With the ongoing discussions about Bruce Waltke’s video at the BioLogos website and his subsequent resignation from RTS, as well as the long comment thread here at Evangel about events in Genesis, I thought I would post some thoughts about the relationship between science and religion that were gathered from a series of helpful lectures from the Teaching Company. Some might find it helpful and others, I’m sure, will not.
Natural Theology and Intelligent Design
The arise of the mechanical philosophy (the view that sees the world as one large machine-like entity) in the 17th century lead to a promotion of materialism, that matter is all there is, and in turn encouraged atheism. Various responses to this involved what became known as “natural theology”—the practice of using examples from nature to demonstrate God and the wisdom of his character.
Though natural theology would become prominent in the 18th and 19th centuries, two important precursors of the movement were Richard Bentley and Sir Isaac Newton. Newton was as deeply religious as he was a mathematical genius; though his theological views were considered heretical by Augustinian standards (he tried to correct the “corruptions” of Scripture). Nevertheless, his classic text of physics Principia Mathematica expounded in detail about the attributes of God and sought to identify evidence for the mind of the deity. By the same token Bentley produced arguments from the orderliness of the Solar System for an ultimate designing intelligence. Later in the 18th and 19th centuries thinkers like William Paley and John Ray would permeate the cultural and intellectual milieu of the English Enlightenment with widely read treatises on natural theology popularizing the notion of the “watchmaker.”
However, though natural theology was a popular phenomenon it was not without its cultural despisers. Another intellectual giant of the times, David Hume, marshaled several important criticisms against natural theology, particularly the argument from design, that have had a lasting impact even until today. Hume argued that the argument from design didn’t necessarily take the observer to theism and certainly not the God of revealed religion. For example, let’s say one is able to infer design. It does not follow that there is one designer—there could be many (polytheism). Furthermore, the argument works analogically, and the places where the analogy does not fit are telling. For example, biological substances grow from seedlings into embodied entities without any external help, but mechanical things, like watches, do not grow over time nor do they reproduce. We also have no real criteria for establishing design since we can’t compare a world that is designed with one that is not. Finally, the argument from design appeals to ignorance claiming that because a natural cause cannot be found it must be the handiwork of a designer. The infamous “God of the gaps” fallacy emerges especially when a natural cause is found later.
It is not hard to imagine where Principe falls on the debate over Intelligent Design (ID) theory. He maintains ID is an updated form of natural theology developed to combat Darwinian evolution—the principle doctrine of materialistic atheism that historically has been feared throughout the ages. He even goes so far to interact with ID theorist William Dembski who avers that ID is a scientific enterprise able to provide the impetus for better scientific explanations. Principe is doubtful. He contends that if a natural explanation cannot be found for the emergence of design then we exhaust our search for a secondary cause and are left with direct primary causation. Direct primary causation may be possible and recognizable, but it is not explainable. What we are essentially left with is a miracle and miracles end scientific investigation… but that is precisely where theological investigation begins.