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Monday, 19 May 2008

Creation, Evolution and the Nature of Science

This is a guest-post by geologist Keith B. Miller, and is the second installment in our “Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics” series. Keith edited the book Perspectives on an Evolving Creation and has written numerous articles on science and faith including Theological Implications of an Evolving Creation.

Despite the long theological dialogue with evolutionary theory, many people continue to view evolution as inherently atheistic and inseparably wedded to a worldview that denies God and objective morality. Although this understanding of the meaning of evolutionary theory is strongly promoted by some, it is widely rejected as philosophically, theologically, and historically false. Science is a methodology, a limited way of knowing about the natural world. Scientific research proceeds by the search for chains of cause-and-effect, and confines itself to the investigation of "natural" entities and forces. This self-limitation is sometimes referred to as “methodological naturalism.”

The Limitations of Science
The first detailed use and discussion of the term “methodological naturalism” (MN) was in 1986 by Paul deVries, an evangelical Christian philosopher at Wheaton College. He used the term to describe the legitimate purview of science as one limited to explaining and interpreting the natural world in terms of natural processes and causes. Furthermore, deVries embraced this understanding of the nature and limitations of science because he saw it as consistent with, and supportive of, a vibrant and vital role for theology. In his view, to broaden science to include the supernatural would be yielding to a culture of scientism.

Science restricts itself to proximate causes, and the confirmation or denial of ultimate causes is beyond its capacity. Science does not deny the existence of a Creator -- it is simply silent on the existence or action of God. Methodological naturalism simply describes what empirical inquiry is. It is certainly not a statement of the nature of cosmic reality. Science pursues truth within very narrow limits. Our most profound questions about the nature of reality (questions of meaning and purpose and morality), while they may arise from within science, are theological or philosophical in nature and their answers lie beyond the reach of science.

From the perspective of scientific inquiry, a supernatural agent is effectively a black box, and appeals to supernatural action are essentially appeals to ignorance. A supernatural agent is unconstrained by natural “laws” or the properties and capabilities of natural entities and forces -- it can act in any way, and accomplish any conceivable end. As a result, appeals to such agents can provide no insight into understanding the mechanisms by which a particular observed or historical event occurred. Belief in the creative action of a supernatural agent does not answer the question of how something happens. “A miracle occurs here” is no more an answer to the question of “How?” than is “We don’t know.”

Divine Action and Scientific Explanation
One commonly held perspective that tends to reinforce a conflict view of science and faith is that God's action or involvement is confined to those events which lack a scientific explanation. Meaningful divine action is equated with breaks in chains of cause-and-effect processes. This view has been called a "God-of-the-gaps" theology. God's creative action is seen only, or primarily, in the gaps of human knowledge where scientific description fails. With this perspective, each advance of scientific description results in a corresponding reduction in the realm of divine action. Conflict between science and faith is thus assured. However, this is a totally unnecessary state of affairs. God's creative activity is clearly identified in the Bible as including natural processes, including what we call chance or random events. According to scripture, God is providentially active in all natural processes, and all of creation declares the glory of God. The evidence for God's presence in creation, for the existence of a creator God, is declared to be precisely those everyday "natural events" experienced by us all.

Some people will argue that MN arbitrarily excludes supernatural agency from scientific explanation and unnecessarily restricts the search for truth. It does nothing of the sort. If God acted in creation to bring about a particular structure in a way that broke causal chains, then science would simply conclude -- "There is presently no known series of cause-and-effect processes that can adequately account for this structure, and research will continue to search for such processes." Any statement beyond that requires the application of a particular religious worldview. "God did it" is not a scientific conclusion, although anyone is of course free to draw such an inference. However, if God acted through a seamless series of cause-and-effect processes to bring about that structure, then the continuing search for such processes stimulated by the tentativeness and methodological naturalism of science may uncover those processes.

Some non-theists see God as an unnecessary addition to a scientific description of the universe, and therefore conclude that there is no rational basis for belief in a personal God. In fact, as I have argued, God is unnecessary for a scientific description, but a scientific description is not a complete description of reality. Science excludes appeals to supernatural agents simply because the actions of such agents cannot be investigated by scientific methods. To then use this methodological exclusion to support a philosophical/religious exclusion is completely fallacious. That science does not make reference to God says nothing about whether or not God is actively involved in the physical universe or in people's lives.

Continuous Creation
I fully and unhesitatingly accept the doctrine of creation. God is the Creator of all things and nothing would exist without God's continually willing it to be. Creation was not merely a past accomplished act, but also is a present and continuing reality. The best term for this view of God's creative activity is "continuous creation." I also believe that God's existence can be known in the creation through faith. However, scientific observation provides no proof of the existence of a creator God, indeed it cannot. Neither does scientific description, however complete, provide any argument against a creator. Since God acts through process, scientific description and the theology of creation are perfectly compatible. Thus Christians should not fear causal explanations. Complete scientific descriptions of events or processes should pose no threat to Christian theism. Rather, each new advance in our scientific understanding can be met with excitement and praise at the revelation of God's creative hand.


Anonymous said...

Excellent start, Keith! I have had thoughts on this subject for quite a while now.

You said, If God acted in creation to bring about a particular structure in a way that broke causal chains, then science would simply conclude -- "There is presently no known series of cause-and-effect processes that can adequately account for this structure, and research will continue to search for such processes."

This is something I've frankly wondered about. A close friend I was talking to about the problems with ID looked confused when I said something like, "ID advocates stop looking when they think they see design. Science should keep looking. It may take us a hundred more years to have the answers to some of these questions, but we need to keep looking." He responded, "Well, what if He did design it? Scientists will keep looking for something that's not there interminably? At what point would they finally be able to acknowledge that maybe there is no scientific explanation?" At the heart of it, I think he was asking about falsifiability.

Your thoughts on that question?

Mike Beidler said...


Outstanding post! It goes to the heart of what Howard J. Van Till and Gordon Glover have shown me over the course of the last 6 months.

I particularly love the following:

. . . each new advance in our scientific understanding can be met with excitement and praise at the revelation of God's creative hand.

The more I understand the natural processes (both geological and biological) by which our universe evolved, the more I am in absolute awe at God's creative hand. That being said, I have seen some argue that the allegedly imperfect design of the human body, for example, is evidence against a creator God. How would you address such a declaration?

Gordon J. Glover said...

The series is off to a great start! What's interesting to note is that in the natural sciences, "We don't know" is a perfectly respectable answer. The scientific epistemology seems to tolerate a large measure of uncertainly and cognitive dissonance (ie: paradox between useful paradigms) because it understands that any coherent discipline requires one to make necessary assumptions, and these assumptions are contantly under review as technology increases our ability to gater data, and that a particular paradigm is useful, not becuase it absolutely represents reality (often times there is no way to actually know this), but simply because provides a coherent framework that allow one to make some sense of the available data.

While humility is supposed to be a Christian viture, you rarely find it creation science literature. There is nothing "tentative" about 6-day creationism. Instead, we get books with titles like "Answers" that flippiantly ignore the hard-fought consensus of every professional in his or her field, just so some Christians can have something "scientific" to hang their theology on.

A majority of evangelical Christians are completely uncomfortable with uncertainty, paradox, or cognitive dissonance. If an answer to an important question is not available, they'll fabricate an ad-hoc solution that seems to tie up all the loose ends.

I'm curious to know how you've dealt with this over the years. Again, loved the post!

Unknown said...


It's well-written but I think you definition of "science" is a bit too generalized and monolithic.
Some people will argue that MN arbitrarily excludes supernatural agency from scientific explanation and unnecessarily restricts the search for truth. It does nothing of the sort.
Some evolutionists in education (like Ed Brayton) maintain that evolution is not meant to answer the question of origins (thus eliminating God). But Ernst Mayr (What Evolution Is) does exactly that, although he says that there is currently no good answer to the question of origins. Yet he seeks one to be part of the system.

Treating science as basic physicalism and empiricism misses the metaphysical character of naturalism and the theoretical natuer of science that came to fruition in the 20th c. (Suppe, Frederick, The Structure of Scientific Theories, p 64-65. Suppe shows no affection for theories which cannot be fruitfully axiomatized, put into the formal scientific structure and tested. These include Darwin’s theory of evolution and Hoyle’s theory on the origin of the universe.)

Science is not about the tests. It is about about the theory behind the tests. It's not a question of "science" but a question of definition. "What Science Is", that is far different from what HS and even college students are presented. This is a good start. Take your exploration further.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Hi Collin,

I'd like to learn more about what you refered to as the "Metaphysical character of naturalism" -- which initially strikes me as odd; unless, of course, you are talking about scientific inquiry as a necessary consequence of "continous creation" (ie: God's providential sustainmnet of all things).

One of the great ironies of science it that while it necessarily assumes all of nature to be coherent and uniform (something that can't be proven emperically), it is procedurally incapable of considering why this must be so. Such questions transcend the material limitations of empericism, even though empercism would be fruitless without them. You gotta love the irony here!

Keith Miller said...

Stephen Douglas, your friend asked "Well, what if He did design it? Scientists will keep looking for something that's not there interminably? At what point would they finally be able to acknowledge that maybe there is no scientific explanation?"

Two important issues are raised by this comment. Firstly, it begins with the assumption that "design" and a description in terms of natural cause-and-effect are incompatible alternatives. This explicitly assumes a "God-of-the-gaps" perspective. It also assumes a kind of engineering view of God's creative activity, as though God assembles the objects of the natural world like a human engineer. But for a God who works providentially in and through natural processes, there is no inherent conflict between divine design and scientific description.

The second issue is that science always begins from what is currently known or understood. It doesn't charge blindly into the unknown, but builds on current observations and theory. Scientists pursue well-defined questions for which they can obtain answers within a realistically short time-frame. Consider for example the frontier science of origin-of-life. The individual research being conducted has very specific and narrow objectives. and that research has been very fruitful and productive, greatly expanding our understanding in many scientific fields. If research is not fruitful it will be abandoned.

Keith Miller said...

Mike Beidler asked about the argument that allegedly imperfect design is evidence against a Creator.

This argument has been made frequently, and is in my view based on a simplistic view of biology and of theology. How does one assess the "perfection" of a biological organism or system? What criteria do we use to measure such perfection? Within biology we can evaluate the "fitness" of an organism -- how well it survives and reproduces within a particular environment. However, the "imperfect design" argument seems to rest not on reproductive success but on human value judgments being imposed on nature. Theologically it seems to impose our personal vision of "perfection" on God. I don't see any biblical foundation for concluding that God's purposes and goals in creation correspond in any particular way to our human ideal of "perfection."

Keith Miller said...

Gordon Glover commented on his observation that evangelical Christians are "completely uncomfortable with uncertainty, paradox, or cognitive dissonance."

I agree entirely with this assessment. However, I would argue that this is not the sole domain of evangelicalism. I see it across the board in theists as well as non-theists. The desire for quick, simple and definitive answers is widespread. There is little interest in complexity, uncertainty, and dissonance. The recognition of uncertainty is often seen as an expression of weakness in an argument. One common response is to demand certainty, and reject many conclusions which don't promise it -- especially if they conflict with views already held. Another response is to see all knowledge as equally uncertain and to fall into extreme relativism.

As scientists and Christians, I think that we need to communicate the true complexity and incomplete nature of scientific theory, as well as the conviction that there is an objective reality that we are seeking to progressively better understand. It is also very important to communicate that all scientific theories are not created equally. We hold different scientific theories with different degrees of confidence. Some theories have been supported by such a wide range of observations and have proven so fruitful that we hold them with great confidence (while still recognizing their inherent tentative nature). In this context, the consensus of the scientific community matters.

Keith Miller said...

Collin Brendemuehl asked about the question of "origins" in science.

The term "origins" has been used to mean a wide variety of different things by different people. If it is used to mean ultimate origins or primary cause, then it is beyond the scope of scientific investigation. such questions, like those of ultimate meaning and purpose, are philosophical/theological questions.

However, if by "origins" is meant the physical cause-and-effect processes by which specific entities or features of the natural world came to be, then these questions fall within the purview of science. Science can investigate the origins of species, the origin of particular biological structures, the origin of life, the origin of the Earth, the origin of stars and galaxies, the origin of atoms and subatomic particles, etc.

You state that some argue that evolution is not meant to answer the question of the origin of life. The general theory of biological evolution (common descent) is distinct from the origin of life. The validity of common descent is independent of any resolution (or lack thereof) to the question of the origin of life. However, the origin of life (sometimes referred to as biochemical evolution) is a very active and productive field of science in its own right.

The origin of the universe present an interesting case. Our understanding of the events and processes at beginning of the universe have advanced dramatically in recent years. Interestingly, the vastness of our current ignorance has also been revealed in that we know virtually nothing about dark matter and dark energy that appear to comprise most of the universe. While we can extend our reach to within milliseconds of the beginning, time zero remains a mystery. And the ultimate question of why there is something rather than nothing is, and will always remain, a philosophical/theological one.

Unknown said...

The general theory of biological evolution (common descent) is distinct from the origin of life.
On the contrary. The generation of the first "life" is part the beginning of speciation. Ernst Mayr acknowledged that, but some seem to fear the question. Some silly answers have been proposed, which is probably why Mayr said that there are no good answers. The subject is certainly within the purview of evolutionary thought.
Even the origin of origin of the universe is also handled by many evolutionists as they (attempt to) construct a theory to explain the conditions necessary for life.
The origin of matter itself it outside of their purview. Hence Sartre's ultimate question: Why is there something rather than nothing?
While we can extend our reach to within milliseconds of the beginning, time zero remains a mystery.
Again, this is in error. You can only theorize to a point but you cannot go to that point. This is also a suitable example of metaphysical naturalism where "mystery" is encompassed within the conclusion. There is nothing physicalist about either mystery or the inductive reasoning regarding the origin of the universe.

Steve Martin said...

Keith: Thanks for the great post. It helped me put some things together in my own mind (see below my note to Stephen).

Stephen: Going back to Keith’s original post, maybe the best way to discuss this with your friend is to state there are two levels to these questions: Scientific explanation & the presence of design / purpose.

1) Scientific explanation: Whether a process has a) a scientific cause & effect explanation or b) has no current known cause & effect explanation. (And it is conceivable that some processes will never have a scientific cause & effect explanation).

2)Design / Purpose: Whether there is design / purpose in the process. All creationists (evolutionary, OEC, YEC etc.) affirm this. Most non-creationists disagree that there is purpose / design. But, this is a philosophical issue, not a scientific issue. (I’ll leave aside the issue if design / purpose is actually detectable. This is the main ID claim: That design is in fact detectable. Potentially good ID claims will demonstrate design through the process; most ID claims that I’ve seen claim design because of gaps in knowledge of the process).

But note that the answer to scientific explanation is independent of a persons answer to design / purpose. (or should be independent).

This might be the first time I’ve articulated it this way (after thinking through Keith's post). Does this make sense? Helpful?

Mike: For me, the “imperfections” and the “designs that don’t meet our expectations” are exactly the reason I believe ID is unhelpful & why it seems to me to be a lost cause. But, as you said, these imperfections should never inhibit the awe and wonder we see in creation.

Gordon: re: humility. Absolutely. We all need to remember that. Thanks.

Keith: re: everyone uncomfortable with uncertainty / paradox. Hmm. Good point. Sometimes we do too much navel gazing and assume that a common fault is all our own.

Collin: re: origin of life & development of life as part of the whole of “evolutionary thought”

It really depends on how you define “evolution” and “evolutionary thought”. Check out my post What does Evolution Mean. For the key definition of evolution that Keith uses (E2 = common descent), "evolution" is definitely independent of "first life" / ambiogenesis - E5. Common Descent assumes first life but offers no explanation for it. E3 – (evolutionary mechanisms - like natural selection, genetic mutations, genetic drift) is also independent of E5.

I think the real issue is that you equate “evolutionary thought” to the assumption that “there are scientific explanations for the entire process – from the Big Bang to the current diversity of life” - and you believe this is a) false and b) incompatible with an Evangelical faith. This is where those of us that are EC disagree with you. You are correct that there are lots of things for which we do not have (and I guess may never have) good scientific explanations. Origin of life is one of these (although, as Keith notes, there is great progress here as well!) However, that is irrelevant to evidence for evolution (at least E2 and E3, and most importantly, E4).

Gordon J. Glover said...

Collin, pardom my interjecting here, but I'm curious where you get that definition. I've never seen evolution attempt to do anything more than locate each species' branch on the universal tree of life, and propose probable mechanisms that drive the process without disrupting the normal patterns of material cause and effect. The "seed" from which the "trunk" sprouted is not really part of the discipline. That doesn't mean the question can't be investigated by the same folks in the same laboratories, but I think Keith's point is that whether aliens planted the seed, God created it ex nihilo, or it was the result of natural cause-and-effect has no bearing on the study of what happened over the next 3.5 billion years (evolution).

Your statement that "you can only theorize to a point, but you cannot go to that point also needs some elaboration. I read it as trivial since it applies equally to every instance of time prior to the present -- but I could be missing something. The past has indeed passed, but if science includes the systematic application of what we know now to past events, then as long as we know what the governing rules are between then and now(ie: the laws of nature), and the present conditions (ie: the end state), then the question would seem to fall under the jurisdiction of science. And since the laws of physics are experimentally verified with a good deal of certainty to 10E-11 seconds after t=0, speculating on the events of that era is no less a valid exercise than calculating the date for each of the past 1000 solar eclipses -- IMHO.

Unknown said...


Metaphysics shows up in naturalism with of the assumption of a nature without a Creator. That framework is a statement of something outside the scope of those things usually classed as "science" -- physicalism, empiricism, mathematical estimation, the methods of the social science, and many others. The post contained an example of going outside of experimentation by proposing evidence against God. By the standars established, that is not science and yet it is purorted to be consistent.
Metaphysical assumptions and presuppositions also exress themselves in the very act of theory making. Did the theory process come out of nowhere or did it develop out of an over-arching world view? Some would like to separate philosophy from science, but Suppe, Mayr, and Gould cannot be read otherwise.

Unknown said...

If original life and its beginnings were not a part of *some* equation then Mayr would not have dealt with it. Like Keith you are being monolithic in your definition of "evolution".
The same problem occurs with "Darwinism". Gould used the term broadly, to describe the whole of the process, whereas others will use it more narrowly and differentiate between Classic- and Neo-Darwinian ideas. (Neo-Darwinism is filled with Determinism [materialistic and thus also metaphysical] and with that the removal of all free will.)

One of the issues with E2 and E3 is the reframing of genetic biology within the evolutionary and naturalistic frameworks. I have no problems with the science, but with the theory-making involved.

Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is. He begins with original life (as best he can) and goes from there.
The "point" is the point of origin. Yes, it does. It is important in theory-making, and so more in education, to teach the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning. Historical evolutionary theory is inductive. It is an argument from a perponderance of evidence, but it is not a deductive conclusion.

Gordon J. Glover said...

Thanks Collin for the recommendation, I'll look into that.

You said a couple things I'd like to explore: "Metaphysics shows up in naturalism with of the assumption of a nature without a Creator."

I see yout point, but when science makes this assumption, it is not an absolute declaration about the nature and scope of reality (something that is indeed beyond the capacity of science), but rather a humble concession that science is limited to only that which operates without respect to transcendent (divine) influence. Even though the creator is continually sustaining and upholding the created order, that assumption doesn't add to our material knowledge of creation. That is why we often refer to the scientific method as "methodological" naturalism and not "metaphysical" naturalism.

If you lose your car keys, you don't consider the possibility that they were spirited away. However true spirits might be, that assumption is not going to help you find them. Your only hope of producing tangible results (finding your keys) is to proceed as though reality is limited only to the physical world. Science is no different. It's possible that I'm not understanding your point correctly.

You also said, "Historical evolutionary theory is inductive." but I'm not quite sure what "historical" evolution theory means. If humans share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, then that is a PRESENT relationship that we can investigate right now. We can make predictions about what such a relationship must reveal, whether molecular or morphological or biogeographical or geological, and test those predictions. The material cause may be in the past, or it might be an illusion built into the created order for the sake of science, but either way the observed effects can still be measured in the present.

If I go to Arizona, examine the big crater, and conclude that there was large impact sometime in the past, I don't think anybody calls that "Historical Geology" or "Historical Plenetary science". Again, I'm curious about what is implied by the qualifier "Historical" that you attach to evolution theory.

Keith Miller said...

Collin asked:
"One of the issues with E2 and E3 is the reframing of genetic biology within the evolutionary and naturalistic frameworks. I have no problems with the science, but with the theory-making involved."

Firstly, science (including biological evolution) is NOT based on philosophical naturalism. It is a methodology which investigates the natural world in terms of natural cause-and-effect processes. It is making or implying nothing about the existence or activity of the supernatural. In fact this recognition of the limitation of science to the natural grew out of an explicitly Christian worldview.

I particularly want to focus on the role of theories in science. Science is not the mastery of a body of unchanging scientific "facts", but a way of inquiring about our physical environment. It provides a way of understanding, explaining, and integrating our observations of the natural world. While observations form the foundation of scientific description, serious theoretical inquiry is the essence of science. Nothing could be more deadly to science than to divorce it from the unifying theories which give observations meaning. Theories provide the predictions which suggest new observations and drive new discovery.

The history of our changing scientific understanding of the universe, with new theories replacing old, and previously accepted "facts" being overturned by new discoveries, can be puzzling to someone who has learned science as a body of facts. Furthermore, uncertainty or sharp disagreement within the scientific community are often seen as failures of science rather than expressions of its very strength.

I also want to comment in the question of historical versus non-historical sciences. There is much confusion on this in the public debate.

Frequent claims are made that the historical sciences (cosmology, astronomy, geology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, archaeology) deal with unrepeatable events and are therefore not experimental. Furthermore, because past events and processes are not directly observable, theories of origins are deemed inferior or less certain than studies of present processes. This view commonly finds expression in statements like: "No one was there so we can never know what really happened." This view is false. The historical sciences are no less scientific, or testable, than the "hard sciences." Predictions made by hypotheses in these fields are continually being tested by new observations. Predictions are tested against each new observation or analysis. Obtaining data from a newly analyzed sample or newly described locality is no different methodologically than obtaining data from a new experimental trial. In both cases, the new observations can be tested against expectations based on previous experience and theoretical predictions. If the predictions deduced from a hypothesis are not supported by new observations then that hypothesis is modified or rejected. Scientific research proceeds by an almost continual process of hypothesis creation and testing. Many past theories in the historical sciences have been discarded with the accumulation of new observations and the development of new theories of greater explanatory power.

Steve Martin said...

Hi all,
Re: Keith's comments on the historical sciences, you may want to refer to his 2002 article in PSCF The Similarity of Theory Testing in the Historical and "Hard" Sciences

Hi Collin:
I guess I'm a little mystified why you believe our definitions of evolution are "monolithic". The six definitions of evolution E1 – E6 referred to in the article linked above were articulated by Allan Harvey to explicitly reject a monolithic definition of evolution. He (and most others in the science / faith dialogue) acknowledge that definitions are important, and that different people define and use evolution in very different ways. The whole point of his exercise was to bring some clarity to an often-confused discussion. I think your concern is that I and other Evolutionary Creationists are letting some of the metaphysical assumptions from E6 slide into the other definitions for evolution. However, we explicitly (and repeatedly) reject E6. I suspect if you look carefully at the definitions, your real concern is in E4, and not E2 (many ID folk are fine with that definition of evolution) or E3 (even Answers in Genesis is fine with aspects of that definition for evolution).

Unknown said...

My concern about monolithic definitions has to do with the preoccupation with physicalism.

Anonymous said...

In fact, as I have argued, God is unnecessary for a scientific description, but a scientific description is not a complete description of reality

I don't see how that is not God of the gaps.

There was a time when lighting was thought to be God striking down the unrighteous. Ben Franklin comes along figures out that lightning is just static electric discharge. From that point on, the church doesn’t resort to God’s wrath to explain lighting, because we figured it out.

I have previously posted about Pierre-Simon Laplace. He wrote his famous 5 volume celestial mechanics around the beginning of the 1800’s. For the first time mankind could explain the revolution of the planets around the sun without the necessity of God to keep the universe in balance. Napoleon, who was very interested in science, along with world domination asked of Laplace, where does God fit into your theory. Laplace replied, I’m in no long in need of that hypothesis.

When I read evangelicals talk about how evolution is compatible with their belief in God, I am forced to ask the same question as Napoleon. Where does God fit into your theory? Mostly God gets stuffed into the gaps of the unknown. As we learn more, do we get to a point where we are no longer in need of the God hypothesis? Did God put it into motion and then step back? Did God use evolution to create downs syndrome?

When Galileo came along and said, the earth is not the center of the universe, it took the church 300 years to finally except the inevitable But you still have to ask, in a universe where the earth is not the center of and heaven is not "up there" where does God fit in the hypothesis?

Gordon J. Glover said...


You have a valid point, but what Keith said - which many of us agree with - does not qualify as a "God-of-the-SCIENTIFIC-gaps" as you would typically find among the YEC/OEC/ID crowd.

To say that one "trusts in God" that a seemingly disasterous event will ultimately bring Him glory and draw us closer to Him is not really a "god-of-the-gaps" argument in a scientific sense. It is simply an admission that physicalism is incapable of exploring any reality that transcends the material world.

This, of course, assumes that one's worldview allows for such a reality. If your metaphysical commitments preclude immaterial absolutes, and you have faith that science is the only valid epistemology, then indeed - such arguments might seem like "god-of-the-gaps" since metaphysical explanations are discounted a-priori.

Gordon J. Glover said...

I should add that if MN is followed, then metaphysical explanations, however true they might be, are never offered as a substitute for scientific explanations.

I still believe that God sends lightning with the rain (Psalm 135:7), but that does not take away from the proximate cause as revealed through a scientific inquiry (sudden discharge of static electriciy). Therefore, it does not qualify as "god-of-the-gaps".

Bill Ather said...

I liked Dr. Miller's post. It's very consistent with my thinking in general. However, I have a few minor quibbles about the important terms "proof" and "faith".

Since theological questions are outside the purview of science proper, science cannot provide any "proof" or "disproof" of God. But it seems to me that making philosophical arguments based on an observation of the cosmos is fair game for theists and atheists alike. This isn't science, but it shows that empirical matters aren't irrelevant to theology (or atheology).

As to "faith", it's not clear to me whether this means an existential commitment, a subjective experience, a rational extrapolation from one's own set of data (which includes but is broader than scientific data as such), a "noncognitive utterance", a feeling, or - ? The $64,000 question, to me, is: how many ways of knowing are there, how are they linked (if at all), and how do we define valid knowledge? Outside the scope of this essay, no doubt, yet important.

Overall, very helpful. Thanks.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Elbogz,
I don’t believe what we are talking about is God-of-the-gaps. I believe the proper Christian and Creationist approach is to see God as both the originator & sustainer of all creation. He is involved in the total process, whether that be gravity, or lightening, or biological evolution. The mistake we “moderns” have made, is trying to remove God from the process when we understand how it works.

Laplace didn’t originate the problem; Newton did with his implication that God was “more involved” in producing orbital stability than he was in normal gravity.

What is ironic (I think) is that the ID God-of-the-gaps arguments actually start off by diminishing God’s involvement - before they even begin to "search for evidence of God's involvement". There should be no surprise that this God becomes smaller and smaller over time. The problem isn’t in the gaps; the problem is removing God from the processes we do understand.

Re: God’s involvement in Downs Syndrome & lightening strikes etc.

Now that is the tough one. I’ve found John Polkinghorne’s idea of “Free Process Theodicy” helpful. See: “Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World” pages 59-68.

Gordon: Thanks for you comments. Nothing really to add. Looking forward to your contribution to this series.

Bill: Excellent points on epistemology. I agree, very important. I keep going back to Polkinghorne’s chapter on Knowledge in “Science and Christian Belief” ("Faith of a Physicist" in the US). I’ve found that very helpful.

Anonymous said...


I think I understand where you're coming from, but I think the point of Dr. Miller's quote was that even a full description of what physical things occur and how they occur in a mechanical fashion does not preclude a third descriptor: why. Philosophical materialists insist that satisfactory answers to "what" and "how" questions are sufficient, and since they are answerable in the laboratory, the picture of reality that the laboratory furnishes for us is, by their estimation, altogether complete. Theists argue that we should not ignore the question "why", even though it cannot be recovered by the scientific method; discounting "why" as a valid question shows a presuppositional bias toward materialism and does not constitute an argument for it.

God created (or "is creating", some would say) the universe as it is today by willing it to be as it is. His role was the role of intentionality, meaning it to happen. If He had not wanted it to, it would not have happened. Out of all the alternative possibilities that could have resulted from our cosmic womb, out of all of the other paths the evolution of our universe could have taken anywhere throughout its 13.73 billion year age (give or take 120 million years), this universe happened. Science can hypothesize about "what if", but not "why this?" Materialism has no answer - cannot propose an answer - but does this mean there's no such thing as the question? Philosophical materialism's denial of supernatural based on the existence of the natural tries to do just that.

By definition, a supreme being's purpose for the universe is altogether unanalyzable by the scientific method, so it does not qualify as a God-of-the-gaps. Gaps in our knowledge of the natural are gaps we should try to fill with natural explanations; we should try to fill the gaps in our knowledge of the supernatural with supernatural explanations. They are noncontiguous and not contradictory aims.

Anonymous said...

There are questions that are really really hard to answer. Why is there something and not nothing, is probably the top of the list. Maybe in another 6000 years science will figure that one out, maybe not. Was that warm fuzzy I felt when I cried out to God, God or a chemical reaction in my brain? Is there a heaven? Probably in 6000 years science won’t be any closer to that answer than it is now.

All of the Grinch’s Whoville resided on a snowflake. Only Dr. Seuss had the perspective to know that. Do we live on a snowflake? Only the author could know.

Jesus was once asked, where to find the kingdom of God, and he replied, people will tell you to look here and there, but I tell you the only place you will find it is within your own heart. We looked though the telescope to the edge of the universe and didn’t see heaven. Perhaps, we were looking in the wrong place.

Hebrews 11: 1 Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

So I must ask, why we are even delving in science to answer our spiritual questions? It’s like looking for basketball scores in my wife’s cookbook.

Keith Miller said...

Bill Ather commented:

"Since theological questions are outside the purview of science proper, science cannot provide any "proof" or "disproof" of God. But it seems to me that making philosophical arguments based on an observation of the cosmos is fair game for theists and atheists alike. This isn't science, but it shows that empirical matters aren't irrelevant to theology (or atheology)."

Yes, I agree with you entirely. But what is critical is that the philosophical/theological synthesis is not itself science. My complaint with both Dawkins and ID proponents is not that they draw philosophical/theological implications from science, but that they present them as scientific conclusions. Science cannot ask, let alone answer, questions about the existence or nature of God. On the other hand, a theological argument that relies on a demonstrably false scientific conclusion cannot be sustained.

Bill also commented:

"As to "faith", it's not clear to me whether this means an existential commitment, a subjective experience, a rational extrapolation from one's own set of data (which includes but is broader than scientific data as such), a "noncognitive utterance", a feeling, or - ?"

This is a difficult questions, and one for which I can claim no expertise. I think that the definition in Hebrews 11 is a good place to start. I would also argue that faith has a thoroughly rational basis. As you state it draws on a much broader set of observations, evidence, and experience than science can encompass. Faith springs from our most comprehensive understanding of reality.

This will be my last post on this blog thread. I want to thank Steve Martin for inviting me to participate, and for the constructive comments of those who commented on my essay.

Steve Martin said...

Thanks again Keith for an excellent essay to kick-off the series.

All: Keith's second essay in the series will be posted tomorrow.

Jimpithecus said...

I find this to be an interesting post. You write about appealing to supernatural agents as unconstrained by natural laws and argue "As a result, appeals to such agents can provide no insight into understanding the mechanisms by which a particular observed or historical event occurred." It strikes me that this has far-reaching implications for Intelligent Design studies and I wonder how William Dembski or Michael Behe would respond to such a claim. I am also curious where in the Bible does it address random or chance events. Are you referring to Ecclesiastes in general?

Jimpithecus said...

Collin, you say that "Science is not about the tests. It is about the theory behind the tests." I disagree. The tests are the nuts and bolts behind the science. For many years, it was assumed that there was no Homo erectus in Europe, that Homo erectus went through the Levant into Asia and SE Asia. Someone began to wonder if that was true and began digging in what was then Soviet Georgia. Lo and behold, several hominid fossils were recovered. By testing their morphology against what was known from the Homo erectus morphology in Asia, it could be shown that, while primitive, the features were broadly analogous. We were then able to say "there goes that theory."

Jimpithecus said...

Collin, you also say that "Historical evolutionary theory is inductive. It is an argument from a perponderance of evidence but it is not a deductive conclusion." We only think this in hindsight. At the time, there was a great deal of deduction going on. For example, When Neil Shubin and his crowd went looking for a possible precursor to the earliest tetrapods, he had to deduce where such a precursor might be (shallow Devonian seas)and where those deposits would correspond to in present geography (Ellesmere Island). Once those predictions were made, a search of the area turned up exactly what he thought would be there--Tiktaalik rosae. This is much like the discovery of the hominid fossils in Georgia.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Jim,

Welcome. Generally you can get a response to older posts on this blog. However, this was a guest post by Keith Miller and I don’t think he is checking this thread anymore. He is probably checking his active thread Is the Scientific Academic Community a Hostile environment for faith until Sunday or so.

I’ll give my response to your questions:
1) re: the Bible addressing God’s control of random events. See: Prov 16:33 “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” Also, the apostles’ method of choosing the replacement apostle for Judas in Acts.
2) Re: How Dembski’s would respond to Miller’s claim, well you’d have to ask him :-) … but I highly suspect he would disagree. Dembski believes we can infer the supernatural from the natural. You may want to refer to the ASA’s Commission on creation statement . Both Miller and Dembski were on the commission. Both would agree with everything in the “General Statement” section; Miller’s views are further articulated in the Theistic Evolution section; Dembski’s views are further articulated in the Intellegent Design section.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this essay and find myself in much agreement. My major concern is that people tend to think all of human inquiry and expression can be placed in two tidy boxes called Science and Religion. But I don’t think this type of discontinuous thinking accurately describes how we humans go about things. I think it would be more accurate to think of Science and Religion in terms of a bimodal distribution, where there is plenty of room between that is neither Science nor Religion.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Mike,
Welcome. I agree with you that Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA framework is too simplistic. I don't believe Keith was really addressing that in this post - he was more discussing the limitations of science. The context of his argument is Dawkins et al's claim that scientific truth = all truth.

Cliff Martin said...


Are you Mike Gene, the author of The Design Matrix? I just received the book a couple of day ago, and (having only read the intro) and very much looking forward to reading it!

Mike Beidler said...

Steve M.,

You wrote: I agree with you that Stephen Jay Gould's NOMA framework is too simplistic.

If you have the time, I'd love for you to interact with my blog post on Gould's NOMA framework.