“Free nature” disappears up its own analogy

I’ve not really had much to do with the writing of leading theistic evolutionist Karl Giberson, except for noting his occasional public outbursts against Evangelicalism’s failure to embrace his ideas fully. But I probably should have done, because he was Executive Vice President of BioLogos from 2009, and since his departure from them has written a book with its founder, Francis Collins. And, I discover, he has much shown more forthrightness in his writing about the “Free creation” than the curious coyness of BioLogos (to the point of temporarily shutting down comments rather than addressing my questions about it not long ago).

I came across a 2009 post on his blog from his BioLogos period, defending Darrel Falk (then the President) and his espousal of “free creation” against a criticism by William Dembski. Dembski complained that blaming natural evil on an evolutionary process beyond God’s control to “get God off the hook” does no such thing since he created the process.

“Naive,” returns Giberson:

Falk makes the highly significant point that we must not ascribe the origin of these sinister features of the natural world to God. The God of the Judeo-Christian Christian [sic] would not play such a cruel joke on mice as to design cats to torture them. Nor would this God give the bacterium that causes Bubonic plague its remarkably well-designed power to kill some 200 million people over the past two millennia.

So where did these sinister designs originate? Some might respond too quickly that they come from Satan, but are we really to suppose that Satan is a “co-creator” of the world with God? This, suggests Falk with diplomatic restraint, “borders on heretical.” Satan, however construed, is a creature not a creator. To suggest otherwise is to embrace a famous heresy known as Manichaeism that St. Augustine flirted with as a young man…

…The contribution evolution makes to this discussion – the point of Falk’s blog – is the remarkable discovery that nature has built-in creative powers. As Christians we affirm that these powers–which include the power to create both wonderful and terrible things–come from God, but they are wielded by nature. This is a traditional theological concept that understands that God works through secondary as well as primary causes.”

Note the confident claim here to know the mind of the Judaeo-Christian God, despite the fact that both Old and New Testaments, and traditional theology, attribute plagues, predation and other such things directly to him, God’s word itself doing so in the First Person. Giberson’s might be a “nice” God, but seems to be a newcomer on the Judaeo-Christian scene.

There is another odd argument here, of a piece with the usual shaky BioLogos logic: it would, apparently, be heresy to suggest that Satan has creative powers because he is a mere creature, ie created – but “nature has built-in creative powers, autonomous of God.” And is not nature, just like Satan, created? Is a mindless Demiurge somehow less blasphemous than an angelic one? Secondary causation is indeed a well established theological principle – but never, in classical theology, does it entail independence from God, but rather concurrence with his primary causation.

As far as Scripture is concerned even Satan is a “secondary cause”, acting only under God’s permissive oversight and not autonomously, though with evil motive only because he has rational free will  (cf Job chs 1-2). Commenting on Dembski’s analogy that a mugger is equally blameworthy for allowing his dog to assault someone as if he did it himself, Giberson argues:

This analogy completely misses the central point of Falk’s argument: freedom. When God grants freedom to creatures this means, in ways often difficult to understand, that those creatures can act independently of God, to not be robotic automatons or trained attack dogs. In the case of the holocaust, we always do exactly what Dembski says we never do: we shift the responsibility from God to the Nazis.

So note here that “freedom” is opposed to being a “robotic automaton” or a “trained attack dog”.

Atheist apologist John Loftus suggests in his review of Giberson and Collins’ book that what he is promoting is John Polkinghorne’s “free process defence”, which Polkinghorne indeed presents in similar “freedom” language – that creating a world with chaotic features entails the necessity of evils unforeseen by God. In later writings Giberson concurs with that association. But Loftus points out what should be obvious to all:

Look, the unpredictability in nature we see in Chaos theory, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Quantum  Mechanics and Brownian Motion is not freedom. The choice is between Chance and Necessity as Jacques Monod argued. Using the word “freedom” to describe the natural processes betrays a language game that no intelligent person should adopt.

To this charge, Giberson has replied that critics have pushed the “freedom” analogy too far: it does not mean “choice”, but “autonomy apart from God.” But does that claim hold water, or is it not the way TEs always use the analogy that is to blame? Let me quote just a few instances of the language associated with this “freedom” analogy by leading TEs:

Howard Van Till:

God does not act “coercively” to “exercise unilateral power over nature,” that “supercedes natural action”.

Now “coercion” applies exclusively to persons, and “unilateral power” implies unjustly overriding someone’s rights. One does not coerce ones pen to write, nor exert unilateral power over ones car.

Darrel Falk:

The process is God’s process, but God is not manipulating the details just as I as a father have not manipulated each event of my own daughters’ lives.

Again a direct human comparison. If he were a dog breeder, or a computer programmer, would not the situation be completely non-comparable? There every detail of the dog’s life is constrained by the breeder’s aims, as is every line of computer code.

John Polkinghorne:

In just one paragraph Polkinghorne contrasts “puppet theatre,” “everything dances to God’s tune,” “Cosmic Tyrant,” “unrelenting grip,” “holds on tightly,” “enslaved world” and “not the creation of a loving God” with “allowed to be itself,” “make itself,” “in its own time and in its own way” and “liberty.”

John Haught:

An infinite love, if we think about it seriously, would manifest itself in the creation of a universe free of any rigid determinism (either natural or divine) that would keep it from arriving at its own independence, autonomy and self-coherence.”

Here love is the defining issue. On this understanding for me to determine, for example, that a blank CD should become an hour of sublime music would be the epitome of tyranny. Is Haught not “pushing the analogy too far?” Not only that – he’s basing his entire theology of creation on that over-extension.

Giberson brings us back to “reality” by saying the analogy does not represent “choice”, but “autonomy apart from God.” But in so doing he simply replaces one analogy with another, and it is just as invalid. Let’s remind ourselves of a few dictionary definitions of the words he uses.

automaton: “Thing endowed with spontaneous motion; living being viewed materially; living being whose actions are involuntary or without active intelligence.”

So the fundamentals are intelligence and will – using this as an analogy in his article is pushing it too far, for nature has no intelligence and no will

robot: “An apparently human automaton, an intelligent and obedient but impersonal machine.”

So the fundamentals here are intelligence and obedience (and comparability to humans!): Giberson denies the first to nature as self-evidencing, and the second on the grounds of its “freedom”.

He replaces terms like these with what, he says, they in reality represent:

autonomy: “right of self government; personal freedom; freedom of the will (in Kantian doctrine) derivation: ‘self law’.”

So the fundamentals here are “person”, “self” and “will”, none of which nature, or anything in it other than mankind, possess. So this “autonomy apart from God” turns out to be in reality a metaphor for no more than “subject to accidents which God does not control.”

One may ask, since the “freedom” analogy is so apt to mislead, why one should use a metaphor at all when a perfectly good vernacular word exists which covers the kind of thing meant by quantum indeterminacy (have you ever heard physicists talk of “quantum freedom”, by the way? I haven’t). That word is chance, and it is only another way of saying that the cause is not known, though it’s often misused to say there is no cause, which is simply impossible.

The only analogy required here is to extend the domain of “chance” to God himself, against the flow of Judaeo-Christian teaching on providence. “Chance” then becomes “causation of which even God is ignorant”, so it is a power above God’s omnipotence and omniscience (as even the atheist Loftus recognises). So, stripped of the misleading “freedom” analogy, our innovative BioLogos theology of creation would become more like this:

“When God created the heavens and the earth, he unilaterally subjected all creatures within it to accidents having no cause within his, or any other, will. He did it in the hope that these accidents might (by his loading the initial conditions) eventually give rise to some race possessing intelligence, free will and the capacity to love him. He also did it knowing that these accidents would cause all kinds of events that many of these intelligent agents would regard as ‘evil’. His motive for doing it this way was, perhaps, that he pushed analogy too far, over-personified his creation and thought he was showing it love by leaving it carelessly undirected. Unfortunately, the rational children of chance (‘humans’) were wiser than he, and saw that, instead, natural entities had been coerced  into submitting to ‘the Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,’ being endowed with absolutely no capacity to ‘take Arms against a Sea of troubles.’ (Hamlet)”

Any takers? It’s a lot less warm and fuzzy than “freedom” talk – which is perhaps the very reason the analogy is always pushed so hard in TE literature. Or does it only even appear to make sense when the analogy is pushed too far? Remember, in Karl Giberson we have BioLogos theology expounded by its founding executive vice-president: it’s as good an expression of it as you’re likely to find. It is, at least, internally consistent, unlike what seems to be the main BioLogos line of tossing the “freedom” analogy, “chance” and “providence” into a salad together without letting the diner get too close a view of their incompatibility.

Me, I’d rather wrestle with the lesser problems of another line from Hamlet: “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” I’ll be looking at Jesus’s own approach to natural-evil theodicy in another  post.

Analogy pushed too far.

Analogy pushed too far.

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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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8 Responses to “Free nature” disappears up its own analogy

  1. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    You give us more theological grist to mull over — thanks for the continued supply.

    Even if the natural-freedom theology seen to be epitomized at Biologos is finally denied, there still remains the difficulty of resolving the paradox of God’s sovereignty with human free-will. As a firm proponent of said freedom, I still have to think in terms of God’s fore-knowing omniscience about my free choices as quite a different claim from God controlling my actions. I have no problem seeing these [foreknowledge and relinquishment of control] as co-existing, but apparently others do find this to be insurmountably problematic; I’ve never been sure why.

    You do well to remind us of the ancient (and thoroughly Biblical) understanding of God being behind everything calamitous or fortuitous. Can’t the defenders of natural freedom simply make use of this same distinction to argue that alleged ‘chance’ processes be solidly credentialed as such to human perspective and simultaneously be part of the unfolding divine plan? Don’t get me wrong — I find the concept of freedom for non-sentient matter to be just as intellectually incoherent as you insist it is. But to continue using your previous executioner metaphor, I’m just examining the nails you’ve used on the coffin to see how tight they really are.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Merv

      Firstly, let me state again that though the issue of human freedom is important, it is logically unrelated to to freedom of non-wills, which is the entire business of this post and of those studying evolution, except…

      …that part of John Polkinghorne’s argument, in particular, is that chaotic indeterminacy is a necessary precondition of human free will. I doubt that, partly because of the excessive efforts he makes to use the language of “freedom” with respect to “indeterminacy”. “Choice” is not “chance.

      That said I actually agree with him that the prevalence of marginal chaotic systems is an important feature of our universe, in that they make the world easily changeable through choice, whether God’s or man’s. But that’s a different issue.

      On free-will, then, divorced entirely from the matter of this post… given that to some (eg Open Theists like Giberson) even God’s foreknowledge of human actions is a complete negation of freedom, one is clearly not going to please everybody with whatever the precise truth may be. So my desire is to get as close to the Scriptural teaching as possible and leave its acceptability or otherwise to the Holy Spirit.

      So it seems to me that constructing a dipole of “God’s foreknowledge” and “my free will” as you do is a reasonable first approximation that gets away from the lie of the divine puppetmaster, and limits arrogant autonomy somewhat, but isn’t quite the whole of what Scripture teaches.

      Stating Scripture’s position is not that hard – conceptualising or defining it is probably near-impossible, because God is God and we are not (I’ve an article in the can partly on that theme). But the Bible seems to say, at least of specific instances, that what man wills and brings about for one motive, God can simultaneously will and bring about for a completely different motive. But because in some way those causes are in different spheres, man and not God is accountable for his evil motives. But since God’s (good) motives are hidden within his will, events themselves will sometimes appear evil to us.

      The subtlety comes into play in Giberson and Dembski’s holocaust example. Giberson is right to say that the Nazis were culpable, not God, for the evil (but he is appallingly wrong to make “free nature” a similar case). But in a comparable Scriptural situation, God claims responsibility for the destruction of Israel as his own good act, yet blames and punishes the Assyrians for their evil in executing it. The same pattern is seen throughout Scripture. Food for much meditation and thought.

      On your last para it would be entirely orthodox, and entirely rational, for TEs to do as you suggest and attribute to earthly chance what is spiritually God’s unfolding plan. That is the doctrine of providence, which was always seen as God’s overseeing chance as chance, ie as humanly unpredictable/inexplicable, just as it was seen as overseeing free human actions as free human actions.

      But they often prefer, it seems, to make chance autonomous of God on principle – indeed, that, once the “freedom” lingo is removed, is exactly what Karl Giberson and the free creation people are saying: indeterminacy autonomous of God as a necessary condition for authentic creation. They don’t want God’s oversight of the process.

      Slightly less dire is the idea of God’s being able to use randomly distributed processes in directed process, as per Melanogaster’s convoluted exposition on BioLogos. There the problems are that only a very limited subset of natural processes can be effectively governed in that way, and more seriously it suggests again that God is subservient to his own processes rather than governing them. And from M’s own equivocation, it’s not clear that he is that keen that God should be aiming at any particular target.

    • James says:


      I agree with you that God’s foreknowledge does not necessarily require that God controls our actions. But I wish that several TE writers would distinguish between the motion of a hydrogen atom, or the mutation of a strand of DNA, and human choices. I think that God foreknows all of the above, but does not control (in the puppet-master sense, anyway) the last one. To argue that we must give all of nature “freedom” in order to preserve human free will is simply illogical. But that seems to be the implied argument of Ken Miller, Darrel Falk, Dennis Venema, and others.

      Another way of putting it is: no matter who was right about free will, Calvin or Arminius (and there is room for doubt that those two men’s positions were the polar opposites they are often represented to be), bringing in “free will” or “freedom” or “autonomy” to discuss the activity of nucleotides or of natural selection is just silly. The evolutionary process doesn’t have to be a “free” activity of nature in order for human beings to be free.

  2. James says:

    Excellent critical analysis of the position of Giberson (and of several other TEs), Jon.

    You have hit on the exact points of weakness.

    The only comment I would add is this: You mention that Giberson’s writings these days are more forthright than what is found on BioLogos. It is interesting that in Giberson’s very last columns of BioLogos, there was a tendency toward more radical thinking than would likely be accepted by most evangelicals, even by those who accept evolution. For example, in one column he came very close to saying that the God of the Old Testament does evil and un-Christian things (e.g., the destruction of the Canaanites) and that therefore the teaching of the Old Testament is in some places false. But of course, to say that directly would be to contradict the “official” BioLogos position that all of the Bible, not just some of it, is divinely inspired.

    I have the impression that Giberson wanted the freedom to say more things of that nature, but felt he could not do it while Vice-President of an evangelical organization like BioLogos, with its need to respond to mainstream evangelical opinion (both for reasons of funding and of potential doctrinal condemnations) with great caution. That is, I have the impression that Giberson was sailing more and more in the direction of Van Till, and that made his continued employment at BioLogos impossible. If that is the case, then either he would have to leave voluntarily (“to have more time for his writing”), or he would be pushed out. I consider it not beyond possibility that Giberson was — behind the scenes — pushed out. (There is no doubt that this was the case with Pete Enns, whose publically expressed views on the Bible were becoming increasingly liberal and increasingly incompatible with American evangelical tradition.)

    What I find most distressing about the business is that Enns, Giberson, Sparks, etc. seem to have been made scapegoats for BioLogos. It’s my suspicion that those who remained (Falk and Venema, among others) personally held theological views not that much different from the views of the others who got the boot, but were much more careful in the way they wrote about their views. The cutting loose of the more explicitly liberal writers gave the impression of a repudiation of dangerous doctrines and a reaffirmation of a traditional evangelical position, but I think that is impression is mainly an illusion, fostered in order to placate sponsors. The moral of the story seems to be that if you have beliefs that are heretical, or even liberal beyond what most evangelicals are yet ready to accept, you must learn to express those views in vague, cloudy ways, so that you are never pinned down to a clear doctrine and its clear implications.

    I don’t think much of Giberson as a thinker — for reasons you’ve pointed out. He makes elementary philological and philosophical errors regarding Christian theology. But I do give him points for saying what he is thinking out loud, instead of trying to sugar-coat it to make it more acceptable to moderate evangelicals. He makes the issues plainer, and that’s a service to the debate.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi James.

      You may well be right about Giberson’s differences with BioLogos, though his position there is still on his website cv, and he wrote a book with its founder in 2011, after he left, in which these ideas were presented clearly – a book that’s on the recommended BL reading list.

      BioLogos may have chosen not to distance themselves from him publicly for gracious reasons, but I ask myself whether they’ve distanced themselves from his free-process theology in any shape or form. The only way “freedom” in nature makes sense at all is in the way he presents it, and similar ideas have been presented by “camp-followers” recently in comments with no correction, or alternative view, from the “centre”.

      Nor has any alternative view been presented in articles , along the lines of “Some TE’s think this, but an alternative view is that evolution is directed by a sovereign God.” Nor have any of our questions been answered satisfactorily over the last two years.

      If this is not the default position of the organisation, they’re not trying very hard to present another, or even a range of alternatives.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Incidentally James, don’t you find it odd that Dr Giberson would complain about the righteousness of the God of the Old Testament, yet insist that the “Judeo-Christian” God wouldn’t create cats that torture mice?

        This would be the Jewish God who didn’t bring the Jews into the Promised Land, I suppose – maybe the one that Aaron made out of ear-rings etc.

  3. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Any evolutionary thinkers who drift from orthodoxy (whether the public perception on this is mistaken or not) will be noted by all those who see danger in science or mainstream versions of it — they will be noted as confirmation of where all this evolutionary thinking must “inevitably” lead.

    That makes the project here of trying to re-center on established Scriptural tradition and study so important, especially when it includes a reclamation of testimony from creation and a willingness to follow all God’s truth wherever it leads.

    Quick joke that I heard (and have repeated before) …
    A Calvinist and an Arminian were happily debating religious truths in an upper room when unbeknownst to both, a workman came and removed the stairway leading up to the doorway. The debaters decided to take a break for lunch and both stepped out the door and fell all the way to the ground. The Arminian got up, brushed himself off and said “Whew! I’ll have to be more careful next time.” The Calvinist picked himself up and declared, “Wow! I’m glad that’s over!”

    Sorry to be perpetrating yet more simplistic (and probably wrong) ideas over these contrasting philosophies, but now you know my depth.

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