The nerve of some people

In this thread at BioLogos, which I think was a spin-off from a remark of Eddie’s (but it was all so long ago) I spent some posts trying to field the difference between a theistic God, who is immanent in his world, and a “deistic” God (put in scare quotes to avoid pinning this view to all aspects of historical Deism) who sets the world up to run under its own steam. I didn’t really touch on the incoherence of the post-deist Evangelical attempt to have ones cakes and eat it by “allowing” God to answer prayer but not act within nature – as if the two are separable. Along the way I posted this quote from a philosophy of religion site on the difference:

In its more specific sense, theism usually describes a classical form of monotheism which conceives of God as personal, all-powerful and active in his involvement in the world. Such a definition includes traditional Christianity and has been the most common focus of philosophical enquiry.

In contrast to this, the seventeenth century saw the emergence of a rational attitude towards God that became known as deism. As the explanatory power of science increased, thinkers began to trust less in church authority and more in reason and observation of the natural world. To a deist, God is merely the grand architect of the laws of nature: he does not interfere in the world but allows nature to develop according to those laws. As a result, deists reject any form of revelation such as miracles, prophecy and scripture.

So, although I developed some of the ideas I’ve been exploring here recently on chance and providence, the basic thrust was to make a simple distinction between a God who guides outcomes through special providence, and one who uses only general providence through “natural laws”. That is a distinction that’s utterly conventional in theology, and closely associated with Deism v Classical Christianity, as my piece this May on Wesley shows.

Now, in response to my posts there was partial agreement, some disagreement, certainly a good deal of confusion (such as George Brooks’ persistent failure to see the weaknesses of the Deist division of the world into “natural” and “miraculous”). I guess I’m not surprised by that – and to be frank a lot of it has to do with totally inadequate teaching on theology, or even on the Bible, in Evangelical churches. But it’s all the legitimate stuff of discussion.

What was, in the big picture of Origins Culture Wars, more interesting was the sheer animus against the idea of a God of providence amongst several BioLogos regulars. Some of that might be down to neo-McCarthyist paranoia about the Intelligent Design Movement. I dared to suggest to “Beaglelady” that a good range of views on “The Nature of Nature” could be gleaned by the massive symposium of that name by Bruce Gordon and William Dembski, prompting her to conclude that, by such unhealthy reading, I demonstrated my lack of interest in mainstream science! The Christadelphian Jonathan Burke even asked who had put me up to writing my posts, claiming on questioning that he had nobody particular in mind… maybe it’s routine to ask people who’s pulling their strings where he comes from? But the suspicion must be that he assumed I am a sock puppet for some anti-social elements like the Discovery Institute. (“I am not now and have never been a member of the Discovery Institute.” Ah – but he would say that, wouldn’t he…)

There was much more of the same on this thread – when I cited the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (Scripture, Reason, Church Tradition and Experience) for my views, it drew the accusation that that sounded like Calvinism – tell that to George Whitefield! Some of the usually more vehement posters were, I believe, absent from this long thread, but in similar conversations, again what comes across is the anger at the very idea of somebody positing an active God, not just disagreement.

Now, apart from seeing IDists under the bed, I’ve been around long enough to have seen some other explanations for this. When ID is in question, of course, Bad Science is blamed for their ire in addition to its undermining Democracy and the American Way. That and “insisting on persistent miracles”, for which this quote from Michael Behe, posted only today, is relevant and typical:

But how could biochemical systems have been designed? Did they have to be created from scratch in a puff of smoke? No. The design process may have been much more subtle. It may have involved no contravening of natural laws.

But even outside the ID Aunt Sally, providence in evolution has been angrily attacked at BioLogos for being Fundamentalist, for being Calvinist, for making God the author of evil, for suggesting Pantheism or even for being supported by white male Evangelicals (yes, really!). That’s one reason I’ve made a point in the past of dredging up the views of Catholics, Wesley and Arminius, and so on, in order to show that providence has always been a mainstream doctrine of the Church (a view with which Jon Burke vehemently disagrees – one of us must be wrong).

But none of these “it’s not the theology, but the implications of the thing” triggers to Evolutionary Creationist wrath really seem to hit the mark. In a group not noted for deep theological or philosophical reflection, they sound more like excuses than real justifications for wrath. Put it this way – BioLogos commenters have coped quite easily without being angered by Thomas Jay Oord’s attempts fundamentally to redefine the nature of God. Original sin has be denied and it scarcely attracts comment. Most people politely agree to differ on such matters, in the spirit of concord BioLogos fosters. But mention that “chance” may not be a viable concept in a truly theistic evolution, and one becomes a pariah – and it seems to be on the grounds that this undermines science.

Now, it’s Deism that came up with the philosophically dubious idea that God cannot violate the laws of nature. But this isn’t really the issue – at least, if one is not blinded to the limitations of science and of the laws it describes. As you’ll know if you’ve read the previous few posts on “chance”, I contend that you cannot invoke laws to explain contingent (chance events): or else they would be predictable, and in violation of the only scientific definition of chance. Chance then, whilst it does not lie outside the experience of nature (and can be observed by scientists), is properly speaking outside the realm of scientific explanations.

Chance can never be a cause of anything because it is not a thing, but just an acknowledgement of incomplete knowledge of causation (and, as I reminded one poster on the BL thread, probability distributions do not determine events either – it’s events that determine probability distributions).

Maybe one example may be added here: a social scientist measures preferences for different brands of cars, or cookies, and produces a probability curve. He may truly predict that n percent of some similar population will own VWs, but the probability caused nothing whatsoever of itself – everything was down to human choices, which might quickly change when news of fiddling the fuel consumption emerges, probability functions notwithstanding. Chance is not a cause – but God might very well be a cause of “chance” (to us – to him it’s about choice) events – and he need not violate any scientific law, because laws are about the predictable things; though there are good scientific and philosophical reasons for disbelieving the Deist insistence on exact and inviolable laws anyway.

Despite all this, I have a strong suspicion that it is providence’s undermining of the irrational idea that chance is a real cause, especially in evolution, that brings out the accusations of “anti-science”. Since I happened to see it today, another quote from the Michael Behe article already cited may speak to this, and give me a chance, as a TE, to use a scurrilous source quite shamelessly. Here is Behe’s quotation of one of his scientific detractors:

The Way of the Cell, published last year by Oxford University Press, and authored by Colorado State University biochemist Franklin Harold, who writes, “We should reject, as a matter of principle, the substitution of intelligent design for the dialogue of chance and necessity (Behe 1996); but we must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical system, only a variety of wishful speculations.”

Now, on what overriding principle should design be rejected in favour of chance and necessity, when only necessity (in the form of natural laws) is a coherent causal entity in the first place? And why would that be a principle binding Evolutionary Creationists too, who believe in God and – from the majority evidence of the “Deism” thread – that God directs the ends of evolutionary events (through chance and necessity, bizarrely)? I’m not really sure – perhaps others can enlighten me. But unless it’s just swallowed uncritically from materialist scientists, perhaps it appears to be more consistent with methodological naturalism (though it isn’t, for that has everything to do with repeatable causes, and nothing to do with uncaused contingencies).

But it’s not clear why, outside the laboratory, somebody questioning naturalism as a complete explanation should make anybody calling themselves Christians angry. Does not such disgruntlement only belong with metaphysical naturalism – which amounts to nothing but scientism? I can understand why a New Atheist would prefer to reject a real but transcendent cause – God – and retreat into the only thing left, a metaphysical nonentity called “randomness”, charitably given some scraps of clothing by scientific ignorance of particular causes. The stubborn atheist, after all, has nothing else to rely on if science does not uncover everything about nature.

But the special providence of God, to the Christian interested in science? What is in the least objectionable about that, unless one has some motive for keeping the Living God within safer bounds? Why should they scowl and say, “You’ve got a nerve – suggesting that God actually governs nature!”?

To close, here’s the actual source of the title of this piece in a song by the unique Richard Thompson, which captures, I think, albeit with completely different subject matter, the aggression both of the objector to providence – and the anger of those of us who find turning the other cheek doesn’t come so easily.

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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5 Responses to The nerve of some people

  1. Noah White says:

    Hi Jon,

    Great post here, and much needed after that headache of a thread at BioLogos. It’s a veritable witch hunt over there sometimes.

    I think you’ve mentioned in the past that if Neo-Darwinism is true (even though there are reasons to doubt it, re: Shapiro, Morris, etc.), then it would be feasible (and our job!) to reconcile it with orthodox views of providence. In that situation, would it be simple as seeing God’s hand where science can only observe (epistemological) randomness? Put it another way, could a TE evolutionary biologist still talk in Neo-Darwinian terms (in order, say, to keep things religiously neutral at a public university) and talk about chance and necessity? I hope that question makes sense; it’s clear in my head but difficult to articulate.

    Dr. Swamidass is an interesting voice in this discussion, because he’s made strong assertions of God’s guiding providence, while (if he sees this comment, I ask him to correct me where I’m wrong!) still seeming to be largely dismissive of ID as a whole (however he does it respectfully, and with much grace, I might add). I’m not quite sure how much he agrees with the Neo-Darwinian paradigm vs. EES.

    It’s a topic that’s got me pretty confused lately, as I don’t like ID from a scientific standpoint at all, and I haven’t seen anyone from that camp really appeal to what you’re appealing to. I respect your desire to take the good and dump the bad from ID, even if it makes certain people think you’re a proponent!

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Noah

      The beauty of an orthodox view of providence is that it enables science to be genuinely independent of theology (in the sense that Augustine or Calvin, say, were at least in theory indifferent to what science showed). It will suit any changes in evolutionary theory as they happen, and be untroubled even were evolution itself sokehow disproved.

      I came into the origins discussion in 2010 with that assurance, and was probably more sympathetic to Neodarwinism then than now, having read more now (I’d call it woefully incomplete, rather than “wrong” as such – the significance is that it’s the only theory that seems to manage without teleologival implications). But the scientific issue is completely orthogonal to the question of God’s government.

      Chance and necessity, then, is fine – so long as one also has an absolutely clearcut realisation within oneself that “chance” MUST = “scientifically unknown causation” and never any more, when speaking as a scientist. The problem is that, whilst it’s fine to speak habitually in two distinct categories (the scientific and the theological), the big danger is that if most of your discussion is in the “neutral” scientific area which only includes chance as indeterminacy, rather than as including God’s providence, you are likely to end up slipping into that mindset.

      I think that’s what happens at BioLogos – the very place where it should be commonplace to keep the two viewpoints (that of God and that of created things) in productive tension.

      If I read Joshua right, his beef is against the quality of science of ID, though occasionally I’ve seen him lapse into “There! No design necessary” or even “ID a danger to civilization” statements. But for a scientist to have opinions on the science is utterly valid. My aim is to point out and insist on the epistemological limits of science and show that God’s governance is, at least as far as one can tell, outside them.

      • swamidass says:

        Hey Jon and Noah,

        I think Noah gets my position correctly. I do entirely affirm God’s providence and also am partners with you in countering the false presumption that evolution challenges this.

        With cause, I am largely dismissive of ID science but work very hard not be dismissive of ID people. One frustrating pattern I experience with ID advocates is simultaneously an insistence that they are taking a scientific position (without theological undertones), followed with accusations that my theology of rejecting God’s providence and action in this world is the reason I reject ID. This of course absurd, because it totally misrepresents my theology: I affirm God’s providence and action in this world. This betrays, to me, a strong undercurrent of (incorrect) theology and presumptions undergirding ID.

        Fundamentally, even though we know that God is purposeful in nature, why do we have the presumption that modern science can uncover this purpose? This presumption seems reasonable, but ends up being wrongheaded based on the God I seem to find in Scripture.

        I think this is one reason that bad science can be so “sticky” in many ID circles. If it supports their theology, it is acceptable, regardless if it is good science.

        Any ways, I do take some issue with Jon’s characterization of my position. When have I said that “no design is necessary?” Please point it out where I have said because that is false, and I need to correct it. Where have I said that “ID a danger to civilization”? Once again, that needs to be corrected. Rather, I have said that ID is a totally ineffective and counterproductive way of influencing the scientific world. It is also dangerous for science students, implanting a poison pill in their careers. This is a far cry from calling it a “danger to civilization”.

        Jon, at times I think we disagree on the science, but I do not see our positions as that far off at all.

        Also, I understand your frustration in this post too. Some of the “regulars” at the BioLogos forums have been a bit unanchored lately. But let’s remember, most of them are neither affiliated with BioLogos or are well-known contributors to the dialogue. To this point, I’m not sure why you care so much about their position in this.

        I think you would agree that much more coherent and tenable positions have been given by people actually associated with BioLogos, like (for example) myself. I think amplifying the message of those with whom you agree AND who are officially connected to BioLogos in an effective strategy for making your point.

        Don’t sweat the random people on the internet ;).

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          Joshua, thanks for this. I’m gratefully aware of our agreement on fundamental matters. I’m also happy just to accept correction on the misstatements of your position – it would be difficult to find the instances I was thinking of, and scarcely productive when you’ve already corrected any misinterpretation.

          I won’t re-state the negative issues around debating with the “movers and shakers” at BioLogos – ie that over several years, they’ve mostly been unwilling to engage for long, if at all, with the issues I’ve raised (issues about science-faith, that is, not issues about them as people).

          But the only reason I still consider it important to dialogue with “loud but insignificant” voices there (hmm – that would describe me!) is that thousands of people trying to resolve their science with their faith will go to BioLogos for help as the first port of call: “Theistic Evolution is Us” would be an apt strapline for BL.

          Over the years I’ve come across various people experiencing crises of faith over matters like those on this post, who have been intimidated by people – some speaking with the authority of professional scientists – suggesting that it’s their faith that needs to change to accommodate some rather deistic view of science with God in the periphery.

          Sometimes the dominant message seems to be, “Ditch Adam, original sin, biblical infallibility, traditional theories of atonement, historical creation doctrine, providence and divine sovereignty and you can be a good Evangelical and in line with mainstream science, too!”

          To return to actual associates of BioLogos briefly, the issue above isn’t helped by the extant EC spokesmen’s literature and their stated positions. So BL’s co-founder karl Giberson rejetcs original sin, its first theological adviser Peter Enns rejects inerrancy in fact if not in name, Lamoureux rejects Adam, Polkinghorne and Falk see God’s sovereignty as a problem, Jim Stump rejects universal providence, Kathryn Applegate appears to see chance as an actual cause…

          Not a few times the fact that I’ve provided counter-arguments to those posting such views and recommending those books has led to personal communications and a deepening of their faith in relation to science.

          Besides, if I make positive arguments there in the hope of making Evolutionary Creation a more solid discipline, I get more readers than I do here!

        • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:


          Some observations, if I may.

          First, I think you may sometimes perceive that your own personal views are under attack when, in your presence, some commenters are attacking “EC” or “BioLogos.” I think it is important to realize that quite often people are criticizing *general tendencies* of ECs or of BioLogos, and don’t have your *particular* version of EC in mind.

          I am not saying this with you alone in mind. I have often found that when I offer a characterization of EC argument which I have seen in several EC leaders (e.g., I might have seen arguments for something strongly resembling Open Theism in Falk, Venema, Miller, and Polkinghorne), even if I carefully qualify it as the view of only “some” ECs, and even if I never name any BioLogos-ECs specifically, someone like Brad or Christy may jump in and write in a peeved tone, as if I was attacking them personally and imputing a view to them personally. But when one is referring to a frequently-offered view or argument, one is not imputing it to all individuals. I might rightly impute a general tendency to Republican politicians, but it would not follow that I was accusing *all* Republicans of having that tendency.

          If someone says “most ID proponents do not accept common descent,” I don’t bristle. I don’t take the comment as a false statement of my own views. It’s only if someone says — as Jonathan Burke and beaglelady have both said at various times — that *I* reject common descent, that I feel *personally* offended, and it’s only if someone says (as many have over the years) that “ID rejects common descent” that I am offended on behalf of my colleagues, because the statement is not true and lumps together unlike positions among the ID folks. But as long as someone indicates clearly that he is observing a general tendency and not attacking me personally or ID monolithically, I don’t get my back up. But sometimes on BioLogos I find that people get their backs up when I criticize third parties, as if the criticism is aimed at them.

          As for a particular charge which you say ID folks have made against you, i.e.:

          “accusations that my theology of rejecting God’s providence and action in this world is the reason I reject ID.”

          I cannot comment on it, as I don’t know where and when such a charge was made. The only thing I can recommend in such cases is that you address the particular person who makes the charge, and as soon as possible after the charge is made, and in the same venue, so that everyone can read your correction.

          “Fundamentally, even though we know that God is purposeful in nature, why do we have the presumption that modern science can uncover this purpose?”

          The word “purpose” is ambiguous. It can overlap in meaning with “design” but it usually is not a synonym for design. Generally speaking, ID people avoid the claim that they can detect God’s “purpose,” and limit themselves to trying to establish design.

          For example, one might argue from their external shape and construction that the Pyramids are “designed” without having any clue to their “purpose” (which might be to house the body of a Pharaoh, or to aggrandize the Pharaoh through the size of his monument). ID methods would be incapable of inferring any purpose for the Pyramids, but they would not be incapable of establishing that the Pyramids were designed. Similarly, if I found a strange device on Mars with carefully interconnected gears, springs, etc. and some sort of pointer arm and scale, I could prove that the device was designed in such a way as to cause the pointer arm to move along the scale, even though I might not be able to ascertain the purpose of the device (clock? barometer? etc.).

          So I don’t think any ID people are saying that we can determine God’s “purpose” in the typical sense, e.g., “Why did God allow Hitler to murder so many innocent people?” ID people are saying that we can determine, e.g., that some mind intended molecules to be brought together to form the first living creature. That is not the same as saying that we can tell what that living creature was *for*. We cannot answer the latter question using the methods of ID; but we *might* nonetheless be able to establish by ID methods that the first living thing was designed and not the product of happenstance. It is that more limited claim of “design detection,” not the grander claim of “purpose detection,” that ID people engage in.

          “This presumption seems reasonable, but ends up being wrongheaded based on the God I seem to find in Scripture.”

          It would be wrongheaded if anyone claimed to be able to look at a natural object and from it determine God’s plan for Israel or why God allows suffering etc. Scripture makes clear that God’s purposes are usually hidden from us and revealed only in retrospect. But it would not be wrongheaded to claim to see design in nature, since many passages in Scripture clearly indicate that God has designed parts of nature. And it would not be surprising that if God designed nature, that human beings with their God-given intelligence might be able to detect the design in at least some cases.

          Certainly I have never seen Behe claim to know the *purpose* for which God created any species. The closest ID proponent to affirming purpose would be Denton, in *Nature’s Destiny*, where he suggests that the goal of the universe is to generate intelligent self-conscious beings capable of knowing themselves, and nature, and their origin in nature. But even there, he is really only speaking about design. He is not saying *why* God would have wanted there to be intelligent beings; he is saying only that the fundamental laws of nature and fine-tuning etc. suggest *that* God intended the universe to produce such beings. That is nothing like pretending to know God’s purposes in the Biblical sense.

          Beyond this, I will add only that I concur with the main points in Jon’s reply below.

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