You can’t exclude human influence from science

The title of this blog could refer to a number of things I’ve discussed here over the years. It could mean the fact that science is entirely a human activity, which could be summarised as asking the near-infinite realm of nature particular questions of human interest, to which it will return equally particular and incomplete answers. Or it could refer to the mysterious effects of mind on quantum events. But in fact in this post it’s about something else: providence.

A reader pointed me to an article by my compatriot Denis Alexander, in which Alexander tries to show that “special providence” is a redundant category, since it is (he argues) really the same thing as “miracle,” on a smaller scale. That is, it refers to special acts of grace from God towards human beings in the way of answered prayers, and so on.

He goes on to assert that, since this is the case, we should look neither for miracle nor special providence in the world of nature, which is not subject to the kind of gracious care offered to humans by God. Does anyone spot the glaring problem here?

It’s not just that it’s presumptuous to suggest that God does not act in the way he calls “miraculous” in the care of the beasts or plants or even planets. The Scriptural witness is, after all, that he acts providentially and individually in the case of every sparrow falling to the ground, and more widely in his provision of prey for the young lions, eagles, giving and taking life etc, notably in Psalm 104, but also in a variety of other scattered texts. I’m tempted to echo the habitual challenge of a preacher I knew: “Who told you that God only acts providentially towards humans?”

No, the real problem is quite simply that, for all the theoretical methodology of science in removing the influence of people from natural cause and effect, the fact is that the world is full of people interacting with the whole realm of nature in order even to exist. If there are 7.6 billion people towards whom God currently exhibits special providence – “miracle” if we insist on Denis Alexander’s unnuanced categories against two millennia of theological reflection – then there are 7.6 billion niches within nature where that providence is “interfering” with nature’s supposed efforts to get on with its business uninterrupted.

Let me exemplify this with the gratifying response of local people to my recent privately-published book on the fire that took out our old chapel a decade ago. As I interviewed the many people affected by it, what came across most strongly were the multiple experiences of special providence that my interviewees reported both in relation to their own lives, and to the circumstances of the fire and its aftermath. Readers have been greatly affected by this.

The church member who found himself as Project Manager, and so was deeply involved at every stage, was nevertheless amazed when he read the book to find just how God had been “working behind his back” in the lives of and experiences of others, and so indirectly affecting his own experience. That’s quite apart from his own sense of God’s provision.

I was accosted in church just this Sunday by a fringe-attender who had read the book and was deeply moved by just how much God had dealt with each individual member, as well as the bigger picture of buildings and circumstances. It’s got him, I think, looking out for the evidences of God’s love in his own life.

Preparing the book, I heard how even the fire chief who attended the incident considered that the heavy snow, which began to fall soon after the flames took hold, had prevented what might have been a major local disaster, quenching the firebrands that might otherwise have set light to the many quaint thatched cottages in the village neighbourhood.

The fire itself, ridding the fellowship of an antiquated money-pit of a building that it had found no way of working round, proved an immense benefit both to us and our community. Paradoxially the snow that saved the rest of the village also assured the destruction of the chapel by delaying the fire team’s arrival.

And so on. Most of these providences were only “encouraging” or “faith building” because they had all the appearance of actual circumstances being under God’s control. That is, God was influencing the things in the natural world in which every one of those those circumstances arose.

Now, a major incident like a fire, and especially a book of Christian recollections about a fire, concentrates the mind on providences, though I have to say that the experience has now led us consciously to set aside time in services for the sharing of individuals’ experience of God’s care week by week. But whether people appreciate “special providence,” or ungratefully assume it is “coincidence,” the very principle that Denis Alexander rightly sets out about God’s abundant love and care for people shows that such providence is, actually, ubiquitous. And in that case it necessarily affects vast swathes of nature, wherever people or their interests are involved.

If God ever affects the weather providentially, for example, then the whole atmosphere gets in on the act. If someone is supernaturally healed, it is actual natural bacteria or cancer cells that lose their livelihood. If George Müller providentially finds a coin to feed his orphans in the street, then somebody else providentially got an actual hole in their physical pocket.

It shouldn’t really be controversial that the world cannot, in reality, be compartmentalised into “human” and “natural,” and Scripture gives no indication that God makes such a distinction. It may occasionally be useful, as I have done in the past in combating “free process creation” ideas, to insist on a distinction such as that between humans who have actual free will, and irrational nature, which does not.

But that does not apply here: one can no more sideline human affairs from nature than you can ignore the welfare of the people living in a national park. After all, God created mankind to rule and tend that natural creation from within, according to Genesis 1. In other words, it doesn’t seem possible to find any real places on earth where nature doesn’t involve humans.

The exception, I suppose, would be where scientists have designed carefully controlled experiments specifically to exclude human (and therefore, in Denis Alexander’s scheme, divine) influence. The problem with that is that since the entire experimental setupof such a system is human, it’s the very worst example you could devise.

Thomas Aquinas argued rigorously for the universality of divine providence throughout creation. I think he made a better case than Denis Alexander in this instance.

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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, Philosophy, Science, Theology of nature. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to You can’t exclude human influence from science

  1. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    For what it’s worth, I think Denis is following a venerable tradition in underestimating the ubiquity of special providence. The question occupied much of the effort of the early Royal Society, many of whose members were thoroughly Evangelical in their belief in special providence, and even thought about how they might study it.

    But they appear, in the main, to have concluded that it simply must be fairly uncommon if they were to be successful in their study of natural (ie lawlike) causes. They had not, as later generations were forced to do, factored in the actual prevalence of unknowable “chance” events, whose extent only became clear through nineteenth century statistical science and, in our own time, quantum and chaos theories. These, like special providence, are actually operating everywhere… and perhaps they are the expression of God’s acts of special providence.

  2. Avatar photo Edward Robinson says:

    As usual, Jon, you make many good points.

    It may be unsporting to “pile on” a man who is already down, but I can’t resist adding to your critique. Looking at Alexander’s article, I read this about miraculous, special divine action:

    “… but the biblical literature does not give us any grounds for thinking that God acts in this way outside of his special grace to his people in particular historical circumstances.”

    Nor does it give us any grounds for thinking that God never performs special divine actions except for revelational purposes. Alexander just *assumes*, without warrant, that unless the Bible explicitly indicates that an action is special or miraculous, it should be understood as accomplished wholly by natural means. But this assumption is based wholly on presuppositions held by Alexander, who holds the view, typical of modern scientists, that the entire history of the universe, from Big Bang to man, can be explained wholly by natural causes. It’s not from the Bible that he got that presupposition; he got it from the history of modern thought, running from Bacon through to Kant, Lyell, Darwin, Oparin, etc.

    In fact, virtually *every* pre-modern Christian interpreter understood the creation of the world as a series of special divine actions, not as the unfolding of purely natural causes. You *never* hear the argument in the ancient, medieval or Reformation interpreters that “Since the words for miracle, sign, wonder, etc. aren’t used of the Creation account, we can take it that God created wholly through natural causes.” Nobody thought that until very modern times. Even Newton and Boyle and Kepler didn’t think that. In fact, I never heard this contrived argument until I started reading TE literature, where the motivation was clearly to endorse the naturalistic origins account found in Sagan, etc. and undermine any notion of special divine action in creation.

    TEs are weird. They have this strange duality about them. For the most part, they share the closed causal view of the world, from the Big Bang through to the present, that is found in mainstream secular science, and in atheist writers. But they allow a little tiny window running from about time of Abraham through to the time of Pentecost, in which God acts directly rather than through natural causes, for the purposes of establishing Christianity and getting people to believe in it — after which he returns to business as usual, handing the control of the world back to mechanical nature. And Alexander calls this view the “Biblical” one. But it’s preposterous. The scholars who wrote of the Biblical God as the “Lord of nature and history” were closer to the truth. The Bible represents God as intimately involved in both the natural and human worlds, all the time, from the Creation account through to end of the world in Revelation. The separation between “the natural order which God doesn’t interfere with” and “miracles where God breaks the natural order, but only in the history of Israel and the Church” is a forced, artificial distinction, which only someone wedded to a certain modern account of nature (while trying to maintain some semblance of Christian belief) would dream up. It’s not the most natural reading of the Bible — the Bible as it would appear to someone not conditioned by post-Enlightenment thought. Alexander thinks he’s being Biblical, but he’s not.

    Alexander continues on with this:

    “And since our planet has only had people on it for a tiny portion of its history, and processes such as the origin of life happened long before there were people around, this point also is clearly relevant to the discussion.”

    His point here (which he fails to make explicitly) seems to be that since no one was around for God to reveal anything to, there was no need for God to do anything miraculous, so we can presume that Creation was accomplished wholly through natural causes. But this presumption is, again, well, presumptuous. The Bible doesn’t say anything about only natural causes being used, and the most natural reading of the story is that God is creating through direct supernatural action. It’s only Alexander’s modern scientist prejudices that make him say the Bible “defaults” to natural causes here.

    Further, if Alexander is really concerned about what is “Biblical”, he might note that the writer of Exodus, in relating the liberating acts of God which even Alexander considers miraculous and special, parallels those actions to God’s actions in Creation; the most natural reading of Genesis, then, is that God acted as “specially” in creating the world as he did in the miracles that liberated Israel.

    I can never figure out if the blind spots these guys show are *willful*, i.e., they are determined to force both exegesis and theology into shape in order to defend their preferred naturalistic accounts of origins, or whether they are unconscious, i.e., they don’t realize how bad their Biblical and exegesis and theology are, being trained as scientists and having no “ear” for philosophical and literary matters. I suspect that it is a bit of both.

    I’ve nothing against Alexander personally; I’ve heard him speak on recorded talks, and he seems like a perfect gentleman. Probably I would like him if he was my neighbor. But I don’t think he’s a very deep thinker. And he reasons loosely. But then, when one has an agenda, one is likely to reason loosely, if loose reasoning gets one to the desired conclusion.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Eddie.

      You comment aptly on the point I left largely undiscussed – which might be perhaps boiled down to the fact that “special providence” and “miracle” are not interchangeable terms, and Alexander seems to be performig something of a theological con trick by basing his case on eliding the differences between them.

      A point neither of us has made so far is that. although I based my OP on the ubiquitous presence of humans, Denis actually restricts his miracles to “his” people, ie the covenant community. That restriction, too, is indefensible from Scripture, because there are many places in which God’s blessings and judgements affect all mankind, including those with no covenant knowledge of him.

      Two examples: in Deuteronomy Yahweh reminds Israel that even their displacement of the Canaanites is not unique, listing other nations that have been judged by him and displaced by others.

      Secondly, of course, there is Paul’s address to the Areopagus in Athens, in which he states that that God has determined the exact times and places for the various nations of the world. Once again, it is impossible to accept that without recognising his control over nature, as in the destruction of the Minoan civilisation by the Santorini eruption, and so on.

      As I have been saying for many years now, at which you tilt as well, is that modern “Evolutionary Creation” has predominantly attempted to live with two contradictory metaphysical systems simultaneously.

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    “Thomas Aquinas argued rigorously for the universality of divine providence throughout creation.”

    I find discussions from Christians that restrict God’s action difficult to understand, as every major theological work on the subject starts with God created all from nothing, and thus everything is subject to His will.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      You’ll know (so this is mainly for newer readers) that in my view the reason Christians of a scientific bent do so is lack of a clear alternative metaphysics to materialistic naturalism.

      They seem willing to accept occasional divine action (category “miracle”) as a kind of anomaly to reality. God can break reality if he wants, but it’s usually inappropriate since he made it. They fail to think in terms of divine action being a normal aspect of the relaity he created.

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