Where the mystery really lies – a Classical and Reformed viewpoint

Computational biologist and theistic evolutionist Joshua Swamidass invited us at The Hump to respond to his online challenge The-100-Year-Old-Tree. My response was longer than the others he has posted, so between us we distilled it down to the form in which it appears on his website. This (following the challenge itself) is my original full version.

Let us imagine that God creates a fully grown tree today, and places it in a forest. A week later, a scientist and a theologian encounter this tree. The theologian believes that God is trustworthy and has clearly communicated to him that this tree was created just a week ago. The scientist bores a hole in the tree, and counts its rings. There are 100 rings, so he concludes that the tree is 100 years old. Who is right? In some senses, both the scientist and the theologian are right. God created a one week old tree (the true age) that looks 100 years old (the scientific age). Moreover, it would be absurd for the theologian to deny the 100 rings that the scientist uncovered, or to dispute the scientific age of the tree. Likewise, the scientist cannot really presume to disprove God.

Instead, the theologian should wonder why God would not leave clear, indisputable evidence that the tree is just a week old. My question to the theologians: Why might God choose not to leave evidence that this 100-year old tree is on week old? Alternatively, why might God choose to leave evidence that the week-old tree is 100 years old?



On the surface the problem of the One-Hundred-Year-Old-Tree looks like the old Creationist canard that the light of exploding supernovas was created in transit. But Joshua refers it to the special creation of humans in the presence of the appearance of common ancestry.

Special creation, however, is only a concern for one small corner of Christian thought on origins, for more are concerned with why the God who purposely (not necessarily “instantly”) created man should leave apparent evidence of happenstance, accumulated errors and, in short, indicators of non-creation. Positioning the debate as between evolution and special creation is as much a straw man as when Darwin pitted his theory against special creation, rather than the prevalent alternative theories of transformism.

In Dr Swamidass’ fable, there is no debate about truth – we are assured that God has actually created what I will hereinafter call “Miraculous Tree”.  Contrary to Dr Swamidass, I suggest that fact makes the scientist flat wrong about its age, though perhaps justified in his error, given the conceptual limitations of science. Let’s explore that before talking about God’s motives.

A good place to start may be Aristotelian views on the four types of causation, the scheme which early modern science consciously rejected, but which we have to restore for this question, because “God’s motives” come under the scientifically excluded category of “final causation”, the purpose(s) for which an event occurs. Final causation muddied mediaeval science because it meant speculating on the intentions of God, and so it was excluded from science as intractable, and later (in naturalistic materialism) as non-existent. It is, however, still unconsciously retained in necessary ideas like “function”, and less properly in phrases like “evolutionary strategy”. Nevertheless, “science does not do final causes” – keep that firmly in mind.

Also excluded from early-modern science were “formal causes”. Aristotle believed that a living being, say, is matter in a particular “substantial” form which dictates all its properties. This gave way to the belief that “form” is a superfluous concept, and that things that result from the action of natural laws on relatively inert atoms are simply the sum of all those atoms in motion.

Once again, form is unconsciously retained in the very idea of a formal universal like “tree” – which our scientist has drawn on to make his pronouncements about the one-off Miracle Tree. Generally, however, science deliberately restricts its view to efficient causes (cause and effect processes) and material causes (what things are made of), and makes deductions and predictions from the patterns it finds in these.

Thus most trees can be seen to be made of woody materials, to grow rings annually, to enlarge in such a way, to gain scars and fissures over time, and so on. Our scientist sees that Miracle Tree is made of the normal materials, and is in what he might loosely call the “form” of a normal tree, from which he deduces a chain of previous efficient causes going back a century.

But he’s wrong (in fact), because in Aristotelian terms he’s forgotten that a tree’s “form” includes the whole nature of a tree, not just its present configuration – that it springs from a seed, grows at such a rate and acquires yearly rings, etc. So the scientist has failed to realise (having seen no other Miracle Trees) that this has only the present appearance of a tree. Its true form is entirely different (since it appeared all at once last week, as he could have known had he been able to set up his instruments in advance). His knowledge, then, has been outdated by a phenomenon new to science, the tree-without-a-history. In some other world, all trees might be like Miracle Tree, in which case spontaneous generation would be the “natural” cause, and something growing for 100 years the divine anomaly.

But what about the final cause: Why did God create Miracle Tree? As a scientist, it is simply out of line to ask the question, because final causation has been excluded a priori from the methodology. As, indeed, it is equally out of line to suggest that there is no final cause (purpose) for that or any other tree. A scientist suggesting (as a scientist) that God might be deceiving men or hiding himself is simply doing pseudo-theology. Which brings us to the real theologian in the tale.

This theologian infallibly (it seems) knows the true nature of Miracle Tree. But theologians, qua theologians rather than as mystics or prophets, have no more direct access to the mind of God than Scientists. Their proper job (from a Reformed perspective) is rightly to interpret and apply the revealed word of God in Scripture. So for a theologian to reach such certainty, we must conclude that the fabulous Miracle Tree is clearly mentioned as “that Tree which is to come in the last days (on such and such a date),” foretold in several Scriptures and especially the fictional Letter to the Ephiscans 23:8. It is likely, given the nature of the Bible, that Ephiscans also states some Christological purpose for creating it.

The point here is that the truth is not at all hidden, but was revealed clearly by God long ago to those who can read, understand and believe – and the scientist is as capable as the theologian of taking his lab-coat off and consulting Ephiscans. This exercise would show him why, this Miracle Tree being unique, his previous assumptions were wrong about the tree’s history – and might also fill in the methodological final-cause gap in his science, to assuage his human curiosity about what the tree is for. It would be sheer hubris to assume that God’s aim was to hide his work from tree-scientists in particular when the whole world has the Epistle to the Ephiscans, clearly announcing the Miracle Tree, available to them.

So no divine deception or obfuscation has taken place – it was the scientist himself who removed formal causation from his methodology, thus rendering himself blind to the possibility that similar “accidental” appearances between other trees and this tree might arise from different formal causes involving quite different efficient causes. And it was the scientist who removed final causation from his professional armoury too, thus rendering the very question of “Why would God do this?” unscientific. God, however, as the theologian knew, had been quite upfront about making Miracle Tree a special case.

Moving a little closer to the more realistic “human origins” question, we should point out another potential error. Our scientist may make the mistake of posing the problem in terms of one “created” Miracle Tree as opposed to all the other trees that grow “by natural causes”. But the annoyingly infallible theologian of the fable will point out the basic Christian teaching that all trees are created by God, though Miracle Tree, uniquely, was created by solely miraculous means.

Even if a complete chain of efficient causes can explain the biology of trees generally, God’s final purposes for them – and even for each one individually – still exist, but completely beyond science’s view. Some of these purposes are indeed obvious, and close to the subject matter of science. Trees exist to survive and propagate their kind. This is the limited “teleology” that Asa Gray attributed to natural selection, to Darwin’s joy.

But the varied taxa of trees also serve functions for ecological systems not necessarily beneficial to the tree; and even for the total biosphere, which must fall within God’s purposes as Creator. They provide macro- and micro-habitats, food, and so on:  over 130 other species depend on the English oak, for example. It is reasonable to suggest that the actual forms of trees – the density of their rings, their growth cycle, their manner of reproduction – contribute to their ecological roles. And so it is entirely feasible that the structure of a tree is not just an artefact of the efficient causes that formed it, such as annual growth variation (which biology studies), but enables its roles in the world, known fully to God as its Creator.

Those roles, though, may well go beyond the biological. No less a figure than Alfred Russel Wallace argued that the diverse properties of woods (and therefore also the different details of their growth) were intended as nature’s provision on behalf of its pinnacle-species, mankind. That, of course, was not a scientific judgement.

Furthermore, under  the traditional doctrine of providence, the Old Testament Palm of Deborah or the sacred Oak of Mamre were trees created (naturally) for particular purposes, just as much as the miraculous castor-oil shrub that sprung up overnight to shelter Jonah. One particular fig tree has also become immortal because Jesus chose to curse it as barren, and a particular sycamore-fig is forever remembered by children as the hiding place of Zacchaeus.

In these ways, then, creation is as much a feature – as much an extra-scientific feature – of ordinary trees as it is of Miracle Trees. And it’s no secret, being not only advertised in the Bible from start to finish, but instinctively grasped by nearly every human being unless and until they are taught to think a-teleologically. And the reason for this self-advertisement – universal in extent but limited in scope – appears in Scripture to be to prepare people for the full self-revelation of God in Christ, who as the Logos was the agent of and reason for the Creation so evidently pointing to the divine reality.

Likewise creation is also the source and the purpose of the processes currently ascribed by science to neutral drift or natural selection in a biological transition from ape-ancestor to man. All that we said about trees is true of man (and of individual men even more than of individual trees). Knowing about efficient causes tells us only a very small part of how God creates within secondary material causes (rather than through secondary causes – creation itself is never a process). There is infinitely more to be said in the field of formal and final causation than in efficient and material – only outside science.

But this is just as true at the genomic level: functional genetic sequences tell us about the superficial “Asa Gray” level of teleology, subject of course to ongoing discoveries. But though large parts of the genome may appear functionally useless, and changes to it stochastic, this may conceal all manner of “extra-scientific” final causes: perhaps (to speculate) material for future intended evolution, benefits for the ecology of other species, purposes to limit the excessive spread of the species, and who knows what else. The least likely of these, it would appear, is “to keep God hidden from scientists.”

“Function” (as both Intelligent Design and Evolutionary Creation need to comprehend) is not synonymous with “final purpose”, and it’s with God’s final purposes that the fable of the Hundred Year Old Tree asks us to deal.

Well, there’s the rub – we are asked to suggest God’s final purpose in creating a Miraculous Tree. We cannot, of course, because no such tree exists, so no such purpose exists. If it did, then science would be blind to it simply because it was a final purpose. The theologian would (depending on the content of Ephiscans 23:8) perhaps be able to speak to the function of the tree, as a sign or portent perhaps, but without further revelation would have no idea why God made it in that particular manner, with an end result so similar to a normal tree. Just so neither scientist nor theologian – nor even philosopher – is able to say why God might create mankind through near-neutral mutations or junk DNA rather than in some other way.

For that – the inner counsel of the Triune Father, Son and Spirit who transcends his creation in every way – is where the true mystery and hiddenness of God lie. The existence of God as Creator is, by contrast, an open secret.

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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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5 Responses to Where the mystery really lies – a Classical and Reformed viewpoint

  1. swamidass says:

    Jon, thanks so much for your response. It was very insightful and complementary to the other responses. There are more responses expected over the coming months. I’d be really curious to hear your detailed thoughts on them too. For references you can see the responses as they are posted here: http://peacefulscience.org/category/projects/100-year-old-tree/. Currently, there is also a Lutheran and Barthian response.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      And thank you for the invitation, Joshua.

      Let’s make the request for responses a general one here. Us Humpians need all the help we can get in the light of all those Barthians and Lutherans.

      Oh – I forgot to add a formal welcome to the Hump. Feel free to comment on anything else here as well, of course!

  2. Robert Byers says:

    This 100 tree thing never happens in real life. Unless the hint is that nature looks like it has old age and thus hides any claim of recent creation.
    Where?? Name one example of something looking like its old but , by bible standards, must not be old.
    No trees.

    • swamidass says:

      Great question Robert. To be clear, this isn’t about age so much as scientific appearances. It is an honest challenge to the notion that science gives us a complete view of reality, and that failure to find scientific proof somehow indicts God’s character (it doesn’t).

      So here is my “one example.” I could have just as easily ask, why isn’t there more scientific evidence for the Resurrection? Scientifically speaking, it is 100% impossible to rise from the dead. No one in all observable history has demonstrably been dead and buried for three days and then come back bodily from the dead. There no plausible scientific explanation for this possibility.

      Yet…somehow…defying scientific appearances…He Is Risen.

      Science is blind to the Resurrection, is it not? God reveals Himself in history, not in science. And shame on those who might call Him deceitful for this decision.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Robert – you’ve missed the point of Joshua’s challenge, and certainly the point of my interpretation of it.

      Joshua framed it to allow anyone from evolutionists to YECs to comment on the question of whether God might make nature deceptive, and if so why. No YEC has, I think, answered him yet, but if they did from a scientifically-informed position, it might tackle the issue of the presence of pseudogenes and so on in the human genome given special creation – much as he discussed with Cornelius Hunter and others at Uncommon Descent.

      I chose to answer a deeper question – why does nature seem not to show God’s hand obviously – and answered that it does, unless one is conditioned to make an unbiblical dichotomy between “natural” and “supernatural”.

      In either case, the tree is a metaphor, or a parable, to aid thinking. And thinking needs all the help it can get.

      Joshua is a true bridge-builder, though many of the posters at Uncommon Descent (and some at BioLogos) have failed to appreciate it and shown enmity where there was none. That, sadly, is how things are in America – you guys should travel more.

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