The boundaries of science are not theological

You are a scientist from Arcturus (didn’t know that, did you?) and your only surviving earth probe landed in my house and sends back accurate, but incomplete, information about the goings on here until the batteries run out after a couple of years. Which is more than can be said for the ensuing description, which is fictionalised for convenience.

Every morning, I wake spontaneously at 6.30 in the summer, and rather later in the winter. You log that regularity and assume there is some kind of law behind it – as there is, in the form of my biological clocks.

Half an hour later, and even more precisely, the central heating boiler goes on daily, and its daily routine follows the same pattern summer and winter. Presumably it’s another natural law, and is duly recorded and makes good predictions. One day the boiler doesn’t go on (the engineer called, in fact, which your sensors missed), which you treat as an unexplained anomaly – perhaps a measuring error.

I take the dog out at the same time every morning, and turn right out of the gate 37% of the time, and left 63%. You know, because you counted. And your prediction that the same percentage will obtain in future proves pretty accurate. A statistical law is deduced, and you have no reason to know what lies behind what is sheer habit for me, influenced by a slight preference for one set of views over the other.

Each day, at roughly the same hour, I switch the cooker on for my daily pizza, and once more you deduce there is some law, probably biological given the approximate timing, behind it. You measure the variation and find a rough Gaussian distribution around midday. The pizza habit is unbreakable.

However, on one occasion only, the cooker switches on when I am out of the house, and switches off at 6pm, just as my wife and I arrive back with another couple and eat the cooked pizzas. It’s another anomaly, but the coincidence of the cooker’s activity with the arrival of people makes it seem significant in some way. Perhaps it was a miracle? Perhaps the oven is intelligent (you don’t have any reason to know it has an automatic function)? Or it may have been chance. Anyway, it never happens again (we offended our only set of friends…), and so there is no more data on which to propose a theory. It remains just an observation.

Another anomaly occurs in my computer use. Every day I sit down and write endless prose musings which I post here or on various other websites. It’s pretty consistent, and pretty predictable – looks like another law of nature operating in this solar system. But during one week only, I suddenly connect the computer to various microphones and other equipment, engage different software, and sing loudly and play noisy musical instruments. Here, it seems, is another aberration to the natural order, as inexplicable as the workings of the magic oven. You weren’t to know that my routine daily bursts of literary inspiration were supplemented that week by a rare burst of musical inspiration leading to a recording session. To you it seemed like a random contingency – but it was actually the same mind on a different track – fifteen years ago it might have been the recording that was daily, and the writing that was unusual.

One more actual anomaly remains hidden from you. Owing to a laboratory accident in a monastery many years ago, I acquired an odd miraculous power, mediated by a guardian angel named Myrtle, of being able to switch on the TV remotely as if by magic at 6pm every day to record the news. You assume it’s another natural law. But it’s actually the most non-natural thing about my otherwise hum-drum existence, which I’ve never told anyone beyond the family because – well, they wouldn’t believe it. Admit it – you have some doubts about it yourself, so what would be the point of my advertising it?

And so you see that the scientific picture you manage to build up about life on earth, from your interstellar probe, is quite accurate as regards events, and at making predictions from patterns of events. But it’s pretty bad at spotting the difference between the actions of secondary causes (like automatic machines) and the direct activity of the primary teleological cause in the house (me). In fact, some of my purposeful actions – such as walking the dog or writing – are easy to interpret as natural laws like my regular meal times.

Worse still, your methods are pretty useless at being certain about teleology at all, and are quite incapable of distinguishing the natural teleology inherent in my actions (which you take for granted, being a similar kind of rational biological agent) from the supernatural angelic teleology that switches the TV news on every day. In fact, you mistake the latter, because of its pedestrian regularity, as a law of nature, simply from prejudice that angels don’t have regular habits. Well, Myrtle does.

Some of the problems with identifying teleology might be soluble if you adjusted your methodology in some way. For example, You might assume axiomatically that there was a principle of teleology underlying most of what happened in my house. In that case the boiler shutdown, for example, might still be unexplained in detail, but would be generally assumed to be purposeful rather than a “random anomaly.” Distinguishing choice from chance would be partly a question of probabilities – it is clearly less likely that an oven cooking a meal and four guests satisfying their hunger therby is coincidental than that the events are linked in some inexplicable way.

But mainly it’s about your understanding of reality: is teleology foundational or epiphenomenal in the world?

Notice, though, that for the most part you were able to identify the events in my house not along the lines of who or what performed them – whether myself, secondary agents of mine like machines or supernatural angels called Myrtle – but simply by the empirical observation that they either demonstrated recognisable chains of causality, or appeared entirely contingent and therefore more or less opaque to explanation.

That poses no problems in Arcturan science, which, owing to a different historical relationship of science to theology, operates under a principle of “methodological regularism.” I guess you must decide if it would pose a problem to our science.

And here, to close, is the recording that confused the Arcturan understanding of inspiration:

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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2 Responses to The boundaries of science are not theological

  1. Mark says:

    Your tune went to #7 on the Arcturan Pop Charts, so congrats on that. It could have gone higher but the Arcturan consensus was it “needed more cowbell”. One of our probes sent there recording similar data would have our scientists puzzled yet confident that Myrtle evolved via strictly natural means.

    • Jon Garvey says:


      As C S Lewis pointed out, since angels have a created nature which they abide by, they must be natural… probably an inconsistency on the part of our scientists greater than the error of saying they evolved.

      A long (and worthwhile) thread over at Peaceful Science on this, but I’m still none the wiser what the “natural” in “methodological naturalism” actually means!

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