Natural Theology and Methodological Naturalism
How can scientific naturalism be a child of Christian theology? That is a good question. One would think that such a methodology, disposed as it is to serve the worldviews of materialists and atheists, and presented by them as indispensable to good science, would have been contrived by them, but such is not the case.
In fact Cornelius Hunter contends that,
What we need…is a clear understanding of what naturalism is. Naturalism’s adherents think that it is a scientific discovery, and its detractors think it is atheism in disguise. In fact, it is a rationalist movement built on a foundation of religious thought and traditions that mandate a world that operates according to natural laws and processes. – Cornelius G. Hunter, Science’s Blind Spot, 50
If this is so, it was thought that those laws and processes would be primed to produce perfect symmetry – IF God was working within them!
Having said this it has to be noted that although methodological naturalism is seized upon by materialists with fervor, it is not identical with philosophical cum metaphysical naturalism. It was brought into the rule of science by theists. The problem was though, these well-intentioned theists were not paying as much attention to their Bibles as they ought to have done. Hunter notices the case of the great Botanist John Ray, who “would argue on the one hand that nature revealed design but on the other hand that the world was not directly created, as evidenced by its errors and bungles.” (Ibid, 53). These “errors and bungles” in nature could not, it was thought, be laid at the feet of God. Logically, therefore, they had to come about via purely natural processes.
The erroneous notion under which these theistic naturalists were operating stemmed itself from the dictates of a form of natural theology. In their book In Defense of Natural Theology, James F. Sennett and Douglas Groothuis define it this way:
The attempt to provide rational justification for theism using only those sources of information accessible to all inquirers, namely the data of empirical experience and the dictates of human reason. In other words, it is defensive theism without recourse to purported Special Revelation.
I am not claiming that Sennett and Groothuis endorse Ray’s position, but this definition does serve to show how such a position might come about, especially at the dawn of the modern scientific era. As time went on the anti-theists of the Enlightenment took hold of what the theists handed them and employed it with relish. Would that these theists had understood that the Natural Theology which they used to divine nature’s “errors and bungles” was itself shot through with the same.
What causes still more friction is that those who like Natural Theology commonly call it General Revelation. But the two are very different. There is not an awful lot that I would agree with when it comes to the work of William Abraham, but he is quite right in separating the disciplines of General Revelation and Natural Theology. He says it well:
It has been common to run together General Revelation and Natural Theology, but this is clearly a mistake. The doctrine of General Revelation involves an assertion that God is revealed ‘generally’ in creation – Natural Theology involves an argument from general features of the universe to the proposition that God exists. – William J. Abraham, Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, 67 n.7
The term General Revelation has often been co-opted by natural theologians to mean Natural Theology. But General Revelation is a doctrine which is subject to Scripture while Natural Theology self-consciously is not.
Why this digression to talk about Natural Theology? Because it furnished the original conditions and the rationale for naturalism in science and is still often invoked (sometimes without knowing) by people, be they Christians or unbelievers, to defend methodological naturalism in science. Methodological naturalism came about through poor theology; it is a bastard-child of ill-understood doctrines, and it now legitimates itself through its associations with established scientific procedure and the requirements of evolutionary dogma. Nobody questions its credentials. It serves a bigger purpose.
Indeed, on some grounds not immediately dependent upon Natural Theology, even the evolution hypothesis is not incompatible with Christianity. For instance, Alvin Plantinga, though no evolutionist, in the first part of his Where The Conflict Really Lies, has shown that there is no necessary conflict between evolution and Christianity. But this is not to say that when it comes down to it there is no incompatibility. Agree with him or not, all Plantinga is saying is that certain approaches to Christian Theology – approaches dispensing with plain interpretation and the problem of death and thorns before the Fall – can theoretically incorporate Neo-Darwinian views.
Two Large Obstacles
Of course, two very large obstacles get in the way of “Theistic Evolution”. The first is the actual text and theology of the Bible, which, if it can perhaps be understood to permit old-earth scenarios, cannot without rude discomfort accommodate evolution and the survival of the fittest. But I am not concerned with that here. It is the second obstacle which I wish to ponder; and that is, the illogic of evolution and evolutionary descriptions of origins.
In these articles I have tried to pinpoint several logical errors in standard evolutionary ideas. I have shown that without the biblical God to ensure that the future will be like the past the whole scientific edifice teeters upon the fallacy of begging the question. I have shown several other incoherences along the way. Still another one is provided by Hunter when he explains about the use of predictions to fortify a theory which is wrong. He gives the example of Ptolemy and observes,
In fact, the idea that an evidence proves a theory is a logical fallacy known as affirming the consequent. So we need to be careful when using predictions to evaluate the truth value of a theory. – Science’s Blind Spot, 74.
This second problem of incoherence will only intensify over time. The tide is turning. Design and Information-theory are pressing their claims. One such designed marvel which was discovered using the tools of science, but fully detectable without methodological naturalism is the Kinesin. The kinesin is a sort of micro-robotic lacky which walks up and down microtubule highways on two globular feet, hauling things many times its size from one place to another within the cell.
We all know about DNA, but most are not aware of the fact that the “junk” DNA predicted by evolutionists like Philip Kitcher have been shown up to be false, while the predictions of creationist and intelligent design advocates that there would be hardly any surplus has been verified. Here is a articulate description of DNA:
Everyone agrees on how DNA functions; it is a system for coding and storing information. The information is the specific makeup of proteins that the cell manufactures as well as for retrieving that information and sending it to the protein-making factories in the cell. But if what it stores is information, then the message cannot itself be a property of the system. For example the English behind the words on this page doesn’t come from the paper and ink that carry the words, it comes for me and not from the paper. In the same way, the information doesn’t come from the DNA or the chemicals that make it up and this means that something imposed the information on the DNA and the natural process can’t do that because natural process just works by the properties of the things involved and information transcends these properties. – C. John Collins, Science and Faith, 276-277
The information is even stored on smaller “files” within larger “files” just like on our computers. It is irrational to put this down to undirected non-teleological forces.
Energy must be controlled and directed to achieve particular goals and complete certain tasks, often entailing detailed specificity. This is to say, in every instance we have observed it requires a code and finely-tuned constants to produce complex specific characteristics such as we see all around us in the world, from photosynthesis to DNA and a thousand instances beside. Our increasing awareness of this fact, in tandem with what is now known of the amazing complexity and breathtaking precision of living systems has brought the concept of information center-stage.
To give just one example: Every cell contains at least 10,000,000,000,000 bits of information. It contains the whole code needed to build the organism of which it is a part! It contains factories and distribution systems which make two thousand proteins every second! It would take (at time of writing) a supercomputer 10 to the 127th power (10 followed by 127 zeroes) years to achieve what real proteins do in seconds in terms of generation! And we are supposed to believe matter and motion and the laws of physics evolved it?
The onset of the computer age has put Information on the map as a third aspect of reality which must be contended with. A worldview that ignores the science of information or that cannot account for information at the most rudimentary level of existence is not a coherent account of the world. Indeed, Bruce Alberts, former President of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. has said that scientists will have to take design courses in order to help them comprehend what is being uncovered.
Everyone knows that matter is the main vehicle for information. But as Varghese rightly asks,
How did it become a vehicle for codes and blueprints? We know it takes intelligence to decode the information transmitted by matter. But if decoding requires intelligence, how about the encoding? If information exists prior to matter, what is its source? – R. A. Varghese, The Wonder of the World, 423.
A little earlier he notices that Noam Chomsky says that human language cannot come from animal communication systems because of the presence of syntactical and semantic rules (Ibid, 417). Indeed, anyone who knows anything about the languages of the ancient world is aware of the fact that the further back one goes, the more complicated the languages become.
Professor Werner Gitt, former Head of the Dept. of Information Technology at the German Federal Institute of Physics & Technology, has said, “Information originates as a language; it is first formulated, and then transmitted or stored.” – In The Beginning Was Information, 60.
Dr Gitt’s presents a set of scientific Theorems in his book, among which is this one:
Theorem 23: There is no known natural law through which matter can give rise to information, neither is any physical process or material phenomenon known that can do this. – Ibid, 80.
Further down the page he comments:
Any natural law can be rejected the moment a single counter example is found, and this also holds for these information theorems. After many talks by the author at colleges and universities, both abroad and at home, no researcher could mention one single counter example.
In their essay entitled “Complexity, Chaos and God,” Wesley Allen and Henry Schaefer state that,
Complexity theory views the essence of life as independent of its particular physical medium, consistent with Christian belief. – Darwin’s Nemesis, ed. William A. Dembski, 300.
Schaefer is one of the most oft quoted scientists in the academic literature and is a recognized expert on chaos theory. The author’s also note that naturalistic science cannot explain the presence of information in systems. They cite approvingly the words of Overman who said, “The paradigms for the emergence of life are algorithms which must contain at least as much information content as the genetic messages they claim to generate.” (Ibid, 299).
Here we encounter the issue of “Garbage In=Garbage Out”. To put it more positively, nothing can arise from a thing that does not already have this property in it, or the power to produce it. As Varghese quips, “a collection of…systems can only produce what is collectively present in them. Rocks can produce pebbles, but not flowers or minds.” –The Wonder of the World, 131.
No, nor can the blind watchmaker make anything but debris. Calling evolution the blind watchmaker is like calling Richard Dawkins the mute opera singer. It too is incoherent!
Some of the latter half of this post is taken from an exchange with an atheist a few years ago. Citation of an author does not necessarily mean endorsement of their work.