Re: Answer to Eugenie Scott's views

William B. Provine (
Fri, 20 Mar 1998 01:58:39 +0000

Dear Keith,

Thanks for your email. I have waited a long time to have a real interchange
with a true working and religious evolutionist.

> On what possible basis can you determine if God is a god worth having. You
> are both presuming the character of God (a "paper tiger" god) and then
> saying you will have nothing of such a god. Well, I would have nothing of
> the kind of god you presume Christians to believe in either - and neither
> would the Biblical writers. You seem to think that God either intrudes
> into an autonomous creation, or starts it up and then leaves it alone.
> Both of these views are far from the one presented in scripture. God is
> declared to be intimately involved in _all_ of creation at all times.
> Nothing is outside of God's providential action. The God I worship is most
> cetainly a God worth having.

I have said the same thing to others. A god that merely works through all of
nature all of the time is hardly worth it. My church telling me this about God
is precisely why I left. A god who starts off the world is a paper-tiger god
(good word). A god that is intimately involved with every single thing is a
paper-tiger god, unless the god really gets into the act and does something
that can be detected, like making some genuine miracles or answering prayers
and telling us what is right and wrong. But if what the god does can be
detected, then methodological naturalism can be applied.

> Scientific description and divine action are _not_ antithetical. Are you
> really saying that if we can provide a comprehensive cause-and-effect
> scientific description of an event or process that a theist must conclude
> that God could not have been actively involved? If so, that's awful
> Christian theology. If not, then what's the problem?

The problem is the God you describe is a paper-tiger. Of course it could be
involved. My point is that it would not be worth much. It must have lots of
other reasons to worth something.

> I find it interesting that scripture often gives both historical or
> material cause-and-effect and divine descriptions of the same event. God
> is even declared to be in control of chance events (eg the casting of
> lots).

History is material cause-and-effect, or so the historians in my department
believe. Except for quantum level phenomena, chance events in human affairs are
not really "chance." They are deterministic results of previous circumstances.
Modern deterministic chaos theory might be applicable. The casting of lots is
never a true random number generator. I think you are simply invoking the Bible
and saying that history happens as if by itself but God has described the

> All your arguments amount to it saying that you are an atheist. Atheism is
> a valid philosophical position that can be defended - but that is hardly
> news. Christian theism can also be rigorously defended philosophically. I
> believe that Christianity presents the truest picture of reality. You
> disagree. Well or course you do - otherwise you would be a Christian. I
> believe you are rejecting what you do not understand.

I am like one of those students in my evolution class who learns a lot about
evolution but rejects it. I tried to be convinced, but could not. I am indeed
an atheist, but I only argue that accepting modern evolutionary biology means
your gods are all paper-tigers.

> Do you really believe that the only truth is scientific truth? Or that
> only scientific descriptions are true descriptions? Cannot a poet or
> artist say something true?

Sure. Scientists are nowhere near being able to explain appreciation of a
Mozart quartet. But that appreciation is learned, and that we can understand to
some extent. After all, historians write about poets and artists. The
historians try to explain where the artists came from, what school they were
in, etc. The artist did not live in a vacuum. The art historian tries to
explain a lot about particular paintings. In other words, science is not at a
complete loss. There appears to be nothing in human creativity (studied a lot)
or artistic creation that would require deities.

> Methodological naturalism places boundaries around what science can and
> cannot say, or what explanations or descriptions can be accepted as part of
> the scientific enterprise.

Here we really disagree. Methodological naturalism can be applied everywhere.
But it might give disappointing results.

> Science is self-limiting, and that is its
> strength and power as a methodology. But, to say that this limitation
> applies to the totality of reality itself is nonsense. You are basically
> saying that no reality exists that science cannot explore. You are free to
> say that as a philosophical assumption, but it has no support from science.
> In fact, it runs comnpletely contrary to the spirit of science.

Would you give me an example in which no elements of methodological naturalism
can be applied?

> I don't know about the SSE, but among the evolutionary scientists (mostly
> paleontologists) I know there are a large number of Christians. I doubt if
> the ratio of theists to non-theists is different from that of any other
> academic field. I suspect the majority of English literature academics are
> not Christians either. So what?

We need to do some real research on this question. I am afraid that at Cornell
most of our Biblical scholars are not Christians. So what? Evolution drives
evolutionists to atheism, or attracts atheists. We have very different
assessments about evolutionists. But research is what is needed.

> Conflating methodology with a philosophy will do, and has done, more damage
> to science than just about anything I can imagine.

Oh, I doubt that. Methodology is often conflated with philosophical views all
through the history of science up to and including the present. You would have
to throw out Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, and vast numbers of other great
scientists. I don't think their science was too damaged.

Best wishes, Will