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

From: David Clounch <>
Date: Wed Jun 17 2009 - 23:50:18 EDT


May I intrude here? You say to David Campbell:

"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.)"

I agree Quantum Indeterminancy would not be sufficient to explain many
types of phenomena. But I suspect it would be sufficient to explain how
information and programming could be added to biological organisms where it
otherwise would not exist under natural circumstances. Thus it could be a
viable supporting idea for TE. Nevertheless my guess is that David Campbell
probably would reject Q.I. as a driving force for evolution. Why? It
really is something certain ID advocates would like. I cannot imagine
David Campbell going along with that, but he can of course correct me if I
am wrong.

Best Regards,
David Clounch

On Wed, Jun 17, 2009 at 3:35 PM, Cameron Wybrow <>wrote:

> David:
> 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 water?)
> If I could get your principles down, then maybe together we could come back
> to evolution and apply them, and see what comes out.
> Cameron.
> ----- Original Message ----- From: "David Campbell" <
> >
> To: "asa" <>
> 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"
>> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
>> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.

To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Wed Jun 17 23:51:11 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Wed Jun 17 2009 - 23:51:11 EDT