God and the Cosmos … Intelligent Design? (RJS)

God and the Cosmos … Intelligent Design? (RJS) April 26, 2012

I was recently sent by the publisher a copy of the new book by Harry Lee Poe and Jimmy H. Davis God and the Cosmos: Divine Activity in Space, Time and History. Harry Lee Poe (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jacksonville Jackson TN, Jimmy H. Davis (Ph.D. University of Illinois) is University Professor of Chemistry at Union University. This book should prove to be something a bit different from our usual fare of late.

There are a number of different questions at play in the discussion of the interaction between science and the Christian faith. For some people the controversy over creation and evolution is driven by a desire to be faithful to scripture, and explicitly to a favored interpretation of scripture. Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis fall into this category.  For others there is an appreciation for the sciences, but also a conviction that if the science is true traces of it will be found in scripture. Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe fall into this category. But there is another set of question at play, especially within the Intelligent Design movement. Science and scientists are finding a natural explanation for all manner of phenomena formerly attributed to the work of God. This appears to squeeze God into an increasingly small corner of the universe – and many argue it removes God from the picture all together. As Laplace famously replied to Napoleon … we have “no need of that hypothesis.”  Poe and Davis are addressing these latter kinds of questions in their book. Can a transcendent and personal God really act in the universe? and Can science help us answer this question? The answers are not what one might expect – and call into question some of the assumptions that motivate the search for Intelligent Design.

The introduction to the book begins with reflections by Davis and Poe. Davis begins by posing the question – where is God in, for example, a chemical reaction? The reaction is the same and the explanation is the same whatever the worldview or presupposition of the person who brings together the reactants and starts the process.

Modern science assumes that all physical events have physical causes. In order to find these causes, modern science breaks down the event into parts and looks for some mechanism (pattern of connections) that give rise to the event being studied. Modern science explains natural phenomena in terms of natural events and does not invoke supernatural invention. (p. 15)

There is an assumption of methodological naturalism inherent in the process. This leads many to a further assumption that the description of the universe or any process in the universe is a zero-sum game. If there is a 100% natural explanation for some process – there is no room divine involvement.  There may be a God – but if the explanation of the universe is a zero-sum game we are quickly left with a deist view of God. He got things started, set the laws, and now steps back and lets it go.

Davis suggests that the error in this approach lies in the mechanical view of the cosmos. The models we construct are closed machines. But there is an intrinsic openness in nature – seen in quantum phenomena, chaos, and epigenetics.

This openness is an internal part of nature, not a God-of-the-Gaps ignorance that will one day be removed. We suggest in this monograph that God is there not only in the working of the “machine” but in the underlying software that tells the “machine” how to behave in a particular situation. It is an open universe providing an open vista on which the master Artist can craft what he wills. (p. 23)

Do you think explanations for observed phenomena are a zero-sum game – either there is a natural explanation or there is divine action?

What is the case for Intelligent Design? What should we expect?

Harry Lee Poe provides a theological response to begin to address the question of how God relates to the world.

Answers to the question of how God acts on the universe have tended to be reductionist. As such, they have tended to be unhelpful. More complicated answers seldom gain a hearing because people prefer simple, black-and-white, either-or explanations. Politicians learned this trait of human nature long ago; thus the trait has charm both for fundamentalism and for unbelief. (p. 25)

The black-and-white, either-or explanations are intrinsically unsatisfactory. They simply cannot account for the world we see. Poe relates this to the complexity of the world and to the progression or hierarchies of complexity introduced by Arthur Peacocke. He suggests that different kinds of rules apply at different levels of existence. There is, it seems, a fundamental distinction between the laws that describe the simplicity of the atom and the laws that describe the complexity of a living cell.

Neither reductionist science nor reductionist theology help us understand this universe where one kind of rule applies at the level of human experience and another kind of rule applies at the quantum level of subatomic particles. (p. 26)

Poe sketches briefly in this introduction four theological ideas that may help to move us forward.

Freedom of the triune God. God is not just creator who says and it is, not just incarnate Son, not just Holy Spirit who animates but with no plan or goal. He is not deist, self-limiting, or undirected.

Only a truly trinitarian model of one God can help us move to a clearer understanding of how God might relate to such a complex structure as the universe in appropriate ways for different levels of physical complexity. (p. 28)

Directional universe: Simplicity to complexity. The universe is dynamic with a linear direction from energy to matter to life to consciousness.

Progress: A value-based goal. Here Harry Lee Poe quotes Edgar Allen Poe (an indirect ancestor of his, about whom he has written a biography Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe):

In Eureka (1848), Edgar Allen Poe’s original proposal of a big bang theory and the origin of life, Poe described the interaction of the elements and life forms in adaptation in terms of a grand narrative. He said, “The plots of God are perfect. The Universe is a plot of God.” (p. 29)

Open universe. Here Poe returns to the idea introduced by Davis. There is an openness in the universe at each level of complexity. A personal mind – a human mind or the mind of God – can interact with and change the course of nature without violating the laws of nature. “Rather than hiding in the gaps, God is involved in the big observables that science describes.

The remainder of God and the Cosmos is divided into two parts – first looking at theology and asking what kind of God interacts with the world and then looking at the universe and asking what kind of world allows God to interact. It looks like this will lead to some interesting questions and, I hope, some interesting posts over the next few weeks.

Where would you look for evidence of the action or purpose of God in the universe?

How should Christians respond to the “mechanical” view of the universe that removes God from the picture?

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

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  • pds

    Hi RJS,

    Will you ever review Plantinga’s book Where the Conflict Really Lies?

  • RJS


    I’ll have to get ahold of a copy and review it – or perhaps even post on it more extensively. I haven’t read it at all yet, although I knew sort of vaguely that Plantinga had a new book out.

  • DRT

    My skeptical radar is in full force reading this post. I find the first three of the theological ideas to seem like he is coming up with ideas to support a preconceived conclusion and they are not compelling to me.

    Triune god – I contend that the model of a triune god is just a model. It is a way for us to think about the nature of god but the actual construct of god will be a real ah ha once we are able to appreciate it. So, to say “Only a truly trinitarian model of one God can help us move to a clearer understanding” seems to be elevating our theology rather than god. I would be much happier for him to say something like: our trinitarian model of god gives us additional insight …. But to say “only a truly trinitarian model” smacks of reverse thinking.

    Directional Universe – this seems to be someone trying to rationalize that we a crowning achievement and it all points to us. While it does indeed have a direction as such, the logical conclusion of the direction is not us, it is a low energy cold universe that will be devoid of life. that is where it is going without intervention to make a new creation.

    Progress, value based goal – again, I see this the same as the directional universe argument. Not sure where that is going.

    Open Universe – I pretty much agree with this.

    Where would you look for evidence of the action or purpose of God in the universe?

    First, god acts through the fact that he created things as they are. If I send my car down a hill without a driver I my action impacts (!) reality long after my direct involvement. But, clearly a deist god does that.

    Second, god acts through his agents. People. His people interact with his creation.

    Third, god acts through his son whom he sent.

    Last, god may have acted in other ways through miracles and one off events, even now, but I don’t believe we can actually find him there. In other words we will not prove that “a miracle occurred here”

    How should Christians respond to the “mechanical” view of the universe that removes God from the picture?

    I think my response to the previous question shows how I, as a Christian, respond.

  • Just as an FYI, Union University (my alma mater) is in Jackson, TN, not Jacksonville.

  • RJS


    Whoops – I’ve corrected it in the post.

  • Jon G

    Poe said “Only a truly trinitarian model of one God can help us move to a clearer understanding”

    Can someone tell me why this is so? You mean a single, non-trinitarian, traditionally Jewish model of God can’t explain how he has His hand in the way the Universe works? God HAS to be trinitarian in order to interact with Creation?

    It seems like Poe’s point is really about a god who interacts as opposed to a deist god…but he formulates the sentence in a way that says God MUST be triune in order to interact. This seems to me to be an unsubstantiated claim. I know this is not the place to be Trinity bashing but it’s remarks like this that drive me crazy.

    Maybe I’ve missed something…

  • AHH

    From this description, it sounds like Poe & Davis are making the theological mistake of placing God as another cause on the same level as (and in competition with) “natural” mechanisms from which God is assumed to be absent.
    But maybe the “open universe” ideas are not making that mistake, and I am reading that into RJS’ description because that false opposition between natural processes and God’s action is so characteristic of the ID movement. Sounds like it could be an interesting book to interact with in any event.

  • RJS


    I’ve only read the introduction so far – but I think they are explicitly trying to avoid putting God as another cause on the same level as “natural” mechanisms.

    This is why I think it will make a good book to interact with – it is countering some of the assumptions of the ID movement. Maybe I didn’t make this as clear as I should have in the post. (I’ve added a sentence to make this point.)

  • Jon G

    oh, I see DRT already covered this, and with much more class than I (as usual)…

  • I like what Peter Rollins says about God. Essentially he says that we tend to make the mistake of thinking of God as an object that we know alongside other objects; i.e. you have 9 objects in a room, God enters, and you then have 10. Rather, he says, God is a an experience, an event, a reality, that fundamentally changes how we experience and interact with facts and objects. From this point of view it’s obvious that we are not dealing with a “zero sum game” where natural explanations preclude God.

  • johnfouadhanna

    What Drs. Poe and Davis have to offer seems interesting and might also be true on many levels. However, ordinary naturalistic explanations don’t at all rule out God, depending on an irregularity or particular unexpected or previously unnoticed mechanism or process to rule him back in. On the contrary, no matter how satisfactory they might be in their own right, they are always partial and incomplete, depending on God. They are a type of explanation but never a full one.

    Think of a painting, for example. I might be able to describe it in all sorts of ways. In addition to discussing the painting overall, I might also explain the physical composition of the paint itself and offer a description of the ordering of each drop of paint that makes up the work of art. And I can do all of this without making any reference to the artist. In each case, I have provided a type of explanation of the painting, which is useful in its own right. Furthermore, there is no “evidence” within the painting of the “existence” of anyone responsible for it. And yet, of course, there is not a single aspect of the painting – not the slightest stroke – that is explicable apart the artist. The entire painting – in the macro and micro – is “evidence’ of his “existence.”

  • RJS


    Good points. I will put up at least two more posts on this book – and see where they go on some of the ideas I pulled from the introduction.