Losing God through noise

I’m not sure what it is about Evolutionary Creation and aversion to natural theology, but it is exemplified by a current thread on BioLogos entitled “A theological argument for the impossibility of proving God by science.” The general position – stated by a number of people apart from the original poster – is that it’s presumptuous to try and reveal God from science if he chooses to keep himself hidden.

The underlying assumption there is that God wants to remain hidden behind nature, and the target, of course, is the Intelligent Design Movement, since for some reason EC itself has moved away from the Victorian TEs’ strong promotion of natural theology and thrown in its lot with the later Huxleyan secularists. Except, that is, for cosmic fine tuning arguments for God, which are still quite popular with ECs, or were in 2012  – though there have been more recent threads on BioLogos criticizing them on conceptual and theological grounds, especially the dreaded “God of the Gaps”.

Perhaps the most subtle statement of the argument, replying to the obvious rejoinder of Romans 1:20, was this:

Paul says that God’s nature, as seen in nature, is so clearly seen that we have no excuse not to believe in Him. That was written to people who had never heard of, “science”.

By trying to prove God by science, IDers are telling skeptics, “why should I believe in God, even Christians admit there is no evidence for him so are trying to prove him with science.”

The biblical way to prove God is for authentic Christians to be faithful, shining, living examples of Jesus Christ.

On this basis, he says ID is “fruitless, counterproductive and, in the end, anti-biblical.” Strong stuff – but open to question, not only with reference to ID, but to the whole long and fruitful history of natural theology.

In the first place, as I have said often before, I’ve not come across any ID writer who wanted to prove God through science. Reading William Dembski just today, I find he’s happy if he can demonstrate teleology, and strongly denies that there is any way to distinguish external teleology (let alone divine) from intrinsic teleology. Inasmuch as any ID people hope that demonstrating design by science is possible, all deny it is a route to proving God, not least because science does not do proof, as they rightly affirm.

No, the stated project of ID from the start was to undermine the grip of metaphysical materialism both on the scientific intellect and in the wider culture, a significant point to which I’ll return after looking at the above argument a little more closely.

The argument above seems to say that because Romans says God’s existence is obvious from nature, the need to delve into the esoteric world of science to demonstrate it to skeptics is an admission that God isn’t obvious from nature, and Christians are scraping the barrel for evidence. I have to say that sounds a little like the Babel fish argument against God to me: if God is so incontrovertibly to be revealed through creation, why are there so many skeptics to convince in the first place? The answer is, of course, that Paul explains the blindness as well as the perspicacity if you read on.

But throughout the thread there seems to be an overblown conception of what science is, in the context of Romans 1:20, which speaks of the eternal power and divine nature of God being clearly understood through “what has been made.” In this, Paul clearly has in mind the comparison of natural revelation with scriptural revelation made in, for example, Psalm 19. A man looks up, observes the heavenly bodies and appreciates their scale, and also experiences the power of the weather and the cycle of the seasons, and recognises their maker as God. This is simply the empirical study of nature through the senses, and science is nothing more than that, done with careful methodology. Science is merely a special case of observing nature.

Ancient astronomers, like the literate people who wrote psalms, studied the stars more closely than an average village-dweller, in order to make predictions for agriculture or rituals. A molecular biologist is doing nothing fundamentally different – he observes in the biological sphere rather than the astronomical, and in more detail, that’s all. And if God’s power and divinity are shown at that level as much as by the ordinary activity of looking up at the sky, why should not that also be brought to our attention?

You’d think sometimes that the problem is that to many people who are well-versed in the sciences, the closer they look the less there seems to be evidence of God. To the layman, the world looks designed, but get up close, and you see through the illusion. They seem not to understand just how much that is a by-product of their materialistic methodology.

Just take one example, prompted by my recent reading of Demsbski on the matter of chance, which reminded me of an exchange over at BioLogos a while ago. I was told that, if God were to “intervene” in “chance” processes in nature (either mutations or quantum events, I can’t remember which), it would either mess up the statistical distribution governing them, or he’d have to do it subtly and secretly so as not to reveal his hand in this way… ergo, he keeps himself carefully hidden if he acts at all.

But this argument takes “chance” to be a real cause, something random arising from matter in an entirely materialistic framework. In a theistic framework, however, chance is more cohently seen as the by-product of the way in which God habitually acts, just as the statistical distribution of letters in this post reveals that I am writing – deliberately and purposefully – in English. I don’t have to be careful how I write in order to obey the probabilities – I create the probability distribution by the way I work. And so does the Logos of God, if he indeed governs the creation of living forms, rather than muscling in on a naturalistic, chance driven, universe. If your view of nature is driven by Epicurus, you see chance. If it is driven by the Bible, or even naive human nature, you see God.

Another source of the blindness of science to God is its deliberate rejection of teleology, at most scales. The ordinary man of Romans 1 sees the cheetah hunt the gazelle because it aims to catch it – but the biologist is conditioned to explain that behaviour ateleologically from, ultimately, the collisions of molecules. The ordinary man also sees the heavens in terms of their wise government of the seasons and the climate, and reasons to God: the professional astronomer is interested in the efficient causes that chanced to make them as they are, and reasons to Big Bang cosmology.

The reason why it might be seen as desirable, by ID, to do new science to persuade skeptics is that skeptics, too, have so imbibed the whole edifice of materialism that they are as blind as the ECs are to their naturalistic presuppositions, which are, remember, very recent and local in human history. Scientific materialism dates to the secularising movement of Huxley and others in the late nineteenth century. Before that, the hand of God in nature was obvious to most, and a matter of public discourse.

In this sense, materialism is a special, local, case of the blindness to which Paul refers, in his own experience arising from idolatry. And what is the replacement of God by matter as the First Cause but idolatry, “serving the creature”? Even Martin Luther – cited on the Biologos thread as a supporter of the “God hidden from nature” cause, actually comments on Romans 1:19:

This statement tells us that from the beginning of the world the invisible things of God have always been recognised through the rational perception of the [divine] operations.

Is science not all about the “rational perception of the operations in the world? He also writes:

But where and how is [what is known of God] manifest? Answer: “The invisible things of God are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.”

Luther proceeds by a rather scholastic First Cause argument to deduce God’s glory from the sublimity visible within nature, and his kindness from its teleological benefit to man.

So Paul describes the same kind of unnatural blindness to God that hides him from skeptics looking at nature today as much as from idolaters in Paul’s time. But we have two examples, at least of Paul attacking such idolatrous blindness directly in his evangelism – through natural theology.

In Acts 14 he upbraids the Lystrans for worshipping vain things and points them to “a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and sea and all that is in them.” He points to God’s continuing witness to himself in the goodness of the rains and harvests they have always enjoyed. In the summary of the sermon we have, this natural theology is the punch-line to the power and goodness of God demonstrated in the healing of a congenitally lame man. Intriguingly Paul does not mention Jesus or his passion.

Acts 18 is an address to a more sophisticated audience in Athens – indeed, sophisticated enough to be agnostic (v23). Once again he describes how God’s ongoing witness has been through his creation of “the world and all things in it,” (v24), and his giving of them to men through history (vv25-26). Before introducing the work of Christ, he points them away from the error of their ignorance in mistaking the divine nature testified by creation for the created things themselves. In other words, it is a grave error to look at gold, silver, or stone, and not be able to see through them to the character of God.

Paul, then, accuses idolaters of blindness because of their worldview, but remedies that blindness, in the first instance, by drawing it to their attention and re-interpreting creation along the lines of Romans 1:20.

Since, then, I have described the failure to perceive nature as a communication from God to us, I can’t resist borrowing some information-speak from Dembski, in the form of an illustration of Shannon information theory.

One can actually interpret this quite elaborately in trinitarian terms, by seeing creation as, firstly, a thought sourced in the mind of the Father, the “message” as the Logos who speaks it, and the “transmitter” as the Holy Spirit who executes it. But that aside, in Pauline terms the natural world is the receiver of the creative dabar, and its intended destination is the human heart, which from the character of the message obtains some view of the original sender, that is “his eternal power and deity”.

So what is the “noise source,” which in Shannon theory is the tendency of the message to degrade, so that the destination (the recipient) receives garbled information? In Romans 1, it is idolatry, the result, of course, of sin. In the idea that God cannot be perceived in nature, and especially not through science, the noise is demonstrably materialism, for apart from materialism it has little force – as is shown by its restriction to minority Greek philosophies like that of Democritus, before science adopted materialism as its ideal in the late nineteenth century.

In short, I think the theological argument in the BioLogos thread is simply wrong.

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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8 Responses to Losing God through noise

  1. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Thanks very much for this, Jon. I kept wanting to say “Amen!” after every sentence as I read it, but that wouldn’t be very useful as a commentary.

    Thanks especially for the presentation of Luther’s actual views, which seem different from the usual alleged “Lutheran” perspective that I’ve seen promoted on the internet (i.e., Luther was utterly against any natural theology and regarded God’s work as totally hidden from human perception). These modern writers insist on reading Luther through the eyes of people like Barth.

    This seems to be a general tendency in these debates; people representing the “Lutheran” view often don’t seem familiar with the actual writings of Luther; those presenting the “Wesleyan” view don’t appear to have read Wesley; and those who present the “Thomistic” view (i.e., supposedly that God would create only through secondary causes) don’t appear to have read the crystal-clear, unambiguous statements in Aquinas that contradict their characterization.

    These debates often seem to reflect the triumph of private theological preferences over historical scholarship in the Christian tradition. I think that is partly due to the fact that most of the EC leaders are scientists rather than humanities-trained folks; but it also seems to represent a strong bias toward modernist as oppose to traditional positions within each of the traditions. The sort of person who endorses the BioLogos take on evolution is almost always the sort of person who also endorses some degree of modification of Christian theology in response to Enlightenment criticism of religion (construed broadly to include more recent developments in science).

    The number of *conservative* Catholics, Methodists, Calvinists, etc. in the EC/TE camp is apparently very small. Almost all the conservative Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, etc. I know of in these debates are in the ID movement. There is some kind of “instinct for conservativism” associated with ID, and some kind of “instinct for liberalism” associated with EC/TE (at least, of the ASA/BioLogos variety). This is perhaps more important in understanding the friction between ID and TE/EC camps than differences over genetics etc.

    (I hasten to add that by “conservative” I don’t mean Bible-thumping literalism. Many ID folks I know are “conservative” in the C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers sense, without being literalists or fundamentalists. That is, they are conservative regarding core Christian doctrine, not necessarily regarding the historical or scientific accuracy of every word in the Bible. But I don’t find many EC leaders to be conservative even in that broader sense; they seem to be willing to flirt with dumping Augustine’s understanding of the Fall, to question God’s sovereignty over events, etc.)

    But this is a side point. I guess I make it only because I can’t think of how to improve on your main point.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Eddie, as ever.

      To be fair, the thread at BL was conducted mainly at the “rank” of moderator, and below – like UD the forum tends to reflect those who are attracted to the positions rather than those leading the field. And like UD, but for some reason even more nowadays, it seems to attract all kinds of people with ideas even stranger than the EC versions we know and love, and a fair number of unbelievers of various flavours (the difference being that on UD they argue against the posts, whereas at BL they argue for them. Maybe that’s because anyone can start a thread at BL).

      Amongst EC leaders, as I think your most recent post here recognised, there has been a fair bit more genuine discourse, and amongst ID people too. I have to say that’s partly through Josh S. banging heads together and getting together OECs, YECs as well as folk like Winston Ewert, James Tour etc.

      It’s potentially fruitful, and there seems much less appetite for the Open Theology positions of a few years ago. As for the misuse of the “old masters” like Luther, I put that down to the general ignorance of history amongst American Evangelicals – the YECs are even worse, and (although it has little bearing on the origins question) they all look pretty damned good compared to the hypercharismatic “stars” (both speaking and musical) leading so many into dark paths.

  2. Mattman says:

    Biologos is promoting theological anti-realism or at best deliberately ignoring the truth claims of religion (Christianity) for science. At Biologos the scientific community and science comes first. Dennis Alexander was quite explicit – The Faraday (centre) and the entire field of science and religion ignores the truth claims of religion and that is why how he (Dennis) can say that there is no conflict between science and religion. Francis Collins says something similar “TE cannot be disproved” which of course is true, but you cannot argue for it as well. Michael Reiss in an interveiw put God into the same class of beings as Santa Claus (or at least on the same continuum) but did point out that intelligent people in the past have believed that God Exists. He also pointed out that ‘good’ religion cannot be argued for. Fr George Coyne says the same thing, denies God’s activity in the world and when asked about the resurrection, merely smiles and says that he is not “going there”. The standard response as to why they believe in God is something like “Jesus came into my life”, or “my God is not implausible to me”, Francis Collins actually said that when placed on an intellectual back foot.

    This is one of the reasons Biologos has it in for William Lane Craig because he is a theological realist. The other is because of the intellectual kicking he dished out to Ayala back in 2009 on ‘Is intelligent Design Viable”. Craig who self describes himself as a “friendly critic of Intelligent Design” only took the debate because;

    “I had heard Ayala lecture on Intelligent Design last year in China and was dismayed by the caricatures and misrepresentations he gave to the Chinese students. So even though I had never debated intelligent design in biology before, I decided to take on this debate to try at least to set the record straight.”

    Of course the Biologos crowd do exactly the same thing – caricatures and misrepresentations. What scum bags.

    Dennis Venema, Ted Davis, and others have all called Craig a creationist. When I asked Dennis V to stop quoting about Craig from atheist websites and instead from Craig’s debates or writings – he banned me.

    I quite recently read a book called “Religion and Atheism: Beyond the Divide” beyond the divide meant that religious people give up religious truth claims and accept that religious claims are metaphors, guidance and not declarative sentences. The religious commentators were falling over themselves in worship of this new sophisticated religion. As a quote from Nicholas Lash says “I believe in God, but I do not think he exists”. Pretty much sums up Biologos in my opinion.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Mattman

      I can’t disagree with the prevalence of that subjective concept of religion that you term “theological anti-realism” that often, at least, seems to prevail at BioLogos.

      It seems to me to symptomatic of what Evangelicalism has become in America (and when America catches a cold, the rest of the world soon sneezes). I’ve read articles at BioLogos defining “Evangelicalism” as emphasising a personal relationship with Jesus and (smaller print) respecting the Bible. This is a travesty of the Evangelical faith for which the Reformers struggled and died.

    • Jay313 says:

      Of course the Biologos crowd do exactly the same thing – caricatures and misrepresentations. What scum bags. Dennis Venema, Ted Davis, and others have all called Craig a creationist.

      Nice. Maybe you can repost this as a conversation starter at Peaceful Science?

  3. Robert Byers says:

    The bible is very very clear. Gods attributes and intelligence are apparent in nature. Actual verses say this. (I can’t remember chap/verse)
    God is not hidden.
    Those who say he is hidden say it to insist nature does not show his brilliance but instead evolutionism etc. its also a rejection, always, og genesis.

    its not that God is hidden but his intelligence is beyond us.
    We see eyeballs everywhere and can’t fix blindness which should not be so difficult since its all from problems outside the skull.
    Any ideas about god be hidden in nature, i always find, is a rejection of modern times ID/YEC assertions that Gods fingerprints are everywhere.

  4. Mark Mark says:

    A very thoughtful post as usual Jon.

    Edward- Lutherans in America also seem to be against Luther on the issue of death before the fall… http://earlygenesistherevealedcosmology.blogspot.com/2018/07/lutherans-against-luther-on-death.html

    And that sort of brings me back around to the “noise” part of this thing. Jon rightly points out that sin in the human heart is the source of noise which prevents God’s message from getting through, but external to that I would suggest that creation has been “subjected to futility” as it says in scriptures. At least everything but high heaven. This futility in our natural universe takes the form of creation being chaotic rather than immediately and perfectly responsive to God’s will. It’s going to. His Word will be accomplished, but there is resistance to it. This resistance can also be viewed as “noise”.

    So then there would be your message, which you type out, and then the way your message was implemented. It would be scrambled so that what we read on your blog was difficult to discern to the readers of your blog. This is like His Word in the natural universe. We can tell there is an author and he is sending a message, but only so much about him and the noise combines with human sin to make some claim there is no author at all.

    This is separate from God’s revealed word in scripture, which He protects and preserves (not to say understanding it does not require effort and a willingness to be instructed). The “noise” which obscures this word is indeed the sin which is in the human heart.

    So I would say in your analogy there are two sources of “noise” in understanding God’s message in nature- sin in our hearts and the futility to which creation was subjected. In His revealed word there is only the latter.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Mark

      I differ in seeing the “frustration/futility” of Romans 8 as the delay in its transformation to the spiritual participation in the glory of God, owing to Adam’s sin. I believe the scriptural picture is that it does fully obey God, and that’s the theme of the forthcoming book.

      But your comment is still relevant in that (a) part of the difference between the old and new creations are the elements of “chaos” (not quite the right connotation for “tohu wabohu”, but it’ll do) tamed within the old creation (and symbolised in “darkness” and “deep”) and (b) God mediates creation to us governmentally, so that blessing and cursing come to us largely through his contol of nature.

      The net result, though, is that the “noise” is still ultimately due to sin, both because of the judgements of God, and the delayed consummation of the new creation.

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