Asa Gray and methodological naturalism

The American botanist Asa Gray was, probably, the very first Darwinian theistic evolutionist, in that he was in correspondence with Darwin for years before the latter’s theory was published, and as an orthodox Congregationalist had discussed with him the theory’s theological implications. I recently discovered an online link to the body of Gray’s writings on evolution, Darwiniana, and thought to do a post in relation to current discussions on methodological naturalism.

Asa_Gray_1864However, reviewing the piece  I did on Gray in a series on the early theistic evolutionists in 2013, I see that it covers many of the points I’d intended to make, so I’ll point you to that post first, and then take it a little further here. Now, as back then, I’m struck by the fact that Gray makes a much more persuasive case to doubtful Christians for theistic evolution than BioLogos seems to achieve nowadays, and there are specific reasons for that, in my view.

Darwinia is fascinating in a number of ways. Some of it responds to theistic critics like Louis Agassiz, the brilliant biologist who, preferring a theory of the direct creation of successive Platonic forms (compatible with the minimalist “change over time” definition of evolution, incidentally!), was convinced that evolution inevitably entails atheism. It’s worth noting, as an aside, that this belief did not make Agassiz’s scientific work any less credible or important.

Some of the other pieces in Darwiniana review the theory scientifically, and favourably for the most part – though it’s interesting that Gray has no hesitation in pointing out the weak spots, rather than (as so often nowadays amongst Evolutionary Creation people), defending the theory against all criticism. For example, he points to Darwin’s own admission that the fossil record did not reflect his gradualistic scheme, questioning if the paucity of the record is really sufficient to account for this situation. The last 150 years have not changed the anomalous palaeontology, and indeed the evidence has given increased weight to Gray’s doubts: the matter was of course brought to a head in Eldredge and Gould’s punctuated equilibria theory – though that seems not to have dampened the general enthusiasm for genetic gradualism, in the absence of evidential support for Darwinian phenotypic gradualism.

Another criticism, still as valid now as it was back in the nineteenth century, and more relevant to theistic evolution, is what Gray regards as a profound scientific incompleteness in Darwin’s theory – its lack of explanation of the variation that gives rise to improved forms and, especially, new organs: the still-contested question of “arrival of the fittest”. This problem, he saw, was not merely due to lack of knowledge. In his time, variation was a complete black box, with no awareness of genes, mutations and the like. But he correctly saw that, in the likely event that the efficient causes would be uncovered, it would only put the question one step further back, and would not by any means explain the accumulation of increasingly sophisticated organs and forms and systems:

Finally, it is worth noticing that, though natural selection is scientifically explicable, variation is not. Thus far the cause of variation, or the reason why the offspring is sometimes unlike the parents, is just as mysterious as the reason why it is generally like the parents. It is now as inexplicable as any other origination; and, if ever explained, the explanation will only carry up the sequence of secondary causes one step farther, and bring us in face of a somewhat different problem, but which will have the same element of mystery that the problem of variation has now. Circumstances may preserve or may destroy the variations; man may use or direct them; but selection, whether artificial or natural, no more originates them than man originates the power which turns a wheel, when he dams a stream and lets the water fall upon it. The origination of this power is a question about efficient cause. The tendency of science in respect to this obviously is not toward the omnipotence of matter, as some suppose, but toward the omnipotence of spirit.

One suspects that neutral evolution would would have made him even more certain of his ground. Note that, to Gray, the question of any origin is external to science proper, as regards efficient causation: yet he is also confident that “the tendency of science” is towards theism, not atheism. He is aware of the distinction between scientific and philosophical matters, and to that extent is cognisant of methodological naturalism – Darwin’s science stands or falls on the evidence, he says, and must be distinguished from Darwin’s theological inferences, which are open to grave question. Yet he is quite clear in his argument that the epistemic “gap” he describes is not due to lack of scientific investigation, potentially open to further research, but to science’s intrinsic epistemological limitations. He would regard science’s current attempts to explain the origin of life – or even the origin of individual organs – as (in today’s terminology) scientism, especially if voiced by those identifying as Christians.

In other words he is much better educated about where science should stop and philosophy must begin than most TEs now – let alone most secular scientists. Compare the above to what I reported here about a radio exchange between Stephen Meyer and TE Keith Fox (then leader of CiS, the British equivalent of the ASA):

…having repeatedly suggested that Meyer’s position on the origin of life is in essence a God of the Gaps argument, Fox suggests that in years to come we will know a lot more. “We’re inferring events billions of years ago that may have been a fluke event,” he says. He responds to Meyer’s subsequent question about the role of God in this fluke by affirming that God would be behind it. “But there’s nothing irrational or unscientific about it.”

Gray would, on intellectual principle, disagree with Fox. This brings us to the main reason that Gray gives a much stronger defence of theistic evolution against the charge of atheism than is common nowadays, and that is because he is not at all afraid to embrace the concept – and the very word – of design. In the context of evolutionary variation, as in the overall pattern of evolution, he is absolutely adamant that chance (understood ontologically as undirectedness – he is quite clear about differentiating that from the colloquial, epistemological sense of “unpredictable to humans”) is logically incapable of producing innovations. Whether these arise by saltation or, as in Darwinian evolution, gradually makes not a whit of difference: the criterion for the inference of design (his own term) is the purposeful structure and function of the completed change:

Take the formation and the origination of the successive degrees of complexity of eyes as a specimen… [I]f… we may rightly compare the eye “to a telescope, perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects,” we could carry out the analogy, and draw satisfactory illustrations and inferences from it. The essential, the directly intellectual thing is the making of the improvements in the telescope or the steam-engine. Whether the successive improvements, being small at each step, and consistent with the general type of the instrument, are applied to some of the individual machines, or entire new machines are constructed for each, is a minor matter. Though, if machines could engender, the adaptive method would be more economical; and economy is said to be a paramount law in Nature.

The origination of the improvements, and the successive adaptations to meet new conditions or subserve other ends, are what answer to the supernatural, and therefore remain inexplicable. As to bringing them into use, though wisdom foresees the result, the circumstances and the natural competition will take care of that, in the long-run. The old ones will go out of use fast enough, except where an old and simple machine remains still best adapted to a particular purpose or condition — as, for instance the old Newcomen engine for pumping out coal-pits. If there’s a Divinity that shapes these ends, the whole is intelligible and reasonable; otherwise, not.

Gray is aware that he is not making a strictly scientific argument here. But he is also insistent that he is making a rational argument that should be heeded by scientists. It is not that nature is ambivalent on design – that God is hiding himself – but that design is self-evident, and that the attempt to explain it apart from a Designer is not “reasonable” and makes the world unintelligible. In fact:

In our opinion, then, it is far easier to vindicate a theistic character for the derivative theory, than to establish the theory itself upon adequate scientific evidence.

Asa Gray, then, considers that Darwinian theory is more obviously theistic than it is scientifically true! I note that he doesn’t, like so many modern critics of design, go round the houses about the impossibility of discerning design without knowing about the designer – like Aristotle and Aquinas before him, he need only recognise the purposeful structure and function of the completed change – all of which are things regularly discussed in science. In drawing such conclusions, he is not even very far from following the probability arguments of ID, minus the mathematical detail:

So the issue between the skeptic and the theist is only the old one, long ago argued out — namely, whether organic Nature is a result of design or of chance. Variation and natural selection open no third alternative; they concern only the question how the results, whether fortuitous or designed, may have been brought about. Organic Nature abounds with unmistakable and irresistible indications of design, and, being a connected and consistent system, this evidence carries the implication of design throughout the whole. On the other hand, chance carries no probabilities with it, can never be developed into a consistent system, but, when applied to the explanation of orderly or beneficial results, heaps up improbabilities at every step beyond all computation. To us, a fortuitous Cosmos is simply inconceivable. The alternative is a designed Cosmos.

In questioning the hints that Darwin gives of his own feelings on the matter in his book, Gray writes:

But there is room [here] only for the general declaration that we cannot think the Cosmos a series which began with chaos and ends with mind, or of which mind is a result: that if, by the successive origination of species and organs through natural agencies, the author means a series of events which succeed each other irrespective of a continued directing intelligence — events which mind does not order and shape to destined ends – then he has not established that doctrine, nor advanced toward its establishment, but has accumulated improbabilities beyond all belief.

He is happy and relieved to observe, later, that Darwin seems (however sincerely we may only conjecture – it was dropped in later editions) to avoid that path:

As these sheets are passing through the press, a copy of the second edition has reached us. We notice with pleasure the insertion of an additional motto on the reverse of the title-page, directly claiming the theistic view which we have vindicated for the doctrine. Indeed, these pertinent words of the eminently wise Bishop Butler comprise, in their simplest expression, the whole substance of our later pages:

“The only distinct meaning of the word ‘natural’ is stated, fixed or settled; since what is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent mind to render it so, i.e., to effect it continually or at stated times, as what is supernatural or miraculous does to effect it for once.”

There is much more in Gray’s work that could be cited, but I’ll finish with a long quote summarising what he has to teach ECs about the mode of God’s activity in the world – which actually covers all the options discussed within Intelligent Design. Note that this is about efficient causation, which surely must have some bearing on the scientific matter in hand:

There are, perhaps, only three views of efficient cause which may claim to be both philosophical and theistic:

1. The view of its exertion at the beginning of time, endowing matter and created things with forces which do the work and produce the phenomena. [Hump note – this is Deism, rather than Theism: it also includes ID’s “frontloading” hypotheses]

2. This same view, with the theory of insulated interpositions, or occasional direct action, engrafted upon it — the view that events and operations in general go on in virtue simply of forces communicated at the first, but that now and then, and only now and then, the Deity puts his hand directly to the work. [Hump note – this includes both the “progressive creationism” of Agassiz and the “interference” of which ID is habitually accused: but also Russell’s pejoratively-termed “statistical Deism”, the dominant position in the current theistic evolution he critiques, though the latter tends to limit “interpositions”, arbitrarily and rather grudgingly, to biblical miracles]

3. The theory of the immediate, orderly, and constant, however infinitely diversified, action of the intelligent efficient Cause. [Hump note – this includes our own Classic Providential Naturalism]

darwinianaIt must be allowed that, while the third is predominantly the Christian view, all three are philosophically compatible with design in Nature. The second is probably the popular conception. Perhaps most thoughtful people oscillate from the middle view toward the first or the third — adopting the first on some occasions, the third on others. Those philosophers who like and expect to settle all mooted questions will take one or the other extreme. The Examiner inclines toward, the North American reviewer fully adopts, the third view, to the logical extent of maintaining that the origin of an individual, as well as the origin of a species or a genus, can be explained only by the direct action of an intelligent creative cause. To silence his critics, this is the line for Mr. Darwin to take; for it at once and completely relieves his scientific theory from every theological objection which his reviewers have urged against it.

At present we suspect that our author prefers the first conception, though he might contend that his hypothesis is compatible with either of the three. That it is also compatible with an atheistic or pantheistic conception of the universe, is an objection which, being shared by all physical, and some ethical or moral science, cannot specially be urged against Darwin’s system. As he rejects spontaneous generation, and admits of intervention at the beginning of organic life, and probably in more than one instance, he is not wholly excluded from adopting the middle view, although the interventions he would allow are few and far back. Yet one interposition admits the principle as well of more. Interposition presupposes particular necessity or reason for it, and raises the question, when and how often it may have been necessary. It might be the natural supposition, if we had only one set of species to account for, or if the successive inhabitants of the earth had no other connections or resemblances than those which adaptation to similar conditions, which final causes in the narrower sense, might explain. But if this explanation of organic Nature requires one to “believe that, at innumerable periods in the earth’s history, certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues,” and this when the results are seen to be strictly connected and systematic, we cannot wonder that such interventions should at length be considered, not as interpositions or interferences, but rather — to use the reviewer’s own language — as “exertions so frequent and beneficent that we come to regard them as the ordinary action of Him who laid the foundation of the earth, and without whom not a aparrow falleth to the ground.”


I conclude by asking why Asa Gray could be so clear and forthright in proposing a happy conjunction between cutting edge science and thoroughgoing Christian orthodoxy, when current TEs seem to leave so much in doubt. A big reason is that he did not feel himself obliged to distance himself from an Intelligent Design movement – indeed, he was happy to endorse the compatibility of evolution directly with William Paley’s approach to natural theology.

He might, perhaps, have agreed with many TEs that ID’s insistence that design arguments are “science” is a category error… but I suspect he’d have considered that a trivial matter, given his easiness with engaging Darwin’s theological insertions in The Origin of Species and his own conviction that the science points to theism. He might also have been shocked at just how entrenched atheistic ateleological metaphysics has become even in the scientific literature, as well as the educational system and in popular culture, despite its philosophical untenability (in his view); and he might well have understood why ID felt constrained to join the fray within science, rather than just in philosophy or theology.

But he would also have been shocked at the extent to which ateleological ideas had infiltrated theology itself, and especially amongst those claiming to be “theistic evolutionists”. The idea that God created Nature to be in any real sense “autonomous” would have struck him as leading either to practical atheism (consider the “weak God” theology of Thomas Jay Oord recently showcased on BioLogos), or to panentheism (which was the position of Arthur Peacocke and other TE theorists who originated “open process” theology). Perhaps his advice to BioLogos would have been the same as his advice to Charles Darwin (with the additional factor that he would have been speaking to avowed Evangelicals, rather than a troubled agnostic). To paraphrase:

To silence its critics, this [third view] is the line for Evolutionary Creation to take; for it at once and completely relieves their scientific theory from every theological objection which its critics have urged against it.

Over to you, guys – or else you can just keep lobbing bricks at Ken Ham’s ark and accusing ID of undermining society, and see where it gets you.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

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

  1. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Another interesting column, Jon. I hope some of the folks at BioLogos will read it. And not just at BioLogos, but in the ASA. A number of ASA folks are inclined to pit Gray against Hodge, and to say that Hodge got Darwin wrong, whereas Gray got Darwin right. But in fact, Gray and Hodge are not polar opposites, and Gray and Darwin were not in 100% agreement. It’s true that Gray saw more theological potential in Darwin’s theory than Hodge did, but that doesn’t mean Gray gave carte blanche to anything Darwin or Darwinians might say.

    I wonder, though, whether Gray wasn’t too easily mollified by that quotation at the beginning of Darwin’s second edition. The fact that Darwin affixed such a quotation doesn’t in itself prove that the *thought* of the second edition is any different from that of the first. Indeed; it’s my understanding that the changes to the second edition were relatively minor. The addition of the quotation may well have been only an exercise in public relations on Darwin’s part.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Eddie

      I think that since Gray was in personal correspondence with Darwin over an extended period, he had a pretty shrewd idea of where he was coming from spiritually. I therefore take his public comments as both affectionately protective of Darwin and needling him to get off the quasi-atheist bandwagon… maybe what you or I might say to someone whom we profoundly disagree with at BioLogos in public, rather than more direct things written in private comms.

      I think Gray was right about the theory leaving design untouched, wary of its propensity to become (as it did) an excuse for institutionalised atheism, and trying to steer between, and ameliorate, the voices at both ends saying “Evolution is atheistic – reject the theory” or “Evolution is atheistic – reject religion.” Nothing unfamiliar there, then.

      Your mention of Hodge is interesting – perhaps you or I should do something on Hodge v Warfield: I read something useful about their attitudes to evolutionary theory recently, but forget where. They were actually in substantial agreement about “how the world is”, but in the end their difference boiled down to the same argument we have today (eg with “Deliberate Result” at BL”).

      Warfield saw the theory as science, and saw the metaphysical additions as needing to be carefully distinguished (maybe like Joshua Swamidass). Hodge saw the theory as so enmeshed with metaphysical assumptions in practice that one had to reject it and start again.

      Gray seems to stand with Warfield – Agassiz I’m not sure about as I’ve not read him. Gray attacks him on his metaphysical errors, but it’s possible (I suppose) that, like Hodge, Agassiz got those errors from Darwin and saw them as more of a stumblingblock than Gray did.

      I conclude that any theory whose metaphysical implications have been so difficult to distinguish from the science for 150 years had been loaded well beyond what any scientific theory should bear.

      • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

        Hi, Jon.

        You may be right about why Gray made the remark in question; it may have had a more diplomatic and less theoretical character than I had assigned to it.

        I like your last paragraph. I tend to think that Darwin wrote in such a way as to practically invite responses like those of Hodge. Metaphysical and scientific arguments often blur together in the Origin .

        And of course, when Darwin makes statements to the effect that he sees no more direction in the course of evolution than he sees in the way the wind blows, it is again easy to wonder whether the “scientific theory of evolution” doesn’t slide seamlessly into a metaphysical statement of anti-teleology. The TEs will try to rescue such statements by saying that science can’t *see* any direction of evolution, but with the eye of faith we can recognize the plan of God. But if that’s the case, then the TEs should not be reticent, when speaking *as people* (not as scientists) to say what they think the plan or direction of evolution is, whether all species were intended, or only some, whether man was intended, or only some higher intelligent being, etc. Yet they *are* reticent to say what they think on such matters — which would seem to indicate that they are not sure (even thinking purely as religious believers) how much teleology — if any — there is in evolution. But why would believers in the omnipotent and providential God of the Bible have reason to doubt that God is in control of the entire evolutionary process, and hence of all its detailed outcomes?

        One gets the strong sense that the Darwinian mechanism which they endorse doesn’t leave much room for planning and directionality in evolution; and that conclusion about evolution, if true, almost crosses the border between science and metaphysics. I think it is for this reason (i.e., because of the way Darwinian evolution supposedly works) that some of them won’t say, for example, that mice or elephants specifically were intended by God. But why should they be afraid to do so, if they are speaking from the point of view of faith, and not as scientists? Why can’t someone like Venema say outright, “Yes, I believe that God ensured that the evolutionary process would produce mice and elephants?” But you will never see him, or any biologist at BioLogos, put things in that way. This suggests that the ironclad separation they pretend to maintain (between science which cannot speak of teleology in evolution, and personal faith which can) is much harder to maintain than they suggest.

        Thus, when they accuse Hodge of confusing metaphysical add-ons to evolution with the scientific theory itself, their statement doesn’t quite ring true. If the two were really so easily separable, they wouldn’t be so dodgy and evasive when asked their *personal* (i.e., metaphysical) views on how many of the results of evolution God actually intended and determined. They would be able to say something like: “As a scientist, I cannot provide an account of evolution which would make the arrival of mus musculus inevitable; but as a Christian, I believe that God intended and ensured the existence of mus musculus, and not some other species.” Yet they won’t say things like that. They *do* let the science of Darwinian theory influence the possible metaphysical conclusions about God’s plan that they allow themselves to draw. The biology doesn’t live in some separate compartment from the theology (as they make out), but restricts theological possibilities. So was Hodge wrong about Darwinism after all?

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          So was Hodge wrong about Darwinism after all?

          That seems to be a purely human question to me: Gray makes a good case that the theory only really works with divine teleology involved (as have philosophers like Etienne Gilson, to whom the idea of a truly blind search for new organisation is incoherent).

          And he also demonstrates (and as, we agree, TEs concur) that any metaphysical assumptions by Darwin himself are not science and therefore not relevant to Christian responses to it.

          So really, it’s futile asking whether purposelessness is intrinsic to Darwinian evolution, because if it were, you could change it so it wasn’t. The question, then, is why so many TEs choose, to a variable degree, not to change it – to ignore both Hodge’s warnings about the entwining of the metaphysics with the theory, and Warfield’s or Gray’s reassurances that metaphysics can, and should be, teased out and discarded as mere atheism/Epicureanism.

          Personally, I still place the problem deeply in the current sociological grounding of theistic evolution. If you’ve followed Thomas Jay Oord’s contribution to the recent BioLogos thread (in which I also mention Gray), he not only poiunts out he was on the Advisory Board of BioLogos (which I’d not realised), but reels off a list of big names who, to a disputable degree (disputed, but only in detail, by Ted Davis!), share his open view of God. Most I’ve “outed” here and on BL before – one or two were new to me.

          But as I commented to George, Open Theism is something of a distinctive of “Evolutionary Creation”, uniquely amongst the Christian origins positions currently on display. Where it is not openly embraced, its ideas are sympathetically treated: several “likes” for Oord’s comments on the non-omniscience of God, for example.

          Including Oord, it’s notable just what proportion of BioLogos people have run into problems with their Christian Academic institutions. Responses have included regrets at the stifling of academic freedom, and a vibe that it’s all because these conservative colleges are simply anti-evolutionist and wedded to Creationism.

          But it does look a lot more like the theological Openness that causes the damage: after all, John Walton suppports evolution and remains in excellent standing at Wheaton, and the same is true of many others. It appears also to be lack of academic offence at the heterodoxy of Open Theism that brings out the professors in support of sacked colleagues rather than Christian institutions. But they damned well ought to be offended by it, because it makes God increasingly indistinguishable from Zeus, especially if (as Oord says) he did not create ex nihilo and is therefore, himself, a contingent being like the Greek gods. And contingent beings may well, like the prophecy about Zeus in the Prometheus myth, be dethroned.

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