Welcome to Terrell Clemmons: Questions on Methodological Naturalism

So you’re basically saying that because a certain interpretation of Scripture demands that God’s creation of living things occurred through a “direct”, near-instantaneous, miraculous act outside of the natural order, Christian scientists have a duty to avoid expressing optimism about OOL research. Am I understanding you correctly?

But what if certain Christian scientists don’t believe in that interpretation? Do they have a duty to defer to every single possible interpretation of Scripture that exists? For example, does a scientist have to express skepticism about the age of the universe just because some earnest YEC Christians exist?

As I have stressed several times, what baffles me is why this idea of design has to be applied specifically to OOL and/or mechanisms of evolution, but matter/antimatter asymmetry is considered a purely scientific matter with no theological implications. I think most Christian scientists (even ECs) believe in divine design, the question is how it fits with science and what are the proper terms to express this belief. For me, divine design occurs at all levels of science; it is an integral part of the metaphysical structure that makes natural laws possible at all. There is no reason to single out OOL in particular.

This is the key part here. Even if we want to argue that the habitable state of the Earth is part of God’s providence (and I certainly agree that it is), it is a retroactive theological inference. If this inference were really scientific, then we would be able to

  1. Model God’s providence as a set of unambiguous, verifiable quantitative laws, allowing us to make substantive, verifiable predictions on how that providence will occur in nature, and
  2. Discover that these predictions turn out to be true.

The reality is that we can’t model God’s providence with any degree of rigor required for a scientific theory. (Similar to how no theologian can guarantee that if you follow Jesus, God will make your life materially successful and comfortable.) If we want to say that the Earth is uniquely habitable, then how do we explain, for example, the myriad number of natural disasters (not to mention inhospitable climates in many parts of the world) that claim the lives of many?


Actually, Hugh Ross does a decent job of that, explaining how plate tectonics is required for the planet’s habitability, etc. I would commend his book, Improbable Planet. He also points out that what claims the lives of many in earthquakes, for instance, is human graft with respect to building code enforcement, and with repect to other natural disasters, where people choose to live, and so on.

Certainly no one is saying that life on the earth is without risk and an idyllic paradise for all. It is still uniquely habitable.

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I agree with this, and in fact it is the view argued for by Michael Denton in Nature’s Destiny. I would have said “at all levels of nature” rather than “at all levels of science”, but I don’t think we mean anything different.

I did not express myself well enough. Even as I was writing the quoted paragraph, I felt that I was not saying exactly what I wanted to say. So I understand your confusion.

I’ll come to your point about the interpretation of Scripture later, but for now, let me try to get my overall view of the situation on the table.

Will you grant that there is a conceptual difference between holding that the origin of life was a cosmic freak, a set of lucky bounces that could just as easily have led nowhere, and holding that the origin of life took place because the components of life were carefully calibrated by an overall design, to make them specially suited to fall into certain patterns?

Now, as far as I can tell from what I have heard them saying, most of the people involved in origin of life research (and I admit outright that I am relying on impressions, and haven’t interviewed hundreds of them and questioned them in a precise social-scientific sort of survey) have in mind something like the first scenario, not the second.

Understand that I am not talking about “Christian scientists” here. I am talking about the group of scientists whose main research is in the origin of life area. My impression is that most such scientists have a worldly, secular outlook, not a Christian one, and that very few of those involved in full-time origin of life research would describe themselves as Christian or even as theist. I am willing to be proved wrong on this, but that is my impression, and that lies in the background of my remarks.

If I am right about the general religious orientation of the majority of origin of life researchers, then it makes sense that they would see the origin of life in terms of the first scenario rather than the second. And that, I believe, is how they do see it, and hence their proposals are all cast within that framework.

Again, the field I am referring to is not the field of “Christian scientists” or even “Christian biologists”; it is the field of full-time professionals in origin of life research.

Let me know if you find this a plausible description of the state of things in the field. If you do, we can try to develop things further together. If you don’t , I need to know why.


I have no argument there! His providence we can expect to see, in general, though, to one degree or another, and I have been lucky, in the strict theological sense of the word :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:, to see it often. As Christians trusting our Father, we can say with absolute assurance that what he does is good, good for us and good for his honor, regardless.

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Yes, I agree that there is a conceptual difference. However, I do not see how a scientist has the tools to distinguish between the two scenarios. As we have covered several times in this forum (e.g. Would God's Guidance Be DNA-Detectable?), science cannot distinguish between “ontological” and apparent randomness. As @jongarvey helpfully observed (How should we define the supernatural? - #197 by jongarvey),

Thus, while the two scenarios are different, they are not decidable by science. Now, I grant that in terms of rhetoric, in the public sphere, many secular-oriented biologists (perhaps even some Christian ones) have used misleading language of some phenomena (including OOL) being “unguided” or “mindless” or “blind” or “truly random”, but none of these terms are strictly defined scientifically.

I would say that even some secular physicists might argue along the following reductionist lines: nothing in biology is truly actually random; it is all explainable by chemistry which is in turn explainable by physics; the universe is macroscopically (i.e. above the quantum level) deterministic and everything that happened was inevitable based on the initial conditions of the Big Bang. Thus even the origin of life was technically baked into the initial conditions of the universe.


And, “You have to believe in free will, you have no choice.” I.B. Singer :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

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There may, or may not, be ways of distinguishing the two scenarios scientifically. I would prefer to reserve that for a separate discussion a step or two later in our conversation. But for now, we can agree that the two scenarios are significantly different in what they assert about reality.

Your point about the secular physicists is a good one. Note that while the earlier folks I talked about seemed gung-ho on showing that the origin of life came about by “chance,” it is conceivable that an atheist or materialist would argue that it came about not by chance but by “necessity” – by a deterministic chain of events.

We can take this distinction between chance and necessity further. The “determinist” approach is compatible with atheism/materialism, but it is also compatible with a designed universe; the universe could have been set up to produce a deterministic cascade of events leading to life. Thus, determinism at the level of nature is compatible with either the existence or non-existence of an intelligent designer, depending on one’s temperament (i.e., depending on how willing one is to accept that the universe just happened to have the initial configuration and properties to compel the appearance of intelligent life). It’s a little harder, however, to see how the “chance” understanding is compatible with the activity of an intelligent designer.

That may all be a digression, but I thought your point was interesting, so I responded to it.

OK, now back to more background on where I’m coming from:

For T. aquaticus I laid out three scenarios for the origin of life:

1–God designed it, then created it supernaturally.

2–God designed it, but its implementation was carried out wholly naturally, i.e., by some sort of front-loaded teleology built into matter from the beginning.

3–No one designed it, but lucky bounces of matter produced it.

There may be more possibilities, but these seem to be the three that, with variations, come up most often in theology/science debates. If you want to add a fourth or fifth, please do, but until then, I will work from these.

Now, I find the third scenario implausible, but either of the other scenarios seem to me to be plausible. From a religious or theological point of view, I do not insist on #1 as opposed to #2. However, it is worth noting that #1 was the preferred option of the vast majority of Christians, learned and unlearned, until very recent times, and that #3 was execrated by Christians as “Epicureanism” and atheism.

If I perceived that the majority of TE leaders clearly endorsed or strongly leaned to #1 or #2, we probably would not be having this discussion now. I probably never would have been seen or heard from on any of these origins discussion sites.

(And remember that I am not talking about what the TE leaders think can be established by the methods of science, but only about what they personally believe was the case.)

But after studying the TE leaders explicit statements for 10 years now, in their books, articles, blog site conversations, mailing list conversations, etc., I find a majority (outside of Francis Collins) who either express doubt or are lukewarm regarding #1, and I don’t find many who clearly go for or even lean to #2.

My list of TE leaders regarding #2 breaks down like this:

a-Endorse #2 – Denis Lamoureux

b-Make noncommittal rumblings akin to #2 – Deb Haarsma

c-Maybe privately endorse #2, but sound vague

Darrel Falk, Kathryn Applegate, Karl Giberson

d-Maybe privately endorse #2, but at times show a whiff of #3 (only chance needed as far as physical causality goes, but God is somehow involved because faith tells us so):

Darrel Falk, Dennis Venema, Kathryn Applegate, Ard Louis

In short, of the two origin of life positions I find most plausible both in terms of causality and in terms of theological orthodoxy, most of the TE leaders are very lukewarm about, if they embrace either one at all.

Mutatis mutandis (as the economists say), a parallel discussion could be drawn up regarding evolution after the origin of life:

A–Evolution was guided all along by subtle divine influence, or at least, divine intervention infused new information at several key points

B–Evolution proceeded entirely naturally, but God set it up so that it would eventually produce intelligent beings in his image;

C–Evolution proceeded entirely naturally, but there was no determining initial setup for the outcomes; it was as Gould describes it, such that the slightest chance event could have massively altered outcomes; the process is non-teleological.

Here I find that things become even starker when I line up TE leaders under the categories.

Under A – I find only Ted Davis and Robert Russell as unambiguous supporters

Under B – I find only Denis Lamoureux, and formerly Howard Van Till, till he dumped Christianity

Under C – I find just about all the others, except that the C position is usually qualified by “Though I believe he neither intervened nor predetermined outcomes by physical front-loading, I believe that God was providentially in there, somewhere, somehow.”

Again, if I thought that most TE leaders endorsed or at least expressed a marked leaning toward either A or B, you would never have heard of me, because I wouldn’t be in these debates. I’d call myself a TE (EC), in fact.

Does this help make my general orientation to these questions clearer?


Thanks, Eddie. I better understand where you are coming from. Let’s focus on OOL instead of evolution for now. I confess that I have not read much recent TE writings. My suspicion is that many Christian scientists are just using words like “chance” in an imprecise way like some secular scientists do in public discourse. But I could be wrong. Can you give me an example of a TE/EC article endorsing a position close to #3?

The answer to this is simple @dga471 : See Genesis chapter 3 and Romans 8:20.

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This is difficult, because for the most part the leaders of TE/EC, whether at BioLogos, or in the ASA, or elsewhere, tend to remark on the origin of life less often than they remark on evolution, and when they do remark on it, their statements are incomplete, oblique, etc. Even when one asks them directly what they think, they often choose not to answer or to give an ambiguous answer. So one has to reconstruct what they have in mind.

Let’s take one point. On BioLogos, a number of columns by Applegate, Ard Louis, and others, placed great emphasis on the creative powers of “randomness.” Usually this was in the context of evolution rather than the origin of life, but the way the argument was made, the logic would apply to the origin of life as well.

So, for example, Kathryn Applegate would argue from the fact that the immune system made use of randomness (a fact which Behe not only accepted, but even stressed, writing about it at length in one of his books), that the immune system could have been produced by randomness (i.e., random changes could have taken creatures which had not even the beginnings of an immune system to creatures like us who have a highly sophisticated one). In other words, random mutations not only modify systems, providing little improvements which natural selection can work on, but are capable of creating previously non-existent highly complex machinery. Might she also, then, suppose that random shufflings of simpler molecules could, over time, produce more and more stable arrangements, resulting in pre-DNA self-replicating molecules, early membranes suited to eventually become cell walls, and so on?

It’s hard to say for sure, since she doesn’t explicitly address it. But the general line of argument in all her columns and remarks on randomness is that really sophisticated means-adjusted-to-ends systems can arise from the rearrangement of unconscious molecules, genes, etc. which are not working according to any plan or design, but simply reacting to natural forces. When you couple that with the fact that she seems to take the general line that God seems to work through natural causes rather than through breaking natural laws, it seems likely that she inclines toward a wholly naturalistic origin of life. But again, it’s hard to be sure, since neither spontaneously, nor when asked in public on BioLogos, will she answer questions of that sort.

Of course, I hasten to add that she would never endorse position #3 in its naked form, i.e., there was no plan at all. She would say that God had something to do with the fact that the chance events produced the first life. She likes to drop the word “providential” into her writing, as if she conceives that it somehow tempers a description based wholly on random natural events. But the role of God in her conception of evolution is vague, and I would guess that the role of God in her conception of the origin of life would be vague as well. I can easily imagine her writing something like, “Through the providence of God, molecules which have no intention of forming life serve his divine purposes,” or the like. But that leaves open the question why such a low-probability event should happen, unless God is slightly biasing the outcome by subtle divine coaxing – a non-naturalistic suggestion she and her colleagues don’t seem very wild about.

A problem that plagues any attempt to understand TE writing in this area is the fact that TE writers regularly conflate “design” with “supernatural intervention.” So, for example, Dennis Venema thinks he has found one scientific article that refutes Stephen Meyer’s claim that the arrangement of nucleotide bases along the DNA chain is arbitrary; the article says that there may be a slight inclination of one of the bases to favor a certain kind of attachment. In other words, not an arbitrary miraculous action of God, but a natural-law bias, may be responsible to some extent for the ordering of the bases. But aside from the fact that this bias, if it exists, could only explain a fraction of any any arrangement, it really only refutes only the idea of miraculous action, not the idea of design; for any natural bias restricting the order of attachment of the bases might well be a designed bias, planned by an intelligent mind as the laws of gravity, magnetism, etc. are planned. In other words, even if the origin of life occurs naturally, the way things fall together might be designed.

In fact, Venema’s objection, if taken to its logical end, might well incline Venema to position #2 rather than position #3, i.e., that the origin of life was cleverly set up by God to occur through wholly natural means. But because he only deals with the subject of origin of life in fits and starts, it’s hard to say.

His best opportunity for giving his own view on the origin of life came when he wrote several BioLogos columns attacking Meyer’s first book, Signature in the Cell. Since Meyer’s book was about the origin of life, one would think that Venema would have offered his own alternative proposal for the origin of life. But instead, he simply concentrated on negating what Meyer said, never presenting his own view. Further, Venema’s critique overwhelmingly focuses on things Meyer said (mainly in the Appendix, not even in the body of the work!) about evolution, and largely ignores what Meyer argued regarding the origin of life! Most of Meyer’s 500 pages of argument that the origin of life requires design is left untouched.

So one is left at a loss to know Venema’s mind, in exactly the place where one would expect to find his view on the origin of life explicitly stated. All we can deduce is that Venema thinks that Meyer’s thesis – that the origin of life required design – is wrong. So the most natural conclusion is that Venema would go for something like #3 – primitive molecules don’t need any design or plan in order to form life; it can happen by accident. But then, of course, Venema is Christian and wouldn’t say that God had nothing to do with it. So what would be the view, then, that chance is a sufficient cause, from a scientific point of view, but as a person of faith Venema thinks that God somehow, in some mysterious way, had something to do with the outcomes?

So we are left in puzzlement about Venema’s overall position: could accidental chemical reactions, without miracles or designed setups, have produced the first life? Or would it have required at least some designed setup of nature, though no miracles? We simply can’t tell what his position is, if he has a position, or what his inclination is, if he has an inclination.

The same could be said, mutatis mutandis, of just about everyone who has ever written for BioLogos. The question of the origin of life is rarely directly addressed, and when it is mentioned, it is quickly skirted, with only a few vague ideas quickly tossed out – randomness is powerfully creative, God’s providence is involved even if there is no design, it’s just as noble and maybe nobler for God to create life through natural causes as through miracles, etc.

Nobody’s criticizing the BioLogos people for not having a full-blown theology and science of the origin of life. It’s a difficult scientific and theological question. But it’s surprising how incoherent and uninformative the thoughts of all its management and columnists on the subject are, given that they have been writing columns and ASA articles and books on faith and science issues, on evolution and creation, etc. for years and in some cases decades now. One would think they could manage some provisional, tentative views, set forth with some intellectual clarity. Not even as an official BioLogos position, but just a as a set of individual statements of individual Christian scientists. But one can’t find any affirmative statements. One finds only rejections of arguments that design must have been involved.

In contrast, those ID folks who are Christian (and most ID folks are Christian, though some are Jews, Muslims, Deists, agnostics, etc.) very unambiguously assert that design (not necessarily miracles, but design) was necessary for the first life. And that makes vague appeals to providence unnecessary, because when a Christian says that life was designed, he means that God designed it. The plan, the order, the structure, came from the mind of God, not from chance, randomness, etc. Natural causes (including “random” events) may well have been involved in the implementation of the design, but the design was a thought in God’s mind.

If I heard TE leaders clearly saying things like this, I could much more easily relax when they wax eloquent about the marvelous creative powers of randomness and chance, about how chemical evolution could have produced the first life, etc. But the palpable resistance in their writing to the term “design” (and to the religious and theological concepts to which it points) makes me nervous. In fact, it would have made any Christian living, up to about 30 years ago, nervous. This position, this stance of “We believe in a Creator, but we don’t like calling him a designer or saying that he had definite ends in mind regarding biological outcomes,” is, to use an evolutionary metaphor, a new mutation of Christian thought, and in my view a “deleterious” one.


That nails the mystery of God’s providence. How he does it is beyond our ken, because all we can see is the ‘natural’. But an event or groupings and sequences of events take on meaning or function that is above the physical details of what transpired. Since God does it in his people’s lives, and we justifiably infer meaning (and hence design) in his acting into our lives, we can do the same in biology and cosmology, as well as several other disciplines.

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I just want to say a public “Thank you” to @Eddie for taking the time to string out the philosophical problems with TE/EC and to anyone else who is thoughtfully engaging with the problems he’s elucidating. I think the fact that this thread has gotten so long speaks to the difficulty of said problems.

Since this entire discussion is a continuation of one that began on Facebook and was transferred here by @dga471, and since said problems pertain to the OP, I’d like to add in here a few questions from the Facebook thread, only slight re-worded to make terminology consistent with this discussion (*note: the OP related to an article on BioLogos, but equally pertains to TE/EC more broadly):

Q1: As I see it, BioLogos’s and TE/EC understanding of science and interpretation of evidence from the natural world is indistinguishable from a philosophical naturalist’s. If not, what is the difference?

Q2: In what sense does BioLogos harmonize science with Christianity? As far as BioLogos or TE/EC is concerned, God is not detectable, knowable, or even in the category of being a possible inference or cause of anything. All of the reasoning is restricted to naturalism as a prior philosophical commitment, and so the natural sciences define the boundaries by which truth claims about reality are confirmed or disconfirmed. Christianity contributes exactly nothing to pool of knowledge that is being sought by BioLogos, and indeed it never can. Its most significant truth claims fall outside the purview of BioLogos’s epistemology. So, in what sense does BioLogos harmonize science with Christianity?

Q3: What does any of BioLogos’s work or TE/EC more broadly have to do with orthodox Christianity? This is not a rhetorical question, I’m honestly asking, hoping for a thoughtful answer. BioLogos and TE/EC are concerned strictly with that which is empirically verifiable according to the methods of the natural sciences. It’s fine for science to be done that way. Christians can certainly do science this way. So can anyone else. But why have a scientific organization approaching science this way specifically categorized as Christian? Christianity has exactly nothing to do with the practice of its science. What is the reason for its existence, and why should orthodox Christians want to get on board with it as something that falls under the purview of Christianity? Richard Dawkins has explained why atheists welcome this development. I’m asking why Christians should.

I am not questioning the Christian faith of scientists associated with BioLogos or adherents of TE/EC. Nor am I questioning how well they do science. I am questioning what their epistemology concerning how they do science has to do with orthodox Christianity. It appears to me that it has exactly noting to do with it.


How would a design inference help in the study of inherited cardiomyopathies?

It’s worth noting that Stephen Meyer, one of the highest priests of ID, predicted that the majority of the mutations that cause it would result in embryonic lethality, so at least his inference wouldn’t be very useful at all.

Christianity promotes honesty, something that is highly valued in science.

I’d say that depends entirely on your definition of “orthodox.”

Because of Culture Warriors like you and Eddie.

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Yes, that’s fair. Do you identify as Christian, and if so, what do you understand to be the basic essentials of Christian faith that define orthodoxy? Just in common, simple language.

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Yes, I do, but I’m asking for YOUR definition. It’s not fair for you to demand mine first. You’ve already offered the term as what appears to be an essential parameter.

That was two questions, and the second was conditional.

Asking a question amounts to making a demand? And to be clear, your comment did not have a question in it. But I’m happy to answer the question, anyway. The essentials imo are the following:

Origins: A supernatural, self-existing God exists and created the entire universe, including human life created in his image.
Problem: Humans rebelled against God.
Remedy: Jesus Christ, God incarnate, entered the natural world as a human to provide reconciliation to God for those who recognize their sin, repent, and want to be reconciled. He predicted his own death and resurrection and then it happened just as he said. This historical event verified his claims about his identity.


So “orthodox” Christianity has zero to do with following the teachings of Jesus Christ? The mind boggles.

I define Christianity more by the teachings of Jesus, primarily:
Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)

I just don’t get why Christianity has to be more complex than that, particularly being larded down with the politics of opposing homosexuality, abortion, and evolution, three things that if the Bible is to be believed, Jesus didn’t deem worthy of mention.

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