Paul's question

Howard J. Van Till (
Sat, 28 Mar 1998 10:21:36 -0500

Paul Nelson,

Thanks for your question. I'm pleased to see your interest in learning more
about the Robust Formational Economy Principle. You asked:

>Would you show how the "Robust Formational Economy Principle," or the
>RFE Principle, differs in application from methodological naturalism,
>MN, for any particular scientific research problem?

>I ask because the two principles, for any empirical puzzle I can >imagine,
appear functionally identical. Thus, a scientist guided by >either
principle, whatever his philosophical views, will be choosing >from the
same limited set of explanatory tools, namely, natural >regularities and

>In what practical respect does the RFE Principle differ from MN?

First, a reminder that these two principles have very different referents.

1. The Robust Formational Economy Principle is a proposition regarding the
character of the Creation, specifically restricted to its _formational
economy_. It does, as I indicated in my earlier post, have important
implications for scientific theorizing about the Creation's formational
history: It implies that the _formation_ (a more appropriate term that
'origin') of all physical structures (nuclei, atoms, molecules, stars,
galaxies,etc.) and life forms comes about as the outcome of creaturely
capabilities accomplishing what their Creator intended. That being the
case, I would expect quite remarkable outcomes--shouting to all who are

2. Methodological Naturalism, on the other hand, is a statement about the
way in which natural science is now ordinarily practiced, whether in regard
to its formational history or to its contemporary operation. In the
restricted application to scientific theorizing about the formational
history of the universe, it does presume that the formational economy of
the universe is sufficiently robust (for reasons not specified) to
accomplish the self-assembly and/or transformations needed to take it from
its initial state to the present array of physical structures and life
forms. MN has no way whatsoever of accounting for any of the following: 1)
the existence of anything; 2) any particular capability of a physical or
biotic system; 3) the remarkable robustness of the formational economy of
this universe; 4) the incredibly fruitful outcome of the universe's
formational history--it includes us! 5) the list goes on....

Comment #1: The RFE Principle may or may not be true, but my own judgment
is that it does represent a true statement about the Creation's formational
economy. I freely admit that I cannot prove it (nor, of course, could
anyone disprove it); the best I can do is to make a human judgment. Every
day we learn of more creaturely capabilities that contribute to the
Creation's formational economy. Among these are many that are truly
astounding--the Creation's capabilities for self-organization and
transformation are mind-boggling, accomplishing things that the human mind
could never have anticipated simply by thinking about it. That's part of
the reason why I am not inclined to postulate the need for divine
form-imposing interventions to account for phenomena that our limited
imagination has not yet been able to comprehend by means of the incomplete
conceptual vocabulary of contemporary natural science.

Comment #2: Your intuition that the _application_ of the RFE Principle and
the _application_ of methodological naturalism to any specific "scientific
research problem" or "empirical puzzle" (regarding the formational history
of physical structures or life forms) would be essentially the same is, I
think, correct, provided that you honor the limited scope of "scientific
research problem" or "empirical puzzle." However, I would make two comments
on your choice of terminology where you refer to "choosing from the same
limited set of explanatory tools, namely, natural regularities and chance."
That terminology seems to be slanted toward Naturalism (as if to give the
RFE Principle a malodorous connotation. Surely you didn't intend to do
that, did you, Paul?).

a) Where a proponent of Naturalism can refer only to "natural regularities"
whose origin (ultimate source of being) and astounding effectiveness remain
an inexplicable mystery, a theist can speak of 'creaturely capabilities'
that are expressive of the Creator's creativity, generosity, intentions,
and the like. All creaturely capabilities are present as a 'gift of being'
purposefully given by the Creator.

b) Where a proponent of Naturalism might be tempted to jump from the
recognition of randomness in some phenomenon to the conclusion of
meaningless "chance", a theist would be quick to recognize that randomness
at one level does not in any way preclude the prevailing of purpose. Even
the human operator of an honest gambling casino, for instance, purposefully
employs the results of random outcomes in his computation of payout rates.
If you don't believe that, take a look at downtown Las Vegas!

So, Paul, given my concept of fully-gifted the character of the Creation's
formational economy, I have little complaint with contemporary scientific
methodology as it applies to the investigation of the Creation's
formational history. On that point your intuitions are correct. However, if
a proponent of either Naturalism or Theism wishes to go beyond the
competence of natural science and to place 'natural' phenomena (I prefer
the term 'creaturely' phenomena) in the context of a more comprehensive
range of phenomena, including the possibility of divine action, then a much
larger "set of explanatory tools" is available. What I am saying is that,
in my judgment, the formational economy of the Creation is sufficiently
robust to make gap-bridging, form-imposing, divine interventions
unnecessary. (Note carefully: not _forbidden_, not _impossible_, just (by
God's choice) _unnecessary_.)

The principal point I made in my earlier post is that the prevailing
methodology in the _natural_ sciences is NOT the property of the preachers
of Naturalism, but finds strong warrant in the concept of the Creation
having been provided by God with a robust formational economy (a concept
that has been present in Christian theology for at least 15 centuries).


Howard Van Till