It’s always the naturalism that blinds.

One reason I post decreasingly often at BioLogos (and also at Uncommon Descent) is that it seems that all origins sites (except this one, so far) eventually  become populated by a bevy of science-orientated positivists. These post on every vaguely physically-orientated subject, quite often picking on every sentence of a post and making criticisms grounded on the standard materialist line. They usually support each other whether claiming to be atheists or Christians (or ex-Christians – though seldom ex-atheists), and their main aim seems to be to drive home the message that “Science disproves that God acts in nature.” The net result is that anybody with the temerity to explore how God interacts with nature soon finds that they are instead having to do basic apologetics.

Over at Peaceful Science, Daniel Deen and I, at Joshua Swamidass’s request, are reviewing a book called Christ and the Created Order. It involves all manner of different approaches, but the basic message is that treating the creation christologically changes everything. Everything.

Let me list some of the quotes that Daniel and I have used from the chapters we have covered so far.

Murray Rae:

“The theological claim that Christ is the one in and through whom all things came to be and in whom all things hold together entails that nothing can be understood in its entirety until we consider its role in the working out of God’s purpose.”

“The end or telos of all things is to take their place in the working out of God’s purpose and, precisely thereby, to realize their true identity and freedom as creatures of God.”

Norman Wirzba:

Creation includes beginnings, but is much more as well,

“it is about the character of the world and its proper orientation, alerting us to the meaning, value, and purpose of everything that is.”

“Though creatures possess their own unique integrity [logos],” Wirzba comments, “the purpose of creaturely life is being-with-others—in modes of touching, reproduction, growth, eating, play and so on—so that something like symphonic flourishing can occur.”

Brian Brock:

“The events that give creation its narrative, and so its history, are fundamentally those discreet divine engagements by which God opens communion with creatures.”

Even the lower creatures, then, are not “just” the outcomes of evolution, but “have been put lovingly into places made for them.” Brock suggests, as an instance of such an “opening of communion with creatures,” “lightning strikes on the primeval soup.”

N. T. Wright:

“[W]e don’t start with a view of “how God made the world” and insert Jesus into that. We start with Jesus himself, . . . and we therefore reflect on creation itself not as a mechanistic or rationalistic event, process, or “fact,” and not as the blind operation of impersonal forces, but as the wise, generous outpouring of the creative love that we see throughout Jesus’s kingdom-work, and supremely on the cross.”

“A fully Trinitarian vision of God, Jesus, and the Spirit goes with the vision of a theistic, that is, a non-Epicurean, evolution.”

The common thread of all these is that we learn about God through Jesus, who created the world. We therefore also learn about the created world through Jesus, whose personal involvement of love, and his telos for each creature, is the central truth.

What is notable is how few comments these rather radical ideas have attracted, and particularly how little engagement from even the Christians among the scientists. On the other hand, on another thread, the question was, “Does Embryo Development Require God’s Guidance?” When I visited it, it was the usual bunch of scientists pouring scorn on the few people suggesting that it does, and the conclusion to the thread, summarised by Joshua, was “…it does not appear that embryology requires God’s guidance.”

So, wishing to move the discussion deeper, I posted:

Embryology is the study of how embryos develop.
God’s guidance is about how individual people are created.

There is a close relationship between the two, but they are distinct questions.

One scientist replied that he didn’t understand what I was talking about, and a second that I was being vague. I haven’t replied as experience over many years (including with these two particular posters) tells me that it would end in not discussing the theology of nature, but degenerate into alternating apologetics (me) and slamdown (them). They have never “got it” yet, and won’t in such an exchange. Maybe that’s why little discussion ever occurs anywhere on the theology of nature – everything becomes a boxing match about the “God hypothesis.”

But let me answer my own points here. Does embryology not require God’s guidance? If not, then the creatures involved are not directed towards any christological ends in their coming to being.

Science describes in general terms the lawlike, ie repeatable, processes governing the development of embryos. But that tells us nothing about why you were born, and some other guy wasn’t. It doesn’t explain why my identical twin daughters are, and always have been, so different. Because it deals only with generalized, efficient causes, it cannot begin to address these questions, which are all about guiding individual entities and events, in Wright’s terms, through “a personal involvement of love” and towards “his telos for every creature.”

When Jesus was asked whether it was a blind man, or his parents, whose sin led him to be born that way, the causation proposed was not one recognised by modern science, but was still a train of efficient causation: “if someone sins, stuff will go wrong.” But Jesus insisted on replying with a teleological account:

“This man was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Now, there are all kinds of mysteries of divine wisdom in his reply, but the point is that Jesus saw the man’s embryological development, including the mishap of blindness, in terms of just such a “personal involvement of love” and a specific “telos.” So don’t tell me that God’s guidance is not required in embryology, because Jesus says it is what governs embryology.

No Christ (that is, no Christ-as-revealed-in-the-Incarnation), no embryology. How does science handle that? It speaks of lawlike regularities: but the Bible attributes those to the faithfulness of God in Christ, and to his constant sustaining of all things in being (which, as I have explained in other posts, is not the same thing as “sustaining in mere existence,” but is about creating all things as they are, from moment to moment).

Then science also talks about contingent events, most notably the fact that why a particular embryo gets to exist at all depends on which of the millions of possible spermatozoa available fertilizes an ovum. It invokes a strange non-cause named “chance” to account for that. But does God have no oversight of that? Did John the Baptist, or the prophet Jeremiah, or you or me, come into existence without any “telos” from Christ; for no purpose in his kingdom, but merely from random efficient causes? And yet each Christian was “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.” So Christ exercises no guidance of embryology?

Science has no explanation for any of this, and is therefore woefully incomplete as an explanation of human embryology – but also, on the reckoning of someone like Brian Brock – of the embryology of lower creatures too, each of which is created in its own level of communion with Christ.

Why did none of the scientists on the PS thread even think of such things? Why did none of the Christian scientists leap in to correct the atheists? It’s all down to metaphysical commitments, whether overt or unconsious. Science, by its methodology, extracts a certain set of questions it considers important, and then dismisses every other question as not germane. But as N. T. Wright also says in his chapter in Christ and the Created Order,

. . . observation and reasoning never take place within a vacuum (unless you artificially create such an epistemeological vacuum and demand that everyone lives inside it).

But I don’t want to live in that epistemological vacuum, and so won’t get involved in apologetics with those who insist I ought. I do, however, wish more Christians in science would get with the christological program, though. Otherwise, for all appearances science and faith are opposites, if God must be absent when science is present.

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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.
This entry was posted in Creation, Science, Theology, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to It’s always the naturalism that blinds.

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Yes they seek to show science shows no God acxts in nature OR that nature shows a God.
    Then they say they are not opining on whether there is a God.
    Nature, in the bible and amongst mankind, was always used as the evidence for a thinking being of greatness(God) due to its glorious complexity and diversity.
    So they must attack this historic idea. Likewise god can’t even act in nature as if nature won’t allow it.
    Yes thats motivation.

  2. Ian Thompson says:

    If you have God (Christ) acting in nature, as every basic telos demands in reality, do you think this is directly, or both directly and via intermediates?

    If there are intermediates, then there might be something specific and regular behaviors that science could connect with (at least from one side!).
    For telos (etc) must have observable effects.

    Do you think that evidence and theories about the influence on the world of spiritual or mental things would help? Could they be intermediates here? Or are we willing to go there?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Happy New Year, Ian.

      The trouble with the real world of agency, rather than mechanical molecules, is that you can no longer assume the repeatable patterns you find are bedrock reality, rather than a minor, or even fortuitous, aspect of things. “Specific and regular” surely means just that, and gives us little information about what active agents, if any, might be involved in them. Regular patterns in gases tells us (apparently) about aggregates of simple mechanical motions. Regular patterns in voting tell us about millions of individual wills. But regularity is still just regularity. Or can we say more?

      So how would we distinguish the regularity of created natures, of intermediaries, or of God himself? Did you see this recent overview pointing to the “agency” of living things themselves at the physiological level (which seems to go along with Sy Garte’s work too)? As soon as we conceive of nature as the creative interaction of created and divine agents, life gets seriously complicated – which it is already, as we now know.

      By intermediates, are you thinking of spiritual beings of some sort? The idea of dryads and nymphs is attractive (at a romantic level, at least), and it seems to be such “spirits”, under a high God, on which Alfred Russel Wallace based his cosmology and his evolutionary theory. But I have to say that in the research I did for God’s Good Earth, I couldn’t find any biblical suggestion that angels, or demons come to that, are given any role in the natural world – the world of human power and politics is another matter.

      In the Bible, God (revealed in Christ in the NT) seems to keep the governance of nature in his own hands, and of course the idea of Wright, etc, in making creation christological again, is to emphasize that God himself, in his Son, cares for creation as personally as he cares for us.

      If we take the “management” of the new creation in Christ as being analogous to his work in the old creation (as Col 1 encourages us), then there might be room for spiritual beings as subsidiary agents in nature, as well as the Spirit of God. After all, Paul met Christ, the Spirit filled Cornelius – but an angel got Peter out of jail free. But, as I say, I couldn’t find any biblical indication that such is actually the case in nature.

      Personally, I guess you will have gleaned from voluminous writings here that I see God (and/or spiritual powers if such intermediaries were involved) as being hidden in plain sight in the contingencies that are attributed to chance in the naturalist scheme. Laws, too, have not been shown to be ontological realities, but only convenient ways to describe regularity.

      So if I’ve understood you right (and please push back if not), I think we can detect all the interactions between the divine and the created, cause and effect, and that we regularly do. The problem is that we cannot distinguish, empirically, agency from chance – it’s a metaphysical choice.

      The new creation is an analogy here. Someone is born again into eternal life. She even has visions of angels, remarkable answers to prayer, and is healed from cancer. And her neighbours think she’s a religious nut who got lucky with a spontaneous remission of her illness. Same facts, different understanding.

      • Ian Thompson says:

        By ‘intermediates’, I am thinking first of humans, and then all animals and plants as well as each living cell. These are all living creatures, and we presume that they all have at least some primitive kind of mental life: at least some will or motivation or telos, along with instinctual responses that reflect some implicit wisdom for good ways of responding to enhance and continue life. Maybe every gene element (as in the article).

        There may well be spiritual beings of some sort as well, but they would be intermediates between all us living creatures and what is greater than us spiritually, so I should think: angels, saints and all who have lived who want to do what is good and useful (and maybe also those who want the opposite). Direct divine influence as well, of course.

        Because these things above are all intermediates, they are ‘riders’ or ‘modulators’ on the pathways of life from the Divine that Christ uses to enliven and influence us in the world. All the good spiritual beings, for example, would be saying saying ‘not my will but thine’ when they do something.

        I now insist that, in all our bodies, there must be influences from these intermediates that give results NOT as predicted by the laws of physics. They must be able to have some effect: able to make a difference to physics (otherwise, why bother?). The modulation from intermediates results in a kind of ‘final cause’ in physics, since it directs physical bodies towards some end or target or lure.

        And now I think that these differences in physics ought be observable even to physicists. They are much larger than resolving quantum uncertainties or probabilities, since the effects of motivation and telos happen in every minute in our living bodies, and so cannot be just biasing some remote probability. I agree that it might be difficult, since this is to distinguish agency from chance. But it is only the chance of ignorance, not of quantum physics.

        I even have a more specific idea for what these differences might be in physics, which I will explain more in the next few months when I work out a bit more detail. Sometimes, at least, the patterns should be repeated. All hidden in plain sight.

        Have I mentioned protein folding, where there has been persistent ignorance of the causes of rapid in-vivo folding for the last 50 years?

        Best wishes for the New Year, Jon.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          Interesting line, Ian. If you didn’t mention protein-folding, then someone else did, but I think it was you.

          If you’re thinking of natural, living “intermediaries,” how are you envisaging those interactions taking place, in broad terms?

          I can imagine, for example, there being interactions between ourselves and organisms close to us, such as our microbiome, involving recognised forces such as electical fields of chemical signals. Or do you hav something more esoteric in mind?

          Anyway, your post is timely as it persuaded me to put a section on “new and interesting biology” into something I’m working on on the Genealogical Adam. Geneticists were wrong-footed when they excluded Adam as an ancestor because they thought of non-sexual reproduction and ignored genealogy. Maybe they’re doubly wrong-footed if non-genetic factors turn out to be even more significant than they do now.

          • Ian Thompson says:

            For intermediates, I just refer to our abilities to feel, think and do things from feeling and thinking. That is, I assume we have minds that do these things, and hence have causal effects on body and world. This applies to all living creatures to varying degrees of fullness and detail.

            Naturalism might want to call these esoteric and unbelievable, but they are really what we are all very close to (or identical to, in part).

            Any plausible account of the world has to take minds in some sense as essential part or being of mental lives. The substance of minds is love/desire, and their form is their thinking. This is just applying Aristotle’s common categories to some things very obvious. The substance gives the mode of its persistence through time, and the form gives its structure at present.

            This is not exactly Aristotle according to Aquinas (who makes ‘form’ far more general, and substance/matter far less), but it is still Aristotle’s methods applied in a clear sense.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

              Ah – I see more clearly now.

              You’ve downgraded “substantial forms” in AT thinking to “substance + present form.” That would make it easier to accommodate evolutionary ideas, in that the form could mutate, leaving an ongoing substance.

              But what would the latter be? Just life in its broadest sense?

              The demonstration of intermediaries in the form of [volition] by creatures ought to be pretty basic. Is it not essentially the obvious (as opposed to the Aristotelian) form of teleology?

              At the human level it’s blindingly obvious, but the eliminative materialists still manage to deny it in favour of obscure efficient causes. The less doctrinaire naturalists seem to fudge it: but that would seem to mean that all that hides it is a metaphysical commitment to deny teleology, which blinds one.

              The same, I think, is true at the non-human level. Shapiro or Noble will see creatures actively making goals, and the Christian can see the hand of God in all kinds of events. But they (and therefore the agents) disappear by fiat as soon as you insist that efficient causes are all.

              Is there any evidential way round that, or do people just have to see the limitations of naturalism first?

  3. Ian Thompson says:

    (reply to Jon on 09/01/2019 at 08:52 am)

    It’s another version of Aristotle which does not have ‘substantial forms’ (which, unless you change the meaning of ‘form’ away from everyday and from science, does sound a bit contradictory). Of course, you are free change meanings that way (Thomism itself is not contradictory) but I prefer not to. We can discuss that separately.

    As you point out, this revised ontology can at least accommodate the simple teleology of volition. That is a beginning of something useful at both the human and non-human levels, not to mention possibly Christ operating in the world from His love (God is Love!).

    And then, even this small step is resisted by the eliminative materialists and cohorts, who insist that ‘efficient causes are all’, as you say.

    My only novelty (here) is seeing a way to change physics to allow final causes to have effects. I will explain (in more detail soon, somewhere) my idea for some of the ways ‘supporting efficient causes’ may assist final causes to operate in nature. The idea is some local modification of specific physical properties in order to reach some kind of target or lure or end from the final causes. If physical properties are changed, then something should be measurably different.

    We are admittedly breaking the causal closure of the natural world, and breaking some conservation laws in some particular circumstances, so it’s a bit of a conjecture. Materialists may say that this makes it all impossible, since conservation laws are ‘known to be satisfied to high accuracy’. I reply: have you tested conservation laws where processes like this may well be occurring? That is, testing where we expect volition (etc) to be important?

    If course, if you can already see the limits of naturalism, then the failure of the causal closure of the physical will not be a great surprise.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Interesting – let us know when you have something to present (ideally in a form for the mathematically challenged!).

      Is there necessary a vilation of conservation laws in this? The lest disputible case of final causation is us, and we seem to be able to affect outcomes without introducing new energy or matter into the system.

      Is information, which would seem to be an obvious place to look, not immaterial?

      • Ian Thompson says:

        Will do. Working on it now!

        There might not be new energy or matter, but local fluctuations of (say) the unit of charge in specific regions. For the physicist: this amounts to local fluctuations of the permittivity of space in the region where molecular objects need to be guided.

        It is explicit guidance. And, equivalently, all those things disputed so often that you have mentioned in your blog posts. We should not be afraid to admit that.

        Information is always ‘form’ rather than ‘substance’ (in the simple, non-Thomist meaning of these words). And you can never have information without it being the specific form OF some substance. You can never have information here, and substance over there.
        Information is only ‘immaterial’ if you *intellectually* distinguish it from substance (as is always possible in the mind, but never in reality). This is my way to follow Aristotle, not Plato.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    And you can never have information without it being the specific form OF some substance.

    Well yes, I see that. Hylemorphism 101. Look forward to seeing the whole account.

  5. Avatar photo GD says:


    It is instructive to see nature, science and theology in harmony, and I think it deepens a scientist’s curiosity to seek more in his studies of nature. I have been contemplating (from time to time) the Palamas doctrine on the distinction between the essence and energies of God, in that science may gain insights on these energies, and from there try to articulate a sense of direction/purpose in nature.

    Perhaps tangentially, I am fascinated on how cells from conception become or form every organ in bio-entities. One may speculate that “they know” what they should become.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Perhaps tangentially, I am fascinated on how cells from conception become or form every organ in bio-entities. One may speculate that “they know” what they should become.

    Did you see this post not too long ago? The paper it links too is astonishing to me, and reminds me just how limited our gene-centred biology has become. And since I’m writing a book on Genealogical Adam, that comes as no surprise, because the conventional view of genetics, as espoused at BioLogos, told us that descent from Adam was an impossibility.

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