Check out McGrew

Lydia McGrew has done an excellent piece, Special agent intention as an explanation, which though not addressed to the same specific subjects, relates to the discussions we’ve had here over the last few posts, on frontloading, natural causes, etc. It’s in the comments that much of what is relevant to our concerns crops up, so I recommend reading those, and the article itself.

Lydia’s interest is as an Aristotelian-Thomist thinker, who’s interacted extensively with Ed Feser, that other celebrated A-T, but has increasingly critiqued his very negative position on theistic design matters in general, and ID in particular.

You’ll see that the conservationist-occasionalist-concurrentist discussion enters in during the comments, and interestingly (speaking as a half-hearted conservationist) she has a different take on it than I, which leads me to my one disagreement (below). But to me, conservationism, as seen in conversation with BioLogos folk like Darrel Falk, leads to a primarily hands-off, laissez-faire doctrine of creation, in which God sustains a creation that largely does its own thing. Miracles are the only alternative, and don’t properly belong in nature. In contrast, I believe concurrentism gives God an ongoing role in every action, whilst respecting true secondary causes.

To McGrew, though, it is the occasionalists and concurrentists who tend to minimise God’s involvement in nature, which is an interesting difference I’d like to study at some (later) stage.

But Lydia’s “cautious conservationism” leads her to what I would see as a rather simplistic dichotomy between “natural” and “miraculous”, the latter being what she dubs her “special agent intention”. She’s chosen that phrase, I think, because it, like ID, does not pre-judge who the “agent” is… it’s just any miracle-worker who is around!

Under concurrentism though, in my view, as clearly discussed in Aquinas, God’s intentionality can work in ways that are direct but not, strictly, miraculous – special providence is always in action, answering prayer, guiding the whole of history, but not necessarily in the extraordinary manner implied by the term “miracle.”

For example, creation ex nihilo is not miraculous, because it establishes the created order, rather than altering it. So if God created new species, for example, in that way it would not be miraculous but simply staged-creation.

Aquinas also recognises a category he calls “change”, in which God providentially alters existing natures, without ex nihilo creation (eg changing dust into Adam’s body). I conjecture that one could actually express that as creation from nothing in terms of “new information” rather than “new matter” – God gives matter new form, in Aristotelian terms.

So I’m unhappy with lumping it all togather as “miracle”, and that’s partly because it seems to play into the hands of those who stumble over the idea of God multiplying miracles unnecessarily, given their rare and demonstrative purpose in Scripture.

Nevertheless, one very positive thing that Lydia’s approach achieves, to me, is that she is keen to break down the invisible barrier that TEs, and many IDists, have erected between the way God acts in salvation history and the way he acts in nature. By bracketing it all as “special agent intention” she reminds us that God himself has not made that NOMA distinction between “nature” and “religion”. He is the same God, and we would therefore expect him to act in similar ways throughout his dealings with what he has made.

If he works by both consistent principle (eg reward and punishment through law) and special providence in spiritual matters, then he would most probably work by both by consistent principle (natural law) and special providence in nature, too.

If he didn’t act similarly in both realms, then the kind of mental split that many TEs display between their faith and their science would be insurmountable. For if I pray for the weather, or for physical  healing, then I am bridging the gap between the created order and the spiritual realm: I’m asking for special providence (my preferred term) or for miraculous action (Lydia’s term) within the natural order. There doesn’t seem any valid reason why God should be considered to act within that natural order constantly now, given the billions of people praying, but to have no such involvement otherwise (eg before humans began to pray).

Deep issues – but vital if we’re to approach science and nature with the correct “spectacles behind our eyes.” And Lydia is great at explaining them, so do take a look at her site.

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 Check out McGrew

  1. Jon

    I read Lydia’s comments. I see a danger of confusion in failing to distinguish–on some basis other than fulfilling a special intention–between miracles that can or cannot have been “front-loaded” into the beginning of the universe. Take the miracle of the draught of fishes in Luke 5:4-6. Did the Spirit impel the fish from various parts of the lake toward Peter’s boat at the appropriate moment? Perhaps even materialize the fish on the spot? Or did the fish come together in a manner that was seamlessly worked into the cascade of law-like regularities, but which occurred at the proper time and with the full knowledge of the Lord so that he could give the command to let down the net?

    We might argue, assuming the truth of the story, that the timing of Jesus’ command proves God’s intention was manifested and yet decline to commit ourselves on the exact manner of causation. ID arguments go farther than that. An ID argument would claim that such a confluence of fish could not occur “seamlessly” within the matrix of physical causes for some particular reason or reasons. Then, if someone were to take issue with the reasons given for the denial, the proponent of the ID argument would probably claim that the objector was weakening any apologetic argument from that incident. Timing and fulfillment of the Lord’s words would presumably be less-than-convincing unless accompanied by one for the insufficiency of law-like regularities.

    A little thought will show that such an analysis is not appropriate for every act of God that might be termed miraculous. The resurrection of Jesus to immortal life cannot be nested within law-like regularities. So the question is whether the appearance of life forms is more like the draught of fishes or the resurrection of Jesus. To me, given the range of evidence, it is more like the draught of fishes.

    Paul claims that God’s qualities, broadly speaking, can be seen from the created order as a whole (Rom 1:20). To me, the most convincing way to elaborate this is with a form of the argument from nature’s intelligibility. Put simply, predictability is the result of purpose rather than accident. That the universe would be “accidentally predictable” in its law-like regularities is for my money an oxymoron. One doesn’t need a sophisticated grasp of statitistical probability or an arcane knowledge of microbiology to appreciate this argument in some form. Even Hume backhandedly admits the power of it near the end of his Dialogue on Natural Religion.

    In short, ID runs the danger of setting up a special argument that implies weakness on the part of a more general one.

    • Edward Robinson says:


      You have to be specific when you refer to “ID arguments,” since ID is shorthand for a cluster of related positions rather than a monolith. The way you write about ID it is impossible for me to tell what specific arguments you are responding to. Not all of your objections would apply to all ID proponents.

      Since you seem to have read some philosophy, perhaps a comparison will make this point clear. Suppose I said that “modern philosophy” ran the danger of this or that; you might well reply: which modern philosophy? 17th-century rationalism? Humean empiricism? Kantianism? Hegelianism? Marxism? Existentialism? Linguistic analysis? I would then have to specify what sort of “modern philosophy” I had in mind, so that you could see the problem I was worried about.

      Behe’s view of ID is different in important respects from that of Meyer, and both differ from the ID of Nelson. It’s hard to tell what danger you are addressing when you don’t specify an argument or position that you have in mind.

      Thus, when you say, “An ID argument would claim that such a confluence of fish could not occur seamlessly,” I’d like to know which ID writers have made such a claim (a) about the Biblical miracle specified or (b) about Biblical miracles generally or (c) about certain alleged evolutionary transitions. Certainly Michael Denton believes in “seamless” evolution according to the meaning of the word you seem to be applying, and he is an ID proponent. Behe, too, has not ruled out “seamless” evolution and he is an ID proponent. The issue for Denton and for Behe is not “seamless” vs. “miraculous” but “by design” vs. “by chance” — quite a different distinction.

      Part of the problem is that early on in ID, when it was formulating itself afresh, Phil Johnson was a major player, and he tended to discuss things in terms of “naturalistic explanation” versus “miracles” or “naturalistic explanation” vs. “design.” Sometimes Dembski used to adopt that language as well. Many churchgoing adherents of ID have repeated such language. But the ID leadership today avoids such a contrast. In official definitions of ID on the Discovery site you don’t find “miracles” or “supernatural intervention” etc. incorporated into the definition of ID. The definition relates to design versus chance. Thus, the claim is not that supernatural activity can be detected, but that design can be detected.

      Also, I don’t think discussion of the Biblical miracles advances the discussion very far, since many of the TE/EC leaders accept Biblical miracles, especially the Resurrection. They concede that such miracles “break” the normal laws of nature and that there is not a “seamless” unity between one moment and the next when these events happen. So ID leaders and TE leaders (with a few exceptions on the TE side) agree that God sometimes acts supernaturally, or directly rather than through natural laws, etc. (choose your own expression).

      The difference between ID and TE is not usually over explicit Biblical miracles, but over the origin of the cosmos, life, species, and man. TE/EC folks tend to agree with the atheists that no design is needed to get even the most complex order out of nature. You just toss out some hydrogen atoms and the natural laws and chance will, in the absence not only of miracles or interventions or direct divine actions (again choose your phrase) but even of any planning or advance set-up, produce livable planets, life, and man. That appears to be what Dennis Venema, Karl Giberson, etc. believe. ID has challenged this — and rightly, in my view, since the capacity of nature to produce such results with neither intervention nor advance planning has nowhere near been demonstrated. Certainly it looks as if at least design (in the sense of advance programming or set-up to bias the universe strongly in certain directions) would be needed.

      Note that this last point is separate from any Christian apologetic issue. It is simply a question of what an unplanned, unguided nature could reasonably be expected to produce. It is thus an empirical, rational, mathematical question, not a theological question. This is why Behe, in his debate with Barr, stressed that Barr misunderstood his work as apologetic. Behe denied that the purpose of his work was to prove the existence of God; he stressed that the purpose of his work was to provide a better, more rational explication of nature. It is not as a Catholic (though he is that) that Behe offers his ID arguments. It is as a biochemist and scientist. He thinks that design is a necessary part of any explanation of the world, even aside from any use that design arguments might have for apologetics.

      My approach is close to Behe’s. I grant that arguments for design in nature can have apologetic uses, but their validity as arguments does not rest on their friendliness to revealed religion. The two questions need to be separated: (1) Is the argument to design valid? (2) If the argument to design is valid, is it then possible to make an argument from design to God? ID in the strict sense, ID as a theory (“scientific” or not), is concerned only with question 1. Individual ID proponents, as human beings and as Christians, have of course views on question 2 as well. But they concern the implications of ID, and are not part of the case for ID.

      A very good exposition of much of this is found in Behe’s various writings and public talks, but also in Jay Richards’s collection, God and Evolution.

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    I have a problem or two with your miraculous catch, Darek, both theologically and scientifically.

    Granted that the “mechanism” of the miracle is invisible (and perhaps that’s in the very nature of the matter), theologically it had a very specific purpose – to show the sovereignty of Jesus over nature, thereby demonstrating him to be the Lord of creation: he who made all things has them at his command.

    Luke, of course, also has Jesus make the didactic point that Jesus is just as powerful to draw men to himself as he is fish: I’m not sure what kind of soteriology “frontloaded” evangelism represents: it’s either Hypercalvinistic predetermination or an extreme Arminianism that puts Christ’s knowledge of those who will believe in “the usual course of events” at the centre. To me, it’s more reasonable to say that just as Jesus sovereignly brought abundant fish, so his grace will ensure that their mission as apostles will be equally fruitful – and grace, I believe, operates in real time.

    That, to me, makes what we’ve been calling a “frontloaded” miracle fall a bit short: the unprecedented fish conglomeration “was in the cascade of law-like regularities”, and Jesus’s power was limited to knowing about it: little more is required than that of a keen eyed observer who notices bubbles on the surface. I’m not sure why the “normal course of events” is so sacrosanct that it’s a better explanation than Jesus saying, “Fish, come!” (or, I suppose, “Fish, exist!”).

    Scientifically, the first explanation requires that is is actually possible to front-load creation so deterministically that fish reliably turn up at the right minute 4.5 billion years after the clock starts (since we’re assuming here no concurrent activity of God in steering events thereafter). And as Lydia (if I recall aright) said, if the system of laws were, indeed, rigged like an automaton so that unpredictable things like that are programmed in, it’s hardly law-like any more, for the character of law-likeness is its predictability. And the catch of fish was not predictable.

    Turning to the points about ID, any IDist beefing about apologetic points would not be doing ID, but apologetics. Speaking as an informed outsider, I would say that someone like Michael Behe would actually prefer a frontloaded version of the miracle, by analogy to his preferred explanation of irreducible complexity: the terminology of “seamlessness” would I think be unclear to him. In fact his critique works strictly within the Neodarwinian paradigm by pointing out where, in his view, the claimed mechanisms don’t have the lifting power to give the observed effects, and so concludes there must be a designed, rather than a randomly controlled, mechanism built in at creation. He doesn’t believe in active interventions in real time, and is one of the leading IDists.

    The equivalent in the miracle account would be of Behe’s opposing an established “Sea of Galilee Theory” in which fish were claimed to be distributed evenly, on scientific principle, over the lake. This episode, he would say, gives the lie to it. There must be some more sophisticated and specifically designed property of fish or lake that produces such a rare event. Would that be “seamless”? Yes, in the same sense that a vaccuum cleaner designed to blow instead of suck on a couple of occasions in its existence operates “seamlessly”.

    An ID person other than Behe or those like him (eg Denton) might say that such frontloading is either impossible, or unparsimonious. Some form of intervention in time is just more likely for a unique event. But for both “camps”, whether it’s the pre-planned feeding frenzy in Galilee or the vacuum-cleaner, the very event is a sign of intention.

    Re your last para, that regularity is the best test sign of divine purpose is arguable. At a fundamental level I agree – for the same simple laws to operate over the whole universe is something requiring explanation. But actually, the most regular pattern of all would be a uniform spread of Hydrogen atoms in a homogeneous infinity.

    It’s the specificity of the laws that makes them worthy of note – and their fine-tuning that indicates purpose (the one point on which most TEs and most IDist agree). The skeptic, however, is able to say that their regularity is due to the axiomatic maths behind them: the inverse square law could be no other way, God or no God.

    In astronomy it was initially thought that pulsars might indicate intelligent broadcasts. But, within the universe we find, clocklike regularity and order – planetary orbits, crystal structure, exact symmetry – are not the best signs of intelligence at all. They result from relatively simple mathematical necessity.

    Remember that the first (mainly Christian) scientists did not look for regularity as evidence for God – they already believed God to be rational from creation doctrine, saw that the world was somewhat predictable empirically, and set out to echo God’s thoughts, especially mathematically.

    But at the same time, as I pointed out in a recent post, the same creation doctrine made others look for contingency and non-regularity – the diversity of living creatures, minerals and so on, that were, to them, indicators of God’s freedom to create whatever he wished “at the time”. Seamless necessity was the very opposite of what these people were investigating, because it would detract from God’s sovereign liberty.

    And so, whilst certain Greek philosophers held that, of necessity, every possible form would eventually be generated by nature’s mathematical regularity, people like Linnaeus said, “No – we need to investigate what God has actually chosen to make, for he is under no such logical necessity. He is the God who is close at hand as well as far off.”

  3. Jon

    To begin near the end, the regularity sufficient to confer intelligibility on nature need not be dull and uninteresting. For a more detailed treatment I recommend, _The Divine Lawmaker: Lectures on Induction, Laws of Nature, and the Existence of God_ by John Foster. C. S. Lewis covers this point briefly in MAPS in the chapter on probability where he says that the disorderly, utterly unpredictable universe we cannot believe we inhabit is the one God would not have endured to create. If the universe as a space-time whole is sheer accident, in principle no event is predictable even probabilistically and all our beliefs to the contrary are delusional. Any intelligible universe—even one composed of nothing but hydrogen atoms—would testify to a wise and powerful Creator; ours testifies to a loving one as well.

    I would turn your other point entirely around. Jesus performed all of his miracles in real time, but his “real time” is ALL of time. God exists outside of time even as he enters and manifests himself within it. “Before Abraham came to be I am (not ‘I was’).” To say that all of space-time is God’s sculpture is a better way to describe it than to talk about front-loading. We must avoid the trap secularists fall into, believing that, “To the extent secondary causes can be identified, God’s agency is not apparent.” As hypothetical examples of this kind of thinking:

    Did God really send Joseph to Egypt ahead of his family? Then the decision Joseph’s brothers made to sell him into slavery must not have been their own. Was the decision of the brothers a genuine moral choice of theirs? Then God did not send Joseph to Egypt.

    Did God really bring Assyrian armies into Samaria and Judea as a judgment (Isa 8:7)? Then geopolitical calculations on the part of Assyrian rulers cannot be identified as causes of the invasions. And if such factors can be identified as plausible causes, God’s purposive action is obscured.

    Did God pave the way for “all flesh” to see his saving means in Christ by orchestrating historical circumstances? He did so discernibly only if we cannot identify historical causes for the promulgation of Greek as a common language, which allowed the gospel to be carried far and wide by missionaries such as Paul. And only if we cannot prosaically account for the Roman system of roads, which was in place, conveniently, when missionaries needed to use them to reach the farthest corners of the Roman empire.

    To return to my example of the draught of fishes, I was by no means limiting Jesus’ action to mere foreknowledge. I am insisting on his ability to work his purposes across time and space so that, as in the examples above, we might well never be able to find a clean break in the web of secondary causes leading up to the event no matter how much information we were to have at the physical level. Or that secondary causes might appear sufficient, in principle, at the physical level and yet the purpose of God nevertheless be plainly evident in the event. Or to state it yet another way, the knowledge of Jesus might have been miraculous in different way than the arrival of the fish to a particular spot, while all of it remains his work from beginning to end.

    Nor am I insisting that God works only in such a potentially untraceable manner. Since he CAN work that way, and since his working that way can bear witness convincingly to his existence and purposes, we don’t have a huge apologetic stake in whether biologists can make a plausible case for clotting of the blood as a result of selection, or other such questions.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      Ah, now we seem to be talking a similar language, Darek. Your point about the Lord working in eternity is precisely why I’m doubtful about scenarios in which his action is principally restricted to the initial creation, because they see divine action as done and dusted in the past, barring the odd miracle.

      I concur that the substrate of orderly “law” is likely to be that way (though of course our principle of uniformity is an assumption rather than a divine promise) but as Lydia McGrew says, there’s plenty of orderliness left if God sometimes acts in nature as he does in miracles. He may be acting in eternity, but the effects will occur in time. The miraculous fish moved, or materialised, at a point in time and space. All I’ve been suggesting is that there’s no compelling reason why nature should be entirely the outcome of law rather than (divine) contingency – it’s an empirical matter. But since God brings new effects in time in human affairs (and surprises us in the weather, in history etc) I see no reason why that should not be so in the emergence ogf living things.

      That said, I agree that the likelihood of being able to observe such actions is low. As I’ve argued before, even a completely saltational miraculous event like a plate of E Coli producing colonies of a dramatically new and different species overnight would be indistinguishable from a lucky fluke. DNA would have mutated, however ’twas done. Though I would contend that the contingency of “chance” has a discernible pattern in the world, such that we always suspect manipulation when a number of highly improbable events coincide.

      The example of dual causation you give are good. I would have thought that whether we’re still discussing frontloading v action in time or not, we’re surely committed to some kind of concurrence where human free-will is concerned (occasionalism would say, with the materialist, that there was no genuine choice, but God was the only true cause. Conservationism really has no way that God can be acting through human choices, ecspt by reacting to them.) Classically (as in Thomas, for example), concurrence would involve God as governing both Joseph’s circumstances and, in some manner, the genuinely free choices of the brothers, though not the motives.

      I think that gets even more hard to get a handle on if one’s talking about it as the natural outworking of lawlike processes, since that would imply free-will is a natural law-governed thing, which is an unpopular option for Christians, whetver their concept of will. One gets into Molinistic ideas like God creating the one world in which he foresees that particular version of the brothers will act as they do.

      But as you say, when one talks about the world as a creation in eternity, the distinction becomes rather trivial – God no more creates a world which he hopes pans out as expected than a novelist getting his galley-proof back hopes the events will match what he wrote.

      Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s enough, as some TEs seem to do, to study scientific processes and then say, “God can make them pan out however he chooses.” Even in the novel, the omipotent writer must make the plot coherent and an unlikely coincidence is still unlikely, like Dickens’ writing spontaneous combustion into Bleak House (or Rob Reiner into Spinal Tap, come to that).

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