Critiquing bits of BioLogos

How Hegelian! The pained responses to the unfairness of the large ID book critiquing Theistic Evolution has led to the clearer exposition of the various views within BioLogos that some of us have been calling for for years. This piece was drafted before Eddie’s recent post, which nevertheless arises from the same observation of self-examination within the organisation. I particularly recommend reading the discussion on this thread, and the clear theological and metaphysical water between, say, Ted Davis and Jim Stump there. In this piece, though, I want to examine one particular view presented by BioLogos president Deb Haarsma, not so much in her own recent “defence” piece, as more generally elsewhere.

Given the now more acknowledged disparity of views amongst ECs, it is clearly more productive to critique individual positions, or even individual claims, rather than “the BioLogos position”, which is actually shown to be a range of frequently incomplete, and sometimes incompatible positions. So I’m focusing here on the idea that God creates, at the “physical” level, entirely through natural law. So Jim Stump, defending against the charge that God becomes superfluous if science offers a complete explanation of evolution:

It might be fair to say that my theological assertion that God intentionally created humans in his image is “a useless explanatory appendage” from the perspective of scientific explanation. It is not doing any scientific work. But then Ockham could be brought in only if we say that scientific explanation is the only useful kind of explanation. Is it useful in other ways to affirm that humans are intended creations and not accidents? I think so, and refuse to recognize science as the ultimate authority on the question of human nature…

Another thought on the plane example: lift and thrust may offer a complete explanation of one aspect of what allows the plane to fly. But wouldn’t you want to say there are aspects to this question that need other kinds of explanations? There are paying customers who allow the plane to fly, and their intentions for travel. And there are laws and regulations that allow the plane to fly. Are these useless explanatory appendages?

The assertion that science has limitations is good, but there are, I think, several weaknesses in his argument (such as that laws do not make a plane fly, but careful design to exploit those laws). Yet it explains why, although Francis Collins wrote:

Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required. (Language of God, p200),

still Deb Haarsma was:

disheartened to see the definition of theistic evolution used in this book:

“God created matter and after that did not guide or intervene or act directly to cause any empirically detectable change in the natural behavior of matter until all living things had evolved by purely natural processes” (Grudem, 67).

Haarsma proceeds to clarify her position thus:

In brief, the yes/no nature of the question sets up a false contrast between “God guided evolution” (assumed to mean God acted in miraculous ways outside natural mechanisms) and “God did not guide evolution” (assumed to mean God is completely absent). Those assumptions leave no place for God to act in regular patterns that he designs and sustains and that we study scientifically (emphasis Jon’s).

So the first thesis I want to look at is that, at the material level, natural law is a sufficient explanation for life, as God “acts in regular patterns that he designs”, his direction nevertheless being entirely hidden to science. A second thesis, stated elsewhere rather than in Haarsma’s recent article, is like a codicil to this – that God also “uses chance” to the same end. Thus the full picture of the actual process she endorses appears a re-statement of Monod’s “chance and necessity.” It’s not surprising if God’s hand is invisible in this.


Let’s take the first aspect alone to begin with: that God has wisely created laws of nature capable of achieving all that we see in life. Now there is already an accepted word in science for evolution determined by law, and that is orthogenesis. Unfortunately, this was the very position, in various forms, overturned by the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis around the 1920s, and as yet it has only been tentatively reasserted by various Third Way proponents like Denis Noble, and IDists like the structuralist Richard Sternberg and the more thoroughly orthogenetic Michael Denton. Orthogenesis is denied by mainstream science as a major component of evolution, and its proponents haven’t really been prominent at BioLogos, if mentioned at all.

So, evolutionary order built into natural law is in fact only the old orthogenesis, in theological form. This was Lamarck’s underlying conception (separate from his more famous views on the influence of environment, which he believed determined variation), and it was also the prevailing view early in the 20th century. It is compatible with deistic views of divine action, but it is Anti-Darwinian and, more importantly, has little current support from science. Lawlike self-organisation at the level of life’s complexity has not yet been found to occur (despite Loren Haarsma’s recent support for it), for it is an entirely different thing from the structural order found in snowflakes, which is demonstrably controlled algorithmically by a few simple laws and parameters. It is doubtful, therefore, if “natural law” can actually carry the explanatory load of evolution, especially when held with an idea of divinely determined specific outcomes.


So we may now turn to “chance” as conceived by, say, Kathryn Applegate. ECs seldom define chance closely, as they ought (as Eddie Robinson points out in his recent post here). Scientifically, it merely means “of unknown cause”, and with the probable exception of quantum events (which despite Robert J Russell and Ted Davis, have not yet been shown to be of major significance in the direction of evolution), is assumed in conventional science actually to resolve completely into the laws of nature, were our knowledge sufficient – as God’s of course, must be. In other words, an EC recourse to such “chance” is logically only a restatement of belief in the scientifically suspect orthogenesis, with a nod to human ignorance. Worse, it is actually a recourse to physical determinism, for if there are no “God shaped gaps” in the causal chain, then the fixed, simple, laws of nature explain everything in nature in a machine-like way – that includes whatever nature produces in physically naturalist scheme, including human “free-will”. Do we really want to go there?

The only simple way out of this mechanistic view, it seems, is to consider ones “chance” as being “ontological”. That is, not only are the causes of mutations, or whatever, unknown to us and undetermined by organisms, but they are unknown even to God and undetermined by him.

If they were, as some like Francis Collins have suggested, foreseen by him though not designed by him, then the word “chance” is being misused: if I always know how the dice will fall, then I cannot be playing a game of chance at all. But more fundamentally, such a view of chance is Epicurean – ie chance is being conceived as a cause independent of the Creator’s or anyone else’s will, and therefore, by very definition, undetermined by him. It is therefore simply a matter of logic that God cannot “create” purposefully using such chance: undetermined determination is an oxymoron. Historically, Epicureanism has always been the main opponent of theism – it is doubtful how any attempted synthesis of the two might work.

Furthermore, where ontological chance is added to law, orthogenesis cannot exist, because the lawlikeness is diluted by the randomness. That is fine for pure Darwinism, where the future is considered to be open ended, but will simply not work for the kind of directed theistic evolution that seems to be de rigeur (now, at least, “openness theology” having being apparently quietly removed from the BioLogos table during the loyal toasts). The Epicurean view underlies Darwin’s approach to evolution in his more atheistic moments: given random variation and natural selection, progression to perfection must occur – you’ll have read that kind of argument made frequently elsewhere by atheists. His theory was a way of making Epicureanism plausible, which is why it makes atheism intellectually respectable. But it has no need of God – for by definition, it is independent of God. And it has no need, either, of laws of nature – nor can it have any plausible mechanism for complying with them above the quantum level. Given random variation and a selecting environment, we are told, evolution will happen – the laws can take the day off.

Whatever “mystery” one summons up when ones explanations hit the buffers in linking “natural causes” to God’s intentions, in Evolutionary Creation divine causation must still follow the Aristotelian pattern of final, formal, efficient and material causation, or mean nothing at all. If God has any purposes whatsoever (final causes) in evolution, he must create the efficient means sufficient to fulfil them, rather than something else. Orthogenesis (by natural laws) might be sufficient as a theological construct, but is not what happens according to current scientific evidence, and it is in any case necessarily deterministic (being the “necessity” pole of Monod’s scheme).

Adding chance, if ontological, actually deprives God of the sufficiency of natural laws to fulfil his will. There seems no inherent reason why ontological randomness, when added to natural laws already deemed inadequate by scientists for orthogenesis, should make them adequate to the task of creating the biosphere. On the contrary randomness, even if it can be said to exist in the real world, is always understood as disrupting organisation. For example, to draw on Loren Haarsma’s analogy, pit a chess grand master against an infant, and the skills of the former will be entirely obviated by the cluelessness of the latter. Chess games cannot include randomness. Even if that randomness should somehow comply to the rules of chess, no great games will result. Games require strategies as well as rules.


Theism is the belief that there is a God acting imminently in the world, as well as transcendently as ultimate Creator. That is God’s character, and not just his methodology under certain circumstances. To be the theistic First Cause is to be the efficient cause of every causal chain. The means by which God can conceivably act in the world are logically limited, in a way that no mere recourse to “mystery” can bypass. To return to Jim Stump’s example:

Another thought on the plane example: lift and thrust may offer a complete explanation of one aspect of what allows the plane to fly. But wouldn’t you want to say there are aspects to this question that need other kinds of explanations? There are paying customers who allow the plane to fly, and their intentions for travel. And there are laws and regulations that allow the plane to fly. Are these useless explanatory appendages?

No, they are not useless – but none of them explains the efficient causes of a plane’s ability to fly. Natural laws of lift and thrust don’t do so, apart from Boeing’s design and manufacturing expertise. And the final causes of customers and the legislative framework likewise are no substitute for Boeing – and yet, in practice, their presence will be no more or less visible than the signs of material design in the physical world than the aircraft itself.

The ways God can actually act would appear to be these:

  • He can create uniformly acting laws, or less theoretically, uniform patterns of events from which we deduce laws – they might equally arise from secondary natures, or from the direct acts of God himself. But in fact they are not causes, but descriptions of the regular effects underlying events. Laws do not explain contingency, as the early modern fathers of science recognised when they insisted on empirical experiment.
  • He can act miraculously by suspending or counteracting laws to enact change. Whatever else they are, miracles imply efficient causation in the world that is not predicted according to natural laws.
  • He can create de novo, acting either entirely ex nihilo or by the transformation of existing entities. This differs from miracle in not being a change, but an addition to the universe of new information. Yet this, like miracle, does not occur through the operation of natural laws, but still produces new chains of, visible, efficient causation – the newly created firmament separated the waters physically and permanently, and the transformed wine at Cana could make you drunk.
  • He can guide circumstances providentially through concurrence or, according to occasionalists, because he is the only true cause anyway. Providential activity works within the framework of established laws, but is an action upon it from outside the created realm, in terms of efficient causation. This, in fact, might mirror the aeroplane example: without Boeing and a pilot, all the natural laws in the world will not result in flight number 263 obeying laws of nature.
  • He cannot act through chance, if chance is conceived of as anything other than human ignorance of cause. For Epicurean, or ontological, chance would be a matter, by very definition of causelesness, divine ignorance and independence from the divine will.

Now, having attempted to show that there is not only no visible “gap,” but no actual locus, for God to direct evolution in the way Deborah Haarsma describes, I need to suggest where he does act, and why his action is, apparently, not visible to science.

The divine gift of regularity (ie laws of nature), I don’t dispute as divine action. In fact, I’m probably more sympathetic to true orthogenesis theories than BioLogos has show itself to be. But there is still lack of evidence for law’s sufficiency to explain all evolution, and if it were sufficient, it would still be a mechanistic and deterministic model. It was the need to explain unexpected contingency, remember, that made science choose experiment over reason – and contingency was attributed to divine choice in early science.

But what if scientists – including theistic evolutionists – are clearly observing the hand of God in directing evolution, but misinterpreting his designing government as something else? That something else, it should come as no surprise to regular readers, is the “Epicurean ontological chance” which Darwin, Monod and many TEs seem to accept by faith, despite its being the metaphysical opponent of theistic Christianity. And since such ontological randomness is neither an entity that science has discovered, nor is even supported by conventional scientific fundamentals (remembering that the quantum level is largely, if not completely, irrelevant here), then there seems no reason for Evolutionary Creation to pay any regard to it except as a myth to debunk. It cannot be a legitimate part of a theory of theistic evolution.

One final thing. I have challenged people, on the BioLogos thread, to provide an adequate justification for believing that evolution must depend on “natural causes”, in the form of laws and chance, at all. What’s wrong with God acting as immanently in nature as they confess he does in daily human life? One common but less-than-satisfactory answer is the appearance of chanciness in biological processes. Why would God make mutations look random if they are actually designed?

That this is an illusion caused by a metaphysical error (Epicureanism) I have explained above, but let’s tackle it head on. I attempted to debunk this approach here, but a more straightforward reply might be simply to point out that virtually all design inferences relate to completed products, not manufacturing processes. Historically that’s been how theologians worked, including the Bible writers teaching that God governs the course human events – individual episodes look messy, but the total history of Israel (for example) shows God’s undeniable oversight. You don’t explain the Lord’s sovereignty in bringing Paul to Rome by looking closely at the natural causes of the storm, but by seeing the whole picture, as is Luke’s purpose.

I’ll illustrate this with a clip of someone whose TV art I grew up with, now sadly disgraced for sexual misdemeanours. Yet I can think of no better example of how events which appear to be random are actually art – and that is a far cry from saying that random events could ever produce art.

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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