How Should Scientists, Theologians and Philosophers Interact?

I take that on board, @dga471, but the same point could be made about, say, lay YECs having naive views of scince, philosophy and theology: why should we criticise people who have spent their entire lives not in those fields if scientists get a fee pass for speicialising in one?

The difference is that scientists are highly educated, and to fail to realize the breadth of what there is to know (outside your own narrow field is erither an educational or a personal failure.

You’ll know that I’ve been contributing at BioLogos since 2010 (having read Collins’ book), and the prroblem is not primarily being ignorant of philosophy, but snorting at its inferiority to science; as for theology, the problem is the belief that that isn’t a real discipline at all, but a purely personal and subjective response to God - and best controlled by science.

Ironically, I was reading the passage in Augustine this morning bewailing ignorant Christians getting science wrong and so bringing the Bible’s reliability into disrepute - a passage not infrequently used by TEs (sometimes of the Bible itself!). But a position that purports to bring faith and science together (whether it uses Collins’ label BioLogos, or Lamoureux’s Evolutionary Creation, or plain old Theistic Evolution) has a duty to build a coherent attempt at how it works.

The failure to do so is not only going to attract the scorn of the real philosophers and theologians, but an increasing number of “ignorant Christians” perceiving blinkered scientism in a cheap cassock.

EDIT: apologies for all the typos in this - I wasn’t even drunk when I wrote it.

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I don’t think scientists should get a free pass on their ignorance of theology. I was merely describing, not prescribing.

Scientists are “highly educated”, but only in a very narrow field. And even if a physics major had time to take an intro to philosophy class in college, often at secular philosophy departments the faculty tends to ignore anything between Plato and Descartes. So there is unsurprisingly little awareness of the Christian theological tradition, even for Christian scientists.

But is it a scientist’s fault that today’s society regards them as oracles of knowledge, asking them to speak beyond what they know? Collins wrote his book with what he knew - and it spoke to a lot of people. I’m not sure it would have been much impactful if he had made it theologically more sophisticated. Less people might have been inclined to read it. I would rather have 10 believing scientists with a simplistic (but orthodox) theology than 1 believing scientist with a very sophisticated one. How many people have read Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique?

This is surprising to me. In my experience theistic evolutionists can be theologically simple-minded, but I’ve rarely encountered one who dismisses philosophy and theology like you describe, unless if they’re not orthodox in the first place. Can you give me an example? I don’t remember anything in The Language of God, for example, trashing the entire discipline of theology, except for example in reference to YEC.


Quite agree with this - but it raises the question of whose fault it is as a matter of the history of ideas, and I suggest that it is the fault of “science” as a professional discipline deliberately attempting (a) to remove theism from science and (b) exalt science and reason as the sole route to knowledge. Huxley and Co, the myth of scientific progress, the glorious successes of nuclear bombs and global warming… woops, effective medicines and Mars probes…

The individual scientist is inevitably tempted to buy into that through the very narrowness of the education. The scales only began to fall off my own eyes by doing a year of social psychology at university after 2 years and an A-Level course devoted to Science.

Have you not heard scientists (even apart from Gnus like Richard Dawkins) dismissing philosophy as non-evidenced woo? The guy at BioLogos who dismissed the definition of science I quoted because it came from a philosophy of science text was, perhaps, extreme - but typical in not realising why that was the best source. More commonly one gets stories like the guy giving up on philosophy and switching to science, because there was certainty in science - admittedly, analytic philosophy might have that effect even on me.

Dismissing everything from Plato to Descartes goes with the mythology within science that True Science began only when Aristotle was banished. For some reason, although some great physicists haven’t bought into that (Heisenberg springs to mind), most biologists have, it seems.

As for theology, the state of American Evangelicalism may have much to account for, in its stress on personal experience of God over doctrine. I don’t know how many times I’ve read BioLogos comments that science must control doctrine because theology is just subjective opinion - and of course, if it’s subjective, my opinion is as valid as some academic who never even lifted a test-tube in anger.

But EC’s intellectual roots in the Divine Action project don’t help, either. One of its axioms seemed to be the reductive hierarchy of knowledge: physics subsumes chemistry, which subsumes biology, which subsumes psychology… and down at the bottom, picking up crumbs, is theology. Even R J Russell, mentioned with approbation in Eddie’s article, takes that hierachy for granted, and looks for his theology of nature in the gaps of quantum theory rather than in theology or philosophy.

Finally, having mentioned Gnus, I can’t resist linking to a satire wot I wrote myself. It’s barely relevant, but New Atheists are going out of fashion, so opportunities are getting limited!

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I am with you on b), but I hesitate to agree on a). It depends on what you mean by “removing theism from science”. Some great scientists like Newton used to believe in a version of God-of-the-gaps, which was later proven false by Laplace. Incidents like these suggest that it is not good for theism if we based its arguments on current gaps in our scientific knowledge. I think the gradual adaptation of strict methodological naturalism is a natural outcome of what scientists have discovered to work best.

To take a more personal example: I am working on an experiment that tries to find a reason for why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe. I could simply give up like Newton and say that God created the universe to have initial conditions of having more matter, and by His providence, prevented the washing out of the asymmetry throughout the evolution of the universe. But then I would no longer have motivation to do a PhD…:sweat_smile:

Yes, I see the same thing happening in an FB group about theistic evolution that I participate in sometimes. The pendulum has swung too much to the other side, in too easily dismissing the theology in favor of science. The dismissal of the scientific viability of a de novo A&E that @swamidass likes to bring up is a great example of this.

I think dismissing it out of hand just because it came from a philosopher is uncalled for. But you have to understand why scientists can be easily offended if someone else tries to define their discipline for them. This is like a Western anthropologist defining Balinese culture and a Balinese person finding that definition to be utterly alien from his own experience. Perhaps the anthropologist, being an outsider, is able to point out some things which are missed. But I think the Balinese man has a right to be given the chance to define it himself.

By “theology or philosophy”, do you mean something like a Thomistic account of divine action? (I noticed some posts related to Thomism on your blog.)

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Not quite. Remember that science only became secular in the second half of the nineteenth century, and theistic science didn’t hinder the discoveries of Bacon, Boyle, Faraday, Maxwell, Wallace - even Newton himself. They knew that believing God causes regularities as well as contingencies doesn’t stop one investigating the relationships between the regularities at all.

I cited the the same definition from Sean Carroll, but since he’s Evo-devo he didn’t count any more than the philosopher! :grinning:

Whoever does it, the definition of science is a philosophical, not a scientific question… which takes us back to how those narrowly educated without philosophy wil do a decent job of it.

Over at BioLogos the very question of the definition of evolution came up. A working scientist liked one that, he acknowledged, wouldn’t cover some of evolutionary biology (so it was definition of something else, or not a definition at all), but thought it good enough to weed out pseudoscientists visiting the forum… making the so-called definition subject to the whim of (in this case) a few self-appointed arbiters on a website.

But the idea of autonomy amongst scientists isn’t quite as pure as you’d think - when I was in medicine, its parameters were as much decided on political and economic grounds as anything - because the government paid the bill. Not as rational as a philosopher of science doing it on logical grounds, I think.

That’s just one model which has been given a new lease of life by things like quantum theory. It appeals to me because Descartes’ removal of final causes from biology no longer rings true to me, and because information has become a key idea, and relates to formal causation.

Yet as I posted briefly at BioLogos today (and have a blog post in hand) the very foundation for modern science was a theology of nature, as one can read in history of science texts. Laws of nature, the perspicacity and intelligibility of the universe, the need for empirical study because of contingency, the non-agency of matter… all those assumptions were based on early modern theological choices, often in direct opposition to the existing, scholastic theology of nature.

Another factor is that as soon as you say “evolutionary creation”, you’re speaking about divine action of some sort, and had better have some rational basis for the term unless it’s just a slogan.


I read your entire blog post about Laplace. Your reminder that Laplace’s solution was not perfect is well-taken. But even your critique of his math is only a complaint that his approximations make his solution imprecise, not that his proof was completely false. (I have never read Laplace’s original work and thus might be completely wrong.) In physics, it is normal to make simplifying assumptions that make our theory fail at some precision but is sufficient for most purposes. That doesn’t make the theory false.

In fact, the Laplace episode is still a good case study of God-of-the-gaps: even though Laplace was wrong to claim that God was completely unneeded at all (because his theory was imperfect), he did show that God was needed less. And subsequent developments in celestial mechanics (i.e. our knowledge of relativity, chaos theory, and numerical simulations) have made us able to model the solar system even better, showing that this kind of God is needed less and less.

Imagine if Newton did not hold to the idea that the stability of the solar system must only have a miraculous (i.e. intractable) explanation. Perhaps with his mathematical genius, he could have gone beyond his own theory and anticipated Laplace, Poincare, and others.

And I agree with you that strict methodological naturalism has not always been held throughout the history of science, as shown by Newton’s episode. I already said that in one of my above posts. But it is a natural outcome of what seems to work best.

It is not purely a philosophical question. How science is done, what scientists think science is about, and who does science has steadily evolved over the centuries. Philosophers of science are incredibly valuable in working out the logical, theoretical, and semantic issues. But any definition of science that seeks to be widely accepted must involve extensive collaboration with actual working scientists in the field.

Philosophers of science don’t regularly roll with scientists - they roll with other philosophers. I don’t see any philosophy of science grad students hanging around in our lab group meetings or even physics colloquia. They interact with science primarily through textbooks and papers - which are all idealized final products, not betraying the ugly, messy, possibly unanalyzable thought process that goes into that. As I said above, science is not merely something you can absorb by reading a set of propositional statements. Most people have to spend lots of time in the lab or thinking about physics before they can say something insightful.

Of course, the same is true about philosophy - which is why one cannot read bits of Aquinas’ Five Ways, think they don’t make any sense, and then proclaim that you’ve refuted him.

I have no illusions that science is free from political, personal, or social forces. But the same is true of the field of philosophy, probably even more so. There has been several instances of drama in academic philosophy, not all of which are purely logical arguments, but influenced greatly by politics and sociology.

I have recently started to realize the truth of this as well, through my interactions with Thomist philosophers. Unfortunately what many such philosophers don’t seem to realize is that criticizing scientists for their arrogance, ignorance, and simplistic view of nature will never convince them. You have to approach them using their own language, which is admittedly reductionist, fundamentalist (to use Nancy Cartwright’s term), even materialist. But this language has worked so well that scientists are loathe to abandon it.

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Therein lies the philosophical problem. In one way or another, scientists have come to be persuaded that their language is sufficient for all purposes, and that belief is reinforced by our society’s elevation of science to some kind of universal truth machine.

Joshua has been one of the scientists most consistent in rejecting that view that I’ve come across - one reason we’re friends.

The same attitude is evident in the science-faith discussion: someone talks bout some non-empirical, or immaterial truth (be it God, design, information, philosophical premoises or whatever), and the scientist will tend to insist on scientific evidence for it. Even to those professing faith, God tends to become another hypothesis - or likewise creation.

The philosopher or theologian has an equal right to insist that if scientists want to speak to philsophers (or occupy their ground), they use the language appropriate to the subject. It’s not that it’s impossible - I’m impressed by the philsophical and theological acumen of some of the early pioneers in quantum physics: Heisenberg comes to mind, but also Arthur Eddington.

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Take these two statements of yours together. Newton did not posit the instability of the solar system and periodic tweaking by God as an article of faith. He merely pointed out instability as a possible consequence of his theory, and said that God was the kind of God who, on principle, would be actively involved in his world and capable of correcting the instability. Leibniz argued that God wan’t that kind of God, but a distant clockmaker. Laplace had no need of even that hypothesis.

Had Laplace come along at that initial stage with his maths (assuming Newton concurred with it), as I said in my piece, he would happily have moved the “instability of the solar system” from the “providence of God” category to the “laws of God” category. And some such process of discernment is absolutely necessary unless you rule (like Leibniz) that God is not a theistic God, immanent in the operations of the world, but a deistic God, setting up a “perpetual motion machine”, to use Leibniz’s analogy.

In the case of such a “gapless God”, then excluding the de novo Adam is simply the logical and correct application of the principle - God does not “interfere” in the world, and so “de novo Adam” is a God of the Gaps solution that must, on scientific principle, be wrong. If Adam, in that sense, existed, then the “God of the Gaps” principle is invalid in at least some cases, and we can’t simply assume that he evolved naturally.

So if you want a theistic, and not a deistic, God, then at some point you must accept the risk that some phenomenon lies outside science, and in God’s immanent involvement in his world. And you must make a judgement, as Newton did, and be prepared to change it, as he would have been, given the tone and context of his remarks.

But if “divine inaction” is not a principle any more, then how can we do science at all, with a God rampaging around changing all the laws at whim? The answer is, I think, to take the line of the early modern scientists (and all those before, and many since) that God, being faithful, creates predominant order in our world for its good, which we may investigate, on the understanding that God also creates contingencies in our world, which may well limit what we can say about the order in individual circumstances.

Nothing in that stops the probing of contingencies to find underlying patterns (Bacon even hoped, in time, to detect order in what he considered God’s special providential acts), but it might limit attempts, by Christian scientists at least, to find a theory of everything or to explore the natural causes of the resuurection.

It may, though, be worthwhile formulating some principles (theological and philosophical) to guide us. Why, for example, would one not spend a career on uncovering the natural causes of the resuurection? In the case of Evolutionary Creation, do we mean anything coherent when we speak of “creation through natural processes”?

I could easy become a Gnu. Is there a membership form to fill out?

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Oh Gno, Gno, Gno.


Jon, I don’t disagree with you at all. “Approaching scientists with their own language” doesn’t mean treating God as a scientific hypothesis. As you pointed out, that would be a form of scientism. Instead, philosophy and theology has to be scientifically-informed. This means being aware of (not just broadly, but the details) of the relevant scientific theories, instead of being like the Thomistic philosopher in my story above, who dismissed all of modern science as merely “finding arrangements of atoms.” What Josh is doing here, being in sincere and open dialogue with similarly open-minded theologians, is a good example for that.

Even though many scientists can slip into scientistic, reductionist language, in my experience not all necessarily are committed to scientism a priori. (Christian TEs are a prime example.) It’s just that for most scientists, it is clear that the findings of modern science are important enough that they must inform and influence whatever philosophy is being developed. My point is, work with scientists instead of trying to teach them like children.

Regarding Newton and Laplace:

I think I’m starting to see what you’re saying. I agree with you that Newton, if faced with Laplace, would move “instability of the solar system” (IOTSS) to “laws of God” category. The problem is, then why did he prematurely judge that IOTSS is part of the “providence of God” instead of “laws of God”? If Newton had instead judged that there must be some other law of God that accounted for IOTSS (as he did for gravity) then he could have racked his brains hard for the solution, and possibly anticipated Laplace. Instead, he gave up.

This shows to me that providence-of-God-of-the-gaps of the Newtonian kind possibly inhibits science. Or at least, if we’re going with Newton’s picture, we have to be careful to judge what are laws vs. providence of God. The origin of life could be a law of God. Or it could be providence. But nobody knows, and I think Christian scientists have a duty to treat it as a law of God and try to figure out those laws.

I would argue that Newton’s and Leibniz’s views are both theologically deficient. From what I understand, both Newton and Leibniz believed in a deistic picture of nature with regards to the intelligible regularities of nature. Newton’s “laws of God” and Leibniz’s “clock wound up by God” both posit that God set some laws and just let them run.

The difference is that Newton prematurely judged the unintelligible regularities to be part of God’s providence and thus inaccessible to science, while Leibniz probably had confidence that they could one day in be explored by better science. And Leibniz turned out to be right, scientifically speaking.

  1. You seem to be implying that we can only learn about a deistic God from the “laws of God”, and that theism can only lie within the scientifically inexplicable. But that gives too much credit to the laws. For me the picture of the mechanical clock is a wrong one. Rather, God is actively involved at this moment in sustaining the existence and continuing validity of all of those laws. In that sense, even in the laws of nature God is actively involved with his creation.

  2. My second point would be that even believing that science will “solve everything” one day doesn’t necessarily rule out individual miracles that show the providence of God, such as the resurrection of Jesus or de novo creation of A&E. Science deals with regularities and statistics, and by definition these events are not regularities. Science cannot conclusively rule out individual miracles which are temporary disturbances to the laws of nature.

(I could see how the line could be blurred with respect to the Big Bang and the origin of life, which are both singular scientific events. But that’s a different topic.)

  1. That being said, I agree with you in that it might be possible that science has its limits in explaining even the regularities of the world. But as a working scientist, making a premature judgment that science has limits with regards to a specific scientific problem X will inhibit my scientific inquiry. As a scientist, you have to have at least temporary faith that whatever you’re trying to investigate actually has a rational, “laws of God” explanation waiting for you to discover. Otherwise, you will be leaving these laws to be discovered by atheist and agnostic scientists like Laplace, who will use such findings for their own purposes.

Completely agree with you here. But the important word is individual circumstances - again as I argued above. By definition, science cannot have access to individual circumstances.

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We may be closer here than you suggest. My position is that science should be agnostic to the patterns it studies (that includes statistical patterns, though obviously not the contingent events comprising them, or we wouldn’t need the statistics). That allows lawlike events to be understood as laws imposed by God, or nature, on matter, or as God’s habits, or whatever metaphysical model you prefer.

My point was that when, like Leibniz, you deny there are gaps, you have made your God a deist God. Not in the strict technical sense, if you allow for God’s continued sustaining of existence - the position Freddie Freddoso calls “bare conservationism.” But it would imply that for the most part God constrains his actions/ concurrences/ conservation to events predictable exactly as if they were those of the clockwork God.

By definition, in contrast, Christian theism proposes an immanent God who acts in the world contingently as well as regularly. Biblical miracles are one category. Present day miracles are another. Special providence is a third, possibly to be distinguished from a fourth, continuous creation.

The early moderns assumed, on the basis of experience, that these were rarer than the regular operations of the world (which would, of course, include the kind of “chance” Aquinas dealt with, ie the interaction of lawlike events - which nevertheless he still included under providence). Yet they were far from the modern tendency to make “divine contingency” so rare as to be negligible, and that was without the modern inclusion of “creative innovations” under the operations of nature, eg in biological evolution.

Newton, like other early Royal Society scientists, lived in that kind of world - whose God matches the kind of God recorded in biblical history who, for example, governed his covenant with Israel largely through his management of nature in response to their faithfulness or lack of it.

So they would have regarded a principle of chasing lawlike explanations of some unexplained phenomena to the ends of the earth as something close to atheism. I assume they had some kind of criteria - though they may not have been formally defined, so early in the history of modern science.

@Patrick , I heard there were pretty strict gnu control laws in place in New Jersey?! : )

But they seem to be constitutional given the wide separation between the Gnu Church and the NJ State Government.

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Gnu loves you! Now, pass the bucket…
Or, I could sell you one of my
“Hey, Buddy! Can you spare a dollar? I’m studying to be a televangelist!” lapel buttons… if I ever got around to making them.

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Not sure how to pull off the whole “free wedding wine” thing, though I admire the one Who did!

I can completely affirm everything you say here.

The Leibnizian Hyper-Calvinist God
Even assuming Leibniz’s clockwork universe, sure it could lead to a deist God, which may sound scary. But I don’t think all versions of deism are necessarily in conflict with orthodox Christianity. You could have a God who preordains the initial conditions and laws of the universe such that they accomplish His will exactly as He wanted it. Into these initial conditions he would include the worldly manifestations of His attributes, including providence, love, justice, redemption, and so on. Such a God would also sustain the laws that are set in motion.

This God would be a hyper-Calvinist sort of God, but in principle it does not conflict with the Bible. From our viewpoint we would see no difference: we would still have free will (of course compatibilism would have to be true), we could still pray to God for His providence. We could even allow, in such a deistic picture, rare times when the laws of the universe are suspended for miracles.

The God of Modern Physics
Despite my defense of the Leibnizian picture, the fact is that science has progressed immensely since that time. We have a host of phenomena we can explain, yet we also know things which seem fundamentally mysterious:

  • The inherent randomness of quantum mechanics
  • The puzzle of different interpretations of quantum mechanics
  • The existence of chaotic phenomena
  • The immense fine tuning of the universe
  • The persistence of the hard problem of consciousness in philosophy of mind
  • The difficulty of explaining the origin of life
  • The evidence that the universe had a beginning in time

These are just examples I can think of the top of my head. Now, possibly science or philosophy might eventually be able to explain some of these mysteries away. But it is entirely possible, in my view, that some of God’s providence could be contained in some of these problems. They seem to be of a fundamentally different nature than regular scientific problems. To me, that possibility is just as, if not more exciting than the possibility that science will simply fail to explain less fundamental problems (in my opinion) like evolution and the motions of planets. For you, looking for God’s providence in quantum mechanics is a form of arrogant, reductionist, scientistic deism. But for me, it’s one of the most intriguing scientific-theological investigations there could be.

The Pitfalls of Scientific Agnosticism

You advocate for an agnosticism with regards to what science will ultimately be able to explain. I agree with you in principle. But that should be a stance taken by a philosopher or layman observer, not a scientist working in the field. The scientist’s job is precisely to chase lawlike explanations of unexplained phenomena to the ends of the Earth, especially those that exhibit regularities. (I am reminded of Eddington, whom you admired, conducting experiments as far as West Africa and Brazil in order to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity in 1919).

Scientists, including Christian ones, must continually test the boundaries of God’s laws versus providence (to use Newton’s terms). Otherwise science would have stopped with Newton. A scientist who stops doing that is no longer a scientist anymore. (Of course, I am not speaking of special revelation - miracles.)

Science as a Form of Worship

And far from being a form of atheism, such an attitude is a form of worship towards the Creator who created and sustains these laws in the first place. When I encounter these lawlike regularities I do not see a distant, deistic, clockwork God. Instead I see a God who is kind enough to create a universe whose laws are simple enough to be grasped by limited minds such as my own. He is allowing us a tiny glimpse into the beauty and brilliance of His mind. We see this in the incredible beauty, for example, of quantum electrodynamics, which even as messy as it is, can give us predictions accurate to 12 decimal places. God’s regularities are an expression of His everlasting love and goodness. So why are we scared? Why are we pushing God into the gaps? Why can’t we see Him in the “works of His fingers” that are already in front of us?


“Refused admission to the Gnus - reduced to being a dreadful haartebeest.”

I think it’s the “God of the gaps” accusers who more often do that, and sometimes overtly by attributing to an autonomous “nature” the regular powers that actually belong to God (as you, and most decent theologians, believe), and by suggesting that attributing contingencies to, say, special providence takes away from the rights of nature (or, by extension, of science!). When they don’t do that, they assume that those who make such providential attributions thereby deny God’s role in nature, which is seldom the case.

I agree with you that what you call a “hypercalvinist” concept of natural determinism would be, strictly speaking, orthodox, and is surprisingly common. [Kathryn Applegate’s recent “faith statement” seemed to suggest that God could frontload the Big Bang to unfold all the specific intended outcomes we see, including (as a classic case) the eventual evolution of man.] EDIT - I think I’ve misattributed this view to her, on checking. Apologies, and forget I said it!

My problem with that (apart from privileging the initial moment of creation over the rest of history for divine involvement, apparently merely to accommodate to Enlightenment Deism and scientific determinism!) is your subsequent paragraph. Your excellent bullet list of issues always seems to me to be a scientific defeater for “frontloading by ultra fine tuning”, leaving us instead either with a God who isn’t too worried about actual outcomes (hence "God would have been happy to put his image on an intelligent mollusc if it happened to evolve), or a cosmos in which God’s ongoing activity is to be accounted for, on which perhaps we agree.

Don’t get me wrong - to me quantum indeterminacy is, from my theological point of view, axiomatically an expression of divine choice contingency, once one excludes hidden variables, because Epicurean ontological chance, in my view, has no legitimate place in a Christian worldview. It seems still an open question how quantum events affect events at the macro scale, but if it does, that’s great.

My objection to R J Russell was that he limits God to that, by universalising the autonomy of nature apart from quantum events - that is, by trying to create a legitimate gap for God to work in… perhaps… occasionally.