On autonomy again

In the comments on a previous post  I suggested that:

…this whole edifice of “freedom of nature” is, at root, intended to preserve the “freedom of human individuals“, understood in the post-Renaissance Promethean manner as “Libertarian Autonomy.”

The “edifice” concept is a key one, since as I’ve pointed out frequently, the current approach to theistic evolution depends upon the rather contingent preferences of quite a small “science-faith” community of academics like John Polkinghorne, Robert J Russell, John Haught, Howard van Till etc, which has guided the opinions of the “foot soldiers” of TE at BioLogos and so on. Their diversity has been reduced by the fact they are small and a community, so that certain quite unusual ideas have become central. One could, I suppose, draw an analogy with a very small breeding population on an island, which is quite likely to differ from the species as a whole, the species in this case being Christ’s worldwide Church.

I’ll return to that after venturing briefly into that wider field. Seeking to get a better handle on “human freedom” I looked at Thomas Aquinas’ writing on the matter, and was again surprised to see how similar his arguments are to those in the Reformed tradition I know best, not only under the heading of “free will”, but on related subjects like predestination and grace. The main reason for that appears obvious to me. It’s not just that he follows Augustine and other ancient theologians – though continuity with the apostolic tradition is one factor. It’s that the core of his theological thinking comes from taking the Bible as God’s word.

For example, he starts his section on “free will” by a number of possible objections to the idea presented, in the main, from Scripture. And he answers them by proposing better understandings of those Scriptures. One might not always totally agree with him on these, and such differing emphases explain partly where Thomistic teaching differs from, say, Calvin’s (though some of the disagreements seem, like those between the Greek and Latin Churches of old, to be largely linguistic). No doubt in some cases these difference are substantial, but in the end the fact that even on this blog, contributors from Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Anabaptist, Reformed and other streams tend to see the same problems with current TE reflects, I feel, that underlying attitude to Scripture as final arbiter.

Now to return to the “science-faith community” of today. My attention was drawn to an MSc course on Science and Religion at Edinburgh – perhaps unique on this side of the Atlantic. The idea seems admirable. Their blog, though, makes it apparent that it’s an extension of the same approach I’ve already found to be problematic. This recent piece  by an American academic, Graham Kervin, discusses science-faith writer Arthur Peacocke’s work. I should, I suppose, go back to Peacocke himself, but since my focus is on the ideas-of-the-movement, I’ll draw on that review.

There is no question, [Peacocke] says, that providence is a central feature of scripture-based faiths (Judaism and Christianity), which have been shaped by narratival patterns of a God that continually appears and acts within the lives of faith communities. What is more questionable, however, is how reliably we are to take the testimonies of such providential workings, since it is that faith community itself—hardly an unbiased jury—that attests to God’s working. The criteria for ‘unbiasing’ instances of divine interaction must be available to even those without faith for certifying—or at least opening the possibility for—such activity.

Peacocke is actually saying “the Bible writers would say that, wouldn’t they?” Whether the goal of finding a doctrine of divine providence acceptable to unbelievers is realistic is questionable, but one is clearly going to end up in a very different place to Aquinas if ones response to “There is no free-will, because Paul says, ‘it is not of he who wills or he who runs…'” is to shrug and say Paul (or Jesus, come to that) is from the “faith community.”

Like Aquinas, Peacocke has a place for what nature teaches us of God. Thomas perhaps gives the highest place to natural theology of any serious theologian. Regarding Peacocke:

So before moving on to determining what science allows for a view of providence, Peacocke reviews what nature testifies to in our knowledge of God, namely that he is intelligible, rational, creative of and through regular processes, and continuously immanent. In addition, his kenotic gesture through Christ attests to a self-vulnerability that enables nature (namely us) to act in relative freedom.

Does nature actually teach us all this? A (partly) intelligible nature certainly encourages not only science but the religious search for God (Acts 17.27). But it does not outlaw the classical incomprehensibility of God, any more than creation’s rationality excludes his ineffability. The reference to “regular processes” is at best partial, neglecting God’s equally clear creation of or through the irregular processes that also exist, but also bypasses all but efficient causality. That may be necessary for acceptance by unbelievers, but is theologically and philosphically incomplete.

I’m not sure how nature teaches us that God is “continuously imminent” (perhaps Peacocke’s work explains that), but I am certain that nature does not teach us about kenosis. Let’s assume that’s a supplementary point. Even so, notice how divine kenosis, a badly conceived theological doctrine (see here) is smuggled in as an axiom. Also note from this quotation that the freedom of nature seems to be a loose way of referring to “the freedom of human beings”, which is why we have to spend some effort on unpicking that idea to understand the whole of science-faith’s priorities.

The article goes on to talk of efforts, like Polkinghorne’s, to “make a place” for divine action in, say, quantum events. But it continues:

And in contrast to the further issues of omniscience/prescience that this idea raises, P[olkinghorne] maintains that God possesses self-limiting omniscience, which precludes him from knowing fully every detail or outcome of cosmic activity, such that human freedom is safeguarded.

As recently discussed on BioLogos, to Polkinghorne God is omniscient but “chooses not to know” – other science-faith thinkers, including many Open Theists, simply deny the possibility of omniscence. Both ideas are completely anti-biblical (but if one believes one is redressing the “faith community’s” bias, that’s presumably no problem). But they are also unnecessary, seeing that Aquinas, representing classical Christianity, specifically deals with the compatibility of omniscience with human freedom. Science-faith has actually made a choice for a Renaissance view of human freedom that has no reference to a merely personal God. Needless to say, all the related deep questions of faith, like God’s control of history, oversight of human outcomes, election, predestination, grace, bondage to sin and so on, are simply swept aside in this. The controlling concept for everything – even God’s nature – is human autonomy. God even empties himself of divine attributes to make way for it.

So Peacocke’s aim is not to see how God determines events – because it’s axiomatic that he doesn’t – but rather how he creates propensities. What Peacocke proposes is this:

In distinction from panentheism, which seems to repress the personal dimension of an ongoing creation, recent findings that cohere humans as psycho-somatic unities greatly assist the top-down idea. From ‘total brain states’—the correlative web of agency that links mental intention to physical causation—Peacocke extrapolates that in the same way and to the same degree that we act cognitively in our own subjective causality, so too does God operate upon the state of the whole world, at least in those aspects that are cognitively knowable. Just as we exert effects on our own bodies in a top-down manner, God exerts effects analogously on the world-as-a-whole in top-down manner.

Note that the objection to panentheism is not that it’s foreign to Christian faith, but that it threatens the autonomy of creation. But the main idea is this “top down” causality modeled on recent neuroscience. This, contrary to first impression, is not the analogy of the mind as the governor of the whole individual, but of conscious intention as just one factor within a totality. Think of those experiments purporting to show that human actions begin before the activation of those parts of the brain associated with volition. The picture of is of the conscious mind as just one player in an autonomous totality – of God as only one, though important, part of a self-regulating creation. That, indeed, is very different from the final causation of God in Thomism, or historic Christianity.

The point is made more clearly, but less coherently, in the words that follow:

God’s bearing on the world thus works as a transfer of info [sic] that communicates and expresses his intentions much in the way that software informs but doesn’t hijack the inbuilt freedoms and flexibilities of operating hardware in computers.

Now is that nonsense, or is that nonsense, as supposed support for this democratised kenotic view of God who suggests, and some of it might be done? A Turing computer will execute any program put into it, and otherwise do absolutely nothing. Software doesn’t merely inform – it dictates the outcome as a teleological certainty. It doesn’t even matter what computer is used – a Mac, a Babbage machine or even a large enough abacus. Peacocke clearly doesn’t intend the illustration of absolute omnipotence he’s drawn. Which is a shame, for it’s pretty close to the biblical picture apart from not accounting adequately for human freedom!

Therefore, as the “supra-personal, unifying, and unitive influence on all-that-is”, God works top-down to enact changes that trickle down to effect general as well as particular circumstances, leaving us to discern the patterns in the whole (the task of science) while participating in God’s intentionality for the world. This view protects God’s freedom as the originator of top-down effects and our own, as free agents within the system. In this way Peacocke believes he avoids all talk of intervention.

Call me irreligious, but isn’t a trickle-down providence apt to be compared to trickle-down economics? Doesn’t the banking crisis hint that a good CEO might not be the best guarantee of the little-man’s prosperity? I’ll only briefly mention Peacocke’s critique of Sayers “authorial model”, which he finds too stiff because (spot the keyword) He “wants to grant humans more autonomy than as mere literary figures.” But I hope I’ve presented enough of his ideas to show a rather hands-off kind of God. But our reviewer, Graham Kervin, adds a paragraph of his own – presumably not considered too far off-beam within the science and faith community:

I feel like his model still suffers under the image of a kind of puppet master, who insists on pulling the strings just out of sight, coordinating the course of events toward certain teleological ends. Christianity does track with such ends in certain regards, but unless God truly limits himself to allow true (contingent) human freedom, then there will always persist in his model a bit of ‘steering’ toward those teleological ends, which compromises his intervention-free software/hardware solution to the perennial mind-body problem.

Peacocke’s fault, then, is that he retains too much divine teleology. Now methodological naturalism is defended by TEs on the basis that science properly does not address either divine efficient causation, nor teleology. That distinguishes it from metaphysical naturalism, in which they are both excluded in principle. Yet the discussion above shows that a primary aim of the current science-faith discourse is to exclude divine efficient causation (aka “interference”, “tyranny” “puppetry” and a small dictionary of other such pejorative terms). But by excluding even “‘steering’ toward those teleological ends” on the grounds that this threatens nature’s autonomy, what is marketed as a sophisticated theological program gives a result, I would suggest, indistinguishable from metaphysical naturalism.

But human autonomy does OK out of it.

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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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16 Responses to On autonomy again

  1. Avatar photo GD says:


    I find it difficult to comprehend the notion of autonomy, as I have of ‘nature making itself’, with a discussion on freedom. The purpose of the faith in Christ, the begotten Son of God, is the salvation of humanity from sin into eternal life in God the Father. This is shown in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Any discussion of salvation needs to deal with the ‘essential elements’ of the gospel and the faith that God grants to those he calls as an act of grace. One may reflect on the meaning of such essential elements. I prefer to consider reflection on elements of faith as a personal choice, an act of freedom.

    There has been some philosophical discussion of freedom, and most refer to freedom of thought, and all that this entails. Other aspects include intentionality, will, motivation and intent to act, and self-awareness in terms of act and judgement of the outcomes of such an act. Obviously this approach requires lengthy discussion, and this becomes especially interesting when we include law, and how we may determine truth from falsehood.

    In terms of autonomy as freedom of action (within the discussion of nature) we are physical beings who may act within the world within which we find ourselves. This seems to me, from a reasonable point of view, to be better discussed as limitations and how we address these, rather than some type of freedom.

    As to some of the (pseudo) theological statements you have included in this presentation – wow – God and software? Words fail me.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I find your incomprehension, rather than mere disagreement with Peacocke, intriguing. You must understand he is one of the very big names in the theology of science nowadays, like Polkinghorne.

      Am I right in thinking you’re of Greek descent as well as Orthodox persuasion? If so, you come from a tradition that bypassed the Renaissance, which to my mind was the ultimate wellspring of the absolute fixation of much of the west with “freedom”, “autonomy” and such ideas, to the extent that it’s never even questioned.

      So “God’s commitment to freedom” – a totally unbiblical concept except in connection with the self-imposed bondage we have to sin and death, becomes the reason for all divine activity. I try not to let words fail me, because somebody has to point out the error.

      “Knowing your limitations” isn’t a fashionable self-help project today! Neither, I think, is that of God (in Christ) becoming all in all to us and ourselves less and less. The new theology sits light to the idea of living eternally with God, it seems – I think the idea is still in there somewhere for some of them, but I suspect “with” but definitely not “in”, ie that our independence must be maintained to eternity.

      • Avatar photo GD says:


        You are partly correct – I am of Greek origin and Orthodox. I however, have been educated in the Anglo-Saxon system and was involved for a few years in the late 60’s with Protestant/evangelical churches. So over a lengthy period I have (from time to time, when I could find the time) tried to be aware of the various traditions and strands of Christianity. It must be said that I quickly lost interest in the theological voices from the Protestant side of things when it became evident that most of them imo did not speak as Christians. Thus I have neglected the names you often mention, although I have been sufficiently intrigued by comments on Polkinghorne and Russel to read some of their books.

        I guess I am more interested in examining the Orthodoxy of both Greek and Roman traditions, and I do this as time permits (I must find time to read more of Aquinas). As my comments would indicate, the recent exposure to evangelical view points has not done much to cause me to change my mind about these liberal theologians. I will soon look at the liberal Catholic theologians to see where their thinking has taken them.

        I do not accept terms such as ‘theology of science’ or ‘theistic evolution’, although in a limited sense I find natural theology interesting. Your view, if I may say, appear to differ from those on BioLogos, and also the voices from the Anglican tradition – this I find intriguing since you seem to identify with this tradition.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks for sharing that, GD. It helps to get a picture of where people are coming from (and going to!).

    You ask why I’m sympathetic to the Evangelical/Anglican traditions, and that’s pretty simple. I was brought up in the latter, and converted through the former. And those I’ve met since my conversion who were most faithful to the Bible and its understanding, most zealous for Christ and most careful about truth have been Evangelical Anglicans.

    Yet whereas the main weakness of Evangelicalism in times past tended to be its anti-intellectual simplistic populaism, in the last few years it seems to have gone through the same cultural conditioning that mainstream Protestantism and, to a large extend Catholicism, went through a century ago.

    That’s especially true in USA, but also here in UK – so that Evangelicals now self identify by incidentals like “personal relationship with God” rather than the historic “saved by grace through faith,” “Sola Scriptura” and the like.

    Whilst researching this OP, I came across a blogger with a similar viewpoint to mine about “tradition options” – you may understand me better by checking it out: http://souldevice.wordpress.com/about-2/

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Hi Jon,

      Thanks for the link – I am very new to the ‘blog-sphere’ in cyberspace and thus visiting sites such as yours and ‘souldevice’ are quite a novelty for me. It seems to me that no matter what our background and upbringing, the Faith in Christ inevitable causes many to question and search, especially on matters revolving about these very traditions. I guess one thing is clear to me, and that is the very liberal theologies that I have come across are non-starters, and the socio-political events, such as married between same sex, and an acceptance of debauchery and drugs, are extremely destructive to our society. Thus I am saddened when I read of prominent religious figures appearing to support/tolerate such libertarian views.

      I have said enough about rabble-stirrers such as Dawkins assuming the mantle of science and proclaiming that Darwin’s ideas provide the answer to all questions (to put it bluntly). I suppose we all need to understand the world we live in and how we may live (as far as God may help us) with some rightness.

  3. pngarrison says:

    Jon, I wonder if the motivation for the “freedom of nature” doesn’t have more to do with contriving a theodicy, distancing God from being responsible for the sufferings and imperfections of nature, than defending human freedom. It is after all possible to advance the latter without the former. (Not that I think the theodicy works at all – there is no plausible deniability for God, whether he delegates to subordinates or not, and I don’t think He ever claims or even hints at any such thing in the Bible.)

    Also, a question. Why is Prometheus associated with autonomy? I’m rather fond of the old god, sneaking fire to us and thus getting science and technology started, and suffering greatly for it, for sympathizing with Io and promising that her suffering would end well, the almost Biblical aspects like descending into Greek hell (for 40,000 years!) and emerging. It’s also intriguing that whoever came up with the myth knew that the liver can regenerate. Prometheus seems to me one of those broken fragments of the truth that Lewis pointed to, and I regard it as a supreme irony that the atheists would name their press after him.

    • James says:

      Hello, pngarrison.

      On your first statement, I think it is certainly true of Ayala, and of Ken Miller. Both of them have used an argument roughly like this: “God would never have directly created anything so evil as malaria, but it’s just the sort of nasty thing a blind, non-teleological evolutionary process would have created, so we have a theological as well as scientific grounds for preferring evolution over creationism.” The argument thus does double duty; it provides another point in evolution’s favor, while offering a way of “keeping God’s hands clean” (i.e., it serves as a theodicy). Of course, the argument does not work, as you have pointed out, and Jon has pointed out, and as Mike Behe has pointed out (in response to Miller’s version). And while Miller is an autodidact in theology and so we might expect some amateurish, off-the-cuff speculation of that sort, Ayala had old-time European training in the subject, so one wonders how he could make such a sophomore argument. Oh, well …

      On Prometheus, it has been a while since I looked closely at the original texts in Hesiod, Apollodorus, etc. I think it is quite possible that since roughly the time of Bacon, Prometheus has been reshaped due to modern agendas. The humanist rebel shaking his fist at God (or at the void) seems to me to at least oversimplify, if not positively mischaracterize, what is going on in Prometheus’s defiance of Zeus and aid of man. (Though one can see how elements of the story could easily be taken as expressions of a proto-humanism.)

      Your other comments on Prometheus below are interesting as well. Have you looked at the remarks of Simone Weil on Prometheus? You might find some of them congenial.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi pn

    Thanks for commenting on this – I feel it’s a vitally important area. Theodicy is certainly a major component of the “free creation” thing, and you’re right – it doesn’t work, because either God is to “blame” for all the evils and is passing the buck, or he’s not and is shown to be incompetent. Both ways we lose him as Creator – a huge price to pay for a failed theodicy. Though God’s incometence seems to be a desirable quality in making him more personal nowadays… we can identify better with a God who louses up the world.

    However, two things make me prioritise autonomy. The first is that the tone of science-faith people not directly involved in biology (largely physicists) majors on the virtues of freedom more than the evils of creation – it’s the Francisco Ayala biology types who seem to add in the “egregious errors” and so on. Linked to that, “natural evil” is often justified on the basis that it’s a necessary price for freedom – whether of the nebulous “creation” itself or, more particularly, us humans. And human autonomy is at least intelligible.

    The second reason is the historical process I see behind the whole issue of theodicy, which only really becomes necessary when classical theism fades into the background and God as a person directly comparable to us becomes the idea. Then, if we can’t explain rationally why the world as the way it is, instead of attributing it to the mystery of the Being of God, we expect him to justify himself to us. And that process (in a piece of work I did last year which I hope will be published) can be traced to the Renaissance humanist project which majored on man as the completely autonomous rational agent, the measure of all things.

    Prometheus is a deeply influential myth in the humanist project, and hence the atheists’ very significant adoption of his name – even your brief description captures the stereotype of the scientist struggling heroically against heaven’s conventions to wrest nature’s secrets. My own discovery (a great surprise) was that the myth has even been instrumental in changing Christian doctrine to the novelty of a fallen creation of “natural evil”, which is strong in Creationism but has passed over into the evolutionary mindset – which is another reason theodicy becomes the issue it is in TE.

    But hey, I’ve done a blog to explain my fixation with the guy, which is at http://potiphar.jongarvey.co.uk/2012/11/29/prometheus-and-adam/

  5. pngarrison says:

    The reason I think the atheist/agnostic embrace of Prometheus is ironic is that Prometheus is, after all, a god, and seems to me a sort of pagan Christ figure in some respects. He is the god who cares about mankind when the others don’t. He seems to give reason (mastery of fire) to mankind as a gift. Because he suffers (immensely) he can comfort. The picture of Prometheus as the god on man’s side and (perhaps) against Zeus, seems like Marcionism, with an oppressive, judgmental OT god (Zeus), but Aeschylus has Prometheus prophecy that when Io reaches Egypt, Zeus will restore her and come to her with a gentle touch, so it seems that Aeschylus and Prometheus know something better about Zeus. I think there is a lot more wisdom in Aeschylus than in the secular humanists who snatched his work. The old Greek knows that God is fierce, but also knows that there is another side, seen first and most clearly (for him) in Prometheus. I can think of few artifacts I would like to see come to light more than the last 2 plays in that trilogy – I think they would be fascinating.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Well, when we return to the Greek myths as pre-Christian wisdom it’s another matter. I heard Christian philosopher Steve Clark give an excellent lecture on that. Unfortunately his book on it is long out of print.

    I confess Prometheus was my favourite hero in the sanitized kids version (he still lost his liver, though). I don’t think the European humanists picked up any discord between the Son and Father, but they’d already been reinterpreting Genesis 2-3 as a suffering hero myth, and when Prometheus got translated it was too good not to replace it. There are tempting parallels aplenty with the Bible, of course, notable between Eve and Pandora (a source of modern misogyny, perhaps?). But the whole Genesis theme of God’s generosity, man’s sin and the response of grace shifted quite deliberately to that of divine oppressor and oppressed that colours discussions of not just the God of Israel but that of Jesus today.

    For those reasons (not to mention missing sources) I don’t think any rapprochement between Prometheus and Zeus was congenial to the Enlightenment mythos – as I said in the other blog, Kafka’s existentialist take was that even the gods had forgotten what the argument was about.

  7. Avatar photo GD says:


    Out of interest, what is your position on the popularised notion(s) of theodicy and of theistic evolution (and perhaps your considered outlook) – we all have made critical remarks concerning some views at BioLogos (and I think it is appropriate to note that the more vicious commentators from TE’s would rather identify with atheists that theists when it comes to Darwin’s ideas) – however, I find it difficult to find a coherent view of theodicy from comments by evangelicals. Perhaps this is lost in the argy-bargy of the various posts (I guess at times including mine).

  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    “Considered” would take too long here! The Hump is (too) full of my ideas already. But on theodicy…

    (a) Theodicy only begins to be required when one defines what God calls “good” (ie his creation) as “evil”. I’ve argued that true Christian doctrine denies “natural evil”, making it part of God’s good order, and where it causes grief to man making it a result of man’s sinful alienation from that order.
    (b) Accordingly, as I’ve quoted from blogger “Ben Yachov” before, classical theology needs theodicy like a fish needs a bicycle. I believe that the centrality of theodicy to the whole science-faith issue stems from departing from that kind of theology, and results in a panic-stricken theological rout, with every key Christian doctrine left abandoned along the road.
    (c) The ultimate theodicy is the one the Bible always falls back on – God is God, and we are not. The New Testament revelation adds some strength to that: God is the one whose only Son suffers and dies for us. But he’s still God, and we’re still not, as Rom 11.33ff drives home.
    (d) As hanan-d and Eddie have pointed out to beaglelady on BioLogos just now, the theodicies associated with kenosis, free-creation and so on simply don’t work insofar as they exonerate God for suffering by assigning it to “necessary” freedom. There’s an element of truth in that, for God only allows the existence of sin, which clearly requires free-will, because his glory and our final good are enhanced by it. But that’s not what they have in mind, usually: and God would be responsible if he did not create with ultimate unmitigated good in mind.

    I’ve not given my views on TE itself, I know – space forbids. Maybe this post will provide a temporary substitute http://potiphar.jongarvey.co.uk/2011/09/15/b-b-warfield-as-prophet/

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Thanks Jon, this makes it easier for me to understand your posts and presentations. I am heartened to see and read of Christians in the various traditions.

  9. pngarrison says:

    Jon, be forewarned. I have recommended to the powers that be at Biologos that they ask you to write a post or series on the “freedom of creation” business. Of course, there’s no particular reason to expect that they would pay any attention to me, but you can contemplate your possible response, anyway.

  10. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Ouch! That would win me friends aplenty, since it seems to be the defining theme of current theistic evolution (though of course not actually of the concept of “God creating through evolution.”)

    If it should come to pass it will be interesting to see if supporters of the doctrine were more willing to try and justify it than they have been so far. Anyway, thanks for the heads up – if nothing else it will provoke me to try and distill the central themes.

    Meanwhile, I was musing today why “freedom” is such an obsessive theme not only re evolution, but in much modern western theology. Since Creation was originally a Jewish doctrine, I wondered if Judaism shares the same ideas that God’s overriding concern is ensuring autonomy. The following link is nothing special, but does seem to cut across the idea in the same way that classical theism does: http://www.torah.org/features/holydays/passover/menken.html

  11. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Rather than wait for BioLogos not to ask me to write something, I’ve made a start on posting what I would write on the latest blog. Keep me posted on your reactions!


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