Should a Christian do Science Differently?

FaWis_450Welcome, first of all, to a considerable number of new subscribers to the Faith and Wisdom in Science blog. I hope you find the posts and reports helpful, and do remember that its a blog in order to open up discussion. You can post questions and comments for me and others, although I will moderate to the standards of respectfulness and openness that this adventure is all about.
There are a few other resources on the blog site for those who are new – if you have a copy of Faith and Wisdom in Science then the (increasingly few with each reprint I hope) corrigenda are to be found on the Errata page. There is also a page containing links to media presentations, interviews etc. here.  lettherebescienceAnd don’t forget that if you, or someone you know, perhaps a high school or university student would like, or like to give away, a rather faster read of the message that science is not an obstacle to faith, but a gift from God, and not a threat to the Church but an equipping to a task, then the broader readership Let There Be Science co-written with school physics teacher Dave Hutchings is a great introduction.


Over the Easter break I had the fascinating experience of (1) speaking at the UK Christian festival Word Alive in Prestatyn, North Wales (of which a future blog when the materials are online) and also attending this year’s meeting of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT) in Lyon, France. Both in their different ways were challenging and interesting and full of people with good ideas and questions. The Lyon meeting was entitled Nature and Beyond: Immanence and Transcendence in Science and ReligionBut at both, very different, settings, the question, ‘What Difference does it make?’ was weaving throughout the discussions.

Of the very large topic of the ESSSAT title, the session that I spoke in was concerned with ‘Methodological Naturalism’ (MN) – that is the actual methods that scientists use to do science, the experiments, theories, hypothesis-testing, invocation of physical and chemical laws and so on. As first formulated formally by Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, the observation is that when we do science, we investigate nature on its own terms. Belief in God, in other words, is not necessary, nor impinges on the tools we use to find out about nature. ‘Methodological’ means ‘to do with tools and method’ and ‘naturalism’ means ‘on nature’s own terms’, or if you like, omitted explicit requirement of belief in, or actions of, God.

The first thing to be clear is that Methodological Naturalism is very different from ‘Metaphysical Naturalism’ – this is the entire worldview that omits the divine. But in spite of this, some Christians have expressed discomfort that MN works, and that Christians can somehow ‘forget about God’ in the function of science. One such is Andrew Torrence of St. Andrews University, who has recently written a paper about it, Should a Christian Adopt Methodological Naturalism in the journal Zygon.

I addressed the question in my talk at Lyon (and there will be a full paper later in the year), and others have written a reply for the journal itself, but there are a few very important things to say about this.

The first is about common grace – God gives gifts of tools for all sorts of reasons: gardening, medicine, cooking, teaching, singing, woodwork,… in an important way the scientific toolkit of method belongs to this set.  Everyone gets given this! (in principle – we need to learn and practice!). So to look for a special toolkit in science for Christians is like looking for a special way to bake a cake.

The second is to do with the three-way relationship between God the Creator, the natural creation, and ourselves. Since the articulation of the commission in Genesis 3 to make nature fruitful ‘by the sweat of our brow’ it has been understood that the work of gaining knowledge of nature as part of the work of healing our broken relationship with it, and that the way that nature works, has, like our own natures, a freedom to it, to explore possibility of structure and development, that does not require the moment by moment disruption by God.  Our calling as scientists is to look into nature with the same love and interest as its Creator, and doing that is part of our obedience.

Thirdly, MN does not exclude the possibility of miracles. Science is as able to detect anomalies as well as it detects regularities, but leaves it as that.  Reporting them is what science does, explaining them beyond science is, by definition NOT what science does.

Fourthly,  the relationship between the human and the natural world needs to be understood within the tradition of wisdom. This is the source of healthy relationship-building. It goes well beyond the, somewhat flawed, ‘two books’ analogy of reading nature as a second revelation, and becomes what theologian Eleanor Stump calls a ‘second person’ narrative (see short paper in appendix below).

But finally, Christian calling makes ALL the difference in doing science, as in doing anything. The reasons we do it, the way we interact with others in its performance, the choice of tasks to undertake, the very creative inspiration in the science we do – – all this and more can and does draw on a life of prayer, learning, worship and theological understanding. The toolkit is just the beginning.


For those who would like to read a little more deeply there follows, as an appendix, the 4-page ‘long abstract’ paper for the ESSSAT conference.


Methodological Naturalism but Teleological Transcendence: Science as Second Person Narrative

A metaphorical story of reading has dominated the theological framing of science, or more properly natural philosophy, since the high Medieval period.  It is the dual narrative of the Two Books: that of a twin revelation though the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. The 12thcentury scholar Hugh of St Victor in his compendium, the Didiscalion, wrote,[1]

This wholw world is like a book written by the finger of God …’,

Reading the two books became a dominant metaphor for the application of human sense, reflection, and insight into nature. It surfaces in Grosseteste in the 13thcentury, notably in Galileo in the early 17th, and especially in the ‘hermeneutical stance’ of early modern science. An example is found in Boyle’s advocacy of the early form of ‘citizen science’ known as Occasional Meditation. He writes[2]

The World is a Great Book, not so much of Nature as of the God of Nature, … crowded with instructive Lessons, if we had but the Skill, and would take the Pains, to extract and pick the out: the Creatures are the true Aegyptian Hieroglyphicks, that under the rude form of Birds, and Beasts etc. conceal the mysterious secrets of Knowledge and of Piety.’

The metaphor finds its flourishing in the natural theology of Paley and the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises. To deduce a personal creative agent of interventionist design in the structure of a biological lensed eye is precisely to read and interpret the text of the Second Book in terms of its author. The narrative of the Two Books is compelling for aesthetic, cultural and theological reasons. The parallel growth of literacy and science in Europe from the medieval period onwards, the emergence of printing, widespread education, and the new forms of writing and publication that accompany early modern science, render it almost irresistible. But we now know that simplistic adherence to the metaphorical reading of the Book of Nature as a conceptual framing for science generates a set of irresolvable problems at its nexus with theology.

The first is the structural flaw in natural theology that became increasingly visible during the nineteenth century, and was exposed in the greatest clarity by the ascent of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The passivity of written text fails to follow faithfully the emergent explorative potential of the tree of life. A written word implies an immediate and proximal author, yet an evolved species, perfectly accommodated to its environmental niche, did not require a pen to inscribe it there.

The second implication of the metaphor of the book is that its readers may deduce the character and purpose of its author through sophisticated levels of reading. Nature becomes a veiled or coded message from, and concerning, its Author. So if the Sacred Page can say of itself, [3]

In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as I has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.

then nature also becomes a once-veiled but increasingly transparent mode of insight into the person and nature of God. In the developed form of reading nature that became Natural Theology, we look throughnature towards a vision of its Creator. Attractive though such neo-oracular, albeit Christianised, interpretation of how to read nature might be, it runs rapidly into the thicket of theodicy – what must we deduce, in this mode, about the creator of catastrophes and carnivores?

A third issue, delayed until it appears on the beach of the late-modern period as the tide of near-universal theism retreated, is a problematizing of scientific method. If the effective practice of science is unaffected by any personal stance of belief, and if both its methods and conclusions align with a material metaphysics, namely the set of practices and assumptions termed ‘methodological naturalism’,[4]what value theistic belief and practice? The adoption of methodological naturalism has sat uncomfortably with some believers, and some theologians,[5]because its deployment of method that ostensibly ignores the divine seems to imply irrelevance of a position of faith.  Attempts to reintroduce particular differences in scientific methodology with a theistic philosophy run into insuperable problems at the experiential and epistemological levels.

The impasse at all three of these levels can be traced to the progressive narrowing of a philosophy of science to epistemology, ontology and methodology – the very categories that would be employed in literary criticism (of reading), ignoring another essential human category of teleology. The gradual silencing of the category of purpose from academic discourse is itself a potential source of its marginalisation, and plays to the pretence of a human viewpoint onto nature abstracted from it, rather than embedded.

Within Christian theology it has become necessary to look for another narrative metaphor, that more faithfully frames the relational aspect of the human condition to the natural world, accounts for the success of methodological naturalism within a theodicy, and places science within a coherent setting in relation to the narrative of creation-fall-election-incarnation-resurrection-new-creation. In particular, its relational content must be at the same time faithful to our experience of nature, and to the theological story with which we make sense of our human condition. In complementary terms, late-modern discourse has tended to categorise narratives about nature as ‘third person’. In her magisterial reworking of theodicy by example, Eleanore Stump[6]points out that much Biblical narrative is inherently ‘second person’, however, and that the category-error of forcing ‘third person’ structure onto it leads to artificial hermeneutical problems, rather like the three we have identified in the ‘Book of Nature’ approach to science.  A vital case in point is found in the Book of Job, which adopts not only a second-person approach to theodicy, and to the relationship between God and humans (through the example of Job himself), but also introduces a second-person approach to the relationship between humans and the natural creation.[7]In support of the claim that, within the Biblical Wisdom tradition, the Book of Jobconstitutes the best Biblical starting point for a narratology of the human relationship of the mind with physical creation, let us read from the point at which God finally speaks to Job (after 37 chapters of silence) in chapter 38:4-7:[8]

Where were you when I founded the earth?

Tell me, if you have insight.

Who fixed its dimensions? Surely you know!

Who stretched the measuring cord across it?

Into what were its bases sunk,

or who set its capstone, when the stars of the morning rejoiced together,

and all the sons of God shouted for joy?


The writer delineates a beautiful development of the core creation narrative in Hebrew wisdom poetry (a form found in Psalms, Proverbs and some Prophets that speaks of creation through ‘ordering’, ‘bounding’ and ‘setting foundations’[9]), but now in the relentless urgency of the question-form, throughout its history the imaginative core of scientific innovation. The subject matter of the poetic question-catalogue moves through meteorology, astronomy, zoology, finishing with a celebrated ‘de-centralising’ text that places humans at the periphery of the world, looking on in wonder at its centre-pieces, the great beasts Behemoth and Leviathan. This is an ancient recognition of the unpredictable aspects of the world: the whirlwind, the earthquake, the flood, unknown great beasts.

Long recognised, as a masterpiece of ancient literature, the Book of Job has attracted and perplexed scholars in equal measures for centuries, and is still a vibrant field of study right up to the present day. David Clines, to whom we owe the translation employed here, calls the Job ‘the most intense book theologically and intellectually of the Old Testament’[10]. Job has inspired commentators across vistas of centuries and philosophies, from Basil the Great, to Kant, to Levinas. Philosopher Susan Neiman has recently argued the case that the Book Job constitutes, alongside Plato, a necessary source-text for the foundation of philosophy itself.[11]

However, although readers of the text have long recognised that the cosmological motif within Job is striking and important, it has not received as much comprehensive attention as the legal, moral, and theological strands in the book, albeit with a few notable exceptions.[12]Arguably the identification of a direct link of the subject matter of Job to the human capacity for natural philosophy goes back at least as far as Aquinas, who refers at several points to Aristotle’s Physicsin his extensive commentary on the wisdom book,[13]  but these connections are rare in preference to metaphorical readings. This de-emphasising of cosmology might partly explain why Job 38, from which we have taken the extracts above, known as ‘The Lord’s Answer’ has had such a problematic history of reception and interpretation. Does it really answer Job’s two questions about his own innocence and the meaninglessness of his suffering? Does the ‘Lord’ of the creation hymns correspond to the creator Yahweh of the Psalms, the Pentateuch and the Prophets? Does the text even belong to the rest of the book as originally conceived? Some scholars have found the Lord’s Answer to Job spiteful, a petulant put-down that misses the point and avoids the tough questions.[14]But are these interpretations justified? Even looking at the text through the fresh lens of science today resonates with the difficultyof questioning nature, even its painfulness, as well as its wonder––that is how scientists respond at a first reading time and again.

To begin to answer, at a textual level, the charge that the ‘Lord’s Answer’ isn’t an answer, we need to observe that the intense nature imagery of the Book is by no means confined to Yahweh’s voice. On the contrary––nature imagery is employed from the very outset of the prologue, and throughout the disputations between Job and his friends. Indeed, every theme picked up in the Lord’s Answerhas already appeared in the cycles of dialogue between Job and his friends. The entire book is structured around the theme of wild nature. There is, furthermore, an ordered pattern in the realms of creation explored predominantly in the three cycles of speeches, moving from inanimate, to living then cosmological nature, as the tension between Job and his friends reaches its crescendo of personal invective in the third cycle.

Between the speech-cycles and the Lord’s Answer is a third vital strand of material. For the question to which chapter 38 is the answer, is found in the equally magisterial ‘Hymn to Wisdom’ of chapter 28, which begins with a remarkable metaphor for human perspicuity into the structure of the world – that of the miner underground:

Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place where gold is refined.

Iron is taken from the soil, rock that will be poured out as copper.

An end is put to darkness, and to the furthest bound they seek the ore in gloom and deep darkness.

A foreign race cuts the shafts; forgotten by travellers, far away from humans they dangle and sway.

That earth from which food comes forth is underneath changed as if by fire.

Its rocks are the source of lapis, with its flecks of gold.

The subterranean world takes us completely by surprise – why did either an original author or a later compiler suppose that the next step to take in the book was down a mineshaft? Reading on,

There is a path no bird of prey knows, unseen by the eye of falcons.

The proud beasts have not trodden it, no lion has prowled it …

There is something uniquely human about the way we fashion our relationship to the physical world. Only human eyes can seethe material world from the new viewpoint of its interior. It is an enhanced sight that asks questions, that directs further exploration, that wonders. The conclusion of the hymn points to the shocking parallel of the human wisdom of the miner, and the divine wisdom of the Creator (28v23):

But God understands the way to it; it is he who knows its place.

For he looked to the ends of the earth, and beheld everything under the heavens,

So as to assign a weight to the wind, and determine the waters by measure,

when he made a decree for the rain and a path for the thunderbolt –

then he saw and appraised it, established it and fathomed it.


It is by no means true that the hymn concludes that wisdom has nothing to do with the created world, for the reason that God knows where to find it is precisely because he ‘looked to the ends of the earth, …, established it and fathomed it’. It is, as for the underground miners, a very special sort of looking – involving number (in an impressive leap of the imagination in which we assign a value to the force of the wind) and physical law (in the controlled paths of rain and lightning). This is an extraordinary claim: that wisdom is to be found in participating with a deep understanding of the world, its structure and dynamics.

A reading of the entire book reveals that it continually navigates possible relationships between the human and the material, throughout the cycles of speeches, the Hymn to Wisdom and the Lord’s Answer.[15]From ‘nature as eternal mystery’ to ‘nature as moral arbiter’, alternatives are rejected, until the Hymn to Wisdom itself points to a new notion of relationship. This new voice hints at a balance between order and chaos rather than a domination of either. It inspires bold ideas such as a covenant between humans and the stones, thinks through the provenance of rainclouds, observes the structure of the mountains from below, wonders at the weightless suspension of the earth itself. It sees humankind’s exploration of nature as inImago Dei, and a participation in Wisdom herself.

The story of search for wisdom through the perceptive, renewed and reconciliatory relationship with nature, begins to look like a potential source for a new theological narrative of nature in our own times. It is rooted in creation and covenant, rather than Aristotelian tradition; it recognises reasons to despair, but undercuts them with hope; it points away from stagnation to a future of greater knowledge, understanding and healing – it is centrally teleological. Furthermore, it offers a stark opposition to the stance of natural theology.  Rather than looking into nature in the hope of perceiving God, we look with the Creator into creation, participating in his gaze, his love, and his co-creative ability to engage in nature’s future with responsibility and wisdom.  The applicability of methodological naturalism is unproblematic because it is God’s gift of sight, as creative chaos  becomes the gift to nature of freedom in possibility.

[1]Hugh of St. Victor Didascalicon (Book 7)

[2]The Works of the Honorable Robert Boyle, Vol. I, New Experiments Physico-Mechanical Touching the Spring of the Air, p.16 A new edition (1772) London: W. Johnson et al.

[3]Ephesians 3vv. 4,5 (NIV)

[4]See e.g. Joseph B. O. Okello (2015) A History and Critique of Methodological NaturalismEugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock.

[5]Alvin Plantinga (1997) Philosophical Analysis Origins & Design18:1

[6]Eleanor Stump, Wandering in DarknessOxford: OUP (2010)

[7]Tom McLeish, Faith and Wisdom in Science, Oxford: OUP (2014)

[8]We take quotations of the text from the magisterial new translation and commentary by David Clines, Thomas Nelson pubs., Nelson, Vol. 3 (2011).

[9]W. H., Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2010).

[10]David J.A. Clines, Job 1-20 (Dallas: Word Books, 1989), Introduction.

[11]See her article, ‘The Rationality of the World: A Philosophical Reading of the Book of Job, (date accessed: 7/12/2016).

[12]N.C. Habel, The Book of Job,(SCM Press 1985)

[13]Thomas Aquinas Expositio super Iob ad litteram, translated by Brian Mulladay and available on the web here:

[14]David Robertson, “The Book of Job: A Literary Study,” in Soundings, 56 (1973) 446-68.

[15]McLeish op. cit.




17 thoughts on “Should a Christian do Science Differently?

  1. Are you going to explain how methodological naturalism does not inevitably lead to metaphysical naturalism? The evidence from the last 300 years certainly seems to indicate it does lead that way!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would say first that correlation does not imply causation. The historical evidence does not support your proposal that methodological naturalism leads inevitably to metaphysical naturalism. For one thing it is much older – so Bede, for example, maintains it by implication in his ‘de natura rerum’ – so the timescales are all wrong. Secondly there is explicit theological support for it, so that e.g. the Fall narrative constitutes for Bacon the imperative to do empirical experimental science. Thirdly there are so many Christian scientists who have lead signal new science with deep understanding that this was in the service of God (Faraday and Maxwell spring to mind). Finally there is much firmer links between metaphysical naturalism and Romantic philosophy rather than scientific method.


      • Modern scientists assume, from methodological naturalism, that any thing outside of nature has never regular effects worth investigating, and no impact on daily life to pay attention to. You support them from theological history to assume this, by saying methodological naturalism is an old position often held by religious thinkers.

        But then they extrapolate by saying, since whatever has no effects need not exist, they have no need of the hypothesis that there is anything outside nature.
        Only then do you disagree with them?

        (Remember that, often now, ‘outside nature’ refers even to minds and consciousness, not just to God.)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. “Thirdly, MN does not exclude the possibility of miracles. Science is as able to detect anomalies as well as it detects regularities, but leaves it as that. Reporting them is what science does, explaining them beyond science is, by definition NOT what science does.”

    How would you as a scientist know to “leave it as that”? Typically, an anomaly, a genuinely reliable unexpected result, merits further investigation and is quite exciting to the scientist. It would mean that our understanding of the world around us is incorrect. It would mean that a law of nature was after all not a law, it is instead something that can occasionally be violated. Time to rewrite the text books! Wonderful! Surprising results drive scientists! Indeed how would you ever know, not to try and explain it, how would you know that it was “beyond science”? Can you give some real examples of anomalies that scientists should not try to explain, to avoid doing “by definition NOT what science does”?


    • Of course anomalies get investigated and of course they are grist to the mill of the scientifically curious. That was not my point. Nor was my point addressed at someone like you who believes that there are no miracles. I was addressing those who do, and who therefore think that science should ben different in consequence. But even hypothetically, one off miracles could not be the subject of further scientific investigation. Just like other anomalies that can’t be repeated (and they do happen, not miraculously in my view, frequently) my favourite was the time in Leeds when we imaged the lamellar structure of a PS-PI block coopolymer when microtomed at room temperature. Cryo broke. But we hadn’t realised so cut anyway. It’s not possible to prepare a sample that way. No one every did before and we kept trying to reproduce unsuccessfully until we had to give up. What to report? It happened I’m sure. We could not reproduce. Nor has anyone else. Miracle? I think not. So what? No idea. Lots of experiments end up like this though. Science lives with the anomalous all the time but can’t do much with it. But as I say this is not ‘for’ you and it’s not ‘evidence’ that will help you. it’s to help others understand what science can do and what it can’t


  3. Methodological Naturalism (as I understand it), is the process of establishing natural explanations for what happens in the world, and encompasses the sciences (physics, chemistry, geology, biology etc), but also runs through the humanities. Of the latter, perhaps only theology abandons methodological naturalism in favour of supernatural explanations of real world events.

    So, as far as I can see, MN does not invoke supernatural causes for observable events. Instead it leaves unexplained items as just that – unexplained. Human study through the sciences and humanities, uses MN to build an intricate structure of knowledge, but at its edges this structure has plenty of anomalies and inconsistencies. Over time MN gradually tackles these, and occasionally investigations result in paradigmatic revolutions when we find the textbooks need to be rewritten. This is all the good stuff of science, but does it really reconcile so readily with the supernatural world of religion ?

    I guess strictly speaking, MN still theoretically leaves room for the miraculous, either at the edges or beyond the edges of what we know through MN. However, over the centuries, MN has steadily recategorized miracles as non-supernatural events. Rainbows and earthquakes have yielded to the physical sciences. More intimate “miracles” of apparent healing, mental process, prophecy and suchlike have yielded to methods of careful analysis and critical thinking. Is there a single example of an explanation gained by MN which has been superseded by a more solid supernatural or miraculous explanation ?

    Science continually encroaches on the religious and teleological domains. So, where will this end ? If there are miracles, they have only steadily dwindling gaps left in the fabric of human understanding, in which to survive as potentially valid explanations. Of course we can’t conclusively prove miracles don’t happen, but by definition, they cannot be accompanied by conventional verifiable evidence, so the basis for concluding that events are miraculous is presumably based either on speculation (wishful thinking) or divine revelation (unverifiable, except by “faith”).

    Work in sciences and humanities now delves into questions of how does order arise from chaos, where were the origins of life, what is consciousness (is there a “self” ?) and so on. Science detects regular patterns and anomalies, then pushes on to explain the anomalies. Science constantly seeks to explain tomorrow, what was beyond its reach today. Are there any grounds to conclude that there are areas of reality which cannot ever be touched and ultimately explained by MN ?

    To argue that MN is consistent with religious dogma and a supernatural worldview appears to be fighting a losing battle. It may be attractive to those who start from within a religious bubble – religion has potentially much to gain from an apparent reconciliation with MN which works in a replicable, verifiable way. However, from the perspective of MN, there is simply no need for any exercise to show that MN and religion might co-exist. If MN continues to drive inexorably forward, supernatural explanation will continue to be pushed into ever-shrinking territory, and the God-of-the-gaps is left with fewer and fewer gaps to inhabit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Rob – you go over ground that we have covered menu times before, but my correctives are not making much headway. You start with two narratives, one historical and one theological, which are both highly problematic and to my satisfaction are refuted by easily obtainable evidence.
      The historical narrative is ‘Comtean’, painting ‘religion’ as an alternative explanatory framework for natural phenomena, so increasingly painted into a dwindling corner. You love restating this over and over but how ever many times you state it will not magically make it true. E.g. Rainbows have since antiquity, in pagan and Christian discussions, been understood as a natural phenomenon needing explanation- in the latter communion because God invites us to do this. Finally nailed by Theodoric of Freiburg in 1308.
      ‘Religion is all about the supernatural’ characterises your theological narrative. Well no it isn’t. It is about how we understand and live this life in this world in the light of God. Andy God is not ‘supernatural’ – for that ontology beloved of the modern world simply fails to grasp God. Couldn’t be more different.
      Since every you say here depends on these two false starting points your thinking goes astray in the way it usually does my friend.


      • “God is not supernatural”, you say!

        From Wikipedia
        “The supernatural (Medieval Latin: supernātūrālis: supra “above” + naturalis “natural”, first used: 1520–1530 AD) is that which exists (or is claimed to exist), yet cannot be explained by laws of nature.”

        And just in case you don’t like Wikipedia, from Oxford English dictionary
        “(of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.”

        So, can God be explained by the laws of nature? A simple yes or no will do. And remember, on your discussion on Methodological Naturalism, you argued that there were events that are “beyond scientific understanding”, making these events supernatural. So, we can have events that are supernatural, but God isn’t?

        Perhaps you don’t like the accepted meaning of the word supernatural, well then you will have to find another one to use!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Mike. See response to same question (ish) from Rob
        Sorry massive deadline on new book yesterday and still finishing off so was a bit tied down last couple of weeks


      • Tom – you might need to help me out a bit more here.

        You identified two narratives in my earlier posting – historical and theological.

        The historical narrative of religion as an “explanatory framework for natural phenomena” is less of an “alternative” framework, and perhaps more correctly, the original explanatory framework. When there were no scientific tools, otherwise apparently random events could be “explained” by gods and spirits. Over time as MN built a framework of analysis and understanding of natural phenomena, those newer explanations replaced the supernatural ones. As you say, religion is painted into a dwindling corner. However, you then point out that “how ever many times you state it will not magically make it true”.

        Are you suggesting that natural phenomena such as thunderstorms, rainbows, earthquakes, epidemics, drought and poor harvests etc, were always seen as entirely natural rather than supernaturally guided by gods. If that were the case, why were prayers and sacrifices offered copiously in attempts to modify the outcomes of these events if they had been explained by natural process all along, rather than by divine act ?
        Even today, it is common to hear people praying for rain, a good harvest, a sunny day for a wedding, or for a storm to pass them by, when we know these events are entirely guided by natural forces, many of which have a significant degree of predictability and not a hint of supernatural intervention.

        Surely Theodoric of Freiberg was one of the many (perhaps unwittingly) who was painting religion into that dwindling corner. Beforehand, the rainbow remained a mystical phenomenon, a gift from God. Afterwards, it became a piece of the scientific jigsaw – the hand of God was no longer needed to explain the rainbow’s occasional appearance. Indeed, are you not making my point for me here ?

        My guess is that you would counter that the rainbow, while yielding to Theodoric’s early deployment of MN, is simply demonstrating the magnificence of God’s creation, and emphasizing the interrelationship between religion and science ? Even so, it is surely difficult to deny that MN has driven the progressive disappearance of God, since the time of all those direct and very obvious large-scale divine interventions in the Old Testament, right down to our modern times in which all those direct interventions are replaced by predictable natural processes. Nowadays God lurks in the shadows, popping the odd image onto a piece of toast, producing sparse (always evidentially ambiguous) miracles, or preoccupied with interventions at a quantum level that we are (perhaps conveniently for religion) still unable to detect with MN.

        On the theological narrative you identify, I would be very grateful for some clarification. My straightforward approach is that religion is left with the supernatural after MN has done the heavy lifting on explaining how the world works. You counter that religion “is about how we understand and live this life in this world in the light of God”. I wouldn’t disagree with this, but the “in the light of God” bit immediately lifts the whole religious worldview into the realm of the supernatural. I’m quite confused by your assertion that “God is not supernatural … couldn’t be more different” – if God is not supernatural (above and beyond the patterns of nature, and indeed presumably in your book responsible for their creation), then what is God ?

        I’m saddened by your dismissal of my points as belonging to two narratives “which are both highly problematic and … refuted by easily obtainable evidence” and that my “thinking goes astray in the way it usually does”, and yet you do not produce this easily obtainable evidence – which might be why your “correctives are not making much headway” ?

        Therefore to conclude, I would be very grateful for some examples of that easily obtainable evidence that show
        (a) how MN is not progressively painting earlier explanations based on religious intervention, into a corner, and
        (b) how God is not supernatural after all ?

        Liked by 2 people

      • Hi Robert
        (a) There is no progressive painting because science is an act of response to God, and is the gifted ability to explore and understand how the universe works. God is not an explanation of it – God gives us the long task of coming to terms with creation and learning to look on it and love it and care for it from his God’s persective.
        (b) ‘supernatural’ is an ontological class, like ‘natural’ or ‘red’. God is not a member of an ontological class but not less than the ground that gives the possibility of all ontology.

        You might be further helped (but in the light of 30 years I suspect not) by my replies to letter in Physics Today in response to that February article

        All best wishes to you and Ali


  4. Hi Tom, I’d be happy to clarify my position further. But, by way of response, in my paper:

    1) I make it plain that methodological naturalism is different from metaphysical naturalism;
    2) I don’t have any discomfort with MN working – I think it doesn’t work for the Christian;
    3) I don’t think Christians need to forget about God in the functioning of science — it would be highly problematic if this was my view.

    I also agree with much of what you say, and much of what I have to say in my article is inspired by your work.

    The only point I might disagree with you on is how a scientist who is a Christian should respond to a miracle–an anomaly that does not have a natural explanation.

    So, for example, I would argue that the Christian knows that Jesus rose from the dead, and it is viewed as an event that generates observable phenomena. As such, it finds itself within the domain of science. At the same time, the Christian also knows that there is no empirically-based explanation as to why Jesus rose from the dead––the invisible God raised Jesus from the dead. This act, therefore, requires the Christian to recognise that sometimes (at least once) visible phenomena require theological explanation.This would mean that, at least in this one instance, MN was not appropriate. That is, I do not think it would be “more scientific” for a Christian scientist to keep pursuing a natural explanation for the visible phenomena surrounding the resurrection (because of her commitment to MN).

    This means, on my view, that the resurrection calls into question the view that a naturalistic system tcan provide a steady foundation for scientific method. That is, upon gaining knowledge of the resurrection, the scientist can no longer trust that the best scientific explanation for all visible phenomena will always be one that is empirically based and/or locatable within our own scientific models. The resurrection disrupts the belief that science requires human beings to go about the scientific task by limiting themselves to the tools and resources of our own making.

    What does this mean for the posture of the Christian scientist? As the Christian scientist looks to God as the one who creates and preserves the objects within the domain of her study, she also recognises that these objects can be disrupted by the agency of one who is not empirically accessible. (Even if this happens just once (in the event of the resurrection), it strikes me that this is a problem for a consistent commitment to MN.)

    Her future as a scientist, therefore, requires her to recognise that the domain of her scientific study overlaps with the domain of her theological understanding. Despite mounting pressure from contemporary academic culture, the Christian must therefore reject the view that the natural sciences and theology constitute mutually exclusive domains of study––that they are what Stephen Jay Gould famously refers to as non-overlapping magisteria.

    Thanks for the engagement and, again, I agree with most of what you have to say and it is quite likely that the main differences between us are semantic–especially if you’re holding to Thomistic version of MN, which I did not critique in my article. (I’ve found that there are so many different understandings of MN, which is one of the things that makes this conversation so difficult.)


  5. I think it is very important to note that Tom didn’t answer any of my questions. Instead he chose to tell me what I believe, as if he can see the world through my eyes. This is an example (in this case a very mild one) of an ad hominem move, but nevertheless it is carried out to avoid genuine discussion. Furthermore, Tom is incorrect about my views; I do NOT “believes that there are no miracles”! This does not mean that I DO believe there are miracles; like a belief in god(s), I’m agnostic, awaiting good reason and or evidence to support such a belief.

    Back to the discussion in hand, you say that this post is here “to help others understand what science can do and what it can’t”. This is what I find particularly interesting, not only when it comes to science but more generally to simply being reasonable; how would one reasonably know that a miracle has occurred? And to quote my three unanswered questions again. How would you as a scientist know to “leave it as that”? How would you know that it was “beyond science”? Can you give some real examples of anomalies that scientists should not try to explain, to avoid doing “by definition NOT what science does”?

    (I assume your PS-PI copolymer was not an example of something that scientists should not try to explain. It seemed instead this was about living with anomalies, quirky things that happen even in the scientific laboratory, where in reality there are still many variables at play that can influence the data and cause an outlier. But it does not follow that just because some of your data points are off an expected trend that accepting miracles is suddenly reasonable. You even said after giving this example “Miracle? I think not. So what? No idea.” Well, me neither.)


  6. Tom – returning to the original question – “should a Christian do science differently ?”, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the following points :

    If MN is a toolkit for investigating nature on its own terms, how is a Christian to do science when that science conflicts with established dogma ? I suspect that you will counter with a claim that science and Christian dogma are entirely complementary and the question is a red herring. After all, with a little work, even the conservative RC Church managed to replace geocentricism with heliocentricism, and eventually embraced the concepts of evolution. However, there are cases in point where putting Christian dogma first will interfere with the unfettered application of MN. For instance, work in the field of neuroscience now challenges the concepts of self, “souls” and free will – if MN leads to the rejection of these traditional components of Christian dogma, how does the Christian scientist investigate these issues in an unbiased way ? Christianity surely provides an agenda and prior assumptions which will interfere with an unfettered approach to the science, and to claim otherwise would just be hopelessly naïve.

    A further related question : While some Christian denominations have adapted to bring themselves into lockstep with the march of scientific discovery, others have roundly rejected science in favour of biblical literalism, or even invented distorted “science” of their own to make that “science” fit with biblical literalism . Are these Christians any the less sincere in their beliefs, which now fly in the face of science ? Are they somehow lesser Christians for rejecting the mainstream scientific discoveries of God’s book of nature ? Why does the Holy Spirit allow such obvious confusion and misguided belief to persist among the ranks of the faithful ? And indeed, how do you know the biblical literalist Creationists are not the real guardians of the Christian truth, and that following a secularised MN is not doing the devil’s work ?

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    • Briefly : ALL scientists bring an ‘agenda’ and prior assumptions to their work. The challenge for all of us is to acknowledge them and to keep open minded to the discoveries of science. It is indeed ‘hopelessly naïve’ to assume otherwise and happily neither you nor I do.
      But without ‘agendas’ and prior assumptions science doesn’t even get started. I have been thinking about asking you what books on the History of Science you have read so that I can help you with some of the ‘prior’ assumptions that you clearly bring to another topic – the history of science itself. I keep failing to recognise in the history I have studied the ‘painting into the corner’ perception that you continually project, but we need richer sources to refer to. By the way I really to recommend Peter Harrison’s recent ‘Territories of Science and Religion’ (OUP). I think you would really enjoy it. On your second question I think you will have to define what ‘lesser Christian’ means – I don’t recognise the idea. But please don’t pretend to understand the Holy Spirit in that ridiculous way. Oh – one last really good read for the gang – I notice that posts often end with ‘How do know that …, and how do you know that ..?’ A good starter for how I think about knowledge is the excellent ‘Personal Knowledge’ by Michael Polanyi. Definitely worth a read. Kant but with a greater admission of the personal and role of decision. Oh – how do you know that you aren’t a piece of software running in some giant supercomputer?


      • Tom – I’m re-posting the following (as it did not appear on an earlier attempt to post here) as a response to your posting of 12th June, given that it remains relevant to the further development of our discussion (I’ll revert separately on your thoughts from earlier today, 18th June) :

        You state that there is no “progressive painting” of religion into a corner by science, but do not explain why the points I raised earlier are not valid. Originally the rainbow was a mystical/supernatural phenomenon explained in religious terms – the work of MN subsequently produced a natural explanation. Over time, MN has explained countless natural phenomena and consequently painted religion into a dwindling corner. Which part of this narrative is incorrect ?
        Even if you interpret science as “an act of response to God”, any attempt to reconcile science from a Christian perspective cannot wipe away the centuries-long process by which MN has painted religion into that corner. Your assertion that “there is no progressive painting” singularly fails to explain this.

        I have not heard an attempted refutation of God’s supernatural quality before, but if I read it correctly, you are saying that (1) God is not a member of an ontological class while (2) “natural” and supernatural” are ontological classes of objects/entities. The gist of it appears to be that God is the facilitator of ontology and in this sense beyond ontological classification ?
        “Things that exist” and Things that do not exist” are also presumably ontological classes (which are mutually exclusive and encompass all “things”). However, in your worldview, God is not a member of an ontological class – and therefore is neither a thing that exists or a thing that does not exist ? I’m unclear whether you are arguing by implication that because God is not a member of an ontological class, God is therefore not a thing that exists ?
        One final question here – how do you know that God does not belong to an ontological class – is this stated in the Bible, is it a product of divine revelation, or is it something you have surmised ?

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  7. Tom – again, many thanks for the additional points in your response of 18th June. This continues to be an interesting thread, and your persistence with it is much appreciated.

    We do indeed agree that all scientists (or indeed experts in any field) bring their own agendas to an issue. We also agree that it would be nigh-on impossible to investigate the world without an agenda and some tentative ideas to start with. Whether it is science, history or economics, an initial hypothesis / null hypothesis can be battered with observable facts, and the really interesting stuff then appears if we get a set of unexpected conclusions. I would suggest that the best conclusions are those that help us to move on from our prior assumptions, and provide opportunities to modify or completely overturn an existing worldview.

    So, I return to questions I asked in an earlier post, that now have renewed relevance in the light of your comments. Those questions were “If MN is a toolkit for investigating nature on its own terms, how is a Christian to do science when that science conflicts with established dogma ? I suspect that you will counter with a claim that science and Christian dogma are entirely complementary and the question is a red herring. With a little work, even the conservative RC Church managed to replace geocentricism with heliocentricism, and eventually embraced the concepts of evolution. However, there are cases in point where putting Christian dogma first will interfere with the unfettered application of MN. For instance, work in the field of neuroscience now challenges the concepts of self, “souls” and free will – if MN leads to the rejection of these traditional components of Christian dogma, how does the Christian scientist investigate these issues in an unbiased way ?”

    I also asked earlier whether you considered some (eg Young Earth Creationists) as “lesser Christians for rejecting the mainstream scientific discoveries of God’s book of nature”. You replied that you don’t recognise the idea of a lesser Christian in this context, but we note that in FaWiS (p11) you refer to those same Creationists : “The fact that many manage to struggle on in churches like this reminds us of humankind’s dangerous ability to live within contradictions.” I would therefore reiterate my original tightly-packed set of questions for your thoughts – “Are these Christians any the less sincere in their beliefs, which now fly in the face of science ? Are they somehow lesser Christians for rejecting the mainstream scientific discoveries of God’s book of nature ? Why does the Holy Spirit allow such obvious confusion and misguided belief to persist among the ranks of the faithful ? And indeed, how do you know the biblical literalist Creationists are not the real guardians of the Christian truth, and that following a secularised MN is not doing the devil’s work ?”

    Your final throwaway – “how do you know you aren’t a piece of software running in some giant supercomputer” is perhaps the most tantalising comment in your post. As an avid follower of the “sci-fi” genre, I see no shortage of great possible worldviews already out there, of which “The Matrix” is a personal favourite. Indeed, I can put that worldview up alongside any of the world’s religions and for me, when examined in detail, it comes out in front every time. There is of course no conclusive proof, and using MN we fall back on the much less exciting prospect of continuing to quietly circle our own diminutive planet in the suburbs of a humdrum galaxy in an apparently endless universe. There is no more evidence of gods or special purpose, than there is of our lives as subroutines in an alien supercomputer, or of a holographic existence, or as figments in something else’s imagination … but we can have fun speculating.

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