The limitations of (excluding) natural theology

Much discussion recently amongst the usual suspects (including both BioLogos and Uncommon Descent) on a Wall Street Journal article by Eric Metaxas, suggesting an increasing support for theism from modern science. Unfortunately it’s behind a pay-wall, but seems to have majored on cosmic fine-tuning, together with support for the “rare earth” hypothesis.

010The negative response from many commentators casts more light on the US culture wars than on the issues. Here I want to comment only on negative responses by Christian academics and attempt to point out some of the anomalies in the positions taken, with a view to stating the core issues in simple terms.

I understand Metaxas is a Christian writer, who has been in discussion with IDists like Stephen Meyer, but I’m not sure whether he espoused Intelligent Design as a movement in his Op Ed. But what is clear is that his responders largely drew on stock responses to ID in their rebuttals. So, for example, philosopher Francis Beckwith (a convert to Catholicism), wrote about “Metaxas’ Watchmaker God”. The now familiar equation of ID = Paleyism = a mere mechanic God is clearly in view.

Now Beckwith has a complex history with regard to natural theology, having supported the Discovery Institute in its quest for freedom in the educational system, but having written against ID on BioLogos from the viewpoint of his understanding of scholasticism. The part of his argument that interests me here is based on that scholastic approach, which is similar to Ed Feser’s:

…God – as understood by the Catholic Church and by most other theistic traditions – is not a being in the universe, a superior agent whose existence we postulate in order to explain some natural phenomenon, but rather, Being Itself, that which all contingent reality depends for its existence.

In order to appreciate how this understanding differs from Metaxas’ Watchmaker God, suppose in a few years scientists tell us, after further research, new discoveries, and confirmed theories, that the arising of life in the universe is not that improbable after all. What then happens to Metaxas’ God?

A similar point is made, from very different theological foundations, by Peter Enns, at one time the staff theologian of BioLogos:

God is not a ‘being’ whose ‘existence’ can be pointed out here or there,” Enns says. “God is being, the ground of being, that by which all being, all existence, is made possible. That is the claim of the Christian faith and to fall short of that claim is to sell this God short.

009Enns incidentally claims that Metaxas suggests science “proves” God – a straight falsehood which again seems to be one of those stock responses to natural theology from Paley to the present. I wonder what view of truth justifies that? Both critics are accusing Metaxas of “God of the gaps” thinking, but go well beyond that to a metaphysical conviction that, gaps or not, it’s always inappropriate to associate the concept “God” with the concept “evidence”. God just is “Being”. Now I appreciate that as an ontological truth, and believe more than many Christians that the mode of God’s existence is fundamentally other than ours. But I will suggest it has problems if taken as an absolute approach to theology.

But before that let me show how, whatever the strengths of the argument, it is something which we all need to argue about, and not a definitive rebuttal to a particular movement like ID, versus, say, a more solidly based theistic evolution. In the context of Metaxas’ article, both Beckwith’s and Enns’s critiques must dismiss cosmic fine tuning out of hand. For how do we know that in a few years further research won’t enable us to account for fine tuning of cosmological constants? Perhaps string theory will be empirically confirmed, and a watertight model of the Multiverse found. What of CFT then (to hijack Beckwith’s rhetoric)?

002The trouble is that, whatever the merits of this argument, it doesn’t divide exactly where you’d expect on the culture-war battlefront. On one hand William Dembski, firmly committed to ID as a movement, denies the CFT case as good evidence for God. In Being as Communion, after a long discussion about the impossibility of assigning probabilities to events outside the known universe, he concludes:

I personally regard fine-tuning arguments as suggestive, as pointers to an underlying intelligent or teleological cause. But I see no way to develop them into rigorous statistical inferences precisely because their probabilities cannot be grounded in any observed processes (indeed observation itself presupposes fine tuning).

On the other hand, BioLogos responded (explicitly) to Metaxas’s piece by reprinting an earlier post by John Polkinghorne in support of cosmic fine-tuning:

What I’ve been trying to say to you in the last 20 or 25 minutes is that the laws of nature and their fine-tuned fruitfulness and deep intelligibility have a character that seems to me to point beyond themselves to demand further explanation and makes them unsatisfactory to be treated simply as a brute fact starting point. And that would be my defense of theism.

But now, natural theology, as I said at the beginning, is an attempt to learn something of God by the exercise of reason, by the inspection of the world, by a certain limited source of understanding. And it only appeals to limited kinds of experience — general experience, the kind we’ve been thinking about – and so it only can lead to limited insight. If you were to give me the maximum success in what I’ve been saying to you this afternoon, it would be as consistent with the spectator God of deism who simply set the world spinning and watched it all happen, as it would be with the providential God of theism, who is of course the God in whom I believe, who not only set the world spinning but who is concerned for that world and interacts providentially in its unfolding history.

So natural theology, even when it’s most successful, can only give you a limited insight into God, and give you a very thin picture of the nature of God. God is the great mathematician or the cosmic architect, something like that. If you want to know more about God, if you want to know, for example, does God care for individual beings? Does God indeed interact with unfolding history? Then you’ll have to look in a different realm of experience, you will have to move from natural theology to the theology of revelation, which appeals to what are believed to be acts of divine self-disclosure in the course of history.

SONY DSCNow, Polkinghone places firm limits on what can be learned of God from cosmic fine tuning, but so does Metaxas and every natural theologian I’ve ever encountered. What is more interesting is that his appeal to empirical evidence places his theology firmly in the “Watchmaker God” category rejected by Beckwith and Enns. In fact, BioLogos, despite its stated opposition to “God of the gaps” reasoning, follows founder Francis Collins in taking CFT as acceptable scientific evidence for God here. They do not, of course, say it proves God – but then ID people don’t say that their arguments of any sort, including fine-tuning, are more than the best explanation available.

How does BioLogos justify this apparent appeal to “God of the gaps” whilst condemning it in matters like the origin of life and evolution? The answer lies in claiming that, since CFT applies to the beginning of creation, before science can be said to operate, the “gap” involved is simply the necessary business of creation itself. Judge for yourself if that’s a valid distinction – especially if, as per Beckwith, science changes in a few years time and the Universe turns out to be time-eternal, for example. Does this opinion make BioLogos and Polkinghorne believers in the same paltry “Watchmaker God” as Metaxas, since the case being made is identical? The gate that leads to life would appear to be narrow, indeed!

003But the bigger issue, for me, is what follows if one insists, like Beckwith and Enns, that God can never be a matter of evidence by virtue of being Being Itself, of a different order from all we might conceive of as evidence. The knowledge of God must then be a matter purely of un-evidenced faith, purged of any taint of worldly evidence. God must appear to be totally uninvolved in his world. That would, from what I’ve read of him, not be too much of a problem for Peter Enns, whose postmodern approach to biblical truth seems to be to reduce it more or less entirely to human history and then to seek God invisibly behind its warty and marred visage. But for the Catholic Beckwith I’m not so sure – the traditional Christian faith tells us to look at the physical intervention of God in many instances, and especially in raising Christ physically from death, as evidence for his existence and character, just as Israel similarly looked back to the Exodus as concrete evidence of God’s power and blessing. Jesus himself challenged people to believe the evidence of his miracles, if they had trouble believing his words.

There is no epistemological difference between evidence based in human history and evidence based in natural or cosmic history. Both are potentially falsifiable (what if the very day scientists announce that life is proven not to be improbable archaeologists dig up Jesus’s bones?). But both give the lie to the assertion that no connection can, or should, be made between physical facts and belief in God.

001However, let’s run with that assertion a little further. If God’s existence is beyond meaningful discussion, because he is the Ground of all Being, then nothing about the physical Universe can have any possible bearing on that truth. Not only are Metaxas’s fine-tuning arguments outlawed, as also all possible Intelligent Design arguments, Paleyan examples and so on, but so must be arguments used by some of our greatest scientists. For example, the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”  (Eugene Wigner) in explaining the universe is not simply arguable, perhaps by the suggestion that the maths, and the order, are both human artifacts, but is outlawed on principle. The Early modern scientists’ principle that human reason can understand the world because of the evidence for God’s rational order, and so “think his thoughts after him” is just as falsifiable, by the discovery of chaos behind the order, or the finding that the only order is an ollusion of our minds. But it would in principle be forbidden as a basis for science anyway.

008Put it this way. Supposing that everything – I mean everything – about our world pointed to chaos and disorder. No physical laws could be established for more than an hour or so at a time, living things were universally vicious and so on. The power to think reflectively at all was so rare and transient that it barely gave a few individuals time to ask, “What does this all mean?” One assumes that if certain moden scholastic insights passed across this transient consciousness, it would be compelled to conclude: “I exist, at least – therefore God exists as the Ground of all Being. Beyond that evidence cannot take me, but on rational grounds he must be all-good, all-wise and all-powerful.” At that point, his wife would come in and eat him.

Conversely, suppose we lived in an Edenic world where love and order reigned, angels tended our needs and indisputible evidence existed that it all popped into existence a few years ago. It would appear that we must ignore that and follow the same reasoning as the man in the universe of chaos.

005The fact is that, since man first began to reflect on the world, the predominant response to what it is (aka “evidence”) has been to admire its wisdom and order, and to attribute that to the gods, and then to God. The discovery of apparent disorder might lead to doubt, or to more sophisticated justification. The discovery of more subtle order, from Pythagoras’ geometry and harmony to cosmic fine tuning or biological optimizaton, has enhanced the natural theology response. It is as universal an instinct as language.

Furthermore, the Scriptures have encouraged believers to attribute these things to God’s handiwork and offer him glory.

007The same Scriptures have drawn the same limits to what may be known by such means as John Polkinghorne or Stephen Meyer do, and as William Paley did in his day. It’s also true that such evidences are ny no means proofs for those unwilling to believe, any more than is the assertion that God is Being Itself, even when backed by Aquinas’s metaphysical arguments. Even so, many have come to seek God through natural theology, at which point (as many have pointed out) it becomes strictly unnecessary to faith, but infinitely richer as a source of worship.

Outlaw natural theology, as seems to be the aim of so many nowadays in one sophisticated way or another, and not only will human experience be impoverished, but there’s a very real danger of losing sight of the God who promises to meet with us face to face in this world, in these bodies, God in communion with creature.


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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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25 Responses to The limitations of (excluding) natural theology

  1. pngarrison says:

    Jon, I couldn’t tell whether you got to the Metaxas article or not. There was a free link to it in a post on the Biologos Facebook page, but the post seems to have disappeared. I read it, but neglected to save it. My recollection is that Metaxas came close to calling it proof, but didn’t quite say that.

    Funny to me that Dembski quibbles at making probability calculations on fine tuning but goes on to make equally unjustifiable probability calculations himself when it suits his position on evolution, while also ignoring the much more definable probability considerations relevant to common descent.

    As happens so often, these things suggest to me that the even philosophers are not aware of what is really motivating their positions. If you have an immoveable pre-commitment to opposing evolution, that could lead you to invoke a probability argument against the origin of life or natural selection, ignore the obvious one for common descent, and not care much about the fine tuning argument, since you think you’ve already made your “existence of god” argument in “proving” that evolution can’t happen. I can’t help but wonder if an attachment to Biblical inerrancy isn’t the real bedrock commitment for a lot of people defending ID as science.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Nope – the free link had been plugged by the time I tried it. In reply to one of his critics, Metaxas certainly clarified that he was not proposing “proof”. And in a popular opinion article, I would have thought it legitimate to stress the strength of ones evidence without being held to account for suggesting it is “proof”.

      You’re right about philosophers, like others, having innate blindness to their own worldview, though of course even if one is aware of it, you still must assume it in argument or not have a worldview, which is impossible.

      I think, though, that you’re wrong about “biblical inerrancy”, at least inasmuch as saying it is “the” real bedrock for ID thinkers. Amongst prominent ID writers there are agnostics, Moonies, Buddhist-influenced Anglicans. A day or so spent at Uncommon Descent shows all kinds of heterodoxy amongst the “broad masses”. So biblical inerrancy (of what shape? YECs are certainly not a mojority) must be at most a contributing factor.

      My point here, though, is about the admissibility of natural theology, and the tendency now to lump it all together as “ID” and dismiss it out of hand. In fact it has a long and distinguished history as a key area both of apologetics and reinforcing existing faith.

  2. pngarrison says:

    I was just thinking of the evangelical ID folks; I suspect the inerrancy commitment accounts for the common rejection of common descent among the evangelical IDists.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    It’s possible you’re right, but in my view all such linkages of positions tends to reinforce the practice (all too common) of trying to “expose” who ones opponents “really” are rather than respond to their case. The offenders in chief of that are, of course, those militants who believe they can smell a Creationist from afar by their friendliness to black cats, and having accused them exempt themselves from rational argument.

    The fact that someone is a Muslim doesn’t automatically invalidate their claims about western torture, for example. More specifically, if someone does overtly dispute common descent on biblical grounds (a) one needs to investigate the strength of their theological case and (b) it makes no difference whatsoever to any biological case they make. So what use was the association of “Inerrantist” with “against Common Descent”?

    A cause should produce consistent results to be considered significant. Remember that the man who was the father of modern theories of biblical inerrancy, B B Warfield, was also one of the most prominent theistic evolutionists of his age. Apart from anything else that shows that “inerrantist” itself may be one of those witchfinding words: OECs believe the Bible literally and truthfully teaches an old earth, to the chagrin of YECs. Some TEs (like me) believe the Bible literally and truthfully doesn’t teach about universal common descent at all.

    So one ends up defining what one means by inerrantists by their denial of common descent and espousal of ID, which is circular. It’s more useful just to ask them why they’ve reached those denials and espousals.

    • pngarrison says:

      I guess it just seems to me that the scientific case for common descent is so strong, and I don’t suspect the IDists who reject it of being too dull or uninformed to understand it, that I wonder if the explanation of their position doesn’t lie elsewhere. People don’t like it when you suggest they don’t understand their own mind, so I’m not inclined to get into it with them, but can’t help suspecting it.

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


        I think that Wells and Nelson are well aware of their own theological motivations regarding common descent. However, they would say that they restrict their public arguments to biological ones, not theological ones. And I think that is largely true. I am aware of their personal theological views, but I don’t see any appeal to theological axioms in their arguments. I’m not saying their arguments against common descent have persuaded me, but I believe they honestly think they are good arguments.

        And remember, the other side has parallel motivations. Coyne etc. have every motivation to believe in common descent and a mindless evolutionary mechanism, because they don’t want to believe in God.

        TEs have their motivations, too. Some don’t want to believe that God could ever create evil, and use that as an argument against ID (Darwinism must be true because it keeps God’s hands clean by giving the dirty work to random mutations and natural selection, whereas ID would make God the direct author of evil, so ID is false and Darwinism true: — Miller, Ayala). But that’s not a scientific argument against design, it’s a private sentiment about God. (It also directly contradicts Jeff Schloss who says that God is “mightily hands on” in evolution; God can’t be both hands-on and hands-off simultaneously, regarding the problem of evil and suffering. This is why TE is so incoherent as a movement; the TEs never engage in theological dialogue with each other, to sort out their own internal contradictions, but only bash ID folks and creationists. But I digress.)

        Other TEs don’t believe God would “bully” creation, but would give it “freedom,” as the Arminian God (as opposed to that nasty, tyrannical Calvinist God) supposedly gives humans freedom. So God would never have dictatorially decreed exactly what species evolution had to produce. So the neo-Darwinian argument that that mutations are random, rather than intelligently introduced for an end, must be right. But that again is not a scientific argument for neo-Darwinism; it’s a private religious sentiment of Nazarenes and other Arminian free-churchers. Motivations abound in these arguments. Nobody is neutral.

        Except Jon and I, that is — and I’m not so sure about Jon. 🙂

  4. Lou Jost says:

    There is no epistemological difference between evidence based in human history and evidence based in natural or cosmic history. Both are potentially falsifiable (what if the very day scientists announce that life is proven not to be improbable archaeologists dig up Jesus’s bones?). But both give the lie to the assertion that no connection can, or should, be made between physical facts and belief in God.

    I heartily agree with you on this.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Good. However, I don’t think alters what in practice one does (just how self-critical one is), Lou.

      In context the “anti-natural theology” argument was that since naturalistic explanations of phenomena may emerge in future, it’s wrong to invoke non-natural causation now.

      That, in my view, makes a false distinction between “natural” and “non-natural” – in that properly speaking natural theology does not look for gaps in efficent causation, but says that efficient causation is an insufficient account intrinsically. But that’s a different argument.

      In practice, I’m suggesting (as frequently before) an inextricable and necessary link between faith and epistemology. At the most basic level, we all ought to reach our current opinions on the basis of the evidence we have to hand currently.

      So if (for the sake of argument) current evolutionary explanations are considered inadequate by someone, it’s a weak argument to say further developments are bound to bolster them and make that conclusion untenable. Maybe, maybe not.

      Equally, if one is convinced of the truth of the resurrection on current evidence, for someone to say, “They’ll probably dig up the grave one day” is of no weight. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the objector will encounter the risen Christ.

      On the other hand, all of us project (and have to project, by the nature of the thing) our belief in the evidences we have into the future. The convinced materialist is bound to believe that a simple origin to life is out there somewhere to be found, or that the bones of Jesus are lost somewhere. Just as the believer in ID’s position on information is bound to say that though people may keep looking for stochastic sources of information, they’re not likely to find it.

      Neither set of beliefs is invalidated (it would appear, from the ongoing arguments) on current evidence, and both are vulnerable to new discoveries, whether that be through a complete fossil record of the first self-reproducing molecules in Antarctica, or the second coming of Christ in Jerusalem.

      So in my view, although on other grounds I say that no discovery of efficient causes can impact belief in God as creator, for Beckwith to try and “future-proof” faith by not believing anything that might get refuted in the future is a mug’s game. Everyone except nihilists take that risk – and they are the most likely of all to get proven wrong in the end.

      • Lou Jost says:

        Neither set of beliefs is invalidated (it would appear, from the ongoing arguments) on current evidence, and both are vulnerable to new discoveries

        I agree with that too. However, this does not make the current situation undecidable based on the evidence we have. Given what we know today, the evidence for the resurrection is very poor and violates everything we know about physics and biology, while the current explanation of evolution does at least seem to not violate what we know today, and new discoveries have continuously added power to the evolutionary process. The counterclaim that any kind of evolutionary explanation is actually inadequate has not led to a productive research program making and confirming predictions. Likewise new discoveries have not increased the likelihood that the resurrection happened; it still goes against everything we know about physics.

        So while we should not be completely satisfied with current evolutionary explanations, I don’t think there is symmetry between the two hypotheses you discuss. If one had to choose between them based on what we know today (and that is what we have to do), I think a person not invested in either side would rationally choose the evolutionary explanation of human life over the Resurrection and its attendant explanation for human life. Frankly, I not only think this is the rational choice but also the more “beautiful” explanation, but I can understand that others may differ about that.

        • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:


          I don’t understand why you are contrasting “evolution” with “Resurrection.” What you should be contrasting is “evolution” (understood in your sense as the unplanned outcome of a blind, uncaring universe which just happens to exist) and “creation” (understood as the ordering activity of an intelligent being). The Resurrection only comes up as a possibility if creation is real. And while resurrection presupposes creation, the reverse is not the case.

          If the Resurrection could be utterly disproved tomorrow, the doctrine of creation would be untouched. People could still be Muslims, Jews, Deists, etc. I understand your objections to the doctrine of Resurrection, but I don’t understand why you are conflating resurrection with creation, as if the two stand or fall together. The evidence for the Resurrection, be it ever so weak and unconvincing, has nothing to do with the evidence for creation. Nobody, from Paley through to Behe and Denton, argues that creation must be true based on historical evidence for the Resurrection.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Eddie, today it looks like the internet gods are letting me post on this page; yesterday they wouldn’t let me. So I wrote a response to this on Jon’s post “Powers and principalities” (which I could access yesterday). In general I agreed with you but still find the two positions tightly linked.

      • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

        Well-put, Jon, especially the ending, regarding Beckwith’s (and Feser’s) attempt to “future-proof” God from falsification by stripping that belief from all connection with particular facts about nature (as opposed to general facts about nature such as “there is motion” which they allow because Aquinas allows it).

        Another thing that Beckwith and Feser seem to fail to see is that their position, even if correct, does no good for Christianity per se. Their God of “classical theism” (a term which I still contest), the God whose unity, simplicity, etc. can be proved by metaphysical (as opposed to scientific) arguments, is not a specifically Christian God (as their invocation of Maimonides and others attests). So the God they make “safe” from anti-teleological discoveries of science is not the Christian God anyway, not the God of faith, but in Pascal’s term, “the God of the philosophers.” The metaphysical arguments for “classical theism,” be they ever so sound, and ever so superior to Paleyan arguments or other arguments from the detailed facts of nature, are not arguments for the God of the Bible.

        Put another way, the uniquely Biblical characteristics of God, especially of God as conceived of in the New Testament (as suffering, dying, rising, redeeming, coming again in the last days, etc.) can’t be derived from “classical theism” any more than they can be derived from a Paleyan “watchmaker God.” So Beckwith etc. can rest content in their metaphysical fortress, confident that no argument can ever dislodge their “classical” God from existence, unity, simplicity, etc. That doesn’t do Christianity, per se, one whit of good. Indeed, I don’t see why such a “classical” God is compelled to reveal himself, to create, to care about his creation once he does create, etc. It seems to me just as likely that such a God would rest eternally content in his unity, simplicity, perfect actuality, etc., and do nothing but admire or enjoy himself, as that he would bother to create something other than himself. If we are sure that a perfect God would do more than this, it is because we unconsciously apply Biblical notions of God that are not in fact derived from metaphysical arguments but from revelation.

        And this is where I find Feser and Beckwith, more than most Thomists, slippery and elusive. I don’t really know how seriously they take the specifically Biblical portraits of God. I don’t know what Feser and Beckwith think about the, shall we say, more anthropomorphic, anthropopathic, personal, folksy, earthy aspects of God as depicted in the Bible. I strongly suspect that their attitude toward those aspects of God is not much different from the attitude of the Enlightenment philosophers, i.e., that such descriptions of God are for the masses who cannot rise intellectually to the level of (Thomist-Aristotelian or Enlightenment) philosophy.

        Of course, I cannot prove that; but I have noticed, time and again, not just in Feser and Beckwith but even in Thomists whom I consider to be much more traditional, much more faithful to Thomas himself, a certain level of discomfort with discussions about the Biblical text, a strong preference for staying at the great metaphysical level.

        I think the metaphysical emphasis is explained partly by their academic training, Feser’s in philosophy and Beckwith’s in moral theology, rather than Biblical studies; but I think there is more to it than that. I spend a lot of time privately conversing with thoughtful Protestants who come from backgrounds such as Beckwith turned away from, and those Protestants don’t have the discomfort level with Paley-like arguments, and it is not because they are too ignorant to understand the difference between metaphysics and science (as Beckwith and Feser fondly imagine), but because their Christianity is steeped much more in the Bible than in philosophical theology; when they think of God, they think of God first and foremost through the Bible, and only secondarily through abstractions like “classical theism.” And such Protestants do not find Paleyan lines of thought to be incompatible with their Biblical way of thinking.

        I’m not one for saying that everything in Christianity must be Biblical and only Biblical; but it seems to me that Thomists quite often short-change the Bible out of their reverence for philosophical theology, especially as shaped by Aristotelian categories of understanding. It seems to me that they tend to “fit the Bible in” as best they can within the “true” notion of God as revealed by Thomist-Aristotelian metaphysics, much as many TEs “fit the Bible in” as best they can within the assumption that “molecules to man by real randomness and impersonal natural laws” was how we got here.

        It seems to me that for a Christian the Bible must be, not everything, but more central than it is in the thought of many of these people. The Bible should provide a rough framework within which other things fit in; it should not be an awkward thing which has to be painstakingly fit into a framework which comes from somewhere else, e.g., neo-Darwinism or Aristotelian metaphysics. Just as fundamentalists seem to labor over the Bible far too much in order to hang on to their historical-literal reading of Genesis, so both TEs and Thomists seem to have to awkwardly skirt far too much of the Bible in order to hang on to their various a priori positions. If the Bible is such an awkward and embarrassing thing as to constantly cause all these theological problems for people, one wonders why they hold it in reverence at all.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          I think your comparison between the limitations of natural theology and the limitations of scholastic theological philosophy (also confusingly called “natural theology”) is excellent.

          Personally I value both, realising they both fall short of the entire Scriptural revelation of God, but you have pointed out evident pots, kettles and blackness.

          • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

            Hi, Jon. I, too, see no reason why Thomistic arguments and Paleyan arguments have to be at war. I don’t see why there can’t be empirical as well as metaphysical arguments for the existence of an intelligent cause. I appreciated an article by McGrew, which you may have pointed out, where she expresses surprise at Feser’s obsession with fault-finding regarding ID and/or natural theology.

            Regarding your comment on terminology, I think that when people speak of “natural theology” in Aquinas they mean primarily the “Five Ways” by which he proves the existence of God using reason alone, without any recourse to revelation. It’s “natural” in the sense that it makes use only of man’s natural powers, not any supernaturally-given information. So the term is logically justifiable, even if it is not what is meant by “natural theology” in Paley.

            I haven’t done a historical study of the term “natural theology” to see when it was first used. I don’t know if medievals such as Aquinas ever used it. If the term first came into use with Paley, and meant something empirical, then you might be right to say that “natural theology” is best not applied to the earlier Thomistic sorts of argument.

            Part of the problem for me is that I am not sure I agree with Feser that one of Thomas’s five ways is not along Paleyan lines. If Feser is wrong about that, then Aquinas did admit a Paleyan sort of natural theology. But Aquinas’s writing in that short discussion is not exactly clear, so I wouldn’t stake my reputation that Feser is wrong.

            Still, I would be very surprised if Aquinas himself, were he alive, reacted to Paley as Beckwith and Feser do. I think he would say Paley made strong arguments. The difference is that Beckwith and Feser think that the first duty of Christian theologians is to defend the God of “classical theism,” whereas Aquinas thought the first duty of a Christian theologian was to defend the God portrayed in Holy Scriptures, whether or not that God always behaved as a God of “classical theism” was supposed to behave. I think that as Aquinas was reading the pages of Paley, Romans 1, Psalm 19 and other verses would have flashed through his mind, and he would have nodded approvingly.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              Ed, to be evenhanded I guess I should say the sort of thing I said to Lou on the new thread – we can’t really know how Aquinas would react to Paley, or to Feser for that matter. We’re bound to apply our own biases to our assessment of all of them.

              That said, like you I get a sense of a modern “Thomistic culture” – possibly linked to its interface with modern analytic philosophy – that I don’t get when reading Aquinas himself.

              And it does seem to have to do, in part, with being more philosophical that Thomas, whose reason was always tempered by Scripture in the end.

              My impression, on the “classical theism” issue, is that having drawn logical conclusions about God’s not being “strictly” personal, or having a different mode of “being” etc, he wouldn’t draw the obvious conclusions about separation from nature, but add, “Yet the prophet teaches that ‘he formed me in the womb'”.

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    I think a person not invested in either side would rationally choose the evolutionary explanation of human life over the Resurrection and its attendant explanation for human life.

    Ah – the quest for the objective human subject. Good luck with that one, Lou.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Woops – I got my knuckles wrapped in an e-mail for replying to a comment on Steven Meyer’s thread on BioLogos. It seems you may reply to the writers there now, but not to each other. I’m not sure if you’re allowed to reply should the authors reply (most being busy and all, as Jim Stump pointed out on Eddie’s thread here).

    I don’t think I’ll be emulating that approach here.

    • Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Jon.

      I’m not sure if you are allowed to reply to authors’ replies — I think you are, as long as you are polite. One would just have to try it. The system is new, and I think they would be forgiving is someone overstepped some boundary due to innocent ignorance.

      Also, my understanding is that BioLogos has set up two systems now, one for responding to authors (where responding to other commenters is forbidden), and one for responding to other commenters (in a different location). So you can still talk to other commenters, but in a separate forum. I think the point is that the authors don’t want to read all the infighting between commenters, but only comments and questions that are on topic, i.e., regarding what they wrote in their columns. And that is reasonable. But I haven’t yet figured out how to get into the other panel, where you can talk to other commenters.

  7. Avatar photo GD says:


    I think it is useful to emphasise the purpose Thomas states when writing Contra Gentiles; in Book 1 (translated by Anton C. Pegis), as part of his Introduction, he states, “We must, therefore, have recourse to the natural reason, to which all men are forced to give their assent. However, it is true, in divine matters the natural reason has its failings.”

    He also refers to the methods found in the Patristic writings, and he believes that since they were originally Gentiles, they would understand Greek philosophy – there are some very interesting discussions by scholars on Universals in Patristic writings, but I digress.

    I have not read Paley so I may ‘put my foot in this one’ – however my impression is he wrote within the impact of Newton’s (and Darwin’s) contributions to science, and his outlook would, I suspect, reflect the impact of such science on the theological view he was putting forth. We are still involved in discussions which at times seek to show a difference between metaphysics, the sciences, and world views – yet me thinks it will inevitably come down for Christians (as Thomas says), to the harmony between faith and human reason (or conflict therein) – the physical and biological sciences will still imo assume a secondary role.

    So, getting back to your article, I think “proving God” is a failed enterprise when we discuss science – however, applying one’s reason (God given intellect) is central to finding the harmony I mentioned. Just how we reason, and what we find persuasive, is a subjective matter, yet we find many discussions in public places that try to convince others of a particular point of view – such a human thing. I find the ID arguments intriguing – there is something intuitively appealing to think of some agent or intellect causing the world we see, yet many of us scientists will only accept things that we can test and examine, confining our outlook to the world of objects (which by the way, are under the control of scientists, whatever protestations of objectivity some may make). However ID arguments fail because some try to persuade us they have a scientific basis for their outlook – such thinking is so human.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      A quick word on Paley – he was clearly more likely to represent Newtonian thinking than Thomistic thinking (though preceding Darwin by half a century, he influenced the latter rather than vice versa). Offhand, I can only remember a Newtonian influence in scientific matters – for example, he points out the fittingness of the inverse square relationship as opposed to any other.

      As far as Newton’s natural theology goes, I suspect there are significant differences: Newton on theological grounds considered God would be actively involved in his creation (contrra Leibniz).

      Paley’s concern, however, was simply to show an originating mind in the phenomenology of nature, and as I think I’ve discussed somewhere, his arguments work as well in a “deistic” scheme or a “theistic” one. For example, he postulates a self-reproducing watch whose autonomy might go back for an immense time, but its ingeniousnes and purposefulness would point to a designer anyway. If he were Aristotelian he’d be using terms like “formal cause” and “final cause”.

      Is that scientific? Paley wasn’t interested in that, since he was writing a natural theology, not a theological science. In that, as far as your post goes, he doesn’t seem to cut across your bows too much: reason suggests, he thinks, (aided, not hindered, by pre-existing faith, or at least openness) that the order and purposiveness of things points to a wise Creator.

      At that point, in my view, the demarcation issues of science become pettifogging. As Steve Meyer rightly says, it’s actually impossible to define science closely enough to include or exclude methodologies except by opinion or custom. If science excludes teleology, then any inference to intention is unscientific. But it doesn’t, actually, because in biology inherent teleology is, whilst still unpopular, in the literature, and the whole language of biology is, as I and many others have pointed out, absolutely teleological.

      Not seeing myself as an ID person, I’m not interested in arguing whether ID should be classified as science or not. But I do believe that in the end science at its broadest is only definable as a careful approach to empirical reasoning. A layman may have a hunch that neglected children are miserable as adults – a psychologist will devise reproducible tests to conclude the same thing. I use psychology as an example because it is a science, but falls short of many of the demarcation criteria of the hard sciences.

      Now what if most people down the centuries believe nature is ordered and see divinity behind it? Is a scientist being unscientific to have that impression enhanced by understanding the order better? He’s certainly using observation and reason to draw conclusions from empirical findings.

  8. Avatar photo GD says:

    “Is a scientist being unscientific to have that impression enhanced by understanding the order better?”

    This comment, when generalised, is important. A lot of scientific research is based on what a scientist finds intuitively appealing – however many of these insights would not be published, so formally they may not be considered scientific. While demarcations in the sciences are difficult to define, they still exist in the scientist’s mind. However I consider a demarcation in the ‘hard sciences’ to be a recognition and difference between speculation and settled science to be very important, even if difficult to define objectively or formally (more so for the others sciences). To give one example, proposing a molecular structure for a complicated and mixed substance such as coal, is almost impossible due to the simple fact this substance(s) is heterogeneous. We still use molecular structures, and after we try to justify any particular one, we often conclude the final criteria is a preference or bias shown by the scientist. This is valid provided the scientist understands this, and other scientists can understand the reasoning behind it. The rational may appear sufficient for a particular purpose, but if a scientist insists that it is more then this, he would be wrong.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Your “hard science” distinction is an important one, GD. On the one hand, those in physics, chemistry etc accuse sciences like psychology (and even biology) of “physics envy” because they try to apply the precision of physics to “woollier” subjects.

      On the other, students of organisms, human behaviour, economics etc point out that it’s just as important to try and discern rationally how their subject areas work, despite their being intrinsically more complex.

      Yet it’s obvious that one can’t treat the two areas the same – the most elementary and striking thing when doing physics and biology at school was that in the former points were as close to the graph as ones experimental technique allowed, and in biology they were scattered around it as the organisms and their physiology chose.

      Accordingly, much in biology (and more so in the human sciences like my own medicine) is necessarily inferential. Physical and chemical processes have no complex teleology (except in such Aristotelian senses as potentialities for crystallisation or whatever), whereas biological organisms operate towards goals called “functions” both in their gross behaviour and their physiological processes.

      “Physics envy” often quickly excuses the teleological language as mere convenience, but the telology is still there in the very concept of “function”. If, as occasionally happens to make a point, attempts are made to exclude such concepts and consider strictly efficient causation, the account may be more rigorous, but is as completely non-explanatory as trying to do psychology apart from intention.

      In a nutshell, “settled science” can’t really reign where the subject matter is in dynamic flux. I take it that has much to do with the fact that there are many more arguments about the “significance” of biology than there are about that of chemistry or physics.

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        The distinction(s) you make are reasonable – my focus in forums such as yours, is to show that when we speak of matters scientific with authority and a sense of certainty, especially in discussions that impact on faith, it s imperative that we understand the difference between certainty in science, from speculation, inferences and what, at times, appears like wishful thinking. To illustrate this point, the recent discussions in BioLogos on populations, common descent and Adam-Eve, treats simulations and assertions of population from Africa and evolution, as if they were either based on fact, or simply fact that needs to be simulated/modelled with greater accuracy. Yet two of the references, in a reference sited by Dennis, includes very vigorous disagreements on the models these people may employ in their deliberations – these difference in models are not cosmetic, because they disagree on matters such as a common geographic point (I assume the mythical bottleneck in Africa), or a number of such points in the world – just to name one area that is central to such a proposition.

        Now I accept that people may offer an educated view, but as a scientist, I cannot accept such speculation presented as if it is all over bar the shouting. If I find such disagreements when I spend a few minutes each day looking over papers put forward as evidence for their propositions, I think it reasonable that I ask, what else is “sugar coated” for public discussion.

        Science should not be used this way; when faith is also added to a discussion, it borders on propaganda rather than a search for truth in the sciences. Others may rationalise these matters as they wish – I state my view clearly and without equivocation.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          Your comment demonstrates what I’ve been trying to suggest for some time – that epistemological certainty is a far more useful concept that the demarcation of “scientific” or “non-scientific”, and that the range of things in which near-certainty can be gained (I think what you would call “settled science”) is relatively limited.

          The rest forms a sliding scale between reliable inference and mere prejudice, like human knowledge generally. So to use your example, it seems a reasonable working hypothesis to use the population genetics models to form the “out of Africa” model, but more humility would arise from a better grounding in the limitations of modelling. “Best current working model” should be recognised as “quite liable to serious modification”, without having to apologise for using the model, and without bracketing it with the periodic table as “scientific truth”.

          Is a use of such models “science”? Well, it’s “sciency” in that it uses maths, genes, computers etc and doesn’t invoke God, but that to me is of minor importance in the scheme of things, compared to the degree of uncertainty, which is unmeasurable.

          A mythic “model” of human origins derived from ancient traditions might be equally true (and even eventually found to have a correspondence with computer models and palaeontology) – but I’d agree that it would not fit within the narrow confines of “biological science”. Nevertheless one could conceive of a “science of myths” with fairly reliable tools to identify the material history within them.

          In the end, “biological” epistemological uncertainty wouldn’t seem intrinsically superior to “science of myths” epistemological uncertainty. Reasonable possibilities are still just reasonable possibilities.

          Now where does inference of divine activity fit within that? Agreed, not in the realm of epistemological empirical certainty, both from the nature of empirical investigation and from theological considerations. But to exclude it as a possible conclusion from current evidence is pure prejudice, and to exclude it as a conclusion from current scientific findings is, I suggest, to grant to “science” a precision of boundaries that is simply unavailable in the human world.

  9. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    As usual, I’m behind the curve in discovering the people who’ve articulated the things I’ve been trying to say in this discussion on epistemology. The go-to guy appears to be Michel Foucault.

    The Wikipedia entry says enough to show how he regards all knowledge (including the rules of reasoning) as arising within a worldview, rather than sitting above it in judgement. Unlike other PoS guys, he has a broader vision than the parameters of science and takes in how science itself fits within the understanding of epistemology.

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