[asa] special versus general divine action [was: Re: design and the nature of science]

From: Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
Date: Wed Jun 17 2009 - 16:35:08 EDT


I agree with you on many points of detail, and I think even regarding many
of your theological positions, and your tone is calm and civilized. Yet
somehow we are not quite seeing eye to eye.

It seems to me that you are equivocating on special versus general divine
activity. For example, the man falling off the cliff. You propose the
notion of a freak wind which sustains the man during the fall. You speak of
God "using" the wind to save the man in a way which seems to me to blur the
distinction between special and general divine activity. I seek more
clarity regarding your suggestion. Here is how I would analyze the event
that you propose:

If the apparently freak wind can be shown, by the laws known to atmospheric
science, to have arisen from previous motions of air in an unbroken causal
nexus, I would call this wind the result of the "general" activity of God,
i.e., the activity by which God sustains nature and its processes.

If the apparently freak wind can be shown to have arisen without appropriate
causal antecedents, so that the causal nexus is broken, I would call this
wind the result of a "special" activity of God.

(Note that I am not raising here the question whether our knowledge of
nature is sufficient to determine whether the wind had causal antecedents.
That is an important question, but it's not pertinent to the general notion
I'm trying to lay out here. For conceptual purposes, therefore, I want you
to assume that the determination can be made.)

Another way of putting the above distinction, in somewhat Humean language,
would be to speak of "natural" vs. "miraculous" causes. "Natural" causes
would be entirely within the chain of causes going back (theoretically) to
the Big Bang, and "miraculous" causes would indicate new departures, the
start of a new chain of events by God by a breaking of the previous chain.

When TEs speak of methodological naturalism, they seem to mean that science
should try, as hard as possible, to explain all phenomena, present and past,
in terms of God's general activity, i.e., in terms of what we think of as
"natural" causes, and should eschew any explanations involving God's special
activity, i.e., any miraculous causes. (Thus, a cartoon making fun of Behe
[and misrepresenting his thesis] has a scientist pointing to a blackboard
with equations, and then the equations break off, and we see the words "and
then a miracle occurs".) I am taking it that you are a TE, and that you
agree with this account of science and with the view that God generally
works exclusively through natural causes. If you differ from other TEs on
these points, you will have to explain your position to me.

Now I find, in your reply, that you slide back and forth between general and
special activity of God, or perhaps that you are envisioning some third
category which is somehow both, and I thus find your exposition (a)
confusing and (b) unconvincing.

Here's an example:

> But I doubt that God does have a special involvement in particular
> events-rather, He has a special involvement in all events. He does
> not appear "on site"- He's always already there.

I cannot tell what this means. If God is "always there" in the sense that
he is always sustaining Kepler's Laws and Boyle's Law and the gravitational
constant and so on, then you are talking about God's general action, i.e.,
what in our non-religious moods we call simply "the laws of nature", or
"nature". But to call that a "special" involvement is entirely confusing.
In normal English, a "special" involvement would mean something out of the
ordinary, specific to a situation, whereas the laws of nature are entirely
*general*, applying to all situations. Why would you use the word "special"
in such a confusing way?

Possibly you mean something like this (which may be what Moorad was saying a
while back): "Nature" is a fiction; there is no inherent continuity or
law-abidingness to "nature"; it just seems law-abiding because God usually
wills things in a consistent way. Thus, moment by moment, God wills
everything that happens in the universe, item by item, in the combinations
that please him. This doctrine is called "occasionalism", and it was held
by certain Muslim theologians and, in a certain form, apparently, by
Malebranche. Under occasionalism *all* God's actions are special, and there
is no need to speak of God's general action, because there is no such thing
as "nature".

If this is what you meant, then you could speak as you have above, but then
you must face the consequences: how can there be "natural" science if there
is no "nature" to base it on? God is mysterious and utterly free, and no
one can predict his moment-by-moment will. There is therefore no reason to
think that the human mind can uncover "laws of nature", and thus natural
science is an unreasonable, quixotic enterprise.

I don't actually think that you did mean to defend the occasionalist
doctrine; I think that you hold, like most scientists here and everywhere,
that there is such a thing as "nature", and that there are "natural laws",
and that science's job is to discover them. But if there are "natural
laws", then we are back to the general will of God, and there is no need to
speak of his special activity unless those natural laws are ruptured, i.e.,
in a miracle.

Of course, you may have in mind, as some here do, that God acts indetectably
under quantum indeterminacy, which allows a degree of freedom for special
activity even though no law of nature is broken. But (a) you haven't said
this, and I can't read your mind; and (b) I do not think quantum
indeterminacy would alllow sufficient freedom to explain most of the
miracles in the Bible, and I also doubt that it would be sufficient to
generate a wind capable of breaking a thousand-foot fall. (If it would be,
I would like to be shown how -- at least in general terms.)

What I am looking for is clear categories of analysis. I am not the one who
introduced the division between "God's general activity" and "God's special
activity". Others have done this. I am using those categories because some
people here seem to understand them or prefer them. But I would be happy
with different categories, if they analyze divine activity better. My
problem is that I am finding your application of the category of "special"
actions of God impossible to apply with any rigour. It seems to cover both
general and special action in a blurry way, and therefore is of no
intellectual use.

Perhaps you could step back from the specific question of evolution, and
give me your general understanding of: (1) The types of divine action (if
there is indeed more than one type); (2) "nature"; (3) "natural laws"; (4)
"miracles"; and (5) any other notions that you find necessary to employ when
speaking of the God-nature relationship. This would be especially helpful
if you would give examples from physics, chemistry, etc. (Is God doing
anything when we boil water for cup of tea? What exactly is he "doing"?)
It would also be helpful if you gave examples from the Bible. (Was God
doing anything when Jesus walked on the water? If so, what was he doing
that he *doesn't* do under most conditions, when people sink into the

If I could get your principles down, then maybe together we could come back
to evolution and apply them, and see what comes out.


  ----- Original Message -----
From: "David Campbell" <pleuronaia@gmail.com>
To: "asa" <asa@calvin.edu>
Sent: Tuesday, June 16, 2009 2:41 PM
Subject: Re: design and the nature of science (was: Re: [asa] Re: Gingerich
on TE and ID)

>> First, a rigid Laplacian universe *does* remove God from the picture, in
>> a
>> very important sense. If God chooses to work *only* through laws (which I
>> take it is what you mean by "rigid"), then God is *not* actively involved
>> in
>> the day-to-day events of the universe. You can say he is "involved" only
>> in
>> two senses:
>> 1. He is the originator of the laws, and therefore whatever they do is
>> ultimately caused by him.
>> 2. He "concurs" with the laws, i.e., sustains them, gives them his
>> blessing
>> to continue.
> No, there is another option-that the natural laws are describing how
> God is working. God can be actively involved in an event that fully
> obeys natural laws. Your argument assumes that natural laws are
> autonomous. That is the traditional atheistic understanding, all too
> often endorsed in antievolutionary rhetoric as well. However, if you
> understand natural laws as our best description of how God normally
> runs the universe, then God can actively work through laws.
> Should I be thankful for the things I have that are explainable by
> natural laws (e.g., family, getting well with medical treatment, food,
> mollusks to study)? If so, it is because I understand God to be at
> work in the natural laws, as well as beyond them.
> A rigidly Laplacian universe [with the caveat that the line about not
> needing the hypothesis of God comes from a novel, not directly from
> Laplace] does not obviously require God as part of the explanation of
> its everyday working, but it does not rule Him out, either. The claim
> that God is not actively working if something is done fully by natural
> law is a god of the gap error.
> Of course, if one asserts that God can only work through natural laws,
> then one makes an unbiblical restriction on His abilities and in a way
> somewhat removes Him. Nevertheless, such a view, though heterodox, is
> compatible with the idea that God is actively involved in events,
> e.g., in some process-type theologies.
>> Note that in neither of these meanings does God have a *special
>> involvement*
>> in particular events. He does not appear "on site" to do anything that
>> the
>> laws would not do of themselves. (Nothing you have said about the
>> Westminister Confession etc. alters this in the slightest. We are
>> speaking
>> here about a rigid Laplacian universe, not about the traditional
>> Christian
>> understanding of the universe, which in no way requires or demands a
>> rigid
>> Laplacianism. And I hope it is clear that I am not endorsing rigid
>> Laplacianism, but merely indicating what role it gives to God in natural
>> events.)
> But I doubt that God does have a special involvement in particular
> events-rather, He has a special involvement in all events. He does
> not appear "on site"- He's always already there. The laws would do
> nothing of themselves, any more than the constitution does anything
> besides sit in a case. This is my view; there are a range of possible
> concepts of the degree of autonomy of things both in terms of whether
> a law can do something itself and how tightly God controls the
> outcome.
>> (a) that ill accords with the conception of science he espouses in the
>> work, which ought to try to find natural causes even for those original
>> forms<
> Such a position can have at least two distinct underlying philosophies
> a) everything is dictated by natural law, therefore everything can be
> explained by natural causes
> b) natural causes work pretty well as a physical explanation of a lot
> of things, therefore it makes sense to try explaining things with them
> and see if it works
>> In other words, Darwin was more than half-way along the path from Boyle's
>> position to Sagan's position when he wrote the Origin,
> But he was not all the way there, and did some wavering. Darwin's
> position is not the same as that of Dawkins. "Darwinian" is abused as
> a catchall term, typically encompassing whatever is not liked by any
> particular antievolutionist. As a result, it's not generally a useful
> label.
>> Third, in the case of falling off a cliff, you are cheating by
>> introducing
>> water at the bottom. I did not specify, but obviously my example implied
>> that I was speaking of a fall that would, without a suspension of the
>> laws
>> of nature, be fatal. Imagine a thousand-foot cliff with jagged rocks at
>> the
>> bottom, if you must.
> The case I mentioned did involve discussion about organ donation (at
> least of the ones that weren't too badly damaged) before the person
> who fell showed clear tendency towards recovery-fatality is certainly
> what would have been expected. Even in the case of a thousand-foot
> fall onto jagged rocks, it's conceivable to have just the right wind
> breaking the fall-highly improbable, but not necessarily a violation
> of natural law. Remember Murphy's law-almost any scenario can have
> something go wrong with it.
> Not that I think that God can't act without using natural laws in such
> a situation, just that it is not absolutely necessary, if He happens
> to want to use them. The other big difficulty in such scenarios is
> that God might have a reason to stop the fall or to allow it, so
> there's no certain a priori expectation.
>> Fourth, on the eagle and the shrew, I grant that there are many
>> contingencies that could prevent the shrew from being eaten, but they are
>> just that -- contingencies. God cannot *guarantee* that the shrew will
>> not
>> be eaten, unless he *at some point* intervenes in one or more of those
>> contingencies.
> Or if they are predetermined in a front-loading sort of way, or if He
> is actively involved already rather than jumping in and intervening.
>> God's intentions cannot be thwarted, according to traditional belief, so
>> presumably God did not leave
>> it to "luck" to determine whether or not the shrew would live;<
> While I don't believe God did so, one could have a coherent model in
> which God left it to "luck", with enough shrews (possibly and other
> things) to ensure that one would live.
>> so how did God *guarantee* that the shrew did not get eaten? Did he
>> "front-load" its
>> survival? (Can even "front-loading" guarantee *events*, as opposed to
>> genetic makeups? It seems unlikely.)
> It seems unlikely, but there is the example of chaotic systems in the
> mathematical sense where the outcome is humanly unpredictable but
> fixed based on the precise starting point plus any disturbance.
> Omniscience could calculate a result. Maybe it's possible, maybe not.
>> And if God didn't front-load it, then how did he protect the shrew?
> Either some sort of more intervention-style action, or else simply by
> working natural laws as part of the regular running of the universe;
> acting in indeterminacies such as quantum events might be a third
> option or subsumed under one of those headings.
>> This is where "Christian Darwinism" runs into endless problems, and
>> rather than try to rescue it, I think Christians should just cut the
>> Gordian knot, and stop even trying to harmonize Christian theology with
>> Darwinism.<
> No more problems than trying to pin down exactly when and how and
> intervening ID-type designer intervened.
>> Fifth, on Miller, he defines Darwinian evolution exactly as I do. <
> Ken Miller certainly does get fuzzy and incoherent at points.
> However, he does endorse Biblical miracles (disconcerting a Unitarian
> when he spoke here), so he does not hold that everything invariable
> works by natural law. He seems to think that God does leave some
> things in evolution to luck, but that was a particularly fuzzy point
> in his talk.
> However, I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "Darwinian" evolution.
> You combine aspects of philosophy and mechanism in what you are
> talking about. The physical mechanisms invoked by conventional
> evolutionary biology work very well in explaining the physical aspects
> of the origin and diversification of life. Most scientists have
> little or no grounding in philosophy, and it shows when we try to
> address such issues. The philosophical ideas held by Darwin are in no
> way necessary to evolution; he changed his philosophical position
> after coming up with the basic concepts, and "Vestiges of Creation"
> proposed much the same model of evolution by natural selection in a
> Christian context a bit before Darwin published.
>> Sixth, I said 3 billion rather than 4 billion because I was given to
>> understand that evidence regarding the older life forms was regarded by
>> many
>> paleontologists as debatable. I don't really care, because the difference
>> isn't even an order of magnitude, and it would take an earth many orders
>> of
>> magnitude older before I would find Darwinian explanations credible.
> Yes, it doesn't especially matter, just an inclination to pedantic
> accuracy.
>>> ID says, "NO -- unless the properties of the atoms and the laws of
>>> nature
>>> are fine-tuned, which implies design."
>> ID does not have a single answer. Wells and Johnson say NO; not even
>> new species can evolve from other species (never mind that they are
>> observed to do so all the time). This is generally the version of ID
>> as marketed to the average person in the pew. Denton says YES.
>> ***************
>> I already covered your point about Denton in my statement, when I
>> qualified
>> the NO answer with an "unless". Denton only says "Yes" because he is a
>> non-Darwinian and accounts for evolution via front-loading. Denton makes
>> it
>> clear in both his books that if *only* Darwinian processes were
>> operating,
>> his answer would be NO. And that is true of *all* ID people who are
>> front-loaders. As for all the non-front-loading ID people, the answer is
>> clearly NO.
> Yes; your answer was that of Denton, but except for endorsing his book
> that he doesn't hold to any more, the popular ID doesn't resemble his
> position very closely. There's no one ID position, any more than
> there is one TE position, but TE seems less inclined to claim to be a
> single unified position.
>> The point is that most TE people are very evasive about how much they
>> think
>> that Darwinian processes could accomplish *if God did nothing beyond
>> sustain
>> the laws of nature*. What do you think, David? If God kept "hands off"
>> after the Big Bang, just keeping the universal constants in place and the
>> laws of charge and gravity and so on running, would man have evolved on
>> earth just as he did? Or do you prefer, with most TEs, to remain safely
>> non-committal on the question?
> My view is that, if God took a hands off approach to some aspect of
> the universe, nothing would happen. That's a trick answer, because I
> mean that there would be nothing and nothing would occur, not that no
> change would occur. I believe God was just as involved in keeping the
> boatload of disciples afloat in calm weather as He was in keeping
> Peter afloat without the boat.
> That position is, of course, theologically based; no scientific
> experiment can test it one way or another.
> However, I think that God probably was able to achieve the process of
> creating humanity physically using the patterns of activity that we
> think of as natural law. This reflects the observation that God does
> do most things according to the patterns of natural law, the fact that
> evolutionary explanations seem to work quite well in my assessment;
> the strong tendency for opposition to evolution to incorporate
> carelessness about accuracy (also characteristic of Dawkins'
> anti-religion rhetoric), and an inclination to be cautious that favors
> "it's not absolutely necessary to invoke a miracle here, so best not
> to claim one and then get disproven".
> As to the exact mechanism, I don't know of any way to test between a
> more front-loaded scenario and a more intervene in the indeterminate
> details type of scenario. For that matter, I do not rule out an
> intervention that would seem to violate natural law; as far as I can
> tell, it would not be necessary, and so I do not want to rely on a
> claim that it did happen.
>> Otherwise, I think that the Darwinian explanation is desperate, and would
>> only be engaged
>> in by someone who was determined to keep special divine action out of the
>> origins picture at all costs -- which was exactly Darwin's motive, as is
>> clear from his writings.
> I don't see the Darwinian explanation as desperate as far as the
> science goes. Dawkinsian anti-religion and young earth "science"
> alike sound pretty desperate when they throw any argument they find,
> regardless of quality, at their target, but Dawkinsian anti-religion
> is a badly done add-on to the science. Darwin was motivated in part
> by a desire to figure out how things work; his objection to special
> divine action is primarily a matter of theodicy rather than directly
> relating to evolution, though he saw theodicy issues there, too.
> However, theodicy issues are in no way solved by simply invoking a
> more ID-type scenario; in fact, it tends to aggravate them by
> expecting more intervention.
>> You ask at the end how to get the best aspects of TE and ID more in line.
>> I have several suggestions:
> All your suggestions were about TE. Surely you don't think that it's
> hopeless to try to get ID to improve its act?
> --
> Dr. David Campbell
> 425 Scientific Collections
> University of Alabama
> "I think of my happy condition, surrounded by acres of clams"
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Received on Wed Jun 17 16:35:58 2009

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