Eddie's Defense of Natural Theology

Hello, Daniel. You asked:

“This seems right, do you have a brief bibliography in mind?”

I meant something fairly simple. If someone is going to claim that he represents a “Wesleyan” as opposed to a “Calvinist” tradition (a distinction that used to be common on BioLogos back when it was run by two Nazarenes, Falk and Giberson), then that person shouldn’t be vaguely owning a “Wesleyan” tradition without actually reading what Wesley had to say (on the issues under discussion); and if someone claims to be coming from a “Lutheran” position, I’d expect such a person to guide me through some passages of Luther and Melanchthon; and if they say they speak for the “Reformed” tradition, but then bash natural theology, I expect them to respond, when I point out a passage in Calvin’s Institutes where he endorses a limited natural theology, with some explanation of that passage in light of Calvin’s other writings, or in light of the writings of Knox or some classical Dutch theologians.

I don’t want to harp on BioLogos, but I noticed that frequently when the scientists there talked about the views of “theologians” they almost always meant living (and often quite maverick) representatives of their traditions, rather than the Greek Fathers, the Latin Fathers, the Scholastics, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Hooker, etc. I can’t remember how many times BioLogos (and ASA) scientists have dropped the word “providential” as if its meaning is obvious, without locating their usage in the writings of traditional theologians. Aquinas wrote two massive volumes on providence within the Summa Contra Gentiles, so obviously it is a topic that requires some nuance, but I can’t find any discussion of the word’s meaning in the BioLogos or ASA folks; it is invoked without being explained.

Obviously Augustine’s writings such as The City of God are important (if I were dictator of the world, I would make the reading of that whole book required in all Catholic and Protestant seminaries), and Aquinas’s Summas (which surely deserve to be read at least in part, and not just by Catholics), and the key writings of Luther and Calvin, and parts of Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. I’m sure Jon Garvey could supply a richer list of “must-reads” among the non-living theologians.

I realize that active scientists don’t have time to become full-time theologians as well, so I’m not blaming scientists for not knowing all of classical theology intimately, but at least, when evangelical scientists rely on generalities about what Christianity teaches, it would be helpful if they relied on generalities coming from the giants of theology, rather than from modern writers whose allegiance to classical Christian tradition is in some cases in doubt.

I taught Greek in a Protestant seminary for about 7 years, and I was surprised at how little knowledge of even classical Protestant theology was given to students there, let alone of the Scholastics or Church Fathers. I would have thought that courses on Luther and Calvin’s writings would be required for all, since even the non-Lutheran and non-Calvinist Protestant traditions were shaped by reaction to Luther and Calvin. But most of the courses covered the historical stuff only through secondary, modern authors, and most of the courses about theology were over the quarrels among currently living theologians. Yet at one time the Protestant tradition was very historically-minded; Luther, Calvin, and all the major Reformers read massively in the Fathers. Somehow the idea has arisen that to be a good Protestant theologian you have to know your Bible and the debates of the last 50 years, but not much else. I think that many evangelical scientists, when they consult with theologians about theology/science questions, are consulting theologians of this modern style, and I think it misleads them.


@Eddie, I believe @swamidass and I are in agreement that PeacefulScience doesn’t exist to prove or disprove ever position/plank of ID.

By asserting both scenarios of creation (special creation of Adam/Eve and God-Guided Evolution of a pre-Adam pooulation)… we can immediately agree on the design argument… and leave the issue of whether science can confirm design to a later time or generation!

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This is very well said. I agree entirely.

I also add that though I am approaching ignoramus on theology, I’ve benefited greatly from informal education from sustained dialogue with scholars in relevant fields.

Daniel, you wrote:

I think your definition is roughly right, but too cautious in wording: I think most people since Hume have understood “intervention” more bluntly as “the breaking or suspending of natural laws”. And while that would be clear as a definition, applying it to determine particular cases is not so easy. How do we know that we know all the natural laws? How do we know that what seems like the breaking of a law isn’t explicable by some other more subtle law that we haven’t discovered yet? I would imagine that much of our modern technology (from airplanes through to televisions) would seem to ancient people to break natural laws. And it might be that faith-healing, for example, at least sometimes involves subtle psycho-biological operations that are perfectly natural but unknown to us. Deciding when a law has been broken is not always easy. And if to avoid this problem, we go with your weaker “departure from regularity” (by which I assume you mean “departure from what normally happens”), then we aren’t necessarily speaking of “intervention”, as opposed to simply “a rare natural event.”

As for design, it may not have a clear definition, but surely we usually know it when we see it. We couldn’t function in life if we didn’t. We know the Pyramids were designed, for example, and we know when a student has plagiarized. So I’m not sure what your point is. In fact, we don’t have a clear definition of “life” (certainly not one that satisfies all biologists; see the new book by physiologist Scott Turner, Purpose and Desire), but that doesn’t stop biologists from talking intelligently about living things. I don’t think you would argue that biologists should stop speaking about life and living things until they have nailed down a precise definition that captures the essence of life. If that were insisted upon, biology might stop forever. Similarly, it’s not clear to me that the inability to precisely define “design” prevents all intelligent discussion about it.

I think our main difference here (though we agree on much) is that you place more emphasis than I am inclined to place on whether a particular truth is “scientific” or “philosophical” or “theological”. I’m more concerned with whether statements are true than with what university department they ought to be taught in.

The definition of “science” you are employing descends to us from Bacon and Descartes, and was codified philosophically by Kant. It’s one way to go. But science has not always been defined in such a limited way. Both Newton and Boyle allowed teleological reasoning under certain circumstances, where modern science utterly bans them. Because I look at science more in terms of the history and philosophy of science than most practicing scientists generally do, I see alternatives that they generally shut out of discussion.

Sure, one can define “science” in such a way that “design” could never be part of it. But if one employs a broader notion of “natural science” to include “all that bears on correctly understanding nature”, then it’s not so clear that “design” should or can be shut out of investigation. What if design is in fact part of nature, especially biological nature? What if it’s an inherent, built-in component? How can we rule it out a priori?

Galileo was certain that “action at a distance” was occult nonsense, not good science; for him, good science meant that motion could be communicated only by contact. Thus, he was gloriously wrong about the cause of the tides, his “contact” explanation being transparently a failure. But by the time of Newton, action at a distance was allowed as a truly scientific conception. This should remind us that “establishment” definitions of “science” change from time to time, and are not written in stone by the finger of God, never to be altered.

Certainly Aristotle’s notion of “nature” and of “cause” was broader than that of Descartes and Bacon. Even Newton and Boyle were more flexible. The current definitions and constrictions are the product of a particular historical development. They have their use, and I’m not inclined to throw them out carelessly; but they may create blind spots in our understanding of nature. One of the virtues of the Crossway book, in the philosophy section, is its intelligent discussion of some of these broader questions.

I hope you understand that nothing I have said here is meant to vindicate any particular argument made by ID proponents, e.g., arguments about the flagellum, blood clotting, etc. Even if all particular arguments thus far advanced by ID proponents failed, that would not thereby prove that “design” was an incoherent concept, or that no design could ever be found in nature. I’m talking on the level of epistemology, not particular arguments.

In any case, to come back to my original point: I can show that the Pyramids were designed, by design arguments. I can’t, by design arguments, show whether they were constructed by totally natural means, or whether the Egyptian God Ptah whisked the stones through the air and assembled them by a miracle. All that I can prove is that mind, not accident, is responsible for the Pyramids. I might by other arguments be able to show natural means of putting the stones together, rendering the “miracle” explanation unnecessary. But then we are talking about implementation or construction, rather than design. Any architect, engineer, or builder can grasp the difference, and any scientist should be able to grasp the difference, too.

ID theory, when properly stated, concerns design, not construction. Unfortunately the ID proponents themselves are inconsistent on this, and have been known to conflate miracles and design (especially in the early days of ID), and this has damaged their case. I’m not interested in trying to prove that any miracle happened. I’m interested in the intriguing theoretical possibility of design detection. I don’t claim that design in nature has been proved; I just think the case should be allowed to be made on its merits, and not be ruled out by definitional fiat.


That being true, and it is for you, I just don’t get the disagreement at all. Both @dga471 and I agree God created us, and in that sense he designed us all. Life is designed, whether or not science can prove it. It looks designed to us because it is.

So what exactly is the disagreement?

That is exactly why I go to “departure from regularity” instead of “suspension of the laws of nature.” From a scientific POV, a miracle is a “5-sigma event” - an experimentalist would simply dismiss it as his instruments temporary malfunctioning and throw away the data. On the other hand, if miracles occur with regularity then they are no longer miraculous, but potentially analyzable. This is why an iPad, while seemingly miraculous to someone from the Stone Age, is completely explainable by science. Even the Stone Age person should figure this out, if he is curious and careful enough. (In fact, I have heard of story of iPads being dropped in the middle of a remote village in Ethiopia and the children figuring out only a few months later how to hack its settings.)

(But of course, a miracle is more than just a 5-sigma event. A miracle transcends science as it is supposed to be some sort of revelation from God. Because of God is a free agent, not some natural mechanism with regularities, you can’t regard a miracle as an object of observation in the normal way you would natural phenomena.)

I’m not a biologist, but I predict this would become a bigger issue, if say the veracity of a major theory of biology depended on whether something is actually alive or not. But biology today, I’m not sure if there are any consequential (as opposed to pedantic) debates about the definition of life. Perhaps origin of life research? But maybe that’s why that problem is so hard…

Again, I’m speaking from a position of ignorance, but I’m guessing that while there is no precise, agreed-upon definition of life, there are certainly things biologists would agree is not the right definition - I’m referring to the debate over vitalism in the 19th century.

I think there can be intelligent discussion about design, sure. As you pointed out, design seems to be evident in many areas of life. Although I’m not sure if figuring out that the pyramids were “designed” and not natural phenomena is an actual scientific act or a purely logical, historical one. And in my conversation with you and @jongarvey I have repeatedly defended the strength of arguments from fine-tuning and the effectiveness of mathematics to model nature - both of which are design arguments to some extent.

My only beef, shared with many scientists, is certain types of design arguments - ones which rely on negative argumentation and appeals to current gaps in scientific knowledge which do not seem fundamental enough. Such arguments are a clear example of philosophers and theologians crossing into territory that is not their domain. (Notice how the majority of ID proponents are philosophers, not scientists.) If philosophers don’t like scientists saying ignorant things about philosophy, then why do the same thing in reverse?

There is no such thing as a “scientific” truth as opposed to “philosophical” truth. Propositions are propositions, period. Instead, certain propositions can be investigated by empirical science, others only by philosophical reasoning, others only by divine revelation. And which ones are which is a very important question, I think, because if we pick the wrong method, our epistemology will be defective. In fact this confusion is at the heart of scientism and New Atheism. This is why this is not a mere point of pedantry to me.

I like this point of yours. At the same time, instead of merely noting that the definition of science has evolved, we should try to understand why it evolved and what is the direction of that evolution. Since we codified the modern definition of science and gone further away from teleology, our science has advanced more and more, instead of grinding to a halt. It took 200 years from Newton to Maxwell. They were giants, but their work is now covered in two semesters of freshman level physics. In contrast, in 100 years since Rutherford’s discovery of atomic structure (1913), we are now able to quantum mechanically manipulate single atoms and harness them for computation. This is why it is understandable that people are not so keen to go back to teleological explanations.

Scientists are first and foremost pragmatists. They want definitions of science that give results, not ones that satisfy philosophers or even mathematicians. As an example, renormalization in quantum field theory is completely nonsensical, mathematically speaking - it is subtracting one infinity from another infinity and seeing what is left. It has never been proven formally. Nobody knows why it works, and mathematicians ridicule it all the time. Yet with this technique we are able to calculate the magnetism of an electron to 12 decimal places, which has been matched EXACTLY by experiment. Can Aristotle offer anything similar in response? One can laugh at the ignorance and naivete of scientists, but one cannot deny that their is a real, tangible notion of progress that is hard to come by in other fields.

Now it is possible that the Baconian understand of science can indeed only take us so far. I’ve read interesting arguments about how, for example, in an Aristotelian framework quantum mechanics is less mysterious. These are interesting proposals, but philosophers shouldn’t be surprised if the scientific community doesn’t immediately roll out the red carpet from them. They should be patient.

I certainly agree. Again, as I said earlier, if ID proponents can give a clear, precise, empirically testable definition of design that doesn’t appeal to “epistemological reservoirs” (i.e. God of the gaps), I would be interested to see the results of this. But as long as people are saying things like “a Designer could have used the same designs and make his work look like common descent”, this is just bad science to me.


Well I don’t think most ID proponents grant it looks like common descent. Moreover you believe God created us through evolution, which unsurprisingly looks like common descent. Perhaps some linguistic hygiene is in order…

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I’m referring to this line in your evidence and evolution blog post:

Of course, this data is consistent with design too (because God can do anything). However, I have yet to hear what design principle explains this.

“God can do anything” is true, and the scientist cannot say anything against such explanations, because it is not a scientific explanation. The consequences of omphalos are theological, not scientific.


I am not referring to omphalos here.

Rather Im saying the only design principle that makes sense of the patterns we see is common descent. It is possible that years ago I was not as clear, but I think it is important to emphasize that common descent is a design principle, right?

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I don’t think it’s clear what is meant by “design principle”. How would you define it?

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I say that God created us, in that sense he designed us. He designed us by a process of common descent, in that sense common descent is a design principle. This principle too is tractable to theory that makes mathematical predictions about that which God has made by this principle.

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OK, I think I understand better what you mean. But someone could say that despite the evidence of common descent, in reality God could have created us all through special, de novo creation using similar forms such that it leads to appearing like common descent. And I would say that as a scientist you cannot argue against this. Would you agree with this?

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I can and have made exactly that point. I say that it looks like common decent from a scientific point of view, but outside science we can imagine special creation models that produce the same data. Science cannot rule them out but this also means it was not among his design goals to disprove evolution. Anti-evolutionism was not among his goals, so why should be our goal?


@eddie I think this is a valid use of natural theology. Look at me!!!

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I agree with you. So I’m not sure where our disagreement is?

Returning back to the original paragraph I wrote which you had objections to:

You’re right that most ID proponents probably don’t argue in that way - they think that common descent is not borne out by the data. I’m referring more to arguments given by some other more YEC-like creationists. Basically, once you introduce an active agent with an inscrutable mind like God, one cannot subject such a mind to scientific scrutiny. This is also why atheist arguments from “inefficiency of design” are equally nonsensical to me.

In other words, if your scientific worldview involves too many unique, irregular miracles, it is difficult to do science anymore. It is easier to do science assuming methodological naturalism and then argue theologically that such science is actually deceptive.

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I hear what you are saying. It seems like a great project that might be worth some interdisciplinary thought for the cadre of characters here at PeacefulScience would be to work on core reading lists. Something that takes the core areas of contention in science and theology and provides some primary source reading options for interested parties to help fill us out in breadth of knowledge.

One thing that always amazes me about reading scholars from earlier times is how widely read they were. I just skimmed Augustine’s De Musica and was floored at how much mathematical and musical knowledge Augustine learned, processed, and ultimately wrote about. One of the downfalls of our current age is an explosion of sources. Nice, tight bibliographies that point readers to the best of thought in contemporary and historical thinking would be a huge gain for current science and religion discussions.

Yep – what has historically been called, The Great Conversation!

And this is always going to be a bit of contention as we learn how better to transcend our disciplinary training. As disciplinarians, we always bash our heads against the wall trying to make the other more like ourselves in terms of disciplinary training. Philosophers bring a host of interesting questions to science that science generally ignores as they are irrelevant to the day-in day-out practice of science.

@dga471 comments somewhere below yours that scientists are basically pragmatists. This is true and a philosophical justification is given for this move even by the laboratory scientist who denies that philosophy is important to science. @swamidass will continually remind you, me, others, that he has rules in play for doing and, I think, educating people about science. This is as it should be as you yourself must realize that you internalized a set of rules as to how the academic game is played. A real question is how to calibrate what’s rational, good, right, just, as we move between our disciplinary knowledge and our interdisciplinary conversation. Thus,

Here a move was made that suggest “understanding” which I think has different meanings between disciplines. We, me and you, as philosophers are more tuned into as Wilfred Sellars mentions in his article, Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man (1962) rightly claimed, “THE aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.”

You are concerned with a much broader definition of understanding than any practicing scientist would ever employ in the laboratory or even historically in the sense of somebody like @T.j_Runyon who is in an historical science if I remember correctly. It is frustrating, because the conversation is much larger than any of our disciplines can actually accommodate. However, the more classical schools of thought where all disciplines were but handmaidens to theology might have been on to something as theology, in my opinion, ought to be anchored in the ultimate act of the infinite or noumena becoming finite or phenomenal: Jesus Christ. Thus, Theology is the only discipline that has an anchor outside of time and space, while the rest of us are in time and space “understanding” an anchor that we can never understand as anchored or not anchored.

But you do realize that the way you’ve just stated this is to suggest there are different truths learned though different methods!

Of course, but you speak as if we have this all figured out. Which, to @Eddie point, you kind of do for the time being in the various sciences. Also, I’ve learned a ton from @deuteroKJ consistently providing the more traditional way a linguist would unpack a passage using his special set of methods, but also willing to speculate beyond. However, he always reminds us that the speculation is not the traditional way according to his discipline. We can outline and demarcate disciplines, that is what the academy IS, but the academy was first and foremost a UNIversity that dealt with the unity of knowledge, not its fragmentation. Where’s your bigger picture @dga471?

That is fine, but at some point you must leave your laboratory and talk to mathematicians and philosophers and theologians as well. You do realize that you’ve just made a philosophical judgment that can not be proved scientifically!


Merely langauge hygiene. It is best not to rhetorically define evolution and common descent as the opposite of design.

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OK, I see what you mean. I’ve been arguing myself that I support certain design arguments throughout this thread…

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As you word it in your paragraph above, I have no disagreement.

Only if you insisted that science, by its very nature, forbids all design inferences, would we have disagreement – and that disagreement would not be over how current science functions (which I agree, is as Daniel says), but over what science at its best and richest could be.

Already some non-ID biologists are pushing the envelope regarding teleology – people like Scott Turner. I think change will come, but slowly. Decades of professional patterns are very hard to change, for reasons given by Thomas Kuhn, not to mention reasons of basic human psychology and sociology.

Up until about the time of Darwin, biologists generally still thought teleologically about their science; after Darwin, they went crazy with “physics envy”, and sought to be even more mechanistic and reductionist (if possible) than the physicists and chemists with their explanations, as if to prove to their older scientific brothers that they were just as scientific as physics and chemistry now that they had dumped teleology. Once that kind of zeal becomes the normal psychology of a discipline, it is not going to change overnight. But I think it will change. For all its obvious dependence on chemical and physical processes (which I gladly concede), life seems to display some qualities that are sui generis, and I think that some biologists, now that biology has proved its manhood to the physicists and chemists, can talk again about the obvious that has been forgotten: Life is in some respects darned different from non-life! I think it will be refreshing to watch how this plays out within the biological community over the next 30 years.

I love your idea of core reading lists, but today it’s difficult to even keep being up-to-date with one discipline due to the sheer amount of content that is produced every day. One can be liberally educated but there are limits to this, as some disciplines require immersion for years to fully soak in the methods and content. Knowledge is simply far more developed in each discipline compared to Augustine’s time. I wonder if in the future technology itself - in the form of artificial intelligence of some sort - can help us our minds to synthesize all this new knowledge, which is required to make sense of the issues we face in theology and science.

Yes. I was rewording the original statement to be more precise, which in my opinion illustrates better why I think it matters whether we attack a problem using the tools of science or philosophy.

I love thinking about the bigger picture, which is why I’m here replying in this discussion. In fact, being able to synthesize different disciplines into a single unity of knowledge was one of my reasons why I got into science in the first place - because I thought it would be more possible for a scientist to learn some philosophy, compared to a philosopher learning science.

But when thinking about the bigger picture, we have to go beyond the mindset that “scientists are philosophical simpletons who are hobbling their own discipline.” Instead of trying to tell scientists how to do science properly, I think it’s wiser to tell them how to philosophically interpret their results properly. Most philosophers of science that I have read a little bit so far - Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, Cartwright, and so on - seem to adhere to this. They interpret the history of science and its philosophical implications. For the most part, they don’t prescribe what is a valid explanation and what is not, for example.

I don’t disagree with you, @Philosurfer. You should read my statement as a philosophical statement about philosophy of science instead of a scientist trying to diss philosophy. I’m simply responding to what I view is an implicit claim in this discussion, which is that scientists are foolishly restricting themselves to a philosophy of science that excludes teleology. My response is that even though this philosophy might be simple, it has worked, and perhaps there are interesting philosophical consequences of the fact that it worked.