Evolution in the Key of D (RJS)

I recently received a copy of John F. Haught‘s new book Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life. Haught is a Senior Fellow in Science and Religion at Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University and Professor of Theology Emeritus. He testified at the Dover trial on Intelligent Design back in 2005. His book opens some interesting topics for discussion and is certainly worth a few posts.

I picked up Haught’s book and started to read it on Saturday, immediately intrigued. The first chapters of the book deal with Darwin, Design, and Diversity … with Dawkins and Dennett as counterpoint (we can throw in some Coyne for variety).  There is an assumption – in Darwin at some  level, but more pronounced in our science and faith discussions today – that either there are scientific explanations for design and diversity or there are theological explanations for design and diversity. The scientific explanations rule out the need for theological explanations. Theological explanations in the presence of scientific explanations are either superfluous or fiction. This leads to the impression or the claim that our growth in scientific understanding eliminates the need for God and a place for God.

On the post last Thursday, Facing the Future in Community, a commenter from an atheist or agnostic position asked just these questions. “How many times do you conclude: “we thought God did this, but now we’ve found a natural cause” before you ask “so is there a God?”. So each time you find an alternative explanation to something that was once explained by “God”, does that diminish the role of God? What do you think?

My answer there (following up on comments by another regular):

On your question – “did the discovery that God did not directly create the diversity of living species diminish the role of God?” No – as Rick said, increasing understanding of chemistry, physics, and biology, including evolutionary mechanism tells us how. It doesn’t address the question of God.

On grounds that have nothing to do with the how, I suggest that the who is God. The thoroughly naturalist view dismisses “who?” as a meaningless question. But here is the crux of our disagreement – not  science but metaphysics and philosophy. We have to wrestle with the hard questions not trash them on spurious grounds.

This is largely Haught’s point in the first several chapters – and a question we need to get straight.

Are natural mechanism and divine creativity alternative explanations for the design and diversity of life?

Haught’s argument is that this either-or thinking, attributing diversity to natural selection rather than divine creativity, is fundamentally flawed. Layered explanations are the rule, not the exception. The book I am reading is the creative output of Haught’s thinking, the direct result of a publishers desire for such a book, and the consequence of a printing press applying ink to paper. None of these explanations invalidate the others, they are layers of truth. (this is Haught’s example p. 23-24)

Haught suggests that those who push the idea that purely natural explanations – natural mechanisms  – eliminate the rational basis for theological explanations are making a category mistake – and are doing theology (of a sort) rather than science.

[W]henever evolutionists declare or imply that evolution is an alternative to traditional theological understanding, they are not yet doing pure science. … Even if they reject classic theological answers to the question of design, as they almost invariably do, they are still imprisoned by a concern that is more theological than scientific. The evidence for this confusion emerges clearly whenever evolutionists insist that it is natural selection rather than divine action that provides the ultimate explanation of design. (p. 17-18).


By trading in theology for science, many evolutionists today are making another kind of blunder, the underside of the first. They are assuming that theology has for centuries been nothing more than a primitive attempt to do science in a prescientific age, and that now it must give way to a more reliable form of science, especially Darwinian biology. Here again the fundamental assumption is that science and theology are playing the same game, trying to provide information about the natural world, and that modern science has proved to be much better at it than traditional theology. (p. 19)

From a Christian perspective design and diversity in nature lead to scientific and metaphysical (theological) questions. Both layers of explanation are active and necessary. The diversity of life can arise from evolutionary modification and natural selection and at the same time arise from and reflect the God’s extravagant creative generosity and divine love.

While phenomena in nature incapable of natural explanation are not dismissed out of hand, the expectation of such as inevitable is questioned by Haught.

Good theology even urges scientists to push purely natural explanations as far as they possibly can. Any respectable theology refuses to insert the idea of “God” into an explanatory gap where room still remains for natural explanations. … To make God the answer to scientific questions is to shrivel what transcends nature into something small enough for mathematical equations to capture. This is bad theology as well as bad science. (p. 31)

This is a critical point – science as science cannot and does not undermine or undercut the concept of God – of deeper meaning or purpose. Science does, however, provide data that becomes part of the package of how we understand and wrestle with theological or metaphysical questions of purpose, meaning, and value. From a Christian point of view the book of nature reveals God and cannot be disregarded.

On the other hand decoupling the metaphysical and theological questions from the scientific questions, admitting the possibility of layered explanations for the same phenomena, in this case the design and diversity of life, does not prove God, much less orthodox Christian faith. It merely places the conversation on the correct foundation.

What do you think? Is it reasonable to look for layered explanations for the phenomena we observe and experience in the world?

Can the design and diversity of life have layered explanation – both divine creativity and evolution by natural selection?

Can the mind have both material and immaterial reality?

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

The key of D is by some reckoning the key of glory – the key of among other things Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. (Yes…this belongs with evolution, that is the point.)

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  • Scot McKnight

    RJS, one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking and helpful posts I’ve read from you on these issues. The “either-or” ideas are very, very helpful for me.

  • RickK

    Thanks for the post.
    A question. You say “science as science cannot and does not undermine or undercut the concept of God – of deeper meaning or purpose”
    Tell me, do you think there are some (many) Christians for whom the advancement of scientific knowledge (like evolution of species) DOES undercut their concept of God?
    Do you think there are Christians who base their faith, in part, upon the belief that God did/does directly create species and did directly create the planet Earth? By “directly create”, I don’t mean “used long term natural forces to create”, I mean “create” in a literal Genesis definition.
    Are there such Christians?
    And if there are such Christians – what do you say to them as the progress of science expands human knowledge deeper into our origins and deeper into our universe?

  • I think you missed the whole point that RJS is hitting on. That is that “science” in its modern form is working off the assumption that nothing has been created in the even remotely biblical sense. The scientific establishment has fallen into a bad habit of making up “natural” explanations for everything in the universe.
    They’ve been at it so long that they’ve started accepting their imaginative guess’s “er scientifically sound” as they justify themselves, that they’ve gone so far as to use these creative creation stories as a way of covering for their ignorance for what has really happened in the complex biological and cosmological past.
    Those Christians that lack “advanced” training in biology are easily pursuaded by these so-called “natural explanations” and in their misplaced trust in this so called, “science” can easily be moved from their faith in a real Creator to this strange “natural mythology”.
    My blog is dedicated to this subject: scifaith.com.

  • MatthewS

    This isn’t a helpful contribution to the discussion but I just wanted to say thanks for the video, for a few minutes of worship in my morning.
    I am at work and about one inch away from jumping up and cheering to the music. Love the Brooklyn Tab Choir! The Cymbalas’ and Brooklyn Tabernacle’s stories (including that she doesn’t read music!) are living testaments to God. There is something about knowing that their music truly comes from the soul.

  • Rick

    “do you think there are some (many) Christians for whom the advancement of scientific knowledge (like evolution of species) DOES undercut their concept of God?”
    I don’t know how RJS may answer this, but I think it more impacts their concept of Scripture, or at least certain parts of Scripture.

  • Haught’s book is an excellent statement on the relationship of science and theology. Rather than running from evolution, he invites it into the conversation, knowing that science can only take you so far. Theology helps us go deeper, to explore layers that science cannot penetrate, but science helps raise the questions that theology explores.
    My review will be at Theolog, but I can say that this is well worth the investment!

  • JHM

    Great post. I think the idea of layering is certainly helpful, but there are some deep questions still for me. You said:
    “This is a critical point – science as science cannot and does not undermine or undercut the concept of God – of deeper meaning or purpose.”
    It doesn’t undercut deeper meaning and purpose sure, but I certainly seems to me that the Christian God is much more than meaning and purpose. He is an objective reality that actually came and lived as a man. I wonder with this idea of layering if it just ends up at Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA. The Christian God seems to rather be all through the layers, not confined to any one of them.
    I do think the idea of design and diversity of life having a layered explanation is really interesting. Would Simon Conway Morris’ work on convergent evolution be applicable here?
    I also think the mind has material and immaterial reality, I just don’t know exactly how to show that. I just seems intuitive to me. We have lots of cases in psychology of the power of brain chemistry as well as “mind over matter”.

  • AHH

    Certainly from a Christian standpoint the “either/or” view is indefensible. Even leaving aside the controversial area of evolution, there are all sorts of things for which the Bible credits God for which we have adequate “natural” explanations (rain and the formation of stars being two examples).
    Most Christians are able to avoid either/or thinking in those cases, recognizing God’s sovereignty over nature and affirming both layers of explanation. But for whatever reason many are unable to follow the same logic for the development/evolution of life — even though the logic works for starfish just like it does for stars.
    In answer to RickK #2, indeed there are MANY Christians who do have this either/or mentality (sometimes called the “God of the Gaps” fallacy) where natural explanations are seen as excluding God from the picture. I think this drives much of Christian anti-evolutionism today. How to wean Christians away from this faulty logic is a very important question.
    I would suggest that a starting point for nudging people to a healthier position is to try to get across the wrongness of the either/or fallacy, using not a controversial area like evolution but instead an uncontroversial example like rain.

  • @JHM #7, Haught takes aim at Gould’s NOMA, but calling for theological engagement with evolution. He understands God in a more Process manner non-coercively, luring creation toward God’s desired goals. His response to Design orientation is quite important, because both ID and Evolutionary Naturalists (his definition of the Dawkinites) speak of design in such a way that if God is involved everything must be “perfect.” His understanding of evolution as drama allows us to understand that the process isn’t perfect, nor would we want it to be perfect — for then there would be no room for growth.

  • JHM

    @Bob #9, Is engagement enough to “take aim” at NOMA? I think Gould would be pretty OK with the idea of layers and perhaps people from the different layers engaging in discussion, but not really a mixing or interaction of the layers themselves. So something like objectively real miracles are not allowed but describing something as miraculous is. How does Haught deal with this, I’m not really clear?

  • Steve A

    Thanks RJS. I think this is a fruitful avenue of discussion. It seems to me that a common error is confusing being able to describe some behavior with having an explanation for how and why things actually work that way. We can describe things like gravity and the weak and strong nuclear forces but can’t really explain how they mysteriously hold things together. Data from our faith tradition tells us that God holds all things together. Those things seems very complementary and not at all likely to be undermined my some gap argument. This confusion of description with explanation is analogous to the difference between having a name for a medical condition and having a cure for one. Giving a name to set of symptoms helps us talk about it and perhaps focus attention on it for study, but it does nothing to help us solve the problem that causes the symptoms.

  • RickK

    Wayne, if your post was responding to me, thanks for the advertising to your blog. I didn’t miss RJS’s point at all, I asked a question (well, 2 questions – the second dependent upon the answer to the first).

  • RickK

    Steve A said: “We can describe things like gravity and the weak and strong nuclear forces but can’t really explain how they mysteriously hold things together.”
    500 years ago we didn’t know what matter was. We didn’t know that there were weak and strong nuclear forces. We didn’t even know there were nuclei. We didn’t know there were molecules, atoms, etc.
    I fear, Steve, that you’re making exactly the “God of the gaps” mistake by looking at our current knowledge, ignoring the context of the historical progression of our knowledge, and apparently assuming that we will never answer the currently unanswered questions.
    I can’t tell the difference between a question that doesn’t yet have a materialistic answer, and a question that can never have a materialistic answer.
    How do you tell the difference? By faith?
    What do you say to a young-earth Biblical literalist when they say that they too “answer with faith” as they lobby to have evolution removed from children’s science textbooks?
    Referring back to RJS’s post and Haught’s apparent position:
    Young Earth Creationists draw the line reconcile Christianity to the level of science as of ~1600. Stars are acceptable, but the creation of the Earth and the species was all done by God for God’s purposes.
    Haught and RJS appear to reconcile Christianity to today’s level of science – God created the universe for His purposes, and perhaps he governs how the nuclear forces work, fine tuned the universe, and maybe kicked the spark of life into motion.
    To me, there is very little difference. Both start with the assumption of God, both assume there’s a purpose to it all, and both deny at some level the proven effectiveness and power of methodological naturalism.
    As I said in the earlier thread – “natural philosophers” didn’t jump to naturalism in a great burst of atheistic God-denial. They were pulled, reluctantly kicking and screaming, to the “no God” assumption because of hundreds of years of confirming data.
    So given such data, it is a fair question to ask “so is there a God?” And those who do not personally “hear the voice” are being reasonable when they ask for a bit more evidence from those that do hear the voice.

  • DRT

    Great post. I have now written my Magnum Opus around this but it keeps falling in on itself…The only paragraph remotely worthy at this point is:
    No matter how well we describe the reality that we live in we will never be able to understand why it is this way. One of the concepts that appears to have merit is that there is no inherent reason why the laws of physics that we have in this cosmos are the ones we have, other than the fact than it could be no other way. If they were different then the reality we know would not exist. Therefore the “why” has to be a given, it can be no other way (which sounds strangely God like…)
    captcha gracious limiting

  • Travis Greene

    RickK @ 13,
    Do you think you might be begging the question?
    “They were pulled, reluctantly kicking and screaming, to the “no God” assumption because of hundreds of years of confirming data.”
    The data only confirms “no God” if you already assume God to be merely a hypothesis.
    I don’t think RJS is denying methodological naturalism. Indeed, many of us here have frequently discussed the necessity and appropriateness of methodological naturalism, as distinguished from philosophical naturalism.
    RJS isn’t limiting anything to “today’s level of science”. She frequently says there are plenty of things we don’t know the answer to now, but we shouldn’t put “God” in those gaps. Odds are we will figure out those answers, and if we made those gaps the reason for our belief in God, we will rightfully look foolish.
    To answer your question in a roundabout way, I think the world around us and human reason invite, but do not compel, belief in God. If I were just looking at the world in an entirely philosophically naturalistic lens, I would probably put the odds of God’s existence at around 50/50. So yes, asking for more evidence is an appropriate request. But it will never be, and never has been, the kind of evidence required under a philosophically naturalistic worldview. It will never be “Well, if you look over here at this nebula…” The evidence will be divine love expressed in human communities.

  • Justin Topp

    Thanks much for this post.
    To the commenters, I think there is a difference between this and NOMA but perhaps another analogy is in order. Think of what your favorite meal is to make. I like making homemade chili. There are lots of ingredients that I need to mix together to get the end result, chili.
    The ingredients, their order of mixing, and me are essential in making it. Science provides us with explanation of the first two essentials, but just because it does, does not mean that an explanation for the third is irrelevant.
    Twitter: JustinTopp

  • RJS

    MatthewS (#4),
    I particularly appreciated this rendition – it is a great one. I listened to it repeatedly as I was writing the post.
    RickK (#2)
    Of course there are Christians who make an argument basing faith on a young earth and a creation of the world of the sort one sees in the production of a sculpture or the design of an airplane. Answers in Genesis would be out of business if there weren’t.
    There are many more Christians who are agnostic on details but fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
    The in-house discussion among Christians is essential. There are issues that need to be discussed dealing with the nature of scripture. There are also theological questions that need to be discussed – questions dealing with the nature of God and of mankind among other things.
    There is no doubt that what we learn in science has implications for some traditional Christian views.
    But the tradition of the Church has not limited God to an explanation for gaps in understanding – a primitive pre-science science. This was not true in the early Church fathers, in Augustine or Thomas Aquinas to name a few. Without researching it thoroughly (perhaps something I should do in the future) I suggest that the idea that a primary role of religion is to provide answers to scientific questions is a myth of enlightenment and modernity. Questions of faith, religion, theology are not how, but why type questions.
    We can hold many important discussions on key issues – from the Christian side and from the skeptical or naturalist side.

  • Brian in NZ

    “To make God the answer to scientific questions is to shrivel what transcends nature into something small enough for mathematical equations to capture.”
    What a good sentence – I must remember that one.

  • RickK

    Travis said: “The data only confirms “no God” if you already assume God to be merely a hypothesis.”
    You missed my point, Travis. “Methodological Naturalism” was NOT the natural assumption of early scientists. GOD was the assumption of early scientists (natural philosophers). It was only after repeated failures of God as an explanatory mechanism, and repeated successes of natural causes as explanatory mechanisms, that scientists turned to methodological naturalism.
    In other words, when you apply the scientific method to the philosophy of science, the appropriate assumption is “nature, not God”.
    RJS, who said the primary role of religion is to provide answers to scientific questions? That’s your statement, not mine. I think religion has many roles, and it can be used for good or evil. But “GOD” as an actual thing that exists is very different from “religion”. And my posts have all been about the reasonable question: “Is there a God, and on what do we base the answer?”
    But RJS, I asked YOU – what do you say to Young Earth Creationists, or others whose faith depends on contradictions to current scientific knowledge? What do YOU say to them? How do YOU counsel them?
    What do YOU say to them when they try to teach YOUR children that the Earth is 6000 years old because God said so?

  • DRT

    There is a radiolab episode about the universe being tuned to a certain key. I have been trying to find it all day. I will gladly pay anyone who finds it a dollar….

  • RJS

    I don’t think that there were repeated failures of God as explanatory mechanism – there were repeated successes for natural mechanism. At an important level a methodological naturalism was certainly at work – not exactly as we describe it today, but it was there in the methodological investigations of science and nature.
    What would you consider a failure of God as explanatory mechanism?
    On the other question: What would I say to people who have grown up and remain YEC? I don’t usually bring it up unless a context demands it. I have taught a SS class a few times trying to take the tactic of introducing the range of positions that serious orthodox Christians have taken, including both old earth progressive creation and theistic evolution. It worked pretty well a couple of times and once I got baited into a more adversarial approach than I would have liked. Over all I try to open people’s minds to considering alternatives. But I think we are in a time of transition – and this can make it tough. Within the church we need an approach that is both pastoral and firmly moving forward.
    Another thing I try to do is turn the conversation away from Genesis as definitive and onto the Gospel as definitive.
    But I don’t have a perfected approach by any means. One of the things I value from the various conversations on this blog is that they allow me to think through approaches and arguments in a relatively calm way. I can consider questions and criticisms from both skeptics and conservative YEC or OEC Christians. Face-to-face conversations tend to get heated a bit too easily.

  • RickK, “It was only after repeated failures of God as an explanatory mechanism, and repeated successes of natural causes as explanatory mechanisms, that scientists turned to methodological naturalism.”
    My point is, God was never supposed to be, and never should be now, an “explanatory mechanism”. That’s bad science and bad theology.

  • RickK

    And Travis says “God was never supposed to be, and never should be now, an “explanatory mechanism””
    RJS asks: “What would you consider a failure of God as explanatory mechanism?”
    Genesis, divine creation of the Earth, divine creation of animals and humanity.
    And then many many examples in history where God was directly credited with intervention in the material world – from cosmic events to natural disasters to setting the planets in motion.
    If God does alter the course of material events, then He falls within the ability of science to investigate, and so far His effects haven’t been observed. If God doesn’t directly intervene in nature, doesn’t alter the course of events, then I have trouble distinguishing between a God that exists and a God that doesn’t.
    Did “divine creativity” end with the birth of the universe? Seems to me that such a God would be rather unsatisfying.

  • RicK,
    One point I’d like to make is that it would be highly presumptuous of us to assume that if God ever still acted, or sustained, that we would be able to detect it, measure it, confirm it, etc. I think that assumption falls in with the same sort of arrogance that got the Church in so much trouble during the time of Galileo. Perhaps you might want to step back a bit and reconsider that assumption – because its a huge leap of faith on your part (speaking of such things). And this is where “faith” issues really do come into play. You will often hear atheists saying such things. But really that is a pretty groundless (in terms of objectively verifiable statements) thing to assume. And yet you’ve just come out and said it, flat out, as if its patently obvious to everyone involved. But its not. And it just goes to show how much “faith” comes into almost any paradigm one subscribes to.

  • RJS

    I don’t think divine creativity ended with the birth of the universe (a rather deist view). But I also don’t see the issues you describe – from Genesis to divine creation of the Earth, animals, and humanity – as failures of God as explanatory mechanism. There is a failure of God as unique unlayered explanation – but this isn’t the same thing.
    Personally I think we see evidence of God in interaction with his creatures (humans), not as the unique (unlayered)explanation for ‘natural’ phenomena. Miracles, even nature miracles, are specific and relational – not part of the underlying fabric of creation. Frankly issues of Christian community provoke much more soul-searching for me than any of the issues of science and/or miracles.

  • RickK

    RJS said: “Personally I think we see evidence of God in interaction with his creatures (humans), not as the unique (unlayered)explanation for ‘natural’ phenomena.”
    Then how do you distinguish between the effect of God, and the effect of belief in God? What is at the bottom of your layers? Divinity, or human belief in divinity? How do you tell the difference?