Faith & Science Icon Faith & Science

New “Three Views” Book Explores the Relationship of Faith and Science

Photo credit: Remi Mathis, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently my colleague Christopher Reese sent me a copy of a delightful new book he’s co-edited, Three Views on Christianity and Science, part of a series from Zondervan Academic. This compact and highly readable volume contains contributions from Michael Ruse representing the “independence view” (Ruse calls himself an “agnostic” or “skeptic”), Alister McGrath representing the “dialogue view” (McGrath is a Christian and a theistic evolutionist or evolutionary creationist, if you will), and Bruce Gordon representing the “constrained integration” view (Gordon is a Christian, and also a Discovery Institute fellow and proponent of intelligent design). 

In the introduction, Reese notes that a 2016 Pew survey found that about “half of current religious nones who were raised in a religion (49%) indicate that a lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many who mention science as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings.” (p. 10) This would seemingly indicate that questions about science and faith are crucial to how people are thinking about religion, meaning that the ID-evolution debate is as relevant as ever. 

Reese goes on to caution that religious persons need to help young people think through these questions, although we need to remember that “not everything labeled as ‘science’ should automatically be accepted as authoritative, and there is always a considerable difference between empirical facts and how those facts should be interpreted.” (p. 11) He quotes the 17th century theologian Rupertus Meldenius who reminds us that “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” (p. 11) This book successfully models the kind of charity that is important to have in this debate, even when the authors disagree with one-another. 

Do Science and Religion Overlap?

Philosopher of science Michael Ruse’s view is akin to the “non-overlapping magisteria” or NOMA model of science and religion advocated by Stephen Jay Gould. But he doesn’t promote a hard version NOMA, for Ruse acknowledges that in some cases certain religious beliefs can potentially conflict with the claims of science (e.g., certain interpretations of Genesis versus the standard views of modern geology). But Ruse thinks that evidence from science ultimately cannot “lead us to God” because “That is the exclusive role of revealed religion. Faith.” (p. 34) For Ruse, a Christian scientist might be able to say, “God’s wonderful work would inspire me in my work and tell me that I am contributing to his glory” (p. 46), but at a high level, there’s not much more for religion and science to say to one-another.

Ruse, as a nonbeliever, doesn’t necessarily buy into the Kalam argument — but he thinks it’s more thoughtful than Richard Dawkins does. He defends theism against shallow criticisms that ask, “Who created God?”

Everything has a cause. The world is a thing. Therefore, the world had a cause. God! To which Richard Dawkins’s response is: What caused God? Strange as this may seem to his fellow humanists, Christians had thought about this one before the God Delusion brought them to sober reality. Aquinas knew all about it. And he worried about it, because the alternative to God seemed to be an infinite regress of causes, always with an earlier one. The only way to stop this is to make God necessary. (p. 27)

Ruse goes on to critique natural theology, but offers no specific rebuttal to the arguments from intelligent design for the need for a designing intelligence behind life and the universe. He simply dismisses ID by invoking methodological naturalism, saying, “even if intelligent design theory be true, it cannot be science because it appeals to nonnatural causes.” (p. 36) He claims that ID proponents say, “I believe in design because I believe in God, not God because I believe in design” (p. 40), yet, again, he offers zero rebuttals to ID arguments, nor does he recognize the existence of non-religious skeptics of Darwinian evolution or proponents of intelligent design

Still, Ruse does not offer scientism as an answer — he writes, “The inference that science answers all is totally unwarranted. All the traditional Christian issues are still there awaiting answers.” (p. 36) For example, he notes:

Philosophers like Daniel Dennett, who claim that, once you have given a physical description of what is going on, you have solved the problem, strike me as between silly and dishonest. They are taking comparisons between computers and minds a bit too seriously. (p. 39)

So what answer does Ruse offer to ultimate questions such as, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” For all his elegant prose and philosophical analysis, as far as I can tell he offers none.

Mischaracterizing Intelligent Design

Alister McGrath holds a PhD in molecular biophysics and is also doctor of divinity. He is a professor of science and religion at Oxford, and a widely regarded Christian apologist. He has lots of good things to say in response to the New Atheists, and I’ve offered his books to atheist friends in the past. But he’s also a longtime critic of ID. McGrath adopts methodological naturalism, writing, “Like Michael [Ruse] I take the view that the natural sciences make use of an empirical method generally known as ‘methodological naturalism.’” (p. 52). He seems to agree with Ruse about intelligent design not being a good scientific argument:

As Michael makes clear, this development was not without its problems, not least of which was its tendency to overplay its hand — for example, in speaking ambitiously and somewhat prematurely about having “proved” God’s existence on the basis of the observation of design within the nature world. The difficulty is well known: design is something that is inferred from observation, not something that is itself directly observed. Such an inference of design is at best a probabilistic judgment. (p. 50)

But are these actually good criticisms of ID? When you start practicing science you realize that numerous scientific conclusions — especially in historical sciences — are judgments that are not directly observed but are inferred through probabilistic analysis of the data. In fact, in virtually every scientific study today of evolution, geology, cosmology, or scientific investigation of the past, you can find that inferences justified through probabilistic analysis play a vital role in the reasoning. What McGrath thinks is a criticism of ID actually situates ID directly within normal historical scientific reasoning.

What of McGrath’s characterization that design involves attempts to “prov[e] God’s existence”? I addressed that objection back in February in a post titled “Answering Another Objection to Intelligent Design: ‘You Can’t Prove God Exists’.” The bottom line is that McGrath’s characterization of ID is inaccurate. ID does not purport to “prove” anything, because as a science ID reaches tentative conclusions based upon the evidence, that are always subject to future scientific discoveries. Moreover, within biology, ID theorists have been very clear that design only allows you to appeal to an intelligent cause. The biological data alone do not allow you to identify the designer. A physics-based argument for design may extend the argument further and suggest a designer who could fine-tune the laws of the universe, and who exists outside of the universe. True, many people identify the designer as God, but ID as a science is not an attempt to “prove” that “God” exists. 

Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have seen inaccurate descriptions of intelligent design from Professor McGrath. In his 2011 book Darwinism and the Divine, he stated “Writers linked with the creationist and ‘Intelligent Design’ movements in North America vigorously oppose the teaching of evolution in schools.” Although he frames his statement vaguely (I suppose it doesn’t take much for a “writer” to be “linked” with the ID movement), I’m not even sure if it is true in a technical sense: I can’t think of a single person who belongs to the ID movement proper in North America who opposes the teaching of evolution in public schools. I explained this in detail at “Alister McGrath Wrongly Claims the ID Movement Has ‘Vigorously Oppose[d] the Teaching of Evolution’.” Unfortunately I have never seen any clarification, response, or retraction from Dr. McGrath on this point. 

Expositing Intelligent Design

Bruce Gordon is a philosopher of physics who earned his PhD at Northwestern University, and is now a professor at Houston Baptist University. He feels that Alister McGrath’s form of “dialogue” between science and religion is too lightweight. Gordon uses the word “milquetoast” to describe the theistic evolutionist’s failure to engage with the tough issues between Christianity and science: 

Dialogue is nice, but it takes you only so far. Moving beyond milquetoast notions of mutually enriching conversations to a robust metaphysical integration of science and philosophical theology is necessary. If a scientifically minded nonbeliever is to recognize the deficiency of their views and move from apathetic complacency to intellectual engagement with Christianity, they need to understand that science depends on and points to God and that naturalistic explanations are inadequate not just outside science but within science as well. (p. 126)

For example, Gordon points out that McGrath basically assents to naturalistic accounts of the human mind, without asking hard enough questions about whether materialistic models of consciousness can truly account for the human experience: 

[W]e need to discuss whether consciousness can be understood naturalistically as an emergent property of brain function. While Alister thinks there is much about being human that science cannot adequately capture, he nonetheless claims that a naturalistic account of humanity can be given within the parameters of science. … Saying that consciousness is generated by physical processes and patterns in the brain ignores rather than solves the hard problem of consciousness. It equates cognition (understanding, intentionality, awareness) with material phenomena, when the latter are not intrinsically about anything, nor could they be. Such an approach doesn’t offer us a theory of consciousness so much as a theory of how the phenomena of third-person neurobiology might causally and computationally be correlated with the components of first-person experience. … Consciousness is something fundamentally immaterial that transcends the brain. A useful simile is that consciousness extracts information from the phenomenology of brain-states like a DVD player and screen extract and display information from a DVD. The difference is that consciousness actively interprets the extracted information in the service of understanding, whereas the DVD player and screen integrate sight and sound without comprehension, intention, or ability to act. The idea that consciousness emerges from brain activity is therefore simply wrong. (pp. 125-126)

Gordon goes on to explain that although Ruse and McGrath both openly adopt methodological naturalism, there are compelling examples from the history of science where leading scientists did not take this view:

The Scientific Revolution is often portrayed as replacing Aristotelian conceptions of explanation with methodological naturalism. This is, at best, an exaggeration. For example, even though Robert Boyle (1627-91) and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) were poster boys for the Scientific Revolution, neither embraced methodological naturalism. Boyle thought intelligent direction was inferable from the initial-condition fine-tuning required to produce intended effects from a vast sequence of conspiring causes. Design (formal cause) and purpose (final cause) both governed his conception of efficient material causality. Newton, in the General Scholium to his Principia, recognizes initial-condition fine-tuning in the origin and function of our solar system, a judgment confirmed and deepened by contemporary studies of fine-tuning for planetary habitability. The Mechanical Philosophy of Boyle and Newton did not repudiate Aristotle’s four causes or embrace methodological naturalism. …. The situation in biology from 1600-1900 contradicts the would-be narrative even more dramatically. Design plans (formal causes) identifying species that were placed in the natural order for various purposes (final causes) dominated biological science prior to Darwin. … [T]he historical origin of methodological naturalism as a constraint on scientific explanation is found in Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859). (pp. 143-144)

Citing much scientific literature, Gordon goes on to present a detailed, evidence-based case for intelligent design in physics, biology, and the origin of life. And he makes a challenging point: “when design is clearly detected, only a specious appeal to methodological naturalism would prevent its inclusion in a scientific explanation.” (p. 155)

All three contributors have a lot more to say — and for that I highly recommend picking up this well written, insightful, and relatively short volume.