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.
The 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.
Enns 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)?
The 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.
Now, 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!
But 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.
However, 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.
Put 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.
The 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.
The 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.