A Fine Tuned Universe? 10 (RJS)

We finish off this series on Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology with a brief look at his conclusions, tying his major themes together.

First a reiteration of what a robust natural theology is not (according to McGrath at least):

According to McGrath the interplay between science and faith – the development of a robust natural theology – is not the quest for empirical evidence for the existence of God. 

It is not a quest to deduce characteristics of God from the nature of the universe.

Natural theology does not offer a causal explanation of the natural order.

The case for a natural theology is not weakened, in McGrath’s opinion, by the recognition of forces within nature which have led to the world we see – including the birth of stars, (great picture below) the evolution of higher animals and common descent.


The Carina Nebula is one of the outstanding features of the Southern-Hemisphere portion of the Milky Way. The circular Keyhole  ring structure shown here is about 7 light-years in diameter and contains both bright filaments of hot, fluorescing gas, and dark silhouetted clouds of cold molecules and  dust, all of which are in rapid, chaotic motion. The high resolution  of the Hubble images reveals the relative three-dimensional locations of many of these features, as well as showing numerous small dark globules that may be in the process of collapsing to form new stars.  Image Credit: NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI) http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/photo_gallery/photogallery-astro-nebula.html

What a robust natural theology is (again according to McGrath):

Natural theology is an attempt to address some of the fundamental questions of human existence. Questions such as: How do we make sense of the world around us? What is our place in the universe? What is the meaning of things? (p 217)

Natural theology is about a theologically grounded quest for truth, beauty, and goodness within nature. (p. 219)

An authentically Christian theology provides us with a conceptual net to throw over our experience of the world, allowing us to make sense of its unity and live with its seeming contradictions. (p. 219)

Yet recognition of an evangelical capacity to explain leads on to something more significant: the capacity to confer meaning. And here we encounter one of the most distinctive and important aspects of the Christian faith: the throwing of a net of meaning over the raw data of experience. The gospel, we must remind ourselves, is not primarily an explanatory account of cosmic or human origins. Its essence lies in its conferral of meaning, expressed in such values as purpose, value, significance, and agency. (p. 220)

McGrath introduces the analogy of a pearl necklace and suggests that fine-tuning in nature, anthropic phenomena, the known facts and observations are the pearls – while “the Trinitarian  vision of reality that is characteristic of classical Christianity” is the string, the grand theory that collects, connects, and unifies the pearls and produces the necklace. 

What do you think of McGrath’s expectation for the role of Natural Theology?

Is the observation of nature a way to demonstrate God and refute secular materialism?

Is the Christian faith a way make sense (in a deep fashion) of the observation of nature?

Or is there some other approach that makes more sense to you?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • I know a lot of commenters on this site would disagree with me, but i absolutely believe natural theology provides a way to demonstrate and refute secular materialism. I’m a fan of William Lane Craig’s work — and he’s someone who I think has made good use of natural theology as an apologetic that I think is quite powerful.
    Does it have its limits? Absolutely. Natural theology alone does not get anyone to Christ. But I believe it can help break down barriers to faith. To me, the observation of nature screams GOD!

  • pds

    I make a distinction between “natural theology” and the use of design arguments from nature in apologetics. “Natural theology” can refer to a lot of very different things.
    By the way, Casey Luskin has posted on the Collins-Giberson interview that RJS posted on previously:
    He points out many of the same problems I did.
    No one has ever explained this contradiction in Collins’ attack on ID:
    1. ID doesn’t propose any falsifiable hypotheses, so it is not “science.”
    2. ID is being falsified. See p. 192 of The Language of God.
    To suggest that Michael Behe and other ID proponents are not doing real science is quite an insult. Anyone?

  • Kenny,
    Do the observations of tsunamis and tornadoes and hurricanes also “scream GOD”?

  • Thanks for an intriguing series. I’m almost sorry to be at the end.
    As a general point, it seems to me that McGrath’s Natural Theology is really a theological approach to understanding nature as described by modern science. This isn’t Natural Theology in any classical sense and it might bring more confusion than light to call it Natural Theology. It also seems to me to be a little too safe, so safe that it tames “The heavens declare the glory of God”.

  • I haven’t read McGrath’s book (yet) so I am reluctant to comment about aspects of the book itself. Your questions, however, are another matter! “Is the Christian faith a way to make sense of the observation of nature?” For me certainly. And the natural world can tell us some, not all, but some things about God. Particularly things about the relationality of God, within God’s own self and with the world. However, as Calvin pointed out the natural world in itself is an incomplete witness to God- that’s why God reveals Godself to us throught Scripture and most importantly Jesus.
    It seems to me that God is not “proveable”,certainly not by science or even by theological argument. However, God is certainly “knowable” by both reason and experience.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    “No one has ever explained this contradiction in Collins’ attack on ID:”
    Actually I did more than once but you ignored it. I’m not going to explain it again in detail, but the Discovery Institute version of ID makes a constellation of claims. Most of these are not falsifiable but some are. It is not a contradiction to identify those that are not science and to demonstrate the falsity of the scientific claims.
    As I pointed out numerous times, there is no quantifiable workable definition of either irreducible complexity (Behe) or complex specified information (Dembski). As I asked before,”what is the information content in a bacterial flagella? What are the units of measure? What is the information content in rattlesnake venom injection system? That system appears to be irreducibly complex. Is it? how do we know.?
    ….crickets chirping to all of my questions.
    However, some specific claims of ID proponents can indeed be falsified. As I have explained numerous times before, even if irreducible complexity cannot be defined sufficiently as a scientific concept of general application, it is still possible to point out some examples that do qualify as irreducibly complex. Behe attempted to do so in 1996: Bacterial flagella is one example blood clotting cascade is another. Behe’s claim that these are “irreducibly complex” means that neither could have evolved. That claim has been demonstrated to be false.
    As I suggested before, simply “Google Scholar” “evolution of flagella” to see the vast number of research articles showing the evolution of bacterial flagella. A single article I previously posted is here: http://www.talkdesign.org/faqs/flagellum.html
    Blood clotting cascade evolution:
    Meanwhile, here is the ID peer reviewed journal:
    http://www.iscid.org/pcid.php (last published 2004).
    The ID lab: http://www.biologicinstitute.org/ (dormant)
    ID Research: http://www.researchintelligentdesign.org/index.php/Main_Page (last updated 2006)
    In summary, Most of ID’s claims are not falsifiable, but some of them are. Those that are have been determined to be false. ID’s so-called research program is “astroturf organization” (Google it) pretending to be a scientific research program when it is actually a public relations scheme.
    Collins is therefore not inconsistent when he says that ID’s core ideas are not science because they are not falsifiable, but the specific examples offered by ID proponents have been determined to be false.

  • RJS

    craig v.
    McGrath would argue that his view of Natural Theology is not consistent with the 18th century “ideal” but is consistent with earlier views. He also questions the use of the term though … because of what it has come to mean.
    I don’t think that it is too safe taming “The heavens declare the glory of God.” I think that it attaches more meaning to the science – as an exploration of the wonders, intricacies, and sophistication of God’s creation. It also attaches significance to this exploration as part of the creation mandate. We can only use the creation we see around us for the good of all when we understand it.
    And to answer David #3 – yes I think that even tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes manifest the power of God. We view them as evil because of the mighty power to destroy lives…but they are part of the forces that create, shape, and form.
    We are not in a perfect finished world – and I don’t think that even “eden” was intended to be a completed finished existence – we were created for a mission.

  • RJS

    I think that the solution to your “contradiction” is perhaps quite simple because there are senses in which both are true.
    First ID is not falsifiable because it suggests only that there is empirical evidence for design. How do you falsify this?
    There are even ways that irreducible complexity as one example of ID is both not falsifiable (one can continue to suggest new examples) and falsifiable (reasonable evolutionary pathways are being suggested and evidence is being provided for their validity for specific examples proposed to be irreducibly complex).
    But in a larger sense even bringing these two “contradictions” up is a red herring because they only have any importance if one assumes that people in general and Collins in particular will always use language with a mathematical precision in meaning. We know that this isn’t true – there is always a nuance in meaning.

  • AHH

    While some aspects have not impressed me (like the emergence discussion the other day), overall I think McGrath has the right approach to “natural theology”. Or maybe “theology of nature” would be a better term.
    Is the observation of nature a way to demonstrate God and refute secular materialism?
    McGrath and I would say no (Karl Barth in a related context said “Nein!”), or at least not a very good way if it is asked to serve as “proof” to those without the eyes of faith. And even if one somehow proves a designer, as others have noted over the years, without special revelation that takes us to Jesus an anonymous Designer is just another idol.
    Is the Christian faith a way make sense (in a deep fashion) of the observation of nature?
    Yes, absolutely, science and Christian theology can be mutually reinforcing in an integrated view of the world. Fine-tuning as a clue to our existence in a contingent creation, the consonance between “kenosis” and the subtle ways God seems to go about creating, and probably many other things.
    If I may tread on territory that people like dopderbeck know better than I, it seems like a key difference between McGrath and typical “natural theology” is epistemology. Common natural theology (Rev. Paley, Paley’s Deist contemporaries, some of the modern ID movement) is foundationalist. Start with the accepted foundations of modernity (science and human reason) and build on those foundations to reach God. McGrath’s view seems clearly non-foundationalist (I think “coherentism” may be the right word) in looking to build a mutually reinforcing web of warranted knowledge and belief that all hangs together and serves to make sense of the world at all levels. In this era where the weaknesses of foundationalism are being recognized more and more, McGrath’s approach seems more likely to be fruitful.

  • pds

    RJS (#7)
    I think your explanation is pretty lame, frankly. I think it takes very lightly the inherent insult in what Collins is asserting.
    It also does not address what he really said:
    “What do you think of this project that the Discovery Institute has launched, with a laboratory where they want to do genuine scientific research, with their own in-house Intelligent Design scientists?
    It is hard for me to imagine what they will do. id doesn’t actually propose any falsifiable hypotheses.”
    You have confirmed that he is wrong about this. And you have shown more evidence of your double standard. Disappointing.

  • RJS

    I quit.
    I made a very tame conversational comment in response to yours without impugning anyone or anything. In fact I was very very careful with what I said. I gave my view and opinion of the issue.
    Collins honestly stated that he thought it was hard to imagine what they will do – I also find it hard to imagine what they will do. Perhaps they will prove us both wrong.
    You could have come back and explained why you disagreed with my point in a conversational tone and we or others could have discussed it. Instead you did so in a fashion that took the opportunity to attack me and accuse me of double standards. In fact I am fully aware that I cannot say anything even remotely negative about the intelligent design movement or any idea or document put forth in this vein without it bringing you on the attack.
    I will not respond to your comments any more.

  • Scot mcKnight

    PDA, I will offer my support to RJS,not that she needs it, but I do so on behalf of this blog’s desire to be respectful in all conversation.

  • pds

    RJS (#10)
    You obviously don’t see the tremendous insult in Collins’ comments. I find that remarkable and disappointing.
    You are defending Collins’ inconsistent and inaccurate attack on ID. That is your choice. The facts speak for themselves. You need me to explain more?
    You are free to use those tactics. I don’t think you are going to win people over that way.

  • pds

    What is not “respectful” in what I said?

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    You consistently invoke theologian Carl Tryueman’s Second Law.
    Here is Trueman’s description of that law:
    Trueman’s Second Law would be formulated something like this: in any exchange of views, sooner or later one or more of the participants will describe themselves as hurt or in pain as a result of somebody else’s comment; and at that point it is clear that they have lost the real debate.
    Nobody is fooled. You refuse to engage the actual arguements made and instead you play the wimpering mewling victim claiming “tremendous insult.”
    Collins did not call ID proponents “child molesters” nor did he claim that ID proponents sprang from apes, just not as far as the rest of us.
    Those accusations just might qualify as “tremendous insults.”
    All Collins did was point our that ID’s main idea, Irreducible Complexity, has no substance (therefore not “science”) and further claimed that ID’s proffered examples of IC (e.g., bacterial flagella) actually evolved (thereby falsified).
    The simultaneous suggestions that ID’s general core ideas are unscientific and its speicfic research examples have been falsified are neither insulting or inconsistent.
    In Trueman’s words, you are a “hurt mailer:” Hurt mailers, by comparison, are rather more subtle and duplicitous: by claiming pain, they immediately do two things. First, they make themselves the poor victims; and second, they imply that the targets of this hurt mailing are intentionally malicious perpetrators. The game is precisely the same as with hate mail — to make someone whom they dislike or whose opinions they discount shut up — but the tactic is different: to win by seizing the moral high ground that belongs to the professional victim.
    I suggest you follow Trueman’s closing advice: Get a grip, get yourself some trousers, stop feeling sorry for yourself, and please, please, please, don’t hide behind the aesthetic pietisms of the tiresome and clichéd `feel my pain while I process my hurt’ posse. Have the backbone, have the decency – nay, have the honesty – to take your licks and move on, either to addressing the substance of the argument or to some area of endeavour that is, well, perhaps less painful and hurtful for you.

  • #John1453

    If ID is non-falsifiable as a theory or research program, but falsifiable in its particular examples, then it is in no worse shape than evolution which bears the exact same characteristics.
    Moreover, falsifiablility is neither a necessary nor sufficient criterion of “science” such that it functions as a demarcation between what science is and is not. The demarcation of science is a well known as being a knotty problem that has thusfar eluded resolution. Some have claimed that “falsifiability” is a key or essential characteristic of science, but that claim has also been refuted–unless one wants to demarcate some current areas of investigation as “not science”.
    Finally, it does seem that Collins has not adequately understood what he airily dismisses, which negates the force of his critique.
    Even Dawkins admits that biology has the appearance of design. Well, then, is it not reasonable to investigate what design actually is? Design is both a teleological and factual concept and so amenable to scientific methodologies as well as philosophy. We recognize design when we uncover human artifacts, why not in other areas (such as biology)? Furthermore, if we are nothing but evolutionary meat puppets, or wet chemical machines, then even the concept of design can be reduced to a purely physical brain state and thus capable of investigation by a naturalist methodology.

  • Unapologetic Catholic

    “Finally, it does seem that Collins has not adequately understood what he airily dismisses, which negates the force of his critique.”
    John renews the vitim argument that the method of criticism is somehow indicative of weakness and “Airy” dismissals of pseudoscience are inappropriate.
    Not so.
    First, Please examine Francis Collins’s CV here:
    You can pass over his graduate and post graduate MD and Ph.D degrees and first observe that he has been the director of the National Human Genome Research Project since 1993. This project has completed one of the greatest scientific achievements in history. The project inescapably demolishes any objections to common ancestry and common descent, two foundations of evolution. No serious scientific objections to either of these principles can be made at the conclusion of the Project’s work.
    You can pass over the pages of honors and awards that he has received to get to his peer reviewed articles—all 384 articles discussing various evolutionary concepts. He also distinguishes between peer-reviewed articles and non-peer reviewed articles. He has another 105 of those.
    I think he knows a thing or two abbots the subject of evolution. Enough to airily dismiss quack theories if he was so inclined.
    To claim he must not “adequately understand” ID and airily dismisses it,” is equivalent to claiming that Albert Einstein didn’t adequately understand the physics of UFO’s and therefore couldn’t “airily” dismiss UFO sightings.
    I’d suggest that your CV better bear a pretty close resemblance to Collins’s CV before you can even express any meaningful opinion about his understanding of any current issue in biology.
    Another point about the Collins CV. Francis Collins is just one scientific researcher. There are others whose CVs are, if fact, nearly as impressive. His is, in this sense, illustrative.
    Note again the number of his peer reviewed articles on evolution: 384.
    How many peer reviewed articles on intelligent design (by generous count)?
    At most, One. (Behe says “zero.”)
    That’s the total output of the combined efforts of ID scientists worldwide since 1996. Dwarfed by a single working scientist. 383 fewer peer-reviewed articles than a singe working scientist.
    Michael Behe, the only scientist actually claiming to work on ID, has one peer reviewed article listed on his webpage and that article concededly did not discuss intelligent design. He has a handful of non-peer reviewed non scholarly articles listed on his webpage. Other than the single peer-reviewed article, there is no pretense that ID has actually done any scientific work to back up its claims.
    Instead of doing science, ID tellingly primarily publishes in Christian philosophical magazines such as Touchstone. ID proponents love to claim there is some demarcation problem. Demarcation is an interesting issue to philosophers, but not scientists. There are indeed some areas where it is somewhat difficult to determine science from proto-science. There are far fewer difficulties in distinguishing science from pseudo-science such as astrology, for example. ID originally appeared to have proto-science possibilities in 1996. Since then, ID has completely stagnated and becoming more of political movement than a scientific research program.
    The rest of John’s points have been exhaustively answered in the many comments on the Fine Tuned Universe Posts #1 through #10. For anyone new to this post or to this subject, I recomemnd reviewing all of the prior RJS thoughtful posts and comments.

  • RJS

    On a positive note – Collins was confirmed as the director of the NIH today on a voice vote.