Falk and Freedom

The first part of Darrel Falk’s reply to William Dembski on BioLogos actually does clarify (a little) the issue I’ve alluded to a lot on The Hump of the Camel, that is the idea of God’s having give creation “freedom”, especially in the realm of evolution. To remind you, Darrel’s last summary of this to me included the words:

God’s design, however, is intelligent and God, through that intelligence wills freedom for his creation, including the constrained freedom of allowing creation to “make itself.”

I’ve previously gone into how this ties in with the Open Theism/Process Theology agenda so prevalent amongst Christian natural scientists from Polkinghorne to Van Till, and especially in the biological sciences. My main aim hitherto has been to show that it is heterodox to historical Christianity, whilst suggesting its incoherence. But Falk’s latest piece, though not mentioning this idea, clarifies his overall worldview and shows that this hypothesis of a free creation is … well, all over the place. Indeed, it’s a dog’s breakfast of a theology.

A brief reminder  that Falk divides God’s activity into the natural, by which he implies the predictable laws of nature sustained by God, and the supernatural, by which he means miracles. Evolution comes, he states clearly, into the “natural” category. As an aside it’s not completely clear in which category he puts the creation of humankind, but what he actually says about it is:

I will begin by summarizing my view of the nature of God’s activity in creation. I think that God created all living organisms, including humans, through the evolutionary process.

On the face of it, that would seem to put quite a limit on human exceptionalism, but I allow that he might have been simplifying for the sake of brevity. Given that the evolution of mankind is one of the biggest sticking points between evolution and Christianity, that abbreviation is surprising.

Nevertheless, let’s explore “a creation given freedom to make itself” in the light of the statement that evolution is a “natural” work of God. What that means, in Falk’s description, is:

The laws of nature, then, are simply a description of the ongoing activity of God which—because it is so consistent, dependable, and pervasive—points to the trustworthiness of God.


So consistent is that activity that it can be described mathematically through scientific analysis.

Evolution, then, is consistent, dependable … even mathematically describable. In other words, it is deterministic. And if so, if it is governed by natural law, it cannot at the same time be free and self-making, can it?

Perhaps, though, Falk is referring to something greater than the parts of God’s consistent natural law – something like emergent self-organisation. Emergence theories have had very little airing on BioLogos, and certainly not by Darrel Falk. But supposing that were what he believed, would it make a difference? Emergence theories exist (as opposed to emergent self-organisation, for which there is little evidence) in order to account for complex phenomena within natural law. Stick the right complicated things together and – hey presto! They will start reproducing, evolving, thinking and so on. In other words, they are every bit as deterministic as the natural laws that drive them. So emergence theories cannot in any way support a creation independent of God’s controlling direction.

BioLogos not infrequently speaks of nature’s self-creation as “autonomy”, which, being interpreted, means “a law unto itself,”, or more generally, “self-determination.” That last term (indeed, all three of them) presupposes two things: a “self”, and a “determining will”.

So, given that Darrell seems to attribute the development of human free will and consciousness to evolution operating under deterministic natural law, perhaps he’s actually espousing some kind of vitalism – that nature literally has conscious free will to evolve as it wishes (and if not, it should drop the word “autonomy” forthwith!). There are one or two (!!) objections to this.

The first is that vitalism has never raised its head above the parapet on BioLogos, and not surprisingly for it is far off the beaten track both for science and for Christianity. Secondly, even the pinnacle of evolved consciousness and will, Homo sapiens, has no power to determine its own evolutionary course (recent technological developments possibly excepted). The “will” in nature would have to reside not in the organisms themselves, but somewhere else … and where might that be? A last, rather serious, theological objection to this line of thought is that, since we, as humans, did not create ourselves, and the self-creating freedom lies somewhere else within nature generally, then we actually have two Creators. The first is the distant Sky-God whose connection to us is via the setting up of deterministic natural laws, and his ongoing sustaining of them. The second is Nature, the first self-determining being to emerge from those natural laws, whose will has actually caused us to evolve as we did. We call that pantheism, I believe.

OK, we have one more possibility, and that is that nature’s “limited freedom to make itself” doesn’t properly refer to “self-determination”, but analogically to” randomness”. Here we immediately have a problem in that Darrel Falk’s analysis makes no mention of whether “chance” belongs to the orderly, mathematically predictable realm of God’s “natural” activity, or to the miraculous realm of the “supernatural”. In fact, chance is not mentioned at all – which is rather major given the important role attributed to chance in evolution. Perhaps it occupies a third, unmentioned, category.

Be that as it may we must be decide, if nature’s freedom consists in random events, whether those events are random
(a) with reference to God or
(b) with reference to nature.

If (a) is the case, then one problem is solved: God did not plan these random events. If he tosses a dice to make decisions, then God is not governing the path of nature and it is undirected by God. That would please the materialist supporters of Darwinian evolution, and would seem to leave some room for nature to direct itself, as per Falk’s idea.

But hold on – if (a) means God does not direct random events, then (b) means nature does not direct random events. In fact, they must be undirected, not self-directed. Nobody at all is at the helm – nature does not have freedom to self-create, but has been cast adrift in a ship with no rudder. In addition to which, of course, there is a third God called Chance actually directing events, and to him we would be advised to direct our worship.

If you can make a rational scheme out of all these possibilities, you’re a better man than I am.

One more thing. Darrel describes God’s supernatural activity – his direct activity – as very different from the natural:

On the other hand, the God we know through Scripture and personal experience also works in ways that are not mathematically predictable. We call this aspect of God’s action supernatural, and we seem to think of this facet of God’s work—this law-defying activity—as being more God-like.

That’s one reason BioLogos believes evolution is natural – because it is lawlike, rather than law-defying. It looks undesigned, or one can persuade oneself that it does. So design would indeed be detectable were God to create directly, rather than by natural law, just as it would were it designed by human beings. But, Darrel tells us, God has made nature so that it is free to create itself. Why then, can we not detect that fact?

Perhaps, as one or two people on Biologos have suggested to me, I’m giving insufficient room for the place of mystery in faith.

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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 Falk and Freedom

  1. James says:

    Well done, Jon — both this post and the previous one. It’s hard for me to add anything to your careful analysis, beyond nods and grunts of assent.

    “Dog’s breakfast of a theology” captures BioLogos pretty well. As for your last sentence, it’s good of you to be modest and tentative and acknowledge the possibility that you may have missed something, but from where I sit, you haven’t given insufficient room for “mystery” in faith; you’ve given insufficient room for obscurantism and intellectual sloppiness. in faith. And that’s as it should be. Not all self-contradictions are indicators of a profound understanding of “mystery” or “paradox.” Some are simply the result of lack of historical knowledge and lack of argumentative discipline. The frequent appeal to “mystery” when a theological argument fails to make sense is the vice of the second-rate theologian.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks James.

    The second part of Darrel’s reply is now up , the substance of which is “I agree with Dembski on pretty much everything, except that we don’t see evidence of supernatural events in nature and ID does, though we don’t discount their possibility out of hand.”

    Hardly sufficient matter for mutual antagonism, you’d think?

    He places human exceptionalism in God’s relationship with mankind – which has a lot to say for it, but again is a matter for discussion rather than rancour.

    But once more he inconspicuously conflates “sustenance” with “direction”, denying Darwin’s claim that evolution is undirected, but having nowhere to put his “directional” eggs except in the basket of natural law.

  3. James says:

    Hello again, Jon. Darrel has been quite civilized in his two posts. I don’t mean in the cloying way that he sometimes is — laying on syrupy talk of Christian brotherhood and mutual love and respect while subtly sticking in the knife and implying that IDers are incompetent scientists and heretical, quasi-Deistic theologians. I mean he shows genuine respect for Dembski’s argument, avoids imputing motives, and goes out of his way to find as much common ground as he can, before disagreeing. If this had been the BioLogos way from the beginning — instead of what we’ve mostly seen over four years, which has been a sort of witch-hunt against Behe, Dembski, and Meyer, in which ID is seen as something almost worse [from the TE point of view] than young earth creationism — I think ID/BioLogos relations would be much better than they have been. I don’t know what has prompted this change of attitude from the superficially to the genuinely respectful, but Darrel is to be commended.

    I think that the main *theological* difference between ID and TE is that ID, as such, has no commitment regarding natural versus supernatural means of implementing design, and therefore has no built-in inclination toward naturalistic accounts of origins, whereas the TE people (certainly at BioLogos, and in the USA generally) have a clear and very strong preference for wholly naturalistic accounts of origins. This difference is, I believe, only *partly* accounted for by the belief of BioLogos scientists that the empirical evidence for wholly naturalistic origins of life, species, and man is very strong. I think there is also a genuine theological distaste for an intervening God, as if intervention is something crude and beneath God’s dignity. This is an old theme, going back to 17th- and 18th-century rationalist thinkers. But I don’t think it’s Biblical in origin.

    In ID-Christianity, the Bible is generally read quite differently than in TE-Christianity, with much more stress on Biblical statements implying God’s hands-on activity (not just in “historical” miracles but at all times and places). It’s not just a question of this or that detail — differences over Adam and Eve, etc. It’s a question of the whole attitude with which the Bible is read. The ID people, who are generally Christian (there are a few Jews, Muslims and agnostics, but Christians are the majority), tend to see God as dynamically involved in all aspects of the world, not just in “history” but in “nature” as well. The TEs tend to see him as “involved” in the sense of giving being to the world and granting ongoing power to things like gravity and electromagnetism and other natural causes, but they don’t tend to see him as actually mucking about in the world, getting his hands dirty, so to speak, in it.

    I think that in this respect the ID people are more “Hebraic” (to use a sometimes dangerous and misleading label) than the TE people. The “mighty acts of God,” of which Old Testament theologians have often spoken, for ID people tend to extend backwards from the history of Israel to the history of the cosmos (which is of course in the Bible often parallelled with the history of Israel). The TE God, on the other hand, appears to be a more “refined” deity who likes to act “behind the scenes” so that it will appear to an observer that natural laws alone are doing everything. In TE everything is neater and tidier; the furnace and the laundry machines are hidden behind the nice wood panelling in the finished basement. I think this “hands-off” emphasis is inconceivable outside of the influence of the Enlightenment upon modern Christianity. The irony is of course that on BioLogos columnists have often accused ID people of adopting an Enlightenment, rationalistic conception of God, when in fact the TE preference for a God who does not dip even his pinky into the waters is shot through with Enlightenment sensibility.

    Of course, this is not quite fair as a generalization about all TEs; obviously people like yourself and penman are TEs who are no mere sycophants for the Enlightenment, but orthodox Christians determined to ensure that evolutionary thought is integrated with theology in a way that does not compromise the latter. But the strong Enlightenment strand is still there in TE, certainly in the USA, and I believe in Britain as well (Denis Alexander, etc.). I might not object so often to this strand if it were accompanied by a thorough theological apologetic which showed deep acquaintance with the works of Spinoza, Lessing, Kant, Schleiermacher, etc.; I am not saying that a post-Enlightenment Christianity is a theological impossibility. But the folks at BioLogos show so little interest in the history of Christian thought that they don’t even try to work up a rigorous defense of such a post-Enlightenment Christianity. Rather, they just endorse its conclusions, as if the questions about its philosophical coherence and historical orthodoxy simply don’t matter at all. And that, in my view, is an academically and socially and ecclesially (if there is such a word) irresponsible thing for Christian leaders to do.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Yes, I pretty much agree with this too. I’d just add that maybe the “dirty hands” v “refined God” theme may be more complex. In the first place, the strong defence of Biblical miracle, and expecially the significance of Christ and the resurrection, is different from the distant Deist God.

    Also, inasmuch as the theological underpinnings of the “heterodox” side of TE comes from Open and Process Theology, that has strong links to the idea from Moltmann and so on of the suffering God, which is evident in the idea of Christ by his suffering picking up the pieces of the creation’s “errors.”

    Yet that Deistic element is undoubtedly there, and seems to have triggered the “hands off” idea that leads to the rest. Why is that? My guess is the strong cultural link TE has to Darwin’s theory which, as we know, was “steeped in Deism from birth” (to be Pharisaical!).

    As to your first point I agree entirely – there seems some serious work to remodel BioLogos in, as yet, unfathomable ways. Nullasalus on UD drew this to my attention in the thread there, but something’s clearly been happening for a little while. It has the potential to reorientate the whole Christian “science-faith” landscape, maybe for the better.

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