Creation as Call and Response?

Continuing the discussion from Did God Design or Craft Us?:

In Genesis One, God speaks, and the land and sea respond by bringing forth plants and animals.

I think the call-response model might actually be a better language, and even show how this logic might both succeed and fail (changing “plan” for “specify”).

Just to clarify my language, the Platonic-Thomistic notion is of “forms” and “purpose” and the Baconic-Scientific paradigm is of “mechanism” and “reductive details.” @jongarvey is suggesting I have to choose between the two.

Maybe that is not the case.

What if the Command to produce a “form” for a “purpose” and the response brings forth (instantiates or embodies) a form with incidental “mechanisms” and “reductive details.” For example:

  1. I can order an alarm to be built and brought to me doorstep to fill a purpose (by amazon of course). In this sense I can issue a request for a specification that can be fulfilled by another agent.

  2. There are many ways alarm clock mechanisms (e.g. mechanical of many sorts, and electronic of many sorts, and hybrid of many sorts) and many non-mechanistic veneers (colors, cord lengths) that must be chosen, but many which are incidental to intended purpose and unspecified.

  3. This distinction between a “form” specification and a “mechanistic” instantiation is important, even if God is omniscient. Most the internal details of a real object are not part of its “form” (even it they required for its form). God might know what is produced but not care about the internal details if it succeeds in its purpose.

  4. We know this intuitively already. The precise choice of which computer chip in an alarm clock is irrelevant to us, nor is it listed, as along as it enables the intended purpose of the clock. Our “order” might be for a particular model of a clock, but we do not care if the internal details of the clock are changed if its final function is not altered.

  5. This connects to two key concepts in math/science “indeterminancy” and “emergence”. Erica Carlson explained this me in a way that makes sense. We know that there is a connection between the atomic detail of materials and their macroscopic properties, like hardness. Knowing the atomic details, we can figure out how hard a material is. However, the opposite is not true. Knowing a material is “hard” tells us very little about the atomic detail of property, because there is an obscenely large number of mechanisms to create a “hard” object. In this sense “hard” is an “emergent property” and the atomic details are “indeterminate” from the emergent property.

  6. Biology has just this feature of indeterminacy and emergence. At just about every scale, there are an uncountably and unknowably large number of ways of accomplishing any function at a macroscopic level. There many ways to achieve the “form” properties of “seeing”, to “flying”, to “thinking”, etc. God might very precisely (even Thomistically) specify what humans are, but this does not at all imply that he has specified our lower level details.

  7. With this in mind, we can really disconnect the “form” and the “command” from the “mechanism” and the “response”. In this sense, there might be some real value to the command-response model of creation. Here God would be command things to arise, but not specify the incident mechanistic details, but their purpose.

  8. Let us presume he collaborates in the production of these things too, but it is not clear why He should care about neutral mutations here or there in DNA. They have no impact on the final purpose, even if they might adjust precise color and internal mechanisms in scientifically important ways. God of course (contra OT) would still know these neutral things (as he knows the number of hairs in our head), but for good reason these neutral changes are not really his concern. His command came as a “form”, not an instantiation of said form with all the details specified.

So @jongarvey your puzzle here might actually be resolved with a great deal of coherence with a BOTH-AND. What if we remembered “emergence”, and recognized the “command” as a platonic “form”, and the bringing forth of plants animals as the creation of that “form” in the real world, where most the mechanisms and final details required for existence in the physical world, but not actually specified by the command, even if they are known to God all along?

Moreover, God can plan at the level of “forms” and collaborate or delegate at the level of “mechanism” and “incident details”, without planning per se there. I’m not insisting this must be the case. Rather, I’m noting that planning at one level, does not imply planning at the other. God certainly has a “plan” at the level of “forms” in this conception, and the land certainly is capable of bringing forth that “form”. It is not clear if the “bringing forth” requires planning from the land, and how God participates in that planning.

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Here you are equating “command” with “forms”… This need not be true. If God knows everythig there is to be known about light to minutest details, then when he says let there be light… why should the command be limited to only specific aspects of light. for example its brightness.

Why should The command “let the earth bring forth…” be restricted only to the form of the things mentioned when God Knows everything there is to know to the minutest details what the earth will bring forth? Why should “grass” mean only the form to God and not every type and detail possible as well as every type and detail that is actualized? If God know all things about what will come to be… then its impossible for the command not to apply to the details of what is to be.

This is a distinction that makes sense only in cases where Gods knowledge of what emerges is limited.

A few interesting points here, Josh, to which I’ll reply somewhat disparately (not desperately).

+ To begin with, I think we have to take the concept of “form” as something more than superficial: a man and a Michaelangelo statue do not not share the same form despite their appearance, because “form” describes all the functions and potentialities of a man - which in turn depend on the details of his creation.

+ Another point is that it’s too simplistic to apply “command and response” in the sense that if God commands something, matter does it. If you order your alarm from Amazon, it is because you know there are human manufacturers skilled and tooled to produce alarms, whom you expect to do a broadly similar job, variations notwithstanding.

And the chances are you made some selection between them based on your needs or on reviews. The more important the work, the more you will wish to control the spec - and avoid the problems NASA had more than once by suppliers mixing inches and cm.

If instead you order your neighbour to supply an alarm, it will never happen, even if you are God… unless you change the neighbour by education or miracle. And in that case, in the divine creation sphere, you’re not using existing means, but creating new ones. As Eddie said in an earlier post, God’s command to the earth to bring forth vegetation was effective (assuming your interpretation rather than mine) only because the secondary cause, the earth, was created with that ability in mind.

+ Third, and related to that, anything you commission from others is a recognition of your own limitations: you lack either time or skill to make alarms, or wish to give others employment. But God has no limitations, and any means that God uses are means that he himself created - if he were to create using CAD, he also wrote the software. If properties are emergent, it is because God caused them to emerge. The only potentially valid exception to that is if he uses morally free agents with their own ideas: command a man to do a job, and the response is variable: but push a rock and it will always do the same thing. The evolutionary process that God uses was his own conception, not ordered in from Amazon.

+ Fourth, Scripture gives many indications that God works to close tolerances and quality control regarding his creation, at all levels. He numbers the saints’ hairs, he wills the fate of each sparrow, he clothes the lilies of the field, he makes man’s mouth (Ex 4:11), he fashions the eye and forms the ear (Ps 94:9), he creates our inmost being (Ps 139:13) he calls the stars by name, and so on. And that’s why I can’t agree with:

There is no indication in Scripture that God’s detailed concern stops at any particular level of creation: his love is towards all that he has made, and he has made all things in heaven and earth. If he, being omnisicient and omnipotent, were uninterested in individual neutral mutations, then he would be in that respect inferior to someone like yourself building a career on them. If mankind is interested in every detail of creation, then I do not expect any less of its maker.

+ BUT… there is another way one might think of this that allows for imprecision and the apparent errors we see in creation. And that is that any created secondary causes that God decides to work through will have limitations based on the changeable nature of this creation.

I’ve already pointed to the limitation that you can command the earth till kingdom come, and it will produce no vegetation unless it is fitted to do so. To the extent that God providentially guides any particular physical evolutionary process (as opposed to changing that process to another), it will still only do what is physically capable of, given the effectiveness of error correction, the existence of entropy, etc.

God will then have put limitations on himself and the outcomes might vary from his “ideal form” (a different matter from his being indifferent to detailed outcomes). And so individual DNA sequences might vary because of the imprecisions of the process God has chosen to create.

But note that in such a case of an imprecise “tool”, even more constant divine governance is required to arrive at a desired goal, such as Homo sapiens after 3 billion years. You might walk to work on autopilot, but won’t cross a shaky rope bridge over a gorge without constant attention.

Even then, though, the mystery of providence is at work. When the disciples questioned Jesus about the man born blind, he of course denied the link to former sin. Presumably the efficient cause was one of those “departures from ideal” you have raised - a genetic abnormality, maybe, or a viral infection in utero. Yet Jesus places the “accident” firmly within God’s final causation: not, “It’s just the way things work, but God can retrieve it,” but “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

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I’ll pick up on just one aspect of your answer, Joshua:

Do you remember, Joshua, when you recently expressed concern that ID proponents such as Ewert assume (without justifying it) that God designs things in the way that man designs things? I took your objection to be, essentially, that we should beware of representing God too much in our own image.

I wonder if you aren’t doing that yourself here. Your example of the alarm clock, where the customer doesn’t care about the details as long as it has the functions specified by the customer, does not necessarily transfer to an omnipotent, omniscient God.

In the case of the alarm clock, there might be a thousand ways of achieving the desired function, and the customer might be indifferent regarding which way is used. But now, suppose the customer to suddenly know everything about alarm clocks – function, parts, materials, laws of physics behind them, etc., and suppose the customer has infinite time to make his own alarm clock, at no financial cost to himself (maybe he is wealthy and doesn’t have to work for a living, and can putter as long as he wants at any chosen hobby or project). Would that customer, knowing all the possible ways of making an alarm clock, all about the various internal inefficiencies of each construction, etc., still be indifferent to the details? I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure the customer wouldn’t construct what he thought was the best possible alarm clock, with no detail left unconsidered or uncompared with alternate possibilities.

Now, isn’t that the position God is in regarding his Creation? Being omnipotent and omniscient, and knowing all the possible evolutionary pathways by which man (or anything else) might arise, and being able to generate any of those pathways with equal effortlessness (he is omnipotent), it would take him no longer (time meaning nothing to him) and no more mental labor to specify every last mutation and action of natural selection, every last horizontal gene transfer, etc. than it would for him to specify only a broad general outcome. So why wouldn’t he specify everything?

You can say, “But he might be indifferent to the details,” but then again, he might not be. Details which according to our current state of knowledge are “indifferent” might actually be causally important to someone with God’s knowledge. Fine-tuning may go much deeper into biological nature than we have so far discovered. And even if there were details that were biologically indifferent (say, whether evolution produced green jays or blue jays), how do we know that a mysterious, inscrutable God (as per certain Lutheran conceptions) wouldn’t have inscrutable preferences regarding even those, and determine them as well?

In short, your example of an indifferent customer for an alarm clock may result in a theological error about creation, by likening God too much to a human purchaser of products.

Note that I’m not affirming dogmatically that God would insist on every last detail of evolution; rather, I’m questioning your argument that he wouldn’t care about many of the details. It seems that your argument rests on an analogy between man and God that is at least as questionable as the analogy you worry about regarding the ID folks.


Another consideration along those lines, Eddie: for all that an alarm-clock buyer is indifferent to the details of the product, the manufacturer is absolutely concerned with the specification of his product (whether for engineering reasons, or economic reasons, or just to maximise profit).

In your example (as in my previous post), we recognise that all in nature is ultimately God’s creation, making “indifference” to its internal workings implausible. Can we imagine a software designer having no interest in what’s within his program if he subsequently uses it for practical purposes?

In Josh’s application to neutral evolution, the implication is not that the living organism is an autonomous alarm clock designer to whom God delegates his concern, but instead is an entity suffering some kind of accidental or indifferent changes not predictable by the laws God created.

In the first case, neutral evolution is a “thou” rather than an “it” - organisms or evolution or both have been personified on no evidence. In the second, neither the organism nor God have knowledge or control over what is happening - which is Epicurean chance in a nutshell: a blind demiurge, implying an ontologically dualistic creation.


Thanks for thinking about this with us @jongarvey. I like your last article.

And so if God were to command the earth he had created to bring forth life, it would be because he had already created the earth with that capacity – or conceivably, that he gave it the capacity in his very command.

This is logically obvious. If God, in a vision, commands you to jump over Mount Everest, you will be unable to do so even if a totally obedient servant – unless God should also give you capacities beyond the human norm. That, of course, is why supernatural manifestations in Christians are works, or gifts, of the Holy Spirit, not simply a capacity for perfect obedience.

So then, if God creates a secondary cause, let’s say “the earth”, and commands it to bring forth life, it will be able to do so if, and only if, it has been created with whatever powers are necessary, within its nature, to do so. But actually such natural properties of secondary causes are what we study in science (broadly understood as empirical study).

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Thanks Josh.

There’s a lot of responding going on in the new creation - Hos. 2:21-23. Maybe it’s connected.

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Connecting this back to science, this talk on emergence and reductionism is helpful:

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Good video.

There would seem to be close connections between emergence and Aristotelian formal causation - especially when it comes to the unity of an emergent form such as man (or Marshmallow the cat).

It would seem that, by definition, emergent properties cannot be predicted by the behaviour of constituents, but only studied in their own right. So restricting scientific explanations to “material efficient causes” must either lead to a futile search for efficient causation, or denying that there are causes for emergent behaviour… or, I guess, readmitting another of the old categories of causation because it is real.