Science, Religion, Agency, and Flowers

Science, Religion, Agency, and Flowers December 7, 2022


SoCal flowers
A field of flowers in southern California  (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Newly posted today on the website of the Interpreter Foundation:


Conference Talks: “Science, Religion, and Agency,” originally delivered by Richard N. Williams in 2013

Almost all conceptions of human agency are rooted in libertarianism and grounded in a set of assumptions about the nature of the non-human world, the nature of causality, and the nature of determinism. The effect of this is that agency is always understood around two mutually exclusive positions, compatibilism and incompatibilism. Within this intellectual context, human agency is always impossible, trivial, or illusory. Human agency is drawn into discussions of science and religion because most traditional “scientific” notions of causality and determination are understood in ways that make agency impossible, and most religious positions try to reconcile themselves to the classical libertarian position, which is self-contradictory. The presentation proposed here argues for a new understanding of human agency which requires a rethinking of causality and determinism that is compatible with science. And a refutation of agency that most religious positions unwisely endorse. Agency turns out to be not so much a matter of free choice, but of a deeper matter of the nature of the human world, human ontology, and truth. The lack of clarity on issues of science, religion, and agency comes not from science or religion, but from a faulty dogmatic scientism and the naturalistic metaphysic it always imposes on intellectual discourse.




A few weeks ago, I was approached by someone from the management of Patheos about being December’s “featured writer” for the platform.  It involved answering two questions (see below).  The audience for the little “featured writer” item is the other writers at Patheos, across all of the faith positions (and unfaith positions) represented on the site.  Below, I append what I wrote.  I was trying to be short, but I wasn’t quite sure about the desired length, so my answers below ended up being somewhat abbreviated.  Which is fine.  Here, though, on my own blog, I can be every bit as prolix as I’m inclined to be:


What do you enjoy about writing for Patheos?

I had a difficult time as an undergraduate student.  I always enrolled in too many classes but, even then, had a hard time focusing on them because . . . well, because there were just too many other interesting classes to sit in on, and too many lectures and concerts, and too many books in the library.    “Maybe I should be an economist, or a mathematician.”  “Or a philosopher.”  “Or an astronomer.”  College and what my college campus regularly offered were, for me, an enormous and enormously tempting smörgåsbord.  My grades weren’t always what they should have been.  Still, I managed somehow not only to graduate (in classical Greek and philosophy) but to go on to a doctorate (in Near Eastern languages and cultures) and, thereafter, to a university faculty appointment.

But the Wanderlust or catholicity (or, perhaps, the mere lack of disciplined focus) persists.  Which is probably a major reason why I find blogging so gratifying:  No editor.  No giver of grades.  I can spout off on any topic that interests me, from theological and philosophical questions through ancient history and scriptural interpretations to current events and controversies and even restaurant, travel, and movie recommendations.

I’ve been a teacher for most of my adult life, not only in higher education and in church but in scores and scores of public lectures on every inhabited continent.  In recent years, I’ve frequently led tours in the Near East and Europe.  I love sharing and discussing ideas.

And there are no ideas more important than those connected with God, religion, faith, and the meaning of it all.  I’ve always loved the eighteenth-century lyrics of Isaac Watts:

Sweet is the work, my God, my King,

To praise thy name, give thanks and sing,

To show thy love by morning light,

And talk of all thy truths at night.

Or, to borrow words from a much more recent song, it’s “a good life, all in all,” to “talk of poems and prayers and promises and things that we believe in.”  And that, more than anything else, is what attracted me to the conversations that were possible at Patheos.


What advice do you offer to other Patheos writers?

I don’t know that I’m a particular success at blogging, such that I can advise others.  But I can say what I myself do, and how I conceive the “mission” of my blog.

I had actually already launched my blog when a graduated former student who worked for Patheos at the time approached me about bringing it over to this location.  I had declined a previous invitation to align my blog with a Latter-day Saint apologetics organization; I wanted to preserve my freedom to write on non-religious topics as well as on religious ones.  This representative of Patheos told me that such writing would be acceptable.

So I’ve always felt entirely free to mix things up, to vary my topics.  In fact, I’ve been deliberately committed to doing that.  I write on what interests me; I really care about the subjects that I discuss.  And I can’t imagine that my writing would be very interesting if I didn’t.

There is, surely, a bit of egotism in any writer’s motivating assumption that other people might be interested in what she has to say.  But my supposition is that blogs attract continuing audiences not only because of the ideas they discuss but because, to some greater or lesser degree, at least a few people out there are curious about the mind and personality of their authors.  So I’ve also felt free to be personal and open, sometimes even to the point, I suppose, of being “vulnerable.”




With the recent death of Kirstie Alley, I think it’s an appropriate time to call people’s attention once again to a classic scene from the old sitcom Cheers, of which she was one of the principal stars:  “Why can’t Mormons send flowers?”  It’s a perennial question.



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