Science as she is spoke

Well, I see The Hump of the Camel has had another thread of its very own on BioLogos, courtesy of Joshua Swamidass. The effect is spoiled a bit by the fact that it’s mainly our own contributors here who have posted there. Perhaps Potiphar should organise a kind of roadshow in which we all turn up on blogs around the world and have private conversations, to their great surprise. That would certainly increase our profile!

But one thing that may be worth picking up on, in Joshua’s attempt to “place” us, is the link he perceives with Intelligent Design. As I think is clear from the comments there, of our authors and regular commenters, only Eddie Robinson identifies himself as an “Intelligent Design proponent”. The other Hump commenters on the BioLogos thread have nothing to do with ID at all. I admit to being sympathetic to some of its aims and thinking (see below), but then so do respected philosphers as diverse as the Reformed Alvin Plantinga (of whom more below), atheist Thomas Nagel and the late Antony Flew, who turned from atheism to Deism largely because of it.

That academic acknowledgement of ID’s legitimacy makes me unable to accept the common characterisation of it as a danger to civilisation, even when I consider it as a quasi-political venture rather than as a scientific (or even quasi-scientific!) program. I want to explore that in the light of some common ground held with the column’s originator, Joshua Swamidass, when he suggests that because science cannot form a complete explanation of origins (for God is in there somewhere), we should have no problems with laying out the methodological limitations of science, and therefore the limited material scope of its conclusions. We can then get on with theology unencumbered with unnecessary conflicts with scientists.

This, it seems to me, is the issue on which Christians ought to be seeking common ground, by acknowledging that the unwarranted anti-religion of science is a significant issue, even when the proposed solutions to it may differ. Here is a quote from a comment on Thomist philosopher Ed Feser’s website, which I cited on a thread here in 2014:

…the debate over materialism has arguably never been more than tangentially concerned with how best to explain physical phenomena – the motions of the planets, the nature of chemical reactions, or even the origins of life. That is to say, straightforwardly scientific issues seem never to have been the crucial ones. Rather, the debate has, for two and a half millennia, focused primarily on three fundamental metaphysical issues: the nature of the mind and its relation to the body, the ontological and epistemological status of mathematical and other apparently abstract objects, and the question of the existence of God. For materialism now genuinely to have the upper hand would require that materialist arguments have been victorious, or have at least been shown to be considerably more plausible, in each of these subject domains. Has this happened? No one familiar with the recent history of philosophy can honestly think so.

Let me translate this a little: there is, and has been for many centuries, some kind of supposed correlation between physical phenomena and belief in materialism, but this is in fact unwarranted. But, I would suggest, it is only a live issue today because that link has become a widespread assumption within our society, and even a threat to its intellectual integrity. Recent philosophers (including the three aformentioned and Feser himself) have been trying to undermine this assumption’s rational basis, but have their work cut out to have their corrections influence the “national intellect”. The New Atheists turned materialism into a low-brow art disguised as “bright”, but positivism did not begin with them – and they didn’t write the nineteenth century science-faith warfare books whose myths are still strangely familiar to us all from school.

Now let me draw a link from this to the origins of Intelligent Design. If you read the (of course, totally unprejudiced!) Wikipedia entry on the infamous Wedge Document, you’ll see that Philip Johnson’s concern was precisely that unwarranted link between naturalist materialism and science, and only secondarily the question of evolution or any other specific science. The concept of the “wedge” was to break that link in public consciousness, opening them to the more natural (and more original) link between theism and the Creation. It was exactly about the debate over materialism.

And so Johnson said in 1999:

“To talk of a purposeful or guided evolution is not to talk about evolution at all. That is slow creation.”

This is the reason the Wikipedia article speaks of his concentration on John 1.1 rather than on Genesis – he was concerned to establish not that special creation is true, but that God (in Christ) be acknowledged as the author of Creation. Now, clearly he’s conflating the scientific and the metaphysical in opposing evolution to creation, rather than seeming to leave room for both, and that may be strictly unwarranted.

It is, however, exactly the point that differentiated the approaches of Princeton theologians Hodge and Warfield to evolution in the nineteenth century. Hodge rejected Darwin’s theory because of the way Darwin and his followers linked it to non-theist metaphysical implications of unguidedness and lack of purpose. His colleague and successor Warfield saw that the science was sound, and so accepted the theory as science, whilst soundly rejecting the metaphysical baggage. The two agreed on the issues – all that was at stake was where the scientific boundary was, in practice, drawn around the theory – really a sociology of science matter.

Johnson was opting for the Hodge interpretation. But if so, it was not without reason, for he was following, and being realistic about, influential sociological conditions. This piece  by the NCSE‘s Eugenie Scott demonstrates this. Her aim is, indeed, to acknowledge the illegitimacy of the link between materialism and science – specifically in evolution – by pointing out her own role in changing the wording of a definition of evolution by the National Association of Biology Teachers, in 1995. This had included the words:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

Philip Johnson, Scott recounts, publically criticised this wording, and the organisation that would produce it as the basis for school biology education. Scott writes:

As one Christian said to me, defining evolution as “unsupervised” and “impersonal” implied to many Americans that “God had nothing to do with it and life has no meaning.” But, it seems, philosophers Huston Smith and Alvin Plantinga wrote to the NABT politely suggesting that those two words ought to be removed, being intellectually unwarranted and having unfortunate and unintended consequences, namely, loss of public respect for the intellectual integrity of science, and “giving aid and comfort” to the religious right (presumably meaning those like Johnson).

The NABT subsequently met in 1997 (the year of the Wedge Document, one should note) and said after a nine hour discussion that they weren’t going to be bullied by such Fundamentalists into changing the words. Fortunately, Eugenie turned up at the meeting in the nick of time, an even longer discussion ensued and her rational explanation of metaphysics got them (apparently) to reverse their vote and drop the words. She has to add a caveat that this does not make her a Creationist – clearly to many of her NCSE readers that would be the most obvious conclusion.

The significant story here is between the lines:

  • The first point is that the NABT (not, it would seem, untypical of public science bodies), had produced the original official document without any sign of concern about the fundamental philosophical error they were making, and clearly fully intending to make an anti-theological claim.
  • The second is that they had no interest whatsoever in becoming concerned, seeing the whole question as a Fundamentalist ploy (by two leading academics actually more qualified than they to judge). In other words, to them science and materialism do belong together, just as Johnson’s opposition of evolution to creation claimed. The only difference is that Johnson was a “religious-right troublemaker”, and the NABT an influential public body that should have known better.
  • The third point is that Smith and Plantinga made their pitch more on the basis of the fear of public reaction than of intellectual probity, and the fear of giving “aid and comfort” to the religious right. That last is an odd turn of phrase, though not uncommonly used in relation to Creationists and “ID Creationists” by biologists – it’s a bit like saying that the Nazi Holocaust policy gave “aid and comfort” to Zionism, when in fact it merely confirmed their worst fears about Anti-semitism in Europe, however flawed their other policies might be.

In the event, it seems to have been only the public attack by Johnson, the fear-mongering of two “Fundamentalist” academics, and the self-interest of the humanist Eugenie Scott that succeeded in creating some daylight between the NABT’s biology and its materialist metaphysical mindset – the wedge was driven in a little way, and the world was a slightly better place for it.

Seven years on from that episode, I noted that the same basic science-materialism linkage was firmly in place in the British government’s policy on education. A couple of things to note from that piece for the present discussion are (a) that evolution, though undefined in the material I cited, by talking of “scientific consensus” appears to mean something more detailed than merely “common descent”; (b) evolution is presented as a fully sufficient explanation of life, with no metaphysical caveats left for creation (which is actaully presented as an antithesis); (c) Science is prioritised over other accounts even in religious or philosophical teaching contexts. No lessons about the intrinsic limitations of science were, as far as appears, learned from the American educational system and Eugenie Scott’s venture into metaphysics – science remains, in British education policy, the standard by which all things are judged.

Incidentally, let me note in passing that the discussion on my article is an object lesson in respectful and fruitful conversation – with substantial agreement – between TEs, IDists and YECs.

Back on topic, I noted in that article how the regulations were presented as a triumph for a British Humanist Association campaign. One may wonder why, since science and materialism are, according to Eugenie Scott, logically distinct, the BHA – a religious organisation – was so keen on promoting pure science. The answer, surely, is in Scott’s words further on in her piece, describing the conceptual divide between science and worldview:

The same principle applies to philosophical materialism, the view at the foundation of our Humanism; we may derive this view from science, but an ideology drawn from science is not the same as science itself. Science is an equal opportunity methodology [my emphasis].

In her view, then, teaching science without materialist propaganda is, even so, likely to lead to materialist conclusions – a view apparently shared by the campaigning anti-religious National Secular Society, whose associates include or have included some of the voices most prominent in promoting science in the UK, including Colin Blakemore, Peter Atkins, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Lawrence Krauss and Steve Jones. (Many of the other UK popularisers of science are in the BHA and presumably back their science education campaigns, whilst not always being quite so scrupulous about promoting their own religious materialism when they speak on science).

It’s a view also confirmed by the repeated findings in US and UK surveys that education in science is inversely proportional to religious faith, to the extent that many secularists – Scott included – are confident that the “problem” of religion is an educational one.

Why should Scott be so confident that philosophical materialism is derivable from science, whereas it is doubtful that anyone at the ASA, for example, would say that theism is derivable from science? Is it to do with the nature of nature (which, perhaps they’d say, paradoxically hints at materialism, even though created by God)? Or is it rather the nature of the science we currently use to study nature that has a bias towards the materialistic worldview?

Philip Johnson suggested it was the latter, because (even after Eugenie Scott’s achievements in losing two words from the NABT document) he considered that it remains infused with Enlightenment concepts. Certainly, Scott says in her piece (when condemning Postmodernism’s critique of science’s human failings with the same disdain as that of Creationists) that most of “us Humanists” are “rational, Enlightenment, types.” If Evangelicals are stuck in seventeenth century theology, it seems Humanists are stuck in eighteenth century philosophy, and expect that science is too!

Johnson proposed that a science of design might produce evidence that would disaffirm materialism – and if it’s largely failed to win over the scientists, it’s undoubtedly opened up the discussion, and has certainly scored hits in its critique of Neodarwinism (even if the latter’s demise, yet to be officially pronounced, has come from other quarters).

But more significantly than this, Johnson and other ID people since have suggested that the tendency of science to increase, rather than diminish, materialism lies not simply in the careless (or considered) use of words like “unsupervised” or “impersonal”, but in the methodological naturalism that would necessarily be blind to divine influence even if it were present. However, the years have suggested that the scientific profession is even less willing to change the methodology than the naturalistic vocabulary – especially since Eugenie Scott hasn’t been making any effort to encourage the former.

Christian scientists like Joshua Swamidass are, unlike Johnson, entirely happy with methodological naturalism, on the strict understanding that science itself must be understood to be limited to “that which methodological naturalism can usefully describe”, that is (to use my terminology) “efficient material causes”. That leaves plenty of room for God to act as Creator and Governor of his world, using (again using my categories, rather than Joshua’s) final and formal causes, and non-material concurrent efficient causation. Keep the boundaries of science properly circumscribed, they say, and there will be no grounds for conflict with unbelievers using the same methodology.

But I suggest that there is no more likelihood for such a limitation of science to be accepted within the scientific community than there is for ID’s campaign to find alternatives to methodological naturalism to be adopted. And whilst that may be of small importance to how science itself is done, it is also vanishingly unlikely that those who educate our children, or even our aspiring scientists, will have any incentive to teach them the metaphysical limits of science. And that affects all of us in a scientifically-orientated world.

Can you really imagine a time soon when some cosmologist’s claim that the Universe created itself, or an evolutionary psychologist’s that consciousness is just an illusion caused by the sum of brain activity, is laughed out of court by high school students and working scientists alike because of its metaphysical naivety? Will teachers of religious education in state schools in the US or here in Britain ever be encouraged to teach divine concurrence with reference to evolution? Might any college basic science syllabus known to you delineate the epistemological limitations of science as strictly as Joshua Swamidass considers necessary? If you can imagine such desirable things coming to pass, how do you propose actually making them happen, and changing the public perception of science as claiming to be the only sure path to truth of all kinds? Johnson at least had a plan.

The partial answer I myself suggested in a recent post was that believing scientists should clarifiy their own understanding of divine action by recategorising existing “secular” scientific concepts in terms of their faith. I that suggested “laws” (and all such regularities in nature) should be consciously understood as the most accessible aspects of God’s final causation, since order is an outcome of teleology; and that “randomness” (in NABT‘s vocabulary “unpredictable process”, “chance”, “historical contingencies”, “changing environments” etc) should be viewed, if not published in the journals, as the marks of God’s free choices.

That kind of change is no more likely to be received favouribly by “Science™” than the dropping of methodological naturalism, or the strict limitation of science’s sphere of operation. But it might just prove worthwhile for Christians working in science, and that’s a good place to start. Who knows, they might even spread the word to the people in the pews, and through them to the people in the world.

That at least would give the ordinary person a choice of understandings, and compel the humanists to show that theirs is better. And, as Ed Feser’s commenter wrote, “No one familiar with the recent history of philosophy can honestly think so.”

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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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4 Responses to Science as she is spoke

  1. Robert Byers says:

    i’m sure 90% of evangelicals do believe in YEC and always will.
    The issue is not if god is involved in evolution but if evolution has any evidence behind it to justify it as a scientific theory . Or any evidence for the claim the glory of biology complexity created itself or guided itself or did anything.
    Its unlikely and unbelievable.
    First things first.
    Evolution must be proved by the weight of evidence from investigation in nature.
    Then whether God is nudging it.
    Why is God unable to create the glory of biology in its complexity??
    Why does biologos say God can’t do this? Not just he didn’t.
    It requires sharp people to either prove evolution or sharp people to prove they didn’t prove evolution or sharp people prove evolution is a fable of extreme fantasy.
    YEC strives to prove the last and is famous for it.
    I think they are afraid of YEC. WE are not afraid of them intellectually.

  2. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:


    I have finally had a chance to read this essay, and I have a lot to say about it, but cannot do so at the moment. I will just say now that I consider this to be a very important piece of work, a challenge directed to…well, myself, along with my other Christian colleagues actively working in science. My immediate reaction is to say “Yes!! at last, a call to arms, a plea for a new science that includes all of reality and not just what we have been restricted to,” And then in the next moment I think, “But how?” And that is the rub. More later. Great job.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Thanks for this – though if it’s an important bit of work, it’s only because people must have been ignoring the last few hundred years of PoS!

      For any readers who’ve dropped by here from BioLogos because of the link Joshua’s put there, I must qualify what he said there. This piece isn’t an apologetic for The Hump’s stance on ID because, as I say at the beginning, it doesn’t have one. Though the thoughts do, of course, arise from out of the discussions we’ve had with Joshua and others recently, in which ID has come up.

      My stance on ID, as on most of what I read and comment on, is to try and get to the kernel of things for what may move the wider understanding of God’s creation forward – and that is certainly central to the Hump agenda.

      As for “new science”, I struggled through entertaining granddaughters and mending electronic gear to get a post done late last night. It seems to follow up that question of yours a little by examining the basically theological foundations of methodical naturalism (based, of course, on others’work). Once I get it cleaned up, I’ll post it – probably tomorrow morning, UK time.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Well, as I mentioned on another thread, I’ve just looked at Donald M MacKay’s 1974 book, The Clockwork Image, in which he points out the illegitimacy of religious conclusions drawn from methodologically naturalist science, remarks that it’s well known in PoS, and that it’s high time both secularists and Christians dropped this passée idea.

    But 42 years later, this is in New Scientist, which purports to be a scientific, not an Atheist, journal. Look at that second paragraph. Does it not demonstrate the truth of my OP, and the fact that in science, some metaphysical positions are actually more equal than others?

    (The bulk of the article, behind a paywall, may well present a factually accurate account – but the metaphysical naturalist stance of that introduction alone shows that the playing field is not at all level: Dickson White rules, OK?

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