Methodological theology, naturally

There’s an interesting new series of YouTube videos (of which I confess to having heard only two so far) of a conference discussing alternatives to methodological naturalism. The organiser is, of course, an ID group – which is hardly surprising, as according to most mainstream scientists MN is just fine and dandy. What you don’t doubt, you don’t examine that carefully. But as I’ve been suggesting here and here there is at least an argument for its being a hindrance not only to the consideration of God’s role in nature, but also to some aspects of understanding nature itself.

The introductory talk, by Jonathan Bartlett, is here:

It is useful particularly in showing how many contortions methodological naturalism, as first conceived, has had to go through in its history, in order to accommodate changes to what empirical investigation has shown. Most surprising is the way that Newton’s studies of gravity, at first dismissed by Leibniz as pure supernaturalism, forced the abandonment of all but one of the original tenets of the early scientists’ version of MN. But perhaps the most thought-provoking conclusion, which Bartlett documents, is that these changes amount in essence to defining “natural” as whatever happens to have come under the umbrella of science at any given time. This circularity is clearly not a very firm foundation.

To me, though, the more challenging talk was that of Jim LeMaster, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on the historical foundation of MN in the writings of Francis Bacon, with reference to David Hume’s later writing on analogies. His talk (with some technical gremlins!) is here, and I recommend it.

I really want to use that talk as a launching point for some further thoughts specifically related to Christians involved in science (including, of course, Theistic Evolutionists). What emerges from the presentation is that, like nearly everything else in the practice of science, methodological naturalism actually has its roots deeply (and somewhat contingently) rooted in Christian religion. This all agrees with what I have learned elsewhere about the development of modern science.

Bacon’s program for science took as one of its theological axioms a rather absolutist form of the scholastic philosophical belief that we can know nothing about God-in-himself; about his purposes or his reasons. God is so utterly different from humans that speculating or reasoning about his ways is utterly invalid.

It was for this express reason that Bacon excluded the study of final causes and formal causes completely from the new science: they can, he was sure, yield only reasons that seem plausible to the human mind – they can tell us nothing about God’s reality.

That is not, however, the entirety of the matter. Aristotle (the biggest influence on mediaeval science) had viewed final causation not in theological terms, but in terms of the teleology inherent in all nature: not only the goal-orientated behaviour of living things, but the inherent tendencies of stones to fall, salt to dissolve in water and so on. Scholastics like Aquinas had considered such teleology in nature as the result of God-given secondary powers. But to Bacon and his followers, this was to derogate from the sovereignty of God. They preferred a cosmos of purely passive atomistic particles acted on each other according to God-given universal laws.

Once more, for this purely religious reason, “inherent teleology” was banned from science as well as the “external teleology” of divine final causes (and also formal causes). What Bacon had left was (as I suppose we all know – at least if we’ve been around The Hump for a while) was material, efficient causes. These alone could be reliably observed and described – and used to make predictions. These alone constituted science.

LeMaster considers that Bacon’s thought was, in fact, deeply conflicted in its attempt to match his theology to practical science (even though it was to exclude the theological from science that he did his work). I’ve mentioned more than a few times how, in fact, final and formal causes have never, and can never, be excluded from science in practice. Any classification, or any nested hierarchy, in biology must deal in formal causes. Any talk of function is talk of final causation.

It will also appear from the actual reasons for his excluding internal teleology that Bacon was imposing a theological belief (that God gives no actual teleological powers to nature) quite arbitrarily regarding empirical mattersI it merely prejudged the issue. Internal teleology, though still rather unrespectable now, has had to be smuggled back into science under the name “teleonomy” because it is blatantly obvious – if nowhere else, then undeniably in our own experience as human agents. Yet it’s still a taboo that hinders science by forcing it to account for final causation by efficient material causation, a quite artificial bit of mental gymnastics which is usually, because practically impossible, avoided.

This is so despite a century of quantum science, in which many of the most prominent researchers have concluded that mind is a properly basic constituent of reality (aka “nature”), even as quantum science has fatally undermined the reality of matter itself as more than a human interpretation of a far deeper reality (see here, but also below).

Meanwhile, quantum theory also points out a flaw in Bacon’s original assumptions, the assumptions on which methodological naturalism is considered the basis of science. For if Bacon excluded final and formal causation on the grounds that it is impossible to know the mind of God, then he ought also to have excluded efficient and material causation on the same grounds, at least to the extent that he was suggesting they describe reality. For even if God has created true secondary efficient causes (and their effects), there is no logical reason to suppose that those he builds into nature are those that we think we can can read out of it.

It was David Hume who first cast doubt on the very validity of cause and effect in the physical world, and it has remained philosophically problematic since. After all, just as Alvin Plantinga (and others) have shown that human reasoning, if a product of evolution, has no intrinsic likelihood of finding truth, rather than merely being useful for survival, so our allocation of causes and effects is equally unlikely to be true, rather than merely useful. That is a critique of metaphysical materialism. But in Bacon’s view, human reasoning is no more likely to match God’s way of acting even on theological grounds.

And as I have already pointed out, the intuitive reality of material causes (the “mechanical philosophy” that Bacon espoused) has been revealed as very subjective and anthropocentric: things like the wave-particle duality, quantum entanglement, and so on show that our world of homely “particles” or “waves” or “fields” is only a human model, even (and especially) when it is presented in the abstracted form of mathematics.

So in effect, by allowing efficient and material causes to govern science, Bacon was turning science from a quest for the reality of nature to a purely functional quest for what would work for human endeavour. If it is actually true that we cannot know God’s mind in final and formal causes – and the strictures of methodological naturalism are, as I have shown, based on that assumption – then neither can we know it in efficient and material causes.

We can only know how they appear to us from our creaturely viewpoint. On Bacon’s foundational assumptions, all science can be no more than a search for utilitarian explanations that “save the appearances”, and can no more trust that it has discovered the underlying truth of nature than the mediaevals who believed that the pelican was created to teach us about Christ.

This, I think, is unwelcome news to Christian scientists, for most of whom the scientific quest is about truth as well as utility. Indeed, is not the whole Evolutionary Creation thing about the truths of science and the truths of faith? If we take Bacon’s assumptions about the unknowability of God seriously, then perhaps the whole chain of cause and effect we perceive in any of the biological sciences is just a subjective perception, with nothing that tells us about the way God actually works in the world, and therefore nothing to contribute to theology whether for good, evil or near-neutrality.

But presumably, while we accept methodological naturalism, we are indeed at least tacitly accepting Bacon’s assumptions. In fact, as I was mulling over this post this weekend, a commenter at BioLogos on divine action, Jay Johnson, wrote :

Our confusion … may be because we have zero understanding of divine action and power.

Indeed, one common criticism of ID is that “we cannot know the mind of the Designer.” My argument is that there is actually no better reason to think we understand such divine action and power (abstracted to the category called “natural”) in the efficient and material causes of science than in anything else, but that for some reason Bacon illegitimately assumed there was, as have natural scientists ever since. But the most science can claim, on this basis, is that it can fit humanly reasonable causes to humanly observed phenomena and draw conclusions that work for humans. And that, logically speaking, is not in any way superior to what mediaeval science did with final and formal causes, in terms of truth-value.

But there is, I think, a let out clause to this rather limiting view of science as an approach to real truth. And that also, like the basis of methodological materialism, lies in the theological realm – in the doctrine of revelation. For Bacon’s overly pessimistic view of the hiddenness of God failed to take into account that, whilst it is almost certainly true that God “as he is in himself” is inaccessible to human investigation, yet there is a rich teaching on God’s own willingness to let himself be known by mankind, created as we were “in God’s image”.

This begins with the natural affinity we have, by that “imageness” (whether conceived ontologically or, as in Richard Middleton’s interpretation, missionally) with the Logos of God as our Creator in the very special sense that makes Christ’s Father our own Father. LeMaster’s talk focuses eventually on the valid role of analogy (in his suggestions for an improved methodology for science), but Aquinas also taught that, though “God in himself” may be described only apophatically, yet true things may be said about him analogically, so long as God himself is the one providing the analogy.

In this way, the deep mysteries of the quantum universe may be inaccessible to us – but the world of our ordinary perception is not just a blind, survival-friendly product of evolution, but an analogy authorised in our very creation: God made us to perceive the world this way, and he is a God who loves to reveal truth. Likewise, whilst there is no logical necessity for our power of reason to have any correlation with God’s divine wisdom, the God who reveals himself to his creatures may be expected to match our understanding sufficiently closely to his, analogically, that the investigations of science do tell us truth about the world he made for us, which he intended us to rule on his behalf.

And so this further theological consideration retrieves science for the kind of worship-based investigation of Newton or Copernicus – it truly can think God’s thoughts after him. But this is only achieved by abandoning the basis on which Bacon excluded formal and final causation from science, because that basis would properly exclude efficient and material causation too. Consequently there is at least as good a basis for considering that God has given some true “creational” knowledge of teleology and form to human beings as there is to believe that he has revealed true efficient causes and effect to our reason.

We believe that science reveals truth either through a baseless act of faith in human powers, or as a theological conclusion from God’s revealed character as self-revealer. We conclude from Christian doctrine that our intuitive perception that cause and effect are true is God-given, and therefore reliable.

But if so, we have no basis on which to exclude the equally intuitive inference of wise final causation, and of the validity of universals like form, because they are based on exactly the same natural and theological foundations. For Christians to maintain the present model of methodological materialism is, therefore, quite arbitrary, being based on an outdated theology inadequately applied by Francis Bacon and his successors.

Even more significant, note that both methodological naturalism and any model that might replace it have unavoidably theological foundations. God can scarcely be accused of filling gaps in science when he has filled science itself ever since it became science!

The new method - an idolum theatri even in 1620?

The new method – an idolum theatri even in 1620?

Avatar photo

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.
This entry was posted in Creation, History, Philosophy, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

35 Responses to Methodological theology, naturally

  1. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    Oh dear, I cant begin to keep up with you Jon. I just finished a comment for the last post, but now I need to read this one and modify it accordingly. And its a very busy day, so it might be a while. I hope to catch my breath and post the properly revised version before you beat me to it again with another post. Slow down, young fella, some of us have a hard time keeping the pace! 🙂

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    We can agree that historically many aspects of science as we know it today, was subjected to various views. I think it may have been Aristotle (and/or other Hellenics) who coined the term “metaphysics” as something that comes before physics, or what we may call an overview nowadays.

    However the way science is done essentially depends on theory and experiment, and rigorous examination of both. From my point of view, ToE (whatever its current guise) has suffered (excessively) from virtually every view that human beings can throw at it. It is mainly for this reason I am of the opinion that if ToE practitioners focussed on making it more of a science, and less a belief system(s) (theistic or atheistic), than some progress may occur.

    Seeking to impose a teleology on the science enterprise may be missing the mark – instead developing a sound theological base from which to view all sciences may be a profitable enterprise.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I read one writer on Aristotle who said that Metaphysics was called that simply because it came before Physics in the book. But of course, regardless of that it’s the basis on which physics (and any other investigation of the world) is done. So the question is not whether science should or should not be metaphysical (as a good number misconstrue the issue), but under which metaphysical assumptions science is conducted.

      I note a recent interchange on BioLogos in which someone suggested one should/could prove metaphysics empirically, and a wise man replied that this remark showed a lack of understanding of what metaphysics intrinsically is: if it’s amenable to empirical investigation, it’s not metaphysics.

      You may have seen that in one of the recent batch of posts I suggested one way in which the scientific enterprise might be viewed theologically, under the current constraints of MN. That’s an option.

      These current thoughts on methodological naturalism, prompted by both Joshua’s defence of it and the recent (ongoing?) conference on it, might be taken either to point to its intrinsic shortcomings, or to provide ideas for working towards something more suited to current needs. Primarily I’m just asking us to examine MN and see if it really is as dispassionately and secularly useful as it seems.

      Teleology (in the sense of divine external teleology – the “Meaning of the Universe” etc) is only a small part of that, if any part at all. But intrinsic teleology, if as is fairly obvious, is a part of created nature, then science currently lacks to the tools to deal with it. Likewise it has excluded universals, including form – which once more is likely to be intrinsic to nature (we’re not thinking about a Platonic realm here).

      There is no reason why any modification to the MN principle should not be rigorous mathematically and otherwise, and constrained in scope to provide useful boundaries to what constitutes “science”. But, as I said in my last post, it’s one thing to be wisely aware of the limitations and weaknesses of the system of science one is working in – it’s quite another to engender change in that system. Bacon managed it, I suppose.

  3. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    The standard explanation of the origin of the word “metaphysics” is that it comes from *meta ta physika*, meaning “after The Physics,” and that it is derived from the fact that the book we now call *The Metaphysics* comes after *The Physics* in the written Aristotelian canon. One might similarly call the Biblical book of Exodus “the book after Genesis” (*meta Genesin*). Thus, in its first incarnation, the word “metaphysics” had no *contents* at all, as the expression “the book after Genesis” has no contents at all.

    So how did it come to have its current meaning? Well, much of the *contents* of *The Metaphysics* concerns “being” and deals with broad features of nature and existence, so it is a “metaphysical” book in the modern academic sense. But I remember reading one scholar wryly remark that there was plenty of “metaphysics” in the modern sense in *The Physics* (for example, the “four causes” discussion is as much metaphysical as physical), while *The Metaphysics* considered a number of topics (the heavens, etc.) that belonged to “physics” in the sense of ancient natural science. So both “physics” and “metaphysics” can be found in both books. And if one wants to understand how Aristotle conceived of “nature” one has to read both books.

    If anyone reading out there is wondering whether to tackle either or both books, I would recommend that someone without background in Greek philosophy or in Aristotle start with *The Physics*. It is more accessible to someone who is not yet attuned to the way Aristotle thinks about things. I can follow most of *The Physics* now, but there are some parts of *The Metaphysics* that are still all Greek to me.


    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      …there are some parts of *The Metaphysics* that are still all Greek to me.

      Clearly even the “meta” in “metaphysics” is still Greek to me. A classic case of putting the cart before the horse.

  4. Avatar photo GD says:

    It should be Greek to me, but after all, it’s Aristotle, so I stick to simple things!

  5. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    Your essay, as well as the two linked videos, does a very good job in showing how what we think of as pure, objective, agnostic natural science (under the rubric of material naturalism) has never been any of those things. Newton overturned Bacon, Einstein and Planck (etc.) overturned Newton, and we are now seeing a similar thing happening in biology. And yet, as was stated in the first talk, and you elaborated on, at no point did the scientific community as a whole come to recognize the simple truth revealed by quantum theory, modern cosmology, Godel, and the incredible explosion of complexity in biological reality, that the fundamental premises of MN are wrong.
    I think that where we are now, is in a state of extreme perplexity. Tyson recently convened a meeting of several atheist scientists who were seriously discussing, and then actually agreeing that it is very likely that the universe is really a simulated hologram, possible produced by some alien teenager fooling around in his parents basement. I discuss the absurdity of thinking that this is somehow not analogous to the idea of Creator God outside of space and time in a recent blog post
    Now, I am thinking that this oddity, and much of the work of ID, the confusion of some Christian biologists (I am including myself here) and a lot of the ferment we see among ECs may be due to the fact that at this point in time, it is becoming increasingly impossible to continue to hold on to our cherished, ingrained view that MN is the only way to do science.
    In the talk you linked to a couple of posts back, I pretty much admitted this without planning to. In response to a couple of questions about Lamarck, and about genetic determinism I said something like “I really hate this, it goes against everything I have always thought, and I am not happy that it appears to be true”
    There are some serious crises going on in science. In physics, nobody is happy that the Large accelerator isn’t showing signs of interesting new particles, since nobody likes the ugly nasty standard model, but it looks like that’s what we got. In biology, the neat simplicity of neo Darwinism, with its almost comically easy mechanism of evolution in two simple steps is just about dead, being replaced by a veritable mess of very complex and non reductive mechanisms.
    And of course the elusive elegant theory of everything, that will explain quantum gravity, cosmology, the fine tuning of the constants and so forth is stll…elusive. IF string theory is anything, it is NOT elegant
    The result is panic. The reaction to that panic is “Don’t panic. Science (using the tools of MN only) has always answered tough questions before and it will again” BUT, as we see in this remarkable (needs to be widely circulated) post, that simply isn’t true. What did happen was that whenever in the past we ran up against a wall like this, the premises of MN were changed to allow for a new way of doing science.

    And that is what we need now.

  6. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    I am not, however thoroughly convinced by LeMaster’s talk on analogy. Analogy can be very useful, and also very unuseful. Analogy has indeed been used to great effect in many scientific discoveries, but its also a favorite tool of new atheists, engineers who try to explain evolution, those who misuse logic to “disprove” God and so on. I dont know if its possible to tame analogy in a way to make it immune from abuse, and retain its positive qualities, but I doubt it.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Good pair of posts, Sy.

      First, on LeMaster – I didn’t focus on his analogy stuff. However, he is right to say that analogy is absolutely indispensible to science, at least as we talk about particles (bits of dust), fields (where you plant crops), waves (which occur at sea), cells (in which monks contemplate God) etc, etc.

      But that leads to the dangers thereof, and the dangers of casting off the anchor of MN. If you remember what happened with Bacon, it was actually the replacement of the anchor of Aristotle with the anchor of MN, because the old one looked dodgy.

      So once the Bacon of the coming age (or, knowing the current situation, the International Committee on Methodology [non-dissenting faction]) begins to look at what needs to be done with science in the future, I suspect there will every bit as clear a set of methods rather than anarchy. And there will still be a thing that serious researchers do, whether they still call themselves scientists, or revert to being natural philosophers, or whatever else.

      Whatever shape it takes, it will no doubt have its own pseudoscience to contend with, whether in false analogies or what… though depending on whether it decides science ought to be about “truth” or just “utility”, the definition of “pseudoscience” may have to change accordingly!

      • Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

        Ha. You are more of an optimist than I on this one. I tend to think that the IDM (NDF) will be hopelessly bogged down in squabbling about whose discipline (because it will need to be an interdisciplinary committee, so really the IIDM) is most important , and whose is irrelevant. And nothing will be agreed upon.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Ah – alas! So perhaps methodological naturalism (or the discussion about it) will prove to be… a SCIENCE STOPPER.

          Perhaps it would be a bit like Britain after the Roman Empire collapse, with people squatting in the ruins of laboratories eking out a living by making aspirin and fertiliser on a cottage scale (the while making incantations to Odin), and hand-copying sacred (and incomprehensible) texts like “Punctuated Equilibrium Come of Age” by St Stephen of Gould and St Eldredge of the Nile…

          Or maybe I’m just thinking of Canticle to Leibowitz. 🙂

  7. Avatar photo Sy Garte says:

    Well….maybe not quite that bad. I could image though that the work of Richard of Oxford would be banned and burned because of him helping to bring on the apocalypse.

  8. Avatar photo GD says:

    Your posts have motivated me to re-read some writings generally attributed to the Patristic period. I cam across this statement in .Journal of Theological Studies, NS, Vol. 60, Pt 2, October 2009. “SCIENCE AND THEOLOGY IN GREGORY OF NYSSA’S DE ANIMA ET RESURRECTIONE: ASTRONOMY AND AUTOMATA”

    The comments by the author also indicate that Gregory may see a parallel in the sustaining of the creation by God, and sustaining the material human body and the human spirit – in any event, this shows us that theology, philosophy and science (as understood then) have been of interest to Christians:

    “the author’s emphasis that good understanding of the world
    depends on reasoning through sense perception, his use of the
    double meaning of the term (gk for the phenomena), and the repetition of
    the idea that one’s eyes (or ears or nose) are ultimately good
    teachers all draw the reader to a complementary idea: that the
    immaterial intellect works in harmony with and through the
    material body. To put it another way: while the ‘apparent’ focus
    of the example is on the immaterial (reason), there is an equally
    important, but less obvious, emphasis on the material (the senses).”

  9. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Thanks GD – I see the article’s on line so have bookmarked it for imminent reading!

    I’ve noted before the interesting meanings of that word “phenomena”, meaning those things that appear, ie either the things that come to exist, or the things that come to be seen by us. Hebrews, for example, uses it of God’s creation from things that “do not appear”, ie don’t exist.

    It also occurs in the mediaeval idea of science as “saving the appearance (ie phenomena) – ie good science accounts well for things as they appear to us: leaving oipen how much the “appearances” match the reality. That seems very relevant in these days of quantum weirdness.

    The talk on Bacon seems to suggest that he was far from clear whether “reality” or “phenomena” were what he considered the business of science. Maybe he was confused himself, but his omission of final or formal causes, though he knew they existed in “God’s reality”, suggest he came closer to the latter.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Yes, some interesting thoughts on the subject – Gregory also discusses artifacts created by us (automatos or automaton) as showing how human agency and design may be contrasted (and not analogous) with God’s creative power. This strikes me to contradict ID thinking; the matter of reason, intellect, material and spiritual are located with human agency and reason, so I ponder of a distinction between studies of matter/energy (science) and those that claim to show what human beings are and our origins – I ponder, but have more questions and very few answers on this.

      I have always found Aristotle difficult, and the distinction between matter and substance, and movement as change, has puzzled me – but I am inclined to think that his causality may be somehow derived from such concepts.

      Reality as understood in our ‘classical’ world has been expounded, but the quantum world may be amenable to discussions of substance – others may make sense of this.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        “Two pennyworth” only here, GD: “substance” has to do (in A-T thought) with form, and form is intrinsically immaterial, and most closely (and non-accidentally) linked to our concept of “information”.

        It does therefore seem to be the quantum world, with its strange relationship with mind, in which information (and therefore form, and therefore “substance”) might be found.

        More than that is beyond my grasp.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Ah – I see you pointed me to that article on Gregory before, GD, and I wrote a piece inspired by it here back in 2014.

          • Avatar photo GD says:

            You are right Jon – I had forgotten it. I am going over some theological material and papers on questions about human origins. I am dissatisfied with the discussions about human “common” descent, and some papers have appeared that indicate a much more complicated (and which to my mind questionable) aspects of human lineage as put forward by ToE. I also want to “mull” on causality and potentiality (Aristotle again I guess) which overlap with your area(s) of interest. All heady stuff.

  10. Ian Thompson says:

    Something about Aristotelean-Thomist (A-T) metaphysics which has been bothering me, and Jon reminds me of it again.
    He says above ‘“substance” has to do (in A-T thought) with form’.

    To me, this is an abuse of language and of all metaphysical intuition!
    Normally, we say thing is ‘substance in a form’, or a thing is made out of some substance and is arranged in some form. So ‘substance’ and ‘form’ are combined (metaphysically) to make a particular thing. A substance can be arranged in many possible forms, and a given form may be made out of many possible substances. But, if we specify substance AND form, then we specify a thing.

    But, as Jon points out, this natural way of speaking is completely up-ended in A-T language. There ‘substance’ and ‘form’ are practically identified! They are of course completely allowed to define words how they like. But, if I were starting a new metaphysics suitable for science, that is NOT how I would proceed. It is completely bizarre!

    In fact, Aristotle bears some responsibility for this. He talks of things made of matter, and then ‘form’ as ‘everything else that makes a thing what it is’. But that leave unclear how causal powers of thing are supposed to exist: since they are not matter they must be form. This conflates (in a stupid way) the ideas of ‘form’ as structure and ‘form as causal power’.

    Then Aquinas bears further responsibility. He sees the above problem. He wants to attribute causal powers to substance (a good idea, I say). But, rather than fixing Aristotle’s definition of ‘form’, he then conflates (in a stupid way) the ideas of ‘form’ and ‘substance’. He has no option left. But that results in the idea of a ‘substantial form’. That might be ok, except (as I point out just above), any clean metaphysics would distinguish ‘substance’ and ‘form’. A-T is not clean in that respect.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I suppose Thomas would say that his usage had priority? Latin “substantia” = “essence”, according to my dictionary.

      Anyway, come the revolution (whatever that might entail) no doubt there will be an entirely new set of terms, or entirely different meanings for the old ones.

      • Ian Thompson says:

        If we consult even Catholic literature, substance and essence are not identical:

        Essence is that which makes something what it is.
        Substance is that out of which something is made.

        The format of Thomistic metaphysics then takes a somewhat dyadic structure of descending generality: (i) essence and existence, (ii) substance and accident, (iii) matter and form. (much Thomist discussion!)

        In general, we can (should!) diverge from materialism. We can be guided by Aquinas’ insights, not to mention more general Christian insights. But that does not mean necessarily following the A-T system in all its glorious details. You appear to agree on the last point.

  11. Avatar photo GD says:

    I take substance to be the stuff that makes up things – if this is correct, than quantum theory would deal with substance.

    Information is another category, and discussions of this require mind/ intellect/ reason. So I differentiate between substance, human cognition, and am left with the question/mystery, why is it so – that is, what property of substance, makes it amenable to human cognition? Or should this be reversed – what is it that humans, made of substance, also possess the capability we equate with intelligence?

    Trying to equate form with some inherent information in substance presents more difficulties and does not provide answers. We may argue for a classical world in which substance has acquired form that conforms to our perception of things, gives the ability to differentiate one thing from another, but that is the best I can do for now.

  12. Ian Thompson says:

    GD: “quantum theory would deal with substance.”
    Exactly! But just not substance of the classical material or atomistic kind. Rather, something that perseveres through time without existing in a actualized form at every moment. The substance would be something like the ‘potentiality’ or ‘propensity’ for acting, and that acting occurs with non-zero time steps, not continuously. This is the ‘propensity interpretation’ of quantum mechanics, initiated by Heisenberg and Popper. Because of the finite time steps, propensities exist and persist from one event to another actualization. Between events, therefore, they are the substances of quantum things.

    You talk about mental information, and ask “what property of substance, makes it amenable to human cognition”. You (like many others) are asking, ‘what is the stuff of mind?’. My answer is an extrapolation of what I said above for quantum physics. It is ‘potentiality’ or ‘propensity’ but now of mental kinds. What is that, you ask? Do I know it? Yes: I say. It is the ‘love’ or ‘desire’ that make a person. For loves and desires are what in us persons that does persist. Again we make actualizing decisions intermittently. Between those decisions it is our love which persist. Love is our mental/personal substance. Just (certainly not!) material substance!

    Quantum objects are propensity-substances in various forms. Those forms are the wave functions of quantum theory.
    Mental objects are love-substances in various forms. Those forms are the information of mental kind, a.k.a thoughts and perceptions. The actions of love (a.k.a. decisions) have physical effects.

    The above is a potted summary of a ‘propensity account’ of physical and mental substances. It is not reductive. It is based on the ideas of the kind Aristotle might have had without much effort, though in fact he did not. Just remember that there are two kinds of substances (at least), and the kinds are not reduced to another, or aggregates of other kinds. It is the job of physicists and psychologists to determine how the two kinds of substances actually cause things, and hence what they actually do.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Hi Ian,

      My comprehension of quantum “stuff” or substance is limited to what physicists term “particles” – after that I leave it to theoretical physics.

      Your comments on propensity, actualisation and time is very interesting. My thinking has dealt more with how it is that, as sinful human beings, we retain the capacity to respond to what is Holy and Sacred – in this context, I view a human response at the spiritual level, as this is the way we may spontaneously respond to God’s love for us. This thesis considers the spontaneous response as the major premise, and the respond based on reason as the minor (or secondary) response. However, the instant takes us to an eternal notion, while our actualisation and acts involve our physical setting, our intent, act, judgment of one’s act, which would take us to a Christian conscience.

      In terms of your interesting remarks, I am inclined to view such quantum matters as providing a basis for the unique response of humans to the creation. Note I do not delve into a mental substance as distinct from material substance, but continue with scripture regarding a spiritual aspect to human personhood. This raises an interesting question, “Is this spiritual aspect such that it grants us the capacity to respond to the created order? and if so, should we look for spiritual substance? or perhaps we should see spirit as distinct from the material creation?”

      • Ian Thompson says:

        If the ‘revolution’ that Jon envisages is to occur, then (especially because of quantum physics) we cannot give up too easily. We have to at least imagine a metaphysics that makes sense of all of quantum physics, spirituality, and Christianity. Without denying anything essential (i.e. unlike Biologos)!

        And yes: your idea about ‘human responses at the spiritual level’ is an excellent one! Since God (Jesus) is life itself, we need (we can only!) respond to that life if we are to live. Everything that goes into us from God is good, but what comes out of us (our responses) are our responsibility. What comes out — as our decisions and acts — makes us who we are.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          What you say about imagining a metaphysics, etc, in your first paragraph, prompts the thought (perhaps obvious to others already) that it seems eminently possible that a metaphysics which does more justice to quantum physics may well, simply by doing that, encompass more of the spiritual and Christianity itself too (though of course a metaphysics wouldn’t in itself validate any of those things).

          This post (and the previous one, to some degree) are of course concerned mostly with updating scientific methodology, and the fact that one needs to make some new metaphysical choices to do so.

          But it intrigues me that a rather unavoidable task in physics – coping with the non-mechanical world of quanta more satisfactorily – might end up dissolving the historical divide that’s arisen between the material and the rest of reality, including the spiritual.

          On the down side of the discussion (reflecting Sy’s pessimism) I was reading a book today by a prominent Christian physicist, pointing out the same truths that materialism is no longer tenable, that science should have no problems interfacing with thoroughly Christian beliefs like providence, miracles, etc – even, indeed, anticipating my suggestion that “chance” is the equivalent of God’s free choices, and pointing out that the scientific definition of chance is entirely epistemic, not ontological.

          Yet the book was written in 1974, while I was still studying, and yet scientism still reigns 42 years on – and has even had a resurgence with New Atheism, and in educational policy in the UK and elsewhere. And even within Christianity, ontological randomness has, for the first time, been borrowed from the atheists as maybe something God would be involved with, at least by some of the TEs.

          Looks like change will not happen without a concerted effort.

          • Ian Thompson says:

            Arguing from effects to causes is not easy, most people agree. In fact, I don’t think we ever do it properly unless we have some kind of theory already about what kinds of causes we should consider.

            On that basis, I very much doubt that trying to find a theory of quantum physics will ever tell us anything about spiritual or religious things. Unless, that is, we already have some theory about what is spiritual or religious. In fact, you can see already the influence of non-dualism from Hinduism in many attempts to understand quantum physics. Those attempts fail, of course, but it illustrates my point.

            This means that the ‘concerted effort’ you ask for will only have an affect when Christian theists themselves make some kind of positive theory about the existence and causal powers of spiritual and religious things. They could regard their first such attempts as hypotheses, and then see if (or not) deductions from those hypothesis agree with what science sees. (This is Popper-style hypothetico-deductivism, rather than relying purely on induction to save the phenomena.)

            Your ideas of chance are interesting. But spirituality and religious things must have a reality of their own that is more than a collection of ‘uncanny coincidences’. Many people have written books about such coincidences, and suggest that something more must be involved. But without any good idea of what that ‘something more’ might be, what can we do?

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


              I agree that we won’t find the Scientific Secret of God in quantum physics – my point was about finding a way of doing science that doesn’t draw those artifical barriers around “natural” and “material” causes, and so allows better discourse about those things currently on the “outside”. Primarily I mean things within creation (not the divine itself, but allowing for divine activity to be accommodated).

              Our scientific methodology and metaphysical assumptions don’t ever do the science for us, but set the stage for what we can talk about intelligibly.

              And you’re also right in saying that it seems to me that it should start as a work for Christians – yet so did science as we have it start as a Christian project, and the metaphysics still proved useful universally.

          • Ian Thompson says:

            I think you ideas about “chance” are very close to Jung’s discussion of “synchronicity”. Though you were perhaps thinking about physics, and he was thinking more generally.

        • Avatar photo GD says:

          “We have to at least imagine a metaphysics that makes sense of all of quantum physics, spirituality, and Christianity. Without denying anything essential”

          I agree – but I am not convinced that our current theological understanding is sufficient for such a task. By this, I mean there is such a variety (and often contradictory) theological outlook, that discussions of “essential spirituality” becomes more of a confusing/confused mixture of (pseud0) science and questionable theology.

          Thomas (from my perspective) was keen to show that his theological outlook could be consistent with his reading of Aristotle. This approach (consider Christian dogma first) and then examine science and metaphysics is, in principle sound. Today however, I think theoretical physics, chemistry, and accompanying maths, have not been accompanied by an effort towards a new metaphysics. At least I have not found such a project. I guess the demands on both science and philosophy may make such a project difficult, and we are left with various individuals putting forward a variety of views and outlooks.

          I am not advocating giving up, and I am attracted to the notion (as I understand it) of an “absolute reality” that may be similar to your essence and existence.

          • Ian Thompson says:

            GD: you are right in saying “there is such a variety (and often contradictory) theological outlook”.

            For example, when you talk about an ‘absolute reality’, is this a monism or pluralism? That is, when you accept the existence of an absolute reality, are you accepting that all physical, mental, spiritual and divine things are (at heart) one thing?

            • Avatar photo GD says:

              By absolute reality I mean “the power of God’s Word” – if discuss the “power to create”, then science shows us how this power manifests and is understood by human intellect. When we discuss reason and the human spirit, we mean what we comprehend as personhood and related matters to human being.

              So I do not advocate different states of absolute reality – I advocate theologically, One God, and knowledge of Him via revelation of Himself, which takes us to Orthodox Christian teaching.

              Nowadays most effort is directed to the physical creation, which makes our theological outlook lopsided.

Leave a Reply