Clinton Ohlers: Two Parables on Divine Action

From July 17 through 19, we will be holding office hours with @rcohlers. Clinton is a good friend of mine is a historian with a PhD from University of Pennsylvania. He is a scholar of intellectual history. He has been studying Francis Bacon, one of the architects of modern science, thinking about divine action. Please keep in mind that Clinton is in Hong Kong, so late night interactions will probably be easiest, as they will be during his work day.

Recently, he invited me to HKU to give a talk on my work this Fall. I’m going to do several talks, but one of them will be with Clinton on Divine Action. We wanted to pose some questions to the larger academic community, and decided to hash out some of this on the forums.

In about a week, when he has some time, we are going to share two parables on science and divine action. This will touch on topics we’ve already discussed on the forums, like Methodological Naturalism, So Falsely Called. We think these two parables might be a good starting point to reframe the “demarcation” problem (what is and is not science?), and to forge a more coherent middle ground in the debates.

On this thread, we will be kicking off the conversation between the two of us, putting forward two parables on divine action. Then we will open up the thread for contributions from everyone.

We are working out the details of our joint talk, so your contributions could really help us. If we are lucky, Joshua Farris from Houston Baptist University, another person working on Divine Action, might join us too. Perhaps even @TedDavis might stop by too. Certainly, I hope that @Patrick, @jongarvey, @pnelson, @vjtorley and all the rest of the regulars can join us. Talk to you soon.

There is quite a bit here, which is why we are putting this out before the conversation opens this coming July 17 (at 8 am). That should give everyone to read and contemplate before engaging. Keep in mind that @rcohlers sits on the other side of the world, so he will probably not respond till evening. I’m looking forward to the conversation, and have fun reading up.

The Conversation Begins…

@rcohlers, you have studied Francis Bacon very closely, the author of Novum Organum in 1620, one of the keystone publications of the scientific revolution. You once told me about a parable that Bacon told about science and divine action. How did it go again?


Bacon’s parable on science and divine action appeared in his utopian novel, New Atlantis, written in 1623, shortly before his death and left unfinished. In it Bacon laid out in this story a vision of the work of the natural philosopher that would become emblematic of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the model of the British Royal Society founded between 1660-1662.

Bacon’s chaplain, William Rawley, whom Bacon personally selected as the executor of his literary estate, introduced the tale to the public with the following words:

“This fable my Lord devised, to the end that he might exhibit therein a model or description of a college instituted for the interpreting of nature and the producing of great and marvelous work for the benefit of men, under the name of Salomon’s House, or the College of the Six Days’ Works.”
(Brian Vickers, Francis Bacon: The Major Works, 2008, p. 785)

In 1660, the founders of the Royal Society consciously modeled their new Society after Bacon’s vision of the College of the Six Day’s Works in his New Atlantis.

In this work, Bacon also laid out his understanding of the relationship between scientific inquiry and divine action, in discerning a genuine miracle from an unusual work of nature or human artifice. His view was also the common understanding of the relationship between scientific inquiry and contemplation of divine action for the members of the Royal Society at its founding and for quite some time to come.

The Parable of New Atlantis

As the story of New Atlantis unfolds, five-months after disembarking from Peru, bound for China, a crew of European sailors finds themselves first becalmed and then driven persistently northward by a railing tempest. When the storm ends, they find themselves depleted of food and in unknown waters off the coast of an undiscovered island. It is then that the inhabitants of this island, called Bensalem, come their rescue.

Bensalem stands apart from any existing civilization by two remarkable features. First, the inhabitants were converted to Christianity within about twenty years of the ascension of Christ and had achieved an ideal Christian society, unblemished by the failings of European Christendom. Second, the most renowned individuals of Bensalem’s populace were the members of a society of natural philosophers known as the House of Salomon or the College of the Six Day’s Works.

Also unique to Bensalem’s history was its early conversion to Christianity the combination of spectacular miracle and the ability of a leading member from the House of Salomon whose knowledge as a natural philosopher, fifteen hundred years before the arrival of the European sailors, equipped him to accurately discern a miracle from natural causes.

Bacon narrates the story of the miracle that brought this event about in careful detail. At that time, a column of light appeared about a mile off the eastern coast of Bensalem. It was so extraordinary that the inhabitants launched a flotilla to investigate. Stationed in one of the lead vessels was “one of the wise men of the House of Salomon, which house or college . . . is the very eye of the kingdom.” Thoughtfully investigating, he discerned the miraculous nature of the event they were witnessing and followed with a prayer to heaven,

“Lord God of heaven and earth, thou has vouchsafed of thy grace to those of our order, to know they works of creation, and the secrets of them; and to discern . . . between divine miracles, works of nature, works of art, and impostures and illusions of all sorts. I do here acknowledge and testify before this people, that the thing we see before our eyes is thy Finger and a true Miracle⁠ . . .” (Vickers, 2008, 464)

In response to his prayer the boat is invisibly led forward. The column disperses in a burst of starlight where in its place he discovers a small floating ark containing a Bible comprised of the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments and a letter.⁠ The parchment letter is a letter of introduction and evangelization from the Apostle Bartholomew. In this way, Christianity was brought to the island through the cooperation of miracles, providence, revelation, and an enhanced authority in discerning miracles that scientific inquiry provided.

What Does The Scientist Think?

Bacon wrote this about 400 years ago. @swamidass, there is a lot in Bacon’s view that is relevant to human enquiry into divine action today and controversial in terms how science as currently understood. Josh, what are your thoughts as both a scientist and a Christian?

1 Like

That is a great story @rcohlers, from one of the key people in the scientific revolution. We do sit in a different place, 400 years ago, looking at the history of science, as much as still see it future promise.

Bacon has always been important to me in science, as his work at the foundations of science linked my experience as scientist with theology. As a student, I remember reading Novum Organum, where Bacon explains in 1620 science in theological terms, as a monastic discipline of taking down intellectual idols so that we may see the created world more clearly. Science is a set of disciplines designed to overcome the clouding of our minds that arose as a result of the Fall.

Bensalem Unfallen

In the wake of the Copernican Revolution, Bacon was optimistic about what natural philosophy (science as we no know it) could discover about the world. You can see his utopian optimism in the story at several points:

It seems that, very unlike Novum Organum, this story presumes that society is Unfallen. This is truly a utopian society, we can find it no place on Earth, perhaps because it does not exist.

The Unfallenness of this society is required to make sense of how the story progresses after this miracle.

  1. Even though this miracle took place in the distant past, no one seems to question the testimony and history of this event. Everyone trusts that there has been an unbroken chain of truth-telling back 1500 years.

  2. Likewise, no one seems to question the goodness of God, or whether He is worthy of worship.

  3. No one wonders if an elaborate hoax by non-divine beings is being executed against them.

The miracle is not renewed every generation, nor does is it still available to them to see. Instead, these ancestors of Bensalem are irrationally trusting. This is a very difficult story to believe. It is unbelievable, unless of course it takes place in a world without the Fall.

Nature Transcends Understanding

There is more though. How could that event in the first place been recognized as a miracle? Bacon thinks that knowledge of natural law would allow them to clearly discern a miracle.

Bacon seems to think that we can understand nature enough to reliably discern when a miracle occurs. 400 years later, I think we have learned that Romans 1:20 is true, but maybe not in the way we expected.

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

One of the invisible qualities that Nature has been granted, and we can discern, is that it transcends our understanding. We never come to confidence that we have fully understood Nature. It is just so much bigger than us. If we find something that deviates from natural law, it could be just new things for us to discover. That is why, on a very basic level, we do scientific work, because we do not understand all of natural law.

So there is a paradox embedded in his story. If we truly understood natural law fully, we would no longer have need for scientific inquiry. Yet, 400 years later, the we are increasing in knowledge of how much we do not understand. Contra Bacon’s expectations, science does not bring us to confident knowledge of the intricacies of nature. We do uncover knowledge, however science brings us to greater appreciation of how non-intuitive, surprising and grand Creation really is.

That is the paradox of science. It gives real knowledge of nature, but also knowledge of our ignorance. Nature is simultaneously understanding, and also transcends our understanding. 400 years after Bacon, I cannot imagine understanding nature well enough to determine by observation if something is natural or not.

The True Miracle of Bensalem

Reading the story, nonetheless, it is possible that it could have taken place. It would have required a miracle, but not the one Bacon identifies. This is not the miracle of a boat proceeding from a supernatural shaft of light…

Rather, the true miracle of Bensalem is this:

It is miraculous that a scientist would recognize such an event as miracle, rather than a yet to be explained law or a hoax perpetrated by those with advanced technology. It is a miracle that the his assessment would remain unquestioned for 1500 years. It would be miraculous for a scientist to lose sight of the profound transcendence of the created world. It would be miraculous to find a society untouched by the Fall for 1500 years, with confident trust in the truthfulness of their neighbors, and the goodness of God.

So yes, Bensalem only exists because of a miracle, it is just not the miracle that Bacon that thought.

The New Redemption of Science

The issue of the Fall in relation to Bensalem is significant. Bacon was extremely well versed in Protestant Christian theology, which is reflected in his literary corpus. He and his brothers studied as a young man in Switzerland under Reformers there at the behest of his mother, Lady Ann Bacon, a leading promoter of the Reformation in England. The Fall was so significant in Bacon’s understanding of the current state of the world that he believed that single event prompted God to alter in part the laws of nature as part of the Genesis curse. So, for Bacon, there was no way in which Bensalem had escaped the Fall. Rather quite the opposite, in the 1500 years that they had prospered and achieved a civilization superior to Europe’s had to do with the existence and pervasive influence of the college of natural philosophers engaged in natural science. Bacon’s parable looked forward to what such a society in England might be able to achieve 1500 years hence.

Bacon and the early members of the Royal Society based their scientific methodology on their strong understanding of the effects of the Fall. They believed that Adam had possessed an accurate knowledge of nature in his unfallen state. In our corrupted state, however, reattaining that knowledge required careful methods. Science had to be done in community and independently verified, so that individual practitioners did not deceive themselves. Scientific knowledge had to come by means of observation and experimentation. Knowledge of nature could not be achieved through mere philosophical speculation from first principles, because our minds were imperfect. Also, because of that imperfection, scientific knowledge must of necessity be provisional and continually corrected and improved. As Peter Harrison has shown, the concept of the Fall, was central to the development of modern science.

It is interesting that Bensalem possesses its college of scientists prior to the coming of Christianity. It would be interesting to know Bacon’s mind on this, but it does seem that Bacon pictures scientific enquiry as having brought them to a state of greater innocence and receptivity to truth. Your reading picks up on that.

Your point of view here would have been entirely foreign to Bacon’s thought and that of his contemporaries, as well as his successors in the early Royal Society. This was a highly biblically informed culture – even Bacon’s former secretary, the notorious Thomas Hobbes, claimed a place in the Anglican Church. That a miracle might occur only one time would seem of little importance, as virtually all the Biblical miracles fit that description. The parting of the Red Sea and the Resurrection of Christ, the central miracles for Jews and for Christians, were exactly these kinds of one-time miracles that had occurred over 1500 years before.

What was more important was that such events were reliably recorded. In this, the Bensalemites were sure to excel as their most revered institution, the College of the Six Days’ Works, was dedicated to the accurate observing and recording of phenomena. So, if Europeans could rationally believe in the Resurrection of Christ, all of which did occur in a fallen world, then the inhabitants of Bensalem could at the very least equally trust their historical record regarding the Pillar of Light. I believe the same can be said of your other enumerated points.

Nature Transcends Understanding

Bacon and the Virtuossi of the Royal Society, as they were called, came at this from the opposite direction. The social challenge in their day was not the relevance of belief in miracles but of the relevance of natural philosophy to the good of society. In quite the opposite fashion from questioning how a miracle could ever be known to have occurred, they instead turned to Biblical miracles to show that observation and investigation of phenomena was a worthwhile enterprise. If Christ had revealed Himself by performing miracles and God had revealed Himself throughout the Bible through the use of miracles, as objective, external events that could be observed, confirmed, and reported on by multiple individuals, then observation, enquiry, and verification of phenomena was a valid and important human enterprise. That the object of this enquiry be nature simply meant that God’s works of creation was investigated by the same means, i.e., empirically, as were His works of revelation.

I think it is fair to take from Leibniz, writing almost a century after New Atlantis, the essential definition of a miracle: “The distinguishing mark of miracles (taken in the strictest sense) is that they cannot be accounted for by the natures of created things” (Leibniz, _Theodicy, _§208).

Whatever one may say about the historical development of the laws of nature, and so forth, if one thing is certain it is that Leibniz’ definition was the understanding of the ancient world and remains consistent with contemporary views. Whatever miracles are, nature on its own doesn’t produce them. Miracles require agency that exercises power beyond the normal course of nature.

In fairness to Bacon, I think that he thought of the length of time science would be practiced more in terms of when the Second Coming of Christ might occur than whether science would reach completion in a relatively short time. I suspect that if one were to tell him that the return of Christ would delay more than 400 years from the time he put town the pen, Bacon would not be surprised by the fact that science was not yet complete and things turned out to be more complicated than he might have expected. I think what would impress him the most would be to find his faith confirmed regarding the benefits to human flourishing that science would produce.

That is a very interesting statement. It strikes me as historically quite modern, and – for the sake of rousing some controversy-- seems on the surface quite at odds with Christianity, as well as Judaism, Islam, and quite a few other religions.

I say at odds with Christianity because throughout the Old and New Testaments observers of divine miracles are not only expected to recognize their divine source, but are held accountable for failing to do so, particularly in the New Testament. I think of Christ’s “Woe to you Chorazin . . .” discourse in the Book of Matthew (11:21ff), for example. One wonders also how you would apply that statement were you present in Bethany for the raising of Lazarus or among the observers of Christ’s post-Resurrection appearances mentioned in the New Testament.

I’ll leave that to you to respond to that.

What I will add is, that the human ability to recognize the difference between a miracle and a natural event was the default starting position of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century in Great Britain and elsewhere. If first-century fishermen could accurately apprehend miraculous events in Bethany and on countless other occasions during Jesus’ ministry – and not confuse them with possible natural events, “or a hoax” or a loss “of sight of the profound transcendence of the created world” – then university educated, highly skilled natural philosophers of the seventeenth century could expect to do the same.

The belief that such apprehension lies beyond the capacity of human cognition is an idea that develops later. I suspect that idea (which is separate from the question of the scope of science) is an idea that is more assented—to than actually demonstrated—which is, of course, one of the reasons we decided to have this discussion. So, I am interested to see how our engagement plays out.

@swamidass, What is the parable on divine action that you have in mind?

1 Like

It sounds like Francis Bacons language is theology. This is much like Novum Organum, which defines science as a method of taking down idols.

Bacon is tapping into a theological tradition, and we are connected to that tradition too.

It is for that reason, even though Bacon would think Bensalem is Fallen and some how redeemed by science, what he describes is not science how we find it. As good as science is, it does not bring us to God, and it does redeem us, or bring us to innocence. That is not how science works. Bensalem, in his telling, looks like it is Unfallen. That hope of Bacon, the hope of the architect, was not realized. Science, for all its strengths, does not return us to innocence.

In fact, it gives us rationalizations to doubt and be skeptical of what God clearly reveals. It is for that reason, I can wonder about this assessment.

Let me suggest that I am representing a more true understanding of these traditions, all of which rely on God to reveal himself in revelation. Even in Bacon’s parable, the study of nature leads them to the Gospel of Bartholomew, and presumed that God would be working to reveal Himself. Revelation, however, was explicitly outside Bacon’s conception of science. The last Idol he discusses is one of the Idols of the Theatre, the Superstitious Idol. This is the culmination of Novum Organum. He writes that this is

consisting of those who out of faith and veneration mix their philosophy with theology and traditions; among whom the vanity of some has gone so far aside as to seek the origin of sciences among spirits and genii. From this unwholsome mixture of things human and divine there arises not only a fantastic philosophy but also an heretical religion.

Notice that Bacon simultaneously thinks that revelation is required to bring us to God, but it is not within the purview of science? He is following the traditional separation of theology from natural philosophy, of which @TedDavis often reminds us. So science might at time point beyond itself, but does not have the resources within itself to engage with revelation on its own. We see this even in his parable of Bensalem.

Once again, tapping into this same theological tradition, I would agree. I agree that we can discern God’s providential governance (in the language of @jack.collins). We do not even need Bacon’s new mechanism to discern such things. That, in fact, is the point. Focused study of creation is not necessary to discern a miracle, and might even hinder it. That makes good sense too, because science is a modern invention, and does not rely on revelation.

We might wonder if studying nature increases our confidence in discerning a miracle. The best way to think about this is by considering Jesus. We inhabit a world where God reveals Himself by raising Jesus from the dead. Does science help with this? Somewhat. Carbon dating confirms that the prophecies were before his time, and that the accounts describe his actual death ( The fact that dead people do not come back to life, however, has been well known long before modern science. This is an obvious fact of the world. Science does not add much, and that makes sense.

God reveals Himself well before modern science is known. It certainly is not the way He gives us to understand the world. Even if we recognize miracles against the backdrop of natural process, do not mistake science for natural processes. With that distinction in mind, I can agree with you here, till the end:

And this where they make their mistake. This is where the hubris arises. Science is designed to study creation dispassionately, but it is not designed to study the creator. Because it does not engage with revelation, it will always be incomplete. At this point we are hitting upon the “demarcation” problem, what is and is not science? What are science’s limits? What can it, and can it not, tell us?

Before we go to much father, let’s return to the parable.

Parable of the House with Forgotten Names

Science is a house. Scientists labor in a grand house that someone else built a long time ago. We do not know why walls are placed in their particular ways. We do not know the original names of rooms and hallways. We do not even know our foundation is in theology. Forgetting the house’s history, we forget that Christians were among the house’s architects, and they have stories to tell about the things that happened here. Scientists do well to study this history alongside their scientific work.

Who is Francis Bacon? He is among the architects. Decoding the phenomenal success of the Copernican Revolution, he envisioned a new natural philosophy, a new way of studying creation, a new intellectual effort. He envisioned science. The language of his blueprints was theology. Even though science is secular now, it was sketched out in theology by Bacon.

Who are modern scientists like me? We are those who now inhabit the house that Francis Bacon, and others, built. This 400 year old house has stories to tell, but its language is theology. Science, however, is secular now. Not knowing its original language, we forgot the true name of things.

What are the things we forgot? We forgot many things. One of the things we forgot was the true name of “nature”, and we also forgot the true name of what we now call “methodological naturalism”. These two things Nature is really “creation”, and “methodological naturalism” is best understood as the founding principle of science, to study the “creation” rather than to study the “Creator.”

The True Name of Methodological Naturalism

Methodological naturalism is a rule of modern science, whether we like it or not. As the non-theist Eugenia Scott of the NSCE correctly explains

Because creationists explain natural phenomena by saying “God performed a miracle,” we tell them that they are not doing science. This is easy to understand. The flip side, though, is that if science is limited by methodological [naturalism] because of our inability to control an omnipotent power’s interference in nature, both “God did it” and “God didn’t do it” fail as scientific statements. Properly understood, the principle of methodological [naturalism] requires neutrality towards God; we cannot say, wearing our scientist hats, whether God does or does not act.
Science and Religion, Methodology and Humanism | National Center for Science Education

Science is silent on God. Science is silent on miracles. Do not mistake silence, however, for denial. Silence is not absence.

Several (both ID proponents, Christians, and atheists) have questioned the legitimacy of this rule. After all, if science is the search for all truth, why limit it artificially from considering God? How do we know what is Natural or Supernatural any ways? And, as most atheists believe, is this nothing more than saying that science is limited to studying “real” versus “fictional” things. We forgot the true name of this thing. It is the Creator vs. creation distinction. Science is meant to study creation, but not the Creator (The Creator-Creation Distinction).

Beset by Idols of the Marketplace

There is more though, and you’ve raised this point me me before @rcohlers. It seems in the last 400 years, we have become beset by Idols of the Marketplace (Idola fori - Wikipedia). Bacon refers to this as the intellectual error of mistaking a word for the thing to which refers the word. He is thinking of Plato’s parable of the cave (Allegory of the cave - Wikipedia), where we mistake shadows for the things that cast the shadow.

In our current moment, we mistake our knowledge of nature (i.e. science) for nature, and a knowledge of God (i.e. theology) for God. We see conflicts between science and theology, and wonder if that means God’s action is in conflict with science. Perhaps knowledge of divine action might arise in a dialogue between theology and science, or maybe not. The fact that our knowledge from two domains does not always align, however, does not mean that God does not interact with creation. The reason we would think that is if we are confusing science for nature, and theology for the Creator.

Perhaps this begins to become an Idol of the Theatre too (Idola theatri - Wikipedia), where the narratives to which we’re committed shape our understanding more than a true encounter with the world.

Now, rather than disputing methodological naturalism, we might find a way to take down these various idols of the mind. Can you tell us some more about this @rcohlers?

1 Like

@swamidass, I find quite a bit that I agree with in the parable you shared. One is the tendency to equate current knowledge of something with the thing itself, which promotes the idea that the knowledge is complete. Rather, both scientific and theological knowledge experience refinement and growth. I also expect this refinement and growth will occur in a manner consistent with prior knowledge as it is increasingly confirmed, which provides stability.

Bacon and the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century were astute thinkers both in their theology and natural philosophy. They made careful distinctions between revelation, miracles, theology, etc., which get distorted in modern science vs. theology distinctions. As a simple example, to recognize a genuine divine miracle was not to do theology, it was to do accurate observation. Nor was a miracle itself revelation, rather miracles confirmed revelation or served a purpose of redemption. To retrieve the meaning of Bacon’s division of theology from natural philosophy, and the exact nature of his cautions, requires careful consideration of these distinctions and others.

Regarding methodological naturalism and the Creator-Creature distinction, within a Christian understanding of Creation, which is what Bacon and the founding members of the Royal Society embraced, the history of our world included both natural processes and special divine action. So, the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of Lazarus, the Resurrection of Christ, are all real events within the physical universe but without solely natural causes. The methodological naturalism, if we want to call it that, of the early scientific revolution sought to understand the natural causes of natural things while recognizing that not all perceivable things were natural.

They took their task of natural philosophy from the point of view of desiring to understand nature as part of a comprehensive understanding of reality, not merely to understand nature in isolation. So, they did not construct their natural philosophy on the assumption that they must only consider natural causes, as natural causes are not the only things there are.

If we understand the scope of modern science to be drawn at different boundaries, one that does seek to understand nature in isolation, that is a contemporary prerogative. As @swamidass has pointed out, knowledge of nature is not all there is and therefore science is a limited and only partial in its scope. Very important events in history it is silent on, and I wonder whether on these it may be inclined to error. In that case, some will harness science to produce their own Idols of many sorts.

What I find fascinating about Bacon and the 400 years that have intervened, is that the fundamental questions of the study of nature and divine action remain. They also appear ready to move forward. Wherever we draw the lines of science, the larger questions that interested Bacon and the early Royal Society persist. Rational beings require not only knowledge of natural processes, but knowledge of the larger reality. That is, we require rational means of recognizing special divine action in addition to natural processes.

@swamidass, back to you . . .


So there we have it. Two parables on divine action, and probably some more on the way.

  1. The Parable of New Atlantis

  2. The Parable of the House with Forgotten Names

In the meanwhile, we’ve also passed by the Allegory of the Cave, Metaphors of Bacon’s Idols, and more. Colorful conversation this is becoming.

There is quite a bit here, which is why we are putting this out before the conversation opens July 15 (at 8 a.m.). If you’d like you can jump into the fray ahead of time here: That should give everyone time to read and contemplate before engaging. Keep in mind that @rcohlers sits on the other side of the world, so he will probably not respond till evening. I’m looking forward to the conversation, and have fun reading up.

The Dreaming and Waking Worlds

As a final thought, I will still add one more parable, from one of my regular “conversation” partners, the great C.S. Lewis. C.S. Lewis writes in Is Theology Poetry?… (

This is how I distinguish dreaming and waking. When I am awake I can, in some degree, account for and study my dream. The dragon that pursued me last night can be fitted into my waking world. I know that there are such things as dreams; I know that I had eaten an indigestible dinner; I know that a man of my reading might be expected to dream of dragons. But while in the nightmare I could not have fitted in my waking experience. The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world; the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific points of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and [other] religions. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself. I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Come Join the Conversation

And giving @rcohlers the last word:

Now, with that image in our mind, let us invite a larger conversation.

How should we think of Divine Action in light of science and theology?

400 years later after Bacon, we know much more of how science works, and what it can and cannot do. Can we find a better way forward?

1 Like

This thread will automatically open in 10 hours (8 am CDT), at that point, please feel free to comment and engage.

This topic was automatically opened after 15 days.

It was a great pleasure reading your post. My 2 cents is as follow: From a theological perspective, we can rightfully link science with terms like “creation”, “creator”, etc… which presupposes a transcendent agent. Nonetheless, this definition would confine us within theological discussion.

Can I propose another rephrasing of the same concept?

Science is objectively observed and subjectively interpreted and rationally analyzed. However, as there is human’s interpretation, there is no escape of certain representation models (language, world view, culture) unique to the individual interpreter/Scientist. And thus a same set of data could invite different explanations from different scientists. And even the data itself can be disputed and distorted. In short, Science works in the realm of objectivity and subjectivity.

Theology, on the other hand, leveraging on the “dream/waking state of metaphor” of C.S Lewis, encompasses both Science and revelation. Revelation, generally speaking is something beyond object and subject dichotomy but could be phenomenological received. To comprehend it, again, theology works akin to science and thus, could not escape objectivity and subjectivity which implies a openness to better explanation and “theories”.

What do you think about this rephrasing?

The challenge from the constructivist camp is: how do we know which “data” is qualified as data from revelation? (granted if it exists). I am not satisfied with the answer i have in mind (will share later), and would like to hear from others. Thanks in advance.

1 Like

Great to have you here @kelvin_M. Welcome!

You got it, though I would phrase that differently. Rather than “confining us” with theology, it is more accurate to say that theology takes us “beyond the limits” of scientific thought. Once again, we are not “confined” to the waking world, but we can imagine being “confined” to a dreaming world.

I see where you are going, but I’m not sure this is the the whole story. It comes down to the constructivist concern you raise later.

That is trivially true. Scientists will look at the same set of data and disagree, providing different explanations. That is a brute fact. At the same time, that does not mean that “anything goes” or that “any” explanation can fit the data. We also observe the brute fact that scientists come to nearly unanimous consensus that certain explanations are false. Moreover, we observe scientists changing their minds upon encountering data, and even working in their labs to uncover the evidence that will overturn their own explanations.

Science, for these reasons, is a good corrective to the constructivist fallacy that “everything is constructed.”

So yes, there is a cultural and subjective component to interpreting data. Yes, there are biases (idols) that cloud our view. This is not the whole story though. Something about science enables us to break through our constructivist illusions at times.

The answer, from the scientist, is that it takes an immense amount of technical work and humility to have any chance of getting past our biases here. The answer, from the theologian Bacon, might be that we are all bound to idols and will struggle to see reality.

From the historians, well I’m curious what they will have to add… @TedDavis, @rcohlers and @TWReynolds. Seems like we also might get a note from @jrfarris.

Thank you to Joshua Swamidass for inviting me to join in the conversation. I am happy to be here and join in the conversation. My main area of interest is in theological anthropology, which is informed and interactive with analytic philosophy of mind. More recently, I have been working on beatific vision and the atonement. As for science and religion, I have interests in human origins and Divine action (I will be working on these various topics at The Creation Project, TEDS next year). Particularly, I am interested to bring the origin of the soul back into the discussions, but it is not clear that substance dualism/the soul has been a topic of discussion within the scientific community or in the science and religion literature. Why? I am not sure. I would like to find out.

Just a bit of context, I met Joshua Swamidass at the Dabar Conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I was fascinated by his proposal concerning Adam’s relationship to humans, specifically to one genealogical group rather than genetic humanity more broadly. Upon meeting, we quickly jumped into questions of epistemology and methodology. My hope is that theologians (and philosophers) can come to the table and have discussions with scientists. It seems that for so long that has not been the case (or, at a minimum, theologians have not had the freedom to speak authoritatively on matters that impinge on issues within science), and Joshua S. has confirmed as much concerning the role of theologians at the table for science discussions. That said, I am not sure (1) what that table is? and (2) what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for being allowed or invited to the table?

There are many other questions that I have, which have come up in conversation with Joshua S. These questions are related to Bacon, but maybe they will come up in the course of the discussion here or, hopefully, the lines of communication will be open for future conversation.

Today and during this summer season, I have several deadlines looming, so I may be in and out of the discussion. I hope to engage some today for the purpose of opening the channels of communication.

Thanks again for inviting me to this discussion.

1 Like

A big thanks to both of you (Clinton and our host) for doing this. I think this was a key exchange between you:

I am not sure that Joshua is taking Bacon within context there, but I get his point in the first paragraph. I think something @Ronald_Cram said in that excellent discourse @swamidass is having with him on this thread pertains to the subject here. He said…

Methodological naturalism must be open to the idea that some set of phenomena may be unexplainable by natural processes or the laws of physics.

And while I would edit the start of that statement to say “those practicing methodological naturalism…” I do think this point from Ronald is key. Take some event, say the healing of a long-term condition in a single hour after a prayer for healing. Should the most absurd and unverifiable natural explanation for an event be assumed over the most obvious supernatural one? If one has their natural sciences hat on as they look for natural explanations, the answer is probably “yes”. But that’s just while the hat is on.

We should be humans who use methodological naturalism as a tool, not methodological naturalists period. That is to say, we should be able to look outside our role as a MN and say as a human “I accept that this event was a miracle.” Does that mean one quits looking for natural causes for the event? Not at all, when one is wearing the hat. But the person should not be bound by the role.

We used to distinguish between “science” and “natural science”. “Natural Science” was not originally and should not now IMHO be the only kind of science which exists. Disciplines of study which use the Scientific Method to ascertain truth can and once were considered to be forms of science. The Scientific Method consists of noticing some puzzle or problem, or paradox, and proposing a hypothesis which is offered to solve or explain it. This hypothesis is then tested in some way which either confirms or rejects the hypothesis. The conclusion is based on the results so obtained. Often the conclusion calls for more testing to further refine our understanding. Reason is the primary tool used at each step of this process. Theology used to be considered a science, that’s why it has the “logy” in it! Maybe there should be a return to theology as a science, but its not a natural science.

It is the philosophy of naturalism, that nature is all that there is, which has caused us to confuse “natural science” with “science”. When one does so methodological naturalism invariably keeps poking over its true intellectual boundaries. It’s going to be work to keep it from doing so anyway, but I for one think its a job worth doing. The temptation is to get lazy either way and not make these distinctions properly which has the consequence of hamstringing MN on the one hand or turning into de facto philosophical naturalism on the other.


With the disclaimer that this is my first post and may be useless (promise I’ll try to learn quickly):

So the historian in me thinks this is quite certainly the center of the conversation. It’s fascinating and quite important that we can look at the work of Bacon et al in the inaugural London Society and see them confronting similar questions with similar mentalities. I personally think this is why Shakespeare for instance is fascinating, 400 years ago someone wrote something which got so deeply to a part of the human condition that we are still reading it

However, it is quite easy for us to project back onto denizens of the past our own methods of thinking which are not natural to them. They conceived of the world in ways we cannot fully step into. We can attempt this as historians the more we read their works and start to discover what they mean by words (whose definitions change). So i think @swamidass and @rcohlers can both be right here. Josh is necessarily coming at things from the position of modern (or post-modern, whatever) science and theology. While Bacon was coming at it from an early modern/late medieval perspective. These are radically different and would use many words differently.

I think a third parable you told me once Josh might be useful here. It’s the idea of someone looking for their keys under different streetlights on a dark street. History gives you illumination to one set of facts here, theology another, and science yet another. The trick is figuring out how to piece those facts together in a reasonably coherent way in order to discuss what has/is/we think is occurring.


Welcome @jrfarris, great to have you here.

Invited to the Table

You are invited to the table @jrfarris. So are philosophers and theologians. Scientists love to talk with you all, and wish you were around more to engage with our work. The conditions, however, are to play by the rules of the scientific table when we are at that table: The Rules of the Game.

At the “Scientific” table, we keep a sharp line between the scientific arguments and findings, and our personal reflections on those arguments and findings. There is both (1) a large public and “official” conversation that follows strict rules and protocols, and (2) and informal side-conversations where any rules are allowed, as long as basic politeness and honesty are valued.

The strength of this system is that no matter our personal beliefs and views, we can work with each other as scientists, understanding the basic presuppositions of scientific work. The strict rules are how science becomes a common effort to expand our knowledge of the natural world. We are also granted autonomy to integrate in our own ways what this means for others fields and for us too. Also, that means there are well defined blind spots for science too. We all know from the get go that science does not tell us, for example, if God does or does not exist.

We can even hold personally that scientific conclusions are wrong: A Better Way to Reject Common Descent. Science just does not care what you believe in your heart, and what you say outside science, as long as you do not misrepresent science.

Theologians and philosophers have always been invited to the table to participate in the informal side-conversations, to explore the implications of scientific findings, and even their limits, ethics, and greater meanings. We might even ask you to speak up louder often, so others can hear your voice.

It is, however, considered very rude to burst into the “official” conversation to tell us that we do not do science right, and that our rules must change. That is not allowed. It takes an immense amount of training to understand how to do scientific work. There is an immense amount of tacit knowledge here, and we as scientists ourselves do not feel we have the right to change the rules. For that reason, it can even be taken as insulting when a transient philosopher tries to do such things. That breaks the rules. That, also, should be obvious.

Theologians and philosophers that play by the rules are welcome and embraced in science. Just be a good guest. Explain the limits of scientific findings outside of science. Help scientists understand the true meaning of their findings. That is all welcomed and encouraged. It does not require, also, changing the rules.

We’d love to hear more about that too. Maybe this fall we can do an Office Hours on just this. What do you think?

The Origin of the Soul

I’d love to talk about that with you. First off, it was considered.

I think the general consensus (both in theology and science) is that this experiment was misguided. There is no a prior reason to think that the soul has mass. There is no reason to think it appears in exposed film. There is no reason to think it disturbs electrical signals.

The problem, it seems, is that the concept of a soul is too poorly defined to settle what we should or shouldn’t look for. We’ve talked bout this before with @purposenation. The Souls of our Ancestors. It is such a flexible concept that I even convinced our resident atheist that he has a soul:

Recall that even theologians can’t agree on what a soul “is,” whether it be a monist, dualist, or trichomist view. The best scientific accounts might be from “information.”

Yes, I am well aware of the objections of the dualist that arise (like the continuity of the self problem). However, we can construct examples of this that account for dualism. Moreover, if God is the only one able to duplicate us, and He chooses to keep the continuity of our identity intact (by never making more than one of us), then I’m not sure what the objection is.

In this view, then, the “immortal soul” arises at the point at which God decides to care enough about us to remember us. That is, I think, the best integration between science and the soul I can give, and it deeps necessarily into science fiction. :smile: As a theological anthropologist though, I wonder what @jrfarris would think about this.

We are not ready to change the rules of science, but the voice of the philosopher-theologian on the soul is very welcome here. Science, after all, is merely dreaming. Theology is the waking world.


It is not clear to me why we must study creation dispassionately. I understand we have biases and we may need to take steps in order to prevent those biases from fouling up the interpretation of the phenomena (i.e., physical data) we are experiencing, but that is an interpretive issue concerning the phenomenal data itself. By making the assumption that a “dispassionate” stance is necessary to perform science apart from the interpretive fouling up of the data, we are already making metaphysical assumptions about the phenomenal data in question. Is this not the case? But, I am wondering why we need to make this/these metaphysical assumption(s) about the phenomenal data. Are we assuming the phenomenal data is real, i.e., mind-independent? Why assume that? Could not science carry on just as well with out these metaphysical assumptions. I cannot conceive of why it could not. In the same way, the theist may be studying the scientific, or phenomenal, data from an impassioned stance. They, too, are making metaphysical assumptions about the physical/phenomenal data.

1 Like

We do not assume this.

Bacon makes that clear. Our passions are entwined with idolatry, and idolatry is a true enemy of knowledge. Have you read Novum Organum yet? The truth of the Fall is what drives his understanding. The corruption of our intellect is what the structures of science are designed to combat. You are a theological anthropologist @jrfarris, this should be obvious to you, right?

I suppose I can easily conceive of why it would fall apart without some agreed upon rules:

As I’ve written before, MN functions like a treaty in science: Why Methodological Naturalism?. I have no interest in threatening the peace by challenging it. If this peace were to end, science would end.

I am a theist. Take my work on a Genealogical Adam. I took up that question because I “passionately” thought the question was important. However, my work itself is dispassionate, and I followed the rules of the game. I did not bring in any theistic presuppositions in to the conversation. That is why it convinced everyone. That is the strength of science. We have a common and plausible starting point from which to build common knowledge together.

The theist can go beyond science in his personal views publicly-stated (as I do when I affirm the Resurrection and the inerrancy of Scripture), and he can choose questions based on his personal values. However if he were to require a rule change to make the scientific portion of his case, he has abandoned the hope of building public knowledge. He has abandoned the chance of convincing other scientists that he is right “on the science.”

Part of the reason the science behind the Genealogical Adam is so strong is because I followed these rules. I played by those rules and one. If I had tried to change the rules, I would have lost before I had even begun.

1 Like

Welcome to the conversation @TWReynolds. Really a pleasure to have you.

The Parable of the Streetlight

Yup, here is a good telling of it:

The fundamental error here is summed up in an old joke scientists love to tell. Late at night, a police officer finds a drunk man crawling around on his hands and knees under a streetlight. The drunk man tells the officer he’s looking for his wallet. When the officer asks if he’s sure this is where he dropped the wallet, the man replies that he thinks he more likely dropped it across the street. Then why are you looking over here? the befuddled officer asks. Because the light’s better here, explains the drunk man.

A Return to Bacon

And I’d agree…

That, I think, is both @rcohlers and my premise all along. I’m not arguing for a revision of Bacon, but a return to Bacon. And everyone loves bacon, right?

1 Like

While I find some aspects of Lewis’s parable, it seems that Lewis is making a transcendental statement about the relationship between science and theology (e.g., I see the physical world, which presupposes the sun enabling me to see rather than a consequent-ground reasoning). There is something helpful in this, but it seems that Lewis’s setup requires that we are involved in a rational interpretive process at the beginning of the scientific process. The parable you offer seems to comport with this idea that we are already invested in the interpretive process.

“It’s the idea of someone looking for their keys under different streetlights on a dark street. History gives you illumination to one set of facts here, theology another, and science yet another. The trick is figuring out how to piece those facts together in a reasonably coherent way in order to discuss what has/is/we think is occurring.” However, history, too, is not an uninterpreted given.

1 Like