given that your original assertion was (or seemed to be) that Whitehead developed process philosophy primarily as a coping mechanism to handle a personal grief.

  6. Ian Thompson says:

    This started out by a remark that very often our ideas about nature are influenced by our ideas about God. I still think that that is true in in the case of Whitehead’s “Process and Reality”, and that he would freely admit that.

    After all, it is “Materialist Dodge 12: You are motivated to believe by your sub-rational desires; but not I”.

    I here use ‘influenced’ rather than ’caused’, and I think you agree with that. My earlier “driven by a desire” is probably too strong. And, as I said and you now agree, “Whitehead was not successful there”.

    • Edward Robinson says:

      I agree that ideas about nature are often influenced by our ideas about God. (I think the reverse is often the case as well: many people are convinced that God cannot exist, based on the conception they have in their minds of how “nature” works.)

      As for Whitehead, I agree that his process philosophy is not successful, but I have always thought that, for reasons beyond its failure (which we agree on) to solve his grief problem. From a theological point of view, I don’t think it can do justice to the traditional conception of God, and I think it leads to the same problems regarding providence, sovereignty, etc. as “open theism.” Of course, for Whitehead that might not be a problem; I don’t think he felt any obligation to be orthodox. But for those theologians who have tried to make use of Whitehead, it does become a problem, because theologians (usually, anyway) have confessional ties and therefore are not free to affirm something about God which follows from process philosophy but clashes with revelation or authoritative tradition.

      I would be interested in any comments you may have to offer regarding my response on Denton.

      • Ian Thompson says:

        What you say about Denton agrees completely with what I have read from him and thought of as his method.

        Of course, I think he would be in a much a stronger position in the long term if he allowed himself some input from theism and the role of the ‘image of God’. But that is a issue that many more than just him have yet to resolve.

        • Edward Robinson says:

          In *Nature’s Destiny* his portrait of affairs is somewhat Deistic; he speaks of design, and he even characterizes the study as lending support to natural theology. He seems to be imagining God (rarely named as such in the book) as the programmer of the cosmic evolutionary program. In his more recent articles the God-suggestive language seems to have receded. But supposedly he has a book in the works, so it will be interesting to see, when it comes out, how pronounced the language of God, design, intentionality, natural theology, etc. is.

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