Whether divine guidence can be detected

Earlier today I asked Josh what his understanding was of how God interacted with the evolutionary process. He recommended the two threads below:

After reading through the entire conversation, I thought I’d contribute my 2 cents, even though I’m not likely qualified to participate.

I’d say my position is somewhere in between Josh and John_Harshman.

Basically, if we considered all the possible scenarios of how a god could have ‘guided’ the evolutionary process, the data we presently have is sufficient to eliminate many of these scenarios, but not all of them (this is just a different way of stating Josh’s position). I don’t find the question of ‘why god would choose one of these scenarios as opposed to a better one’ particularly interesting (John’s concern), because I am not in a position to speculate what exactly a god would do. Instead, I am just looking at how the data fits with each of the different scenarios.

When I asked Josh if he felt that an approach could be devised to eventually detect this ‘divine guidance,’ he responded that he doesn’t think it could be, unless God intended to reveal Himself in this way.

I am not sure this is necessarily the case. I think evidence of intervention can be present even when its presence is not intended, as long as the intention is not to conceal such evidence. For example, if I set out to clean the leaves in my back yard, I am not there either to leave evidence that I did it or to conceal such evidence. I am there to clean up. In the process I might leave some evidence behind, like scratching the ground with the rake, or I might not. Someone looking at my yard later, might or might not have a way to tell If I cleaned up or if the wind blew away the leaves, for example. So there are three options: 1) intention to reveal, 2) intention to conceal, 3) neither.

So then it might be said that if either option 1 or 3 were correct, we would have found such evidence by now, while, if option 2 is correct, we will never find it.

I would say, however, that it might still be possible that such evidence could be found even though we have not found it yet, for two reasons:

  1. The people who were looking for such evidence (creationists/IDers) were using a bad approach by rejecting MN.

  2. Those who used the correct approach were not looking for it.

In light of the above, my questions are:

  • does everyone here think it might still be possible to find evidence of ‘divine guidance?’

  • if so, how exactly would one go about studying that?

  • if a viable approach for studying this question is devised and the evidence supports the hypothesis, will the scientific community be ready to receive these findings?


I think any plan to investigate divine guidance must founder on this:

The best one could do would be to investigate particular scenarios of divine action. All scenarios I know of fall into two groups: testable and falsified or untestable and thus unfalsifiable. You ask if there are any testable and so far unfalsified scenarios; I doubt it. Further, if God is guiding the course of evolution over the long term and we are intended to be the pinnacle of creation, he has a bizarre sense of humor.



Can you design an experiment that proves that God “guided the creation” of one thing, but not the other?

I don’t think it is possible.

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In principle it is possible to find evidence of any kind of intervention, by gods or by humans or by other minds (superaliens etc). No one can deny this.

I don’t know what you mean by “studying” that. If you mean “study” to determine what intervention would look like, I think that “field of study” would be unlimited if the “goal” is to determine what supernatural beings might do. By virtue of being unlimited, it wouldn’t be a field of study at all. As @John_Harshman already pointed out, this “study” would first have to identify the “divine” agents and provide at least some basic information about what they might do.

If OTOH you don’t really mean “study” but “look for,” then I think there are ways to think about and “study” intervention by minds, using criteria we might establish first for human minds then perhaps by alien minds (SETI is the classic and reasonable example here).

I’m not at all sure what you mean by “question” or “hypothesis” here but if you are asking whether the scientific community can “receive” evidence of “guidance” or intervention by superintelligent beings, I think the answer is yes. Plenty of scientists already believe this.


Well, actually, I deny this. I consider this an epistemological problem inherent with all super-natural interventions or operations.

If God is everywhere, or always at work, how will we ever know when God does or doesn’t intervene?

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From a biblical standpoint, ‘divine guidance’ is not a thing. It assumes that God operates in a way that man operates…doing things, directing paths, accomplishing stuff…that makes God very small. In many places in the bible, God addresses mans desire to classify God this way or that. God answers that we cannot know, that Hi IS, not that He DOES. (Exodus 3/John 8/Hebrews 11) the apostle John was the best author to describe who God IS, who Jesus IS, who the Holy Spirit IS. So, John, 1st/2nd/3rd John and Revelation are good places to look for evidence, but you won’t find evidence in the world, you will find it in your heart.

God reveals and conceals and does neither (all 3) often. I have experienced this personally - as an atheist I studied the bible and received no revelation, when I finally repented and turned to God for answers, He revealed His truth to me by giving understanding to passages that previously were mysteries to me. Can I prove it? No. But I can say from experience that the only way to receive revelation is to pray and seek Him.

I don’t think you understood what I wrote. It is in principle possible to find evidence of intervention. To “deny” this is to say that intervention can’t be detected, which is obviously false. It seems you thought I was discussing a particular god, his/her particular attributes, and his particular modes of intervention. I tried to make it clear that I wasn’t doing any of that.

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To be a little more clear - - as long as aliens are using natural, lawful processes, it is a completely different kind of question compared to the same question directed to God’s super-natural (or non-lawful) actions and/or operations!


I think such a statement requires nearly perfect knowledge of natural, lawful processes.

For example, if we absolutely, truly find a mutation in the next generation of an aardvark, we can be absolutely SURE that it is a mutation.

But we cannot know for sure whether God arranged the mutation (using natural processes), or even if God arranged the mutation (using super-natural processes).

Wouldn’t you agree?

I agree with this. If by “gods” one means specific creaturely entities like intelligent aliens with biological bodies, or even (say) intelligent, super-powerful aliens which have ghost-like bodies that only interact via the weak force (like neutrinos), then in principle we could detect them. They would be like detecting the presence of other humans. This is similar to what projects like SETI are trying to accomplish.

But in general that is not what most Christian, Muslim, and Jewish theologians have in mind when thinking about God (with a capital “G”). According to this understanding, God is everywhere (immanent) in the universe yet not identified with it (transcendent). God is not subject to constraints like being only able to interact via the weak force, in fact he is the one who “runs the hardware” of the universe by sustaining its law-like operations.

Thus, while science can certainly test for certain specific, narrow scenarios of guidance by “gods” or God - for example, scenarios where such guidance results in clear discontinuities in the regularity of nature, there are two problems:

First, while science may be able to detect a discontinuity, it is unclear to me that it could attribute the discontinuity specifically to God (as opposed to gods) based on the scientific evidence alone. To take an extreme example, even if we had irrefutable scientific proof that Jesus turned water into wine, it would theoretically be consistent with Jesus being a hyper-advanced alien with powerful synthetic chemistry capabilities (i.e. a “god”), not necessarily that he is the Son of God. Because the concept of God is so all-encompassing and general, it does not lend itself well to specific testable hypotheses of the kind that science studies. In this sense, God is before science, not an object of science.

Second, it isn’t clear that the detection (or lack of detection) of such discontinuities has much to say about how God (with a capital G) accomplishes his will in the universe at large. Although (for example) many Christians do believe that God did directly cause such discontinuities several times in history (such as in the case of the Resurrection), that is not the norm, since the Bible also clearly proclaims the handiwork of God in the regular, law-like operations of the Universe.

In general, I think science is best for testing certain specific scenarios espoused by certain theologians, such as YECs arguing (implicitly) that if God exists and created the universe, then it must be less then 10,000 years old. Because science can judge if that question is true, then science can judge if the YEC narrative of the world is correct. But that does not rule out large classes of completely different narratives about God.


Yes I would agree but you are carrying on a different conversation than the one I am. The question is whether intervention in principle is detectable. The answer is “of course.” It doesn’t matter whether lots of interventions go undetected. Of course they can, and that was all discussed in the OP. Maybe look closer at the precise words I tried to use, and the question I was addressing. Neither is about whether supernatural (or superpowered) beings can fiddle with things and not be detected. That’s not an interesting question.

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No, it’s really not, since the conversation is about detection. I think you are trying to have a different discussion.

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Thanks for raising these questions, and taking the time to read through those technical threads.

I would agree with #1 and #2, however, if God was trying to reveal himself in DNA, #2 would not be a problem. Scientists regularly find things they were not looking for, and we can imagine ways God could have made it obvious.

For example, He could have created humans obviously different from all other animals such that no plausible evolutionary path could be imagined. He did not do this. Why not? At minimum, this tells us that clearly revealing himself in DNA was not part of His design goals. This seems to be a strong inference we can draw in our theology of nature.

Regarding these questions, I think @John_Harshman is correct:

This is the place that needs more careful contemplation:

This whole question of testability and unfalsifiability is not well defined, and isn’t how science works. However, what @John_Harshman is getting at, and I agree with, is that any model of divine guidance that helps us explain the scientific data from a scientific point of view is not obvious, and at best debatable.

The closest example of such a model might be fine tuning. Another might be the direct creation of the first cell in an ancient earth. While God might have intervened by direct action at these points, it seems debatable, and outside the realm of evidence of science to tell us. Moreover, this is not even about the guidance of evolution.

What this means, once again, is that any scientific case for God’s guidance would be very subtle, if it exists. Why would such a subtle case be important? I’m not sure.



Well, this probably goes a long way to explaining how scientists can be I.D. proponents at the same time. They, like you, are convinced that “intervention” is detectable, even if performed by a super-natural being.

Again, I have to reject this idea as we might find it in two different kinds of scenarios:

A) Let’s suppose we see God as using pretty much natural, lawful processes to do everything (this is more or less a Behe-style scenario): in this scenario, the term “intervention” doesn’t make much sense at all. Because, as Behe describes a billiard shot scenario, at least until the free will of humans becomes problematic, God has “vened-and-inter-vened” at every moment in the timeline.

This has led me to the specific objection of Behe’s approach, namely: how do we know when God is NOT intending a mutation, and how would God be able to AVOID having something to do with every little aspect of the billiard shot/

B) Then there is scenario where we ascribe copious miraculous, super-natural, non-lawful processes to God. Based on our current knowledge, if we are lucky enough to know that there was definitely a discontinuity… a surprising mutation … how much about all the processes of the Universe do we need to know before we are satisfied that we can exclude all natural sources of the discontinuity, leaving one with the “most likely” hypothesis that God performed some super-natural intervention in a universe of Naturalness?

That’s because you are talking about your gods and not about guidance and detection. I don’t know how to make that any clearer.

Thank you everyone for your comments.

Fair enough. I would qualify that, however, to say that they ‘sometimes’ find things they were not looking for, while other times, they might not even find those things they are looking for, much less things they aren’t.

Essentially, can we be sure beyond a shadow of a doubt, that such evidence can no longer be found? If not, I am interested in considering what one might do to look for it. Not just DNA evidence, but any kind of scientific evidence. I am interested in what people might do who don’t have the philosophical baggage of Creationists or IDers. In fact, it would be great if they didn’t have any religious baggage whatsoever; they just allowed for the possibility that a god might exist and might have interfered/contributed.

I sometimes offer a hypothetical scenario to eliminate the need for bringing religion into the conversation altogether:

Imagine that naturalism is true: there is no god, there is no supernatural, reality is exactly the way most modern atheists picture it. Now imagine that several centuries pass with immense scientific progress, to the point where we come to gain a fairly good understanding of how our universe and everything in it (including human consciousness) works. Now let’s say that we decide to create a virtual replica of our universe on a computer. We create a simulated environment that has similar fundamental forces and that is similarly built up of atoms, molecules, etc. This virtual universe also has self-aware/intelligent virtual humanoids that eventually discover the scientific method and then try to understand where they came from. How would we create such a universe? Would we be able to set the initial conditions and then let everything unfold on its own, or would we need to step in occasionally to nudge things in the right direction? As far as the intelligent virtual humanoids: would their scientific conclusions about their own existence be any different than ours? And if not, can we really be sure WE are not in a virtual universe?

In any case, there are ways of looking at this question without getting bugged down in theological conflicts. Even most atheists can participate. And, there is still a chance that we might find something if we actually looked for it.

What isn’t clear to me, however, is what exactly we would do. How can this question be formulated into something testable/falsifiable?

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I like your tought experiment, but the problem I see with it is that we would need to know everything about our own universe before we can build a simulation that is accurate enough to address your point. By the time we know that much, the question will already have been answered.

As an agnosic atheist myself I think the only way to detect divine guidance is if the God(s) themselves show up and demonstrate it to us. Without that, my fallback response to an unexplained problem woud always be that we simply don’t know the answer. Plugging a God in there for which we have no independent evidence isn’t really a solution in my view. We basically answer a question with an untestable hypothetical. What good is that?


Welcome to the party, @Mike_Manea! :slight_smile:

I’d say that if the Divine wanted to be detected, it could do so in an unambiguous manner, and we wouldn’t need to ask these questions. YMMV. :wink:


He did…but the problem is that we (humanity) don’t believe it. And certainly scientists, who require proof, definition, detection, etc., would not be able to discern God any better than the Pharisees (Jewish priests) who met and talked with the Son of God himself…

Matthew 16:2-4 - (Jesus speaking)
(2) He answered and said to them, “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; (3) and in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Hypocrites! You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times. (4) A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” And He left them and departed. ((the sign is that Jesus would be raised from the dead on the third day))

1 John 5:20 - And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.

1 Timothy 3:16 - And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh Justified in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Preached among the Gentiles, Believed on in the world, Received up in glory.

I’ll spare you the John 3:16…my point is that God did show Himself to us, 2000 years ago, but we cannot understand (God veils our understanding) unless we believe in Him. I know that for my life, I have detected divine guidance in my heart, and have personally changed dramatically in many ways as proof (to me, but I cannot prove to you) that He is real. But that doesn’t assume that He has a finger on every detail of existence, I prefer to think that God allows for choice, but corrects paths when needed. The same could be said in nature…

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I wasn’t around 2000 years ago, and the accounts of those who were there aren’t particularly convincing…