Clinton Ohlers: Two Parables on Divine Action

Well of course. Science is merely dreaming, and the waking world pre-exists the dream.

@jrfarris you are having fun :smile: . I’m glad. Let’s try and build as much understanding as we can. I’m trying to find a way forward so you (and other philosophers/theologians too) can have a more confident voice in science. That is the goal here. @rcohlers and I might have the basic direction to go to map that way in for you. Do you see it? Do you understand the way in we are marking out for you?

On Is Theology Poetry?

In context, that is not the case. He is using it like I am here. He is talking about a “scientific way of understanding” versus a “theological way of understanding.” It is really worth reading in full, as it is essentially a manifesto for the way forward we are proposing here:

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Thanks Joshua for your feedback. I am not disagreeing with you regards the interpretive issue. One of my research interests is religious experience. Various degree of passion and emotion are inevitable in human’s experience (be it religious or non-religious experience). I am leaning towards embodied cognition which advocates that human cognition is a collective result of brain (majority), body and the world (various contexts). And somatic reactions are contributing towards our individual interpretive framework.

In a nutshell, I try to argue that both theology and science are in fact dealing with the same interpretive issue. According to C.S Lewis, science is a subset of theology (if it could be interpreted this way). The question is: how do we know such things as “soul”, “revelation”? Can we discern it? Logically, there is some “given” data, in the sense of transcending objectivity and subjectivity (and thus not constructed). My simple answer (theology) to this is “religious experience”, a kind of experience that transcends self (etc: that levitates human state beyond egocentric, ethnocentric and "XX"centric) that does not negate rationality (without which there is no faith seeking understanding). Again appreciate your input and awaiting for further comments.


@kelvin_M, @jrfarris, and @anon46279830, Welcome to the forum! Thanks for contributing. I’d like to focus first on @kelvin_M’s statement here, as it lends to expanding on @jrfarris’s introduction of the question of the table and being invited to it, and pertains to what @anon46279830 raises regarding Methodological Naturalism (MN):

I think Lewis’ metaphor here really gets at the limitations of science as the study of material causes of materially caused phenomena, and to a certain degree, as @swamidass pointed out in the earlier discussion in Methodological Naturalism, So Falsely Called, the agency of animal and human minds.

Regarding the inclusion of minds in science, here I disagree with @swamidass that what is involved is a Creator-creation distinction. Rather I think we could argue from the history of science that science focuses on material causes and known causes (traditionally, causae verae, prior to that term’s being equated with natural causes after Darwin). Since animal and human agency are undeniably known causes, they are included in scientific explanation regardless of the possibility that minds are immaterial. By contrast, divine and angelic minds are unknown causative agents, except to those who may have religious experience with them, but considered unknown from the point of view of natural science. Notice also, that the trend in scientific explanation and those philosophical explanations attempting to accord with science (@jrfarris might weigh in here) has been to reduce human and animal minds to purely material causes.

This raises real questions about Lewis’ claim as to which is the larger and more explanatory reality and @Ronald_Cram’s lucid point that:

In terms of history of science, that quote very well expresses the worldview Bacon and the Virtuossi of the seventeenth century and later were operating within: not all phenomena can be assumed to be explainable by natural processes or physical laws.

The question then hangs a good deal on scope: @swamidass, do you have an estimate of how pervasive it is among scientists to limit science to a subset of phenomena within our universe, recognizing that there are events within our universe which may genuinely not be natural? Or is it the reverse?

What I found studying the Victorian scientific naturalists of the late nineteenth century was that–in contrast to the prior understanding of science that reigned from at least the time of Bacon through most of the nineteenth century and continued to be pervasive throughout that century–the Victorian scientific naturalists treated all perceivable reality as within the scope of science. This of course put them in direct conflict with the biblical accounts of miracles. When we consider the mind-body problem and special divine action (miracles), it would seem that their precedence continues.

Lewis’ metaphor whereby a it is a larger picture that makes sense of the smaller picture has weighty precedent in the history of science. By contrast with scientific naturalism, so many of the earlier natural philosophers recognized that the natural or created universe was not explainable simply in the natural terms that natural science sought to uncover. The fact, for example, that God’s created and did so from the point of view of knowing the future was central to Newton’s and Leibniz’ understanding of reality. Similarly, John Locke relied on the contingency of the material universe as unavoidable evidence of a Creator.

While I think we can talk about theology and revelation as separate from science without getting into too much controversy, as @kelvin_M points out, there is the issue of revelation that may be

In the New Testament, Jesus’ raising Lazarus and calming the storm result in the revelation of His identity as the Christ, just as for Bacon the miracle at Bensalem results in the receiving of the New Testament and letter from Bartholomew. What made receipt of the the revelation compelling was the evidential support of observable miracles within our physical universe, and their having apparently overridden the normal outcomes of natural processes left to themselves.

When it comes to philosophers and theologians having a “seat at the table,” it seems to me that the question of how a person accurately perceives the larger reality–which may include things like divine action or nonphysical minds–comes right up against the scientific commitment to explain all phenomena the scientist is presented with by means of methodological naturalism.


I have read Bacon’s parable. The Novum Organum is a required reading in the great books program. I have simply functioned with the understanding that more was going on in the experimental process that seemed to require an interpretive lens. I appreciate the fact that the scientific method advanced by Bacon is an attempt to avoid idolatry. Yet, idolatry is a moral stance and I am not sure that we, as a Christians, should take a neutral stance in the experimental process. It seems to me that like everything else, we, as Christians and as human beings, come to the table with an extra set of tools and sources of authority that have a function of making sense of the data. In other words, I have long questioned Bacon’s approach to arriving at an understanding of the world. For the sake of this discussion, maybe I can set these concerns aside for the moment.

I have several questions and concerns about the definition for methodological naturalism given in the link and the one given above. I do hope to explore that with your help in the future.

With MN in mind and this dispassionate stance, one of the benefits you see in science is that science provides us with a neutral starting point, and this is why the findings of science can be so persuasive. I would have thought evidence more generally functioned in that role. Is that not the case? That is one question.

As for the distinction made between science or scientific cases and the Resurrection, I do find this a bit odd, but also very interesting. I realize that Christians may have a bit of a bias when they see the world in light of the resurrection, but as I have understood the resurrection I have understood it to be a public evidence. No doubt there is something unusual about the event, but it is public nonetheless. One question, how is this different from say the evidence from a scientific case? Two, is it not a publicly verifiable evidence that should be persuasive to all? It seems to me that it should. Now, how people respond to the evidence is a different issue.

I think that Clinton’s notion that there is a difference between ‘natural’ causes/events and events like the resurrection (i.e., miracles) have been assumed throughout history as distinct. In other words, we know or ‘discern’ these unique events (we could call them miracles) because we have an idea of ‘natural’, but that does not eliminate the evidential (or neutral) nature of the event or the public nature of the event.

On another related note, I am not sure understand how everyone is using ‘natural’. I am sympathetic to Clinton’s point that we may not understand enough about nature to know when something is ‘natural’ or not. We may have some idea from common sense epistemology (i.e., when our faculties are functioning properly). That is one way to cash out the term, but that takes us out of the realm of science, as it is being defined. I prefer to refer to these physical events as regular.

“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.”

This is helpful. I am intrigued by your proposal here. I have read the rules, but I am still trying to understand them. It does seem to me that if there are not metaphysically true or representative of the world, then the rules are social constructions devised by the scientific community. Is that an issue? I do not know. I guess I can play along with them in certain contexts and in certain communities.

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It would be interesting to unpack that, because your argument against me is actually for my point. Science is not merely about material things because it includes minds, which need not be material. The minds of creatures, however, are by definition created. Therefore they are proper causes in science. That shows how the Creation-creation distinction immediately resolves most (all?) demarcation puzzles.

That is because, “nature” is poorly defined. I’m defining it as “that which is created,” which is its “true name” in the house with forgotten names.

@Ronald_Cram is stuck here though. He wants to change science itself, rather acknowledge its limits.

Your right. This is a key question. However it is not phrased sensibly. No one agrees what “nature” or even the “universe” is. A better way to phrase it is, “is there important, objective, and knowable truth beyond science?”

It seems that the vast majority of scientists quickly come to strong agreement that the answer is “yes,” though it might take a 5 minute conversation to get them there. Scientists are not usually contemplating questions like this. However, the experience of science brings you head long into this truth. Most things we know and care about we know outside of science.

That to be clear, is the clear path forward I’m pointing out @jrfarris.

Now days that is a position only superficially held by scientists

When the absurdity of that position is pointed out (by pointing to the reality of injustice, for example), they are usually sheepish, acknowledging they were making a rhetorical flourish they knew from the get go was wrong. That Victorian view is dead. At least I’ve never met a scientist that maintains this view under even the lightest of questioning from another scientist. It is entertaining to see the mask fall off, and if you watch some Veritas Forums from me, you’ll see it happen: Veritas Forums the Week Dad Died (January 2018).

Thankfully, everyone now knows that science does not give us a complete view of the world. It is limited. It is incomplete. If there are any lingering Victorian scientists around, they are well outside the mainstream.

For the record, I think that was @swamidass’s point. I am much more optimistic that we can discern an event like a resurrection (i.e., miracles) from ‘natural’ events (i.e., the regular course of nature/the created order). I think it has to so with a coupling of what is know of regularities of nature combined with strong evidence of agency. I believe this leads to valid recognition of special divine action by observers.


This statement seems right to me. In fact, the gatekeepers in the ‘Science and Religion’ discussions have been largely committed to bridge projects between science and theology, like: non-reductive physicalism (i.e., emergentism), if not reductive explanations or, as of late, panpsychism.

To be honest, I am less sure about what a material cause is than a personal cause, so starting from material causes seems to be mis-guided.

I do appreciate Josh S.'s comment that ‘nature’ is often poorly defined. I am not sure how we would define it that is ‘objective’, however.

I would certainly like to hear of ways forward on these topics.

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Richard Swinburne’s five kinds of religious experience might help:

  1. Experience that seems epistemically to the subject to be the experience of God;
  2. Experience of unusual public objects (for instance, the ascendance of Jesus into the sky), or in other words, shared experience of the witnesses .
  3. Experience of private sensation arises from five senses, including seeing vision and dreaming;
  4. Experience of a mystic kind, of six-sense, often ineffable;
  5. Experience that does not derive from any senses (for example, mystical experience via nothingness, darkness, isolation or simply convince of God’s plan on oneself without any human sensory reception)

My question to “reduction-ism” is: if one claims a X"ism" is said to be reductive, does it not the case that the claimant assumes that there is a “more” version? The burden of proof is on the claimant to prove there is indeed more, right? I am afraid that the label of “reducing something to something lesser” has a negative connotation than to argue for something (i wish i am wrong)


And I’d agree with that too, with merely the caveat that “SCIENCE” can’t make that jump. It might point towards it, but it doesn’t have the tools or language to challenge its axiomatic limits. It can’t make metaphysical claims about the limits of the created order.

Science, however, is only a dream. There are other ways of making sense of the world that are valid, logical, rational, and based on evidence.

As human beings in world created by God can make that leap to “discern” the “providential governance” of God, in the language of theology (@jack.collins). We can make that inference, but it is a outside of science that we do so.

There is the coming two days, and any other time you want to talk.

Scientific evidence is just one type of public evidence. It is a subset of the whole, and often it isn’t even public. There are other types of public evidence. I use the Resurrection as an example of such public evidence that can only be partly perceived within science, even though it is strong public evidence. There are others too.

The existence of good and evil is public evidence too. Even though there are apologists against it, the evidence is so overwhelming that it begs for an account. Science has no account.

Um, no. Public evidence is usually ineffective because we are Fallen and subject to idolatry. That should be obvious.

If that were not true, we would struggle to explain why the entire world is not Christian, why there is disagreement on the age of the earth, and so on. Public evidence is visible to all who have eyes to see, but idolatry is a powerful force the clouds our view of reality. That is why efforts to come to common understanding of reality must engage our propensity for idolatry too. That was Bacon’s theological genius, and its rooted in his theological anthropology.

I would agree. We expect to discern them outside of science. They are a distinct category that science of which cannot fully take hold. Even in the story of New Atlantis, revelation was required to confirm the miracle, as much as the miracle confirmed revelation.

Not precisely. It is not purely neutral, as it is anti-personal bias, etc. It also is not friendly to ID. A better way to put it is that it is a "clearly defined and agreed upon starting point, that has been very successful at bringing understanding about the created order." Because it is so clearly defined, it enables to make strong statements about its limits that are obvious to even atheists:

That is its strength. It is a way forward to build common, though limited, understanding of the created order, with a common set of rules that anyone can pick up and use in the context of science. What we do personally is irrelevant. Science does not care what we believe in our hearts. That is its strength, and why it works as a common ground across cultures and religions and politics.

That is a big part of it. And we do not need to agree with the rules to play by them. We do not have to like the fact that checker pieces stick to one colored square. As long as we stick to those rules when we are playing checkers though, no one cares what we do on the chess board.

It seems to me that not understanding these rules, and unwillingness to play by them if we did, is the root of much avoidable conflict. If I am right, we have a way forward into a new confidence. We could cast a new type of theological voice in a scientific world, that could be understood in science as we find it.

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So @jrfarris let me show you how this helps you:

That is exactly how the “Gatekeppers” go wrong. They missed the limits of science. Just because science can’t define the ‘substance’ of dualism, does not mean it does not exist. It might merely be outside the streetlight. That have not understood science correctly, as merely a dream, not the waking world. This might even by the “heretical religion” to which Bacon refers, the bizarre fiction of treating science as if it gives us a complete view of the world.

So you have a strong rebuttal available to you, if and only if you take science as a limited effort. Any effort to change the rules, and your rebuttal is weakened or even evaporated.

The “regular course of nature” (emphasis on “regular”) seems straightforward enough, as do divine actions like miracles.

But there are a few problems, as I’ve pointed out before. On the one hand, all that is created is not universally regarded as nature, because we tend to make a radical distinction between “God” and “physical creation.” Joshua rightly points out that human minds may be immaterial - and that to deny it is a metaphysical vote for materialism. But as C S Lewis points out, what about (created) angels stirring the waters of a pool, (created) demons causing distress, non-material but non-divine phenomena like telepathy etc? Are they on the “natural” side, or the “divine” side? Or are they ignored because they are neither?

Then again, what about the irregular events in creation, which the early scientists treated as providential, though they were instances of what nature does normally, only extreme in kind, or related to particular events, or portentious? That category has become more inclusive, potentially, as science has sought to deal with origins, often involving unique contingencies like the origin of life, or human intelligence, and so on. Is it valid for irregularities to come under the banner of “regular nature”, subdivision “random”, or are they acts of God as Bacon’s generation would assume?

(My vote is also with regularism as a more metaphysically neutral methodology than Josh’s Creator/Creature distinction.)


Yes, I essentially agree with you here regarding science including material things. What I’m skeptical of is that this has really to do with a Creator-Creation distinction but rather simply that universally observed minds figure in as genuinely known causes.

@swamidass, not to nit pick, but define this way, then the human soul and angelic beings would also be “natural,” which raises problems for limiting science to natural causes and explanations. This is part of the reason I see science as entailing material and known causes.

Actually, however, @Ronald_Cram is historically correct. The movement away from what he describes, that

is historically a recent development that can’t be described as fully complete until the 20th century. (See Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion, for example.)

Unless I misunderstand you, MN must accept this limit or claim that all perceivable phenomena must be assumed to be the result of natural processes, in which case science is all-encompassing in its scope.

I strongly disagree that this is a better way to phrase it – for this reason: there are all sorts of objective knowable truth beyond science that have nothing to do with physical phenomena or events. Most philosophical knowledge, for example the law of non-contradiction, is included in this. Rather, regardless of what ambiguities lie in the terms “nature” and “universe,” special divine action occurs within those realms, precisely because they are such action produces physical events.

To agree with that very broad statement is one thing. If fact, it is so broad almost as to be self-evident. I’m curious, could you, get the vast majority to agree in 5 minutes that an individual rising from the dead falls within that category of “objective knowable truth”?

I would agree that nowadays the vast majority tend to dismiss the Victorian Scientific Naturalists as the bad guys of history, but I am not sure what is so absurd about their position. They simply argued that everything that occurred within the physical realm perceivable by our senses must be assumed to have a natural cause, regardless of whether a God existed somewhere, the reality of injustice, or whether poetry communicated truth, etc. I don’t see any fundamental difference between their position and the rejection of @Ronald_Cram’s clarification on MN. Rather, they were the very individuals instrumental in moving science away from MN so defined.

Here I think I would need to better understand what you see as the Victorian view and in what ways it is rejected so completely as to be dead.

Although such a statement is pleasant to hear, I strongly suspect such rejection hinges on the definition of “world” rather than the presumption of the completeness of natural explanations. In one philosophical sense, world it taken to mean all of reality. However, faced with evidence that an individual experienced a miraculous healing or rose from the dead, it seems to me that most scientists will fall back to the position that, from the point of view of science, a natural cause cannot be ruled out. This seems to be an implicit statement of the presumed completeness of natural explanation.

As a “seeming” case in point, I don’t see where you have tackled my question regarding how you accord your belief in the resurrection of Christ as an objective fact of history with this statement:

By contrast, I think if there is anything we understand about nature well enough it is that dead men don’t come back to life after three days of decomposition.


That statement, I think is a very important one.


Isn’t the claim that one can never know whether an event might have an unknown natural cause itself a metaphysical statement?

Regarding @jack.collins’ point:

It seems to me there is a necessary distinction between “providential governance” and special divine action (SDA), such as dramatic miracles. The former requires an ability of discernment precisely because such governance appears to occur largely if not entirely through natural events – it is the timing and arrangement arrangement of the events that points to their divine cause. The new testament “wonders” and “acts of power,” by contrast, were virtually impossible to attribute to natural causes by those who observed them – the Pharisees, for example, suggested demonic origins, but not natural ones.

In fact, in New Atlantis Bacon offers precisely such a contrast. The unusual but quite natural storm that strands the sailors can be seen as the “providential governance” that leads them to Bensalem. The miracle(s) surrounding the delivery of the New Testament to Bensalem are consciously understood not to be explainable by natural causes.

That is not how I read New Atlantis:

So, it is specifically by discerning a miracle in contrast to “works of nature, works of art, and impostures” that they recognize the miracle and receive the revelation. That miracle appears to be further confirmed by more miracles – the light’s suddenly dispersing, the burst of starlight and (possibly) the appearance of the book in the water (which if not an miraculous interposition by way of immediate delivery was the result of divine action in the form of providence) .

If we are to take it as a larger principle that revelation is required to confirm a miracle, Bacon’s understanding aside, in what way did the raising of Lazarus or the feeding of the 5000 require revelation? In these cases, what actually seems to be occurring is that the evidence of the miracle is so strong that those who are not genuinely interested in following Christ nevertheless are persuaded of the reality of the miracle.

Whereas, the following is true:

Is it not also true that although science cannot say “God didn’t do it,” science can say, “God didn’t do thus and such by means of miraculous causes?” Science, so understood, therefore can debunk special divine action, although certain forms of providence characterized by natural causes may be immune.

Incidentally, Bacon did recognize “wonders of nature,” those rare, potentially 1-off events that through ignorance might be treated as miracles, but actually had entirely natural causes.


This is helpful. I think I have a paper that is beginning to develop in mind. Thank you.

I do have some other thoughts relevant to your comments here and throughout. Let me recap what I am understanding from your notes. If we (theologians) are going to communicate with the scientists, we do not need to agree with the perceived metaphysical assumptions functionally present in MN. We also do not need to agree the extent to which ‘science’ leads us to truth. These are open areas for discussion. Certainly, there are other sources of knowledge out there (e.g., philosophy, theology), but these become disruptive to the rules of the science game when they come into the domain of science and try to tell scientists what to do.

Let me offer up another analogy. Is something like the following illustrative of what you are getting at? Consider little children playing on playground with 3 or 4 different sandboxes. Sally has her sandbox and there they only like to build two-story sand castles and she has a particular way with a set of tools for doing that (e.g., one small cup and a hand shovel). So Johnny who is playing in another sandbox is able to come in and play with Sally so long as he builds two-story sand castles and he uses the tools that Sally has approved. Alternatively, Johnny can stay in his sandbox and play with the sand with his own rules (e.g., he likes to build several story sand castles).

Philosophers have a tendency to not stay in their own sandbox, instead, they are quite happy to jump into the scientist’s sandbox as well as the theologian’s sandbox and make it their own.

If theologians are going to play with the scientists, then they need to learn the grammar of science when they are speaking to scientists. On this way of thinking, though, it seems reasonable for the theologian to draw from the scientific data in order to speak with the theologians in their sandbox. Is that acceptable? Lets take an example from someone like Plantinga. He is not a theologian, but a philosopher. Plantinga is quite happy to learn some of the scientific data of the day on a particular subject, but at some point he no longer wants to play in the scientist’s sandbox. Sometimes he veers out with the the data in hand to start another discussion, e.g., Design Discourse. So long as we recognize that he has moved outside the realm of science, operational science, then is it not acceptable for him to make this move?

What you are advancing seems to offer a fairly minimalist and narrow understanding of science. Another question: what is it that you are pushing for that is more substantive than mere ‘operational’ science?

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Thanks for the push back @rcohlers! I’m listening closely to you.

We are friends, so you already know this. I’m freewheeling here for the purpose of really understanding where I am making historical errors. I want to be corrected by experts like @jrfarris, @jongarvey, @kelvin_M, and you. I need that push back. I’m much worse than ignorant. I have just enough understanding of history, theology, and philosophy to be dangerous. So this back and forth really helpful in honing in on what I’m getting wrong.

That said, I’m going to circle back to this later, and start first with @jrfarris. Though, one point does seem important to keep hold of while I think about my response:

It seems there is a strong distinction between Mary and Martha’s experience of observing first hand Lazarus rising from the dead, and our report of her experience. It is easy to imagine people convinced by the first, but not the second. That distinction does not appear to be well attended to at the present moment.

Yes “Lazarus rising from the dead” is convincing evidence, but only if we are convinced it is true. And it seems obvious we come to know this by a different epistemological path than Mary and Martha. We access this fact by a different sort of way, that does not experientially confront us the same as did it them. That seems to be important. That distinction, if worked through these examples, I wonder, might start to clarify some important contrasts between the way we are discussing these things.

I’ll return to this later though, after a bit of though. I want to play with @jrfarris’s new parable.

Slight discursion…

Well, if the soul has mass, and if that mass (say 21 g) is released as energy upon death, we’re talking about 1.9 billion megajoules. Round it to 2x10^15 joules (2000 TJ). One would suppose that sort of energy release would show up on film, assuming any film could actually survive the blast. For comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was estimated to have released about 6x10^13 joules (63 TJ), equivalent to about 1/30th of a soul. The hydrogen bomb detonated near the Bikini Atoll released about 35 souls worth of energy (63,000 TJ).



The Parable of the Sandbox

Turns out that Sally’s sandbox is famous, and has a long history. Sally herself did not even make these rules. This is a grand sandcastle in the center of it, and Sally has become its custodian. She inherited to the tools and the rules from the kid that was there before, and he from the kid before him. People come from all around, amazed at what this lineage of children have been able to build from sand alone. Something very beautiful is here, and it is much bigger than Sally herself.

When she enters the sandbox, Sally understand she is merely a custodian. She does work to add to the castle, but always careful to do it in a way she knows the kids before her would respect. When she needs to tear down a wall, and rebuild it a different way, she does so with great contemplation and reflection, knowing that if she does not do it right, the onlookers may loose trust in her work. The are not there for her, after all.

So she very carefully, religiously even, follows the rules handed down to her. This is a sandbox dedicated to building the most beautiful sandcastle. This is very difficult to do, as others usually take short cuts (like using cement), but the tradition of this box is to test the limits of sand alone.

Now Johnny is allowed to do that. In fact, his sandbox has a different tradition, and has its own group of onlookers.

Johnny the Villain

So in this version of the story, Johnny goes over to Sally’s sandbox, and sees how everyone gathers around to see her work. He jumps in, as he is allowed to do, and proceeds to play in her sandbox with his rules. Sally is angry, saying “you are breaking the rules here!”

He responds, “your rules just don’t make sense any ways. I’m going to do it the way that makes sense to me.”

And then he stomps around. He is not even aware when he squashes some very treasured sand sculptures, on Sally had carefully labeled all morning. Sally, rightly, is angry. She says, “you don’t have to agree with the rules, but if you are here, you better play by them. This is an important sandbox. I didn’t even make the rules, see? Just go scratch in your own sandbox if you must” (not the Kepler reference :wink:.

Johnny, is feeling quite certain he is right. After all there is more than just one way to build a castle. Sally doesn’t have a monopoly on sandcastles. If he is just able to build castle his way in her sandbox, the whole crowd that is gathering will just see how cool his sandcastle is and how dumb Sally’s rules really are.

Sally, however, is exasperated. “These aren’t even the rules I made. I inherited them, and I do not presume to change them. This is a sandbox with a history. The reason people come to watch is because they know what to expect from us. They find beauty here, and we just don’t have the right to make large changes. We are merely custodians of an inheritance.”

Sally and Johnny remain at war. That, however, is not how it had to be…

Johnny the Mystic

Sally has self-confined herself to her Sandbox. She is allowed to leave and explore other sandboxes, but she has become convinced that there is only one way to rightly build a sandcastles, and that the only sandbox doing it right is hers.

To be sure, the sandcastle in her sandbox is amazing. Truly beautiful. She is a faithful custodian of those who came before. She understands every detail of this castle, and works carefully to improve it with her pail and shovel.

Johnny comes and visits. He takes the time to listen and learn from her. He understands the rules and aesthetics, grammar and culture of her sandbox. He respects the legacy of the sandbox alongside Sally, and even joins in explain the rules to new visitors. Then, he turns to her and says,

“Sally, I love your sandbox and the beauty you’ve shown me here. You know, though, that there are other sandbox too, right? There is more than one way to build a sand castle. There are other ways to build beautiful things from sand?”

Sally responds, “That is not right. There is only one way to build with sand. That is all I’ve known, and I see no reason to leave this sandbox.”

Johnny looks at the borders of the sandbox, made of bricks, “Did you know that the sandbox itself is made of sand worked in particular way? They used cement and mud to form sand into bricks. Those who you inherited the sandbox from, they knew of other ways to use sand. Do you know their stories? Do you know much about making bricks?”

“No, we don’t make bricks here. That is cheating. It is breaking the rules.”

“Yes, it is breaking the rules here in your sandbox. I’m not arguing with that. Your rules are just for this sandbox.
I’m just saying there are interesting and important things happening outside your sandbox. Aren’t you curious to see? Not only bricks, but did you know that sand can be turned to glass? Maybe some of things that happened here might be useful to others, and perhaps you might learning something more about what sand can do in other contexts. Aren’t you curious?”

“Sand can not be made into bricks or glass. I know. I’ve worked with sand for a very long time.”

And Johnny the Mystic, explains, “you are right, we are not allowed to turn them into bricks and sand. We cannot do that with the rules you’ve laid down here. That is why we have to leave this sandbox, play with different rules, to see how sand can do these things. Your rules are limiting our ability to explore the full potential of the sand right here. I’m fine with rules in this sand box, but come play with me over here for a bit. We won’t mess with your sand castle, but you can come play with sandbox. We have different rules, and I can show you new things beauty there.”

And at that moment Sally has a choice. She can explore beyond her sandbox, or she can choose to self-confine herself within a shadow of reality, within the dream.

Plantinga’s Divine Discourse

Yes. They have to learn the culture, and the etiquette too. They are invited to jump in, as long as they play by the rules when they are there. There is an inheritance here in science that we are stewarding, and we have stewarded it well in many ways. We largely forgot the original story of the sandbox, but we have used what we have been given to build a grand sandcastle.

Absolutely acceptable. We might call that “science-engaged” theology, and it is not only permissible, it is welcomed with open arms.

Absolutely, as long as he is 100% clear to everyone that he is following the rules in the science sandbox (which is not his), and accurately and clearly explains when he is stepping out from those rules into a new set.

I do understand the philosopher’s complaint about the arbitrariness of demarcation. You don’t have agree with how the scientist states the rules. You don’t have to agree that it is coherent (though it might be as a Creator-Creation distinction). It is not, however, difficult to just follow the rules when you are in science, or claiming science’s authority. To get the autonomy to go back and forth between sandboxes, we must be clear about what is being said “inside” and “outside” science.

That is the key point. Because the rules are clear, it also gives us clear reasons for why things we care about (like making glass and bricks) are unknown within the sandbox. So the rules have high explanatory value too. The define the “axiomatic limits” of science as we find it.

A More Proximate Example

The disagreement between me and @Ronald_Cram is not that MN necessarily implies limits to knowledge, as it does. Rather the disagreement is about whether or not science needs to get rid of the this rule. His argument is: MN limits science from pursuing all truth (I agree), therefore MN must go (I disagree). @Ronald_Cram wants science, it seems, to be the waking world.

In contrast, I would say MN limits science from pursuing all truth, therefore we must exit science to pursue engage certain types of truth. Here, I am rejecting his argument that limits are reason for rejecting the rule. That is why I like the rule. It clarifies a whole class of things that I cannot do in science, so that I can give a good account of why it is so difficult to understand many things form within science. I’m very happy to say that science is merely the dreaming world.

To think about many questions, like the limits of the natural order (yes its metaphysical), we have to engage with rules that take us well outside scientific thinking. I’m happy to let science be what it is, without changing it, as long as I can move to other sandboxes and they are given dignity too.

Now, it is possible that @Ronald_Cram agrees with me here (though that would be surprising), and is just bad at clarifying what is in and outside science. If that is the case, maybe we do agree. The bigger issue is the brute fact that MN limits science is a feature, not a bug. It gives us a way to define its axiomatic limits, among many other important things.

@jrfarris, great parable. I loved it. Are we getting closer to understanding a way forward?

I think we need a new way forward. I am a mere scientist. An opinionated one, that is clear :laughing: . But I am also humble enough to know that I’ll have to rely on non-scientist scholars to really map a way forward. I do hope you can help us find that better way.

We have an interesting test case too…

If there is a way to learn from that and replicate it, that would be exciting, right?

This is, in many ways, the sort of thing the ID movement has been after for over 25 years, and largely failed. I’ve sympathized with the high-level motivation, but find their strategy lacking. You lose from the get go if you need a rule change to win. Even if you agree with their arguments, they are totally rejected by mainstream scientists (partly because of the rules issue, and also because of scientific mistakes).

In this context, somehow, I made a plausible case for the de novo creation of Adam. It may not end up in secular textbooks, but no one can plausibly call my case pseudoscience. Would it not be great if we could find a similar way forward in other ways?


I don’t think they knew about E =mc^2 at the time, nor were they arguing that the mass was converted to energy. I think it was merely that the soul had mass, and left the body when we died, still retaining said mass.

So having now read my long response to @jrfarris I’m going to hold off a little longer @rcohlers. I also am more convinced that @kelvin_M is on to something with his attention to “experience.” Soon you will be waking up in Hong Kong time. I’m curious this clarifies where I’ve gone wrong, or miscommunicated.

I’ll look forward to your next response, and pick it up from there.