Science in Christian Perspective



A Strategy For the Evolution Debate: 
a view from the other side of the Atlantic

Oliver Barclay, 8A Southland Road,
Leicester, England LE2 3RJ

The frequent confusion of the scientific evidence for and against evolution with the philosophy of naturalism clouds the discussion at present. For example, Phillip Johnson starts his first book, Darwin on Trial, with this confusion. He uses the word Darwinism to mean a philosophy and leaves the word evolution ambiguous. He claims that "in contemporary scientific usage," evolution is a philosophy that "excludes not just creation-science but creationism in the broad sense." Then, however, he proceeds to attack, not naturalism, but some aspects of the scientific problems of biological evolution. How current scientific usage can be so philosophical he does not say. What he means emerges as a incorrect label. He calls the writings of those who take this view "mainstream science," rather than calling them "some prominent scientists," as he should. Whatever may be the situation in the United States, the British scene does not really look like that. Attacking mainstream science makes him seem anti-science and he is read in that way by a number of scientists.

That, however, is not the main point. Most of his book attacks scientific views and does nothing to attack naturalism, except to say that we have scientific difficulties today in explaining some facts and perhaps we should admit that we may never have any explanation unless we accept "direct divine action" as the material cause. Johnson fails to address the issue of the jump from science to a philosophy and this is a too common policy. He fails to distinguish scientific theories from the philosophical interpretations that may be put on them, though he agrees that there can be no Christian objection to biological evolution if seen in a Christian light. His strategy is confused and, unfortunately, is followed by a good many other creationists.

There is a close analogy with the "scientific materialism" that some people tried to deduce from Newton's mathematical discoveries. What came to be called a mechanistic philosophy never followed from Newton and Newton himself did not hold it, though it is sometimes called the Newtonian worldview. The success of his mechanics was, however, so spectacular that it tempted people to jump to the view that everything was just a matter of mechanical cause and effect, which is what is being called naturalism today. It would have been futile to attack this philosophy by attacking Newton's mechanics. Even when it emerged that, at very high speeds, relativity was a better way to describe events, it did not lead to a loss of confidence in naturalism. The same mechanical philosophy is still widely held and is supposed to rest broadly on the success of science and technology. Relativity, however, provided (unjustifiably) another alternative philosophy: that of relativism. No one as far as I know has tried to attack relativism by attacking relativity theory. The philosophical jump is unjustified and the collapse of relativity would do nothing to weaken relativism.

More recently quantum mechanics and chaos theory have been used to support a philosophy of chance. Again, it seems futile to deny the reality of chaotic events or to attack quantum mechanics in order to attack this philosophy.

In biology, evolution has provided an excuse for another form of naturalism, which in the UK is usually called evolutionism. The response of many creationist organizations has been to attack biological evolution, even appearing to agree that the scientific theory justifies such a jump, as in the case of Johnson (on any but a small scale). This arises, at least in part, because, long before Darwin, a considerable tradition of Christian apologetics had accepted a deistic, rather than a properly theistic view, of "Nature" as a machine and set out to argue with it. These writers have accepted the basically mechanical picture of nature and look for things that cannot be explained within the present theories. This lands the discussion in the area of obscure corners of science and the exchanging of one authority against another, each boasting that excellent scientists agree with them. It does nothing to combat naturalism in principle or to show that mystical entities, such as are beloved of the New Age and astrological communities, could not fill the gaps equally well.

Now we have a revival of many of the older arguments, which see nature as basically a machine that "does things of itself," as C. S. Lewis put it. God set it up at the beginning and interferes with it only occasionally. Therefore, we should look for these gaps in the scientific picture. This was the generally accepted approach of evangelicals in the first half of this century. They worked with the deist picture of reality in order to find gaps in it.

Evangelicals nowadays (due considerably to the work of Donald MacKay and others) recognize that, in the Bible, God is continuously upholding the universe, including all the processes of nature, so that he is involved in what we do understand as much as in what we do not. Although everyone agrees in theory, few of the present creationists take it seriously. They do not ask us to marvel at the explicableóin the way that the Bible doesóas much as the inexplicable. Their arguments nearly always concentrate on the inexplicable. The result is an implicit deism, or at least semi-deism, in much of evangelical apologetics. In these terms, one of the most important things to do is to find scientific things that cannot be explained by science. Paley and his colleagues would have agreed.

The design arguments, however, have two different aspects. There are positive evidences for design in the pattern of Romans 1 and Psalm 104, etc. These point to features which, however they came into being, look like design and Christians ask others to see the world in these terms. Thus the unusual properties of water that alone make much life in water possible, the flight and eyesight of the eagle, bird migration, and echo-location in bats are a proper source of wonder and awe at the almost incredible ingenuity of the creation. At the same time, it is the negative arguments that tend to take pride of place and while they have no precedent in the Bible, that does not mean that they are improper. They are, however, precarious and have several problems. First, they concentrate on obscure corners of science that are understood only by experts and experts can disagree. Secondly, arguments in the form: "You cannot find a scientific explanation for that!" are to a scientist merely an invitation to look for one. Darwin is no more likely to be the end of the road for evolution than Mendel was for genetics. Who could have guessed at the development in genetics in this century? Thirdly, they seem to imply that God could not have created a process to create certain things and that it is left to the late twentieth century to discover that fact. Therefore, God must have acted "directly" in some selected areas. Finally, it leaves our faith at the mercy of science. That cannot be correct.

I suggest that we need to return to a much more robust theism, recognize that there are likely to be new discoveries that may take evolutionary theory forward, or even revolutionize it, but stress that whatever processes might be discovered, they are God's doing. We must be astonished at the processes that we do understand and at the wisdom, beauty, and intricate coordination of the universe.

In such a view, it really does not matter in principle how God created, unless you take a view that Genesis 1 excludes it. If you really believe that God is in charge of our lives and of history, then it is not too much to believe that God is in total control of all the processes of nature (Matt. 5:45, Eph. 1:11). All that happens is then his doing. In history and in one's personal life, it is nearly always possible for the unbeliever to dismiss events as coincidences. In nature, it is similarly possible for unbelievers to say that all is a mechanical process, even if we do not know enough yet to show that. It is the philosophy, not the facts, that need to be addressed first.

In a recent article (PSCF 49, no. 1 [1997]: 2ñ14), J. P. Moreland, one of the philosophers who works with Johnson, defends the gaps approach by arguing that since human freedom requires that all is not mechanical cause and effect, and since we have genuine freedom to alter events, as all must agree, then gaps are there and God uses them when he pleases. This is a frank acceptance of the mechanical character of nature. It also sees God's activity in nature as similar to ours. That, I think, was C.S. Lewis's position in his book, Miracles. A proper theism cannot accept that. God upholds all things, all the time. We ought to believe that and see it in our lives as well as in nature. Humans can, to a limited extent, affect the natural world. Perhaps we can be described as interfering with it. God, by contrast, rules it and controls our "interferences" all the time, so that the Bible speaks of his creating history and creating each new generation of living things (using the strongest word for creation in e.g., Isa. 43:1, 7; 45:7; 65:18; and Ps. 104:30). In fact, it is not clear that the Bible makes any distinction between creation and providence.

I suggest that our proper strategy is:

1. To go back to a strong biblical stress on God's sovereignty, however he chose to create, and to argue that since all processes are his, we should find as much joy and admiration in what we do understand, as in what we do not. No one would believe in the processes leading to the birth of a baby if it had happened only once. This is why strongly orthodox "Reformed" people like B. B. Warfield could see no problem in evolution, to the bafflement of those with a more deistic view of nature.

 2. To move from the largely negative and defensive approach ("You cannot explain this!") to a much more aggressive attack on the philosophy of naturalism. After all, for a start, it is self-defeating. If naturalism, relativism, or chance rule, then we can know nothing, not even that everything is pure cause and effect or chance. And there are plenty of other arguments.

3. To show people how to see the world properly. We are, according to Romans 1, up against suppression of truths that are "evident" to all people. This is not so much in the obscure corners of science that few can appreciate, but in the common knowledge of the wonder of the creation. Let us build on this. Signs of design are not irrelevant here as the best way to interpret things, however they were created.

 4. To get our Christian brothers to explain their position before they are put on the spot by opponents. It is not at all clear what they do believe, though they are clear about some things that they do not believe. If, like Johnson, they are not young earth advocates, then when and how did some of these adaptations to predation arise? Behe, for instance, makes much of the defense mechanism of the Bombadier beetle, and that is often quoted by others. Yet it implies a world of predation as do many other beautiful biological adaptations, like the spider's web, the structure of a lion, or the structure of a parasitic wasp. Were these created before the Fall, when everything was "very good"? If they were created after the Fall, were they the result of a sudden interference by God? If the latter, why is there no trace in Scripture of such a complete re-creation of vast numbers of organisms, such that many of them would have been unrecognizable as the same thing? In what sense were they created and by what meansósudden or gradual? Were they perhaps the slow result of some processes that God created in the beginning working themselves out gradually as needed? To reply that we simply do not know, which is true, leaves the Bombadier beetle as no evidence for anything except the general incredibly ingenious nature of the creation, which makes human skills look like child's play. It leaves no argument against biological evolution as a process that God might have used.