Science in Christian Perspective

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The Prospects for a "Theistic Science"*

Robert T. Pennock
The University of Texas at Austin
Austin, TX 78712  

From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 50 (September 1998) 205-209.

Phillip Johnson argues that evolutionary theory rides on the metaphysical coattails of a scientific naturalism, and he claims that one may reject this in favor of a theistic science. I examine the prospects for such a science. Could science investigate the creation hypothesis in the same manner that it investigates the natural world? The answer depends upon one's conception of the Creator. I explore two concepts--a supernatural and a naturalized notion--using historical and hypothetical examples. In the first case "theistic science" is not science, and in the second case it is scientific, but not truly theistic.

Phillip Johnson argues that evolutionary theory rides on the metaphysical coattails of a scientific naturalism which denies by fiat any supernatural intervention, and that if it were not for this "dogmatic speculative philosophy" creationism would be recognized as the better theory. In my published exchange with Johnson in Biology and Philosophy, I showed that Johnson failed to recognize that science is not based upon a dogmatic ontological or metaphysical naturalism. Rather, science uses naturalism only in a heuristic, methodological manner.1 I also argued that methodological naturalism is not assumed dogmatically but follows from reasonable evidential requirements--most importantly, that hypotheses be intersubjectively testable by reference to law-governed processes. In his reply, Johnson, citing Newton, claimed that one could pursue a theistic science.2

Although Newton did bring in God to underpin his physics, he explicitly endorsed many of the methodological rules that naturalism recommends.3 Johnson goes much further than Newton and advocates a theistic science that incorporates supernatural interventions and allows appeal to divine explanations. In this paper I examine the prospects for such a theistic science. Could science investigate the creation hypothesis in the same manner that it investigates the natural world and the human intelligent creators that populate it? The answer, I argue, depends upon one's conception of the Creator. One who assumed God's omniscience and omnipotence, for example, might argue that positing ad hoc supernatural interventions to, say, "recall" the dinosaurs and regularly introduce new life forms is not a very high view of the Deity. But such arguments would take us into dangerous theological waters. As a simplification, I will consider just two sorts of concepts of the Creator--a supernatural notion and a naturalized notion. My argument is that in the first case "theistic science" is not science, and that in the second case it is not theistic.

Johnson's definition of "creationism" gives the essential features of his proposed new science. The key elements are a Creator who is supernatural, who not only initiates, but miraculously intervenes to control the process with some purpose in mind.4 Our question is whether science should continue to pursue naturalistic explanations or whether it should entertain supernatural "explanations" of this sort. I argue that science should eschew appeal to supernatural explanations as a methodological heuristic, but this is not because of any bias against creationism. The recommendation holds for any supernatural theory, because of the characteristics of the idea of the supernatural.

The most basic characteristic of supernatural agents and powers is that they are above and beyond the natural world and its agents and powers--they are not constrained by natural laws. Indeed, this is the very definition of the term. Some views say that since a supernatural creator made the laws in the first place, that being has the (miraculous) power to break them.

The second characteristic of the supernatural is that it is inherently mysterious to us. As natural beings, our empirical knowledge must come via natural laws and processes. If we could use natural knowledge to understand supernatural powers, then they would not be supernatural. The lawful regularities of our experience do not apply to the supernatural world. If there are other sorts of "laws" that govern that world, then they can be nothing like those that we understand. For this reason, occult powers are profoundly mysterious to us.

The same point holds true about divine beings--we cannot know what they would or would not do in any given case. God works, they say, in mysterious ways. When Ptolemy's epicycle theory of the planetary system was explained to Alphonso X, king of Castile, he reportedly commented that if God had consulted him at the creation, the universe would have been on a better and simpler plan.5 Defending the complexity of his theoretical models against another critic who made the same point, Ptolemy purportedly replied, "You may complain that these models are not simple, but from the point of view of God, who knows what is simple." Ptolemy was right; we cannot say that our notion of simplicity is at all relevant to what God's might be, or if it is even an important property for him. Scientific models must be judged on natural grounds of evidence, for we have no supernatural ground upon which we can stand.

A third characteristic is that supernatural beings and powers are not controllable by natural beings. Though our secret desire may be to gain esoteric power through contact with the supernatural, we seem to recognize at a deep level that such control would be impossible. The very notion of the "Faustian bargain" carries this warning against the temptation of thinking one can control supernatural powers. This holds true of our relationship to the divine Creator as Christian creationists usually conceive him. God controls the world and, though we may control ourselves, we cannot control God. Indeed, part of what it means to accept Christ, on the evangelical view, is to relinquish even the control we have of ourselves and to turn our lives over to God's will. We may control the natural world only because it is governed by physical laws that must be obeyed even when we are pulling the strings. Inherent in the very idea of the supernatural is the fact that it stands above natural laws and thus outside the possibility of our control. If God were really under our control in any sense, then we could not say he was omnipotent or very godlike.

This is why supernatural explanations should never enter into scientific theorizing. Science operates by empiricist principles of observational testing; hypotheses must be confirmed or disconfirmed by reference to intersubjectively accessible empirical data. One supports a hypothesis by showing consequences obtain which would follow if what is hypothesized were true. But supernatural theories can give no guidance about what follows from their supernatural components. We can cite no constraints upon the powers of supernatural agents. Usually this is the picture of God that Johnson presents. He says that God could create out of nothing or use evolution if he wanted; God is "omnipotent."6 He says God created in the "furtherance of a purpose,"7 but that God's purposes are "inscrutable"8 and "mysterious."9

A god that is all-powerful and whose will is inscrutable may be called upon to "explain" any event in any situation, and this is one reason for the methodological prohibition against such appeals in science. Because of this feature, supernatural hypotheses remain immune from disconfirmation. Also, we confirm causal laws by performing controlled experiments in which the purported independent variable is made to vary while all other factors are held constant and we observe the effect on the dependent variable. But, again, we have no control over supernatural entities or forces. Finally, if we allow science to appeal to supernatural powers in any way without a test, then the scientist's task would become too easy. One could always call upon the gods for quick theoretical assistance. Once supernatural explanations are permitted all empirical investigation could cease, for scientists would have a ready-made explanation for everything.

I believe that such abstract considerations provide sufficient reason to reject appeals to supernatural explanations in science. Nevertheless, it will be worthwhile to make the point concrete by showing the problems of introducing the possibility of supernatural interventions in a practical setting. I will consider another area that Johnson recommends--the law. I will focus on just two problematic ways that Johnson's view would transform our legal system.

The first follows from Johnson's insistence that science admit the reality of supernatural influences in the daily workings of the world. For the law to take this seriously, it would have to be open to both suits and defenses based on possible divine and occult interventions. Imagine the problems that would result if the courts had to accept legal theories of this sort. How would a judge rule on whether to commit a purportedly insane person to a mental hospital for self-mutilation when that person claimed that the Lord had told her to pluck out her eye because it offended her? How could the legal system handle torts if it had to consider accusations that a defendant caused the plaintiff's miscarriage by casting an evil eye on her, or had hexed the plaintiff's cow? We need only look to legal history to see the sorry effects of such a system.

The law once did take such accusations of occult interventions seriously. Witchcraft is a good example. Taking the Bible seriously, the law incorporated the scriptural command that one not suffer a witch to live. In the Renaissance, the Catholic Church wrestled with the legal implications of this worldview; in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII appointed Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger as inquisitors and they developed procedures to investigate and prosecute people accused of witchcraft.

This leads us to the second significant effect of introducing Johnson's view into the law--a radical dismissal of ordinary standards of evidence. The most common evidence upon which someone was found guilty of witchcraft was simply the accusations of others. Interestingly, a few physical signs also were supposed to count as evidence, such as the "Devil's mark," an area of skin that seemed to be insensitive to pain, supposedly caused by contact with the devil's claw when the pact was sealed. Confessions under torture were also accepted, though again defendants were at a disadvantage for it was thought that refusing to confess under torture was also a sign of guilt. They thought that only a witch, insensitive to pain (perhaps with supernatural aid), could withstand the torture. Judges were warned to be especially wary because the interventions of demons could cause illusions. As proof of this power, one author cited the story from St. Gregory's first Dialogue telling of a woman "who thought she was eating lettuce but instead ate a devil in the form of a lettuce or, possibly, invisible within it."10 The authority of a saint was supposed to be proof of this supernatural power, but how could we, ordinary natural folk, know a supernatural being was in the lettuce?

I claim that a theistic science cannot overcome this evidential problem. It has arisen in the creationism debate before, when "mature earth" creationists suggested that the earth is, in fact, only six thousand years old, but that God gave it the appearance of great age. The issue is not just whether God would deceive us in this way, but how we could ever check such a possibility. We philosophers like to have our beginning students consider a hypothetical scenario in which the universe was created just five minutes ago with ourselves having been given a seamless set of memories of a past that never occurred. No empirical evidence could rule out such a scenario.

Given that the core creationist hypothesis invokes special supernatural interventions, we should expect some answer to the demon lettuce problem. The Darwinian view holds that the evolutionary processes are working all the time, and we may observe mutation, recombination, inheritance, natural selection, and the resultant changes in gene frequencies in populations. What can the theistic scientist do? On this point I now issue a challenge to Johnson: Are divine interventions occurring today in particular cases? If so, which ones, and how do we check? If not, how do we know?

Returning to Johnson's definition of creationism, we see that the problem of the lettuce affects his view in still deeper ways. Johnson dismisses deistic views of creation and demands ongoing direct control. Therefore, it is fair to ask how he supposes that control to work. The Darwinian can specify a fair number of the sorts of causal processes that control evolution, fulfilling the basic requirement for a scientific explanation. The second challenge to creationists is to tell us their alternative divine control process. May theistic science appeal to ex nihlo miracles or other control processes? Does God create life forms by selecting the variations that will survive, or by causing the variations upon which selection occurs? The lettuce problem reappears in all these possibilities.

Finally, consider the third element of Johnson's definition--that God creates for a purpose. How is a theistic science to discover God's purposes? Consider creationist Jerry Falwell's claim that AIDS was created by God to punish homosexuals, drug-users, and others for their sinful lifestyle. Naturalistic science simply proceeds by seeking a natural explanation and treats AIDS like other diseases, and nothing in its methodology allows it to test such moral or teleological hypotheses about God's possible purposes. The problem of the demon lettuce is particularly keen here, and its implications especially chilling. How could a theistic science test Falwell's teleological hypothesis about God's ultimate purpose for AIDS, or for anything whatsoever?

Such considerations show why a "theistic science" would not be scientific if it contained a supernatural conception of God. Let us now turn to the second horn of the dilemma I posed earlier.

When the methodological naturalist says that science should not deal with "the supernatural" that does not mean that everything which we currently think of as supernatural--ghosts, for example--necessarily is. Perhaps these are natural, law-governed phenomena that we have not discovered yet. Philosophers love to use Star Trek examples to illustrate hypothetical conceptual possibilities, so let me take a case from one episode to develop my point.

The episode involved the people of a world who transported themselves to an asteroid in the belief that their souls would be set free of their bodies to live on in a blissful afterlife. The usual conflicts and misunderstandings are worked out as the crew tries to deal with this seemingly absurd practice. In the end, however, they are forced to reevaluate their skepticism when their sensors detect unusual energy patterns around the asteroid. These energy patterns exhibit individual coherence and excitations which appear to match the electrical activity patterns of people's brains. In this science-fiction example, it looks as if science has tested and confirmed the existence of ghosts and a spirit afterlife.

In one sense this seems right. If such evidence were found, then a new scientific specialty could arise which investigates hypotheses about this afterlife. In our own real world, we have not found such evidence but is it not possible that we could? If we agree with this, then, similarly, why could there not be a science that incorporates theistic interventions? But here is the rub: even in the Star Trek example, are we really talking about "ghosts" and a "spirit afterlife" in the way we ordinarily conceive of them? In the episode, the departed "souls" turn out to be "coherent energy patterns." They interact causally with other matter and energy, of course, or the sensors would not have picked up their "energy signatures." However, if they were energy in the ordinary scientific sense, then it now would be possible to exert causal influence upon them in the usual ways. Presumably we could manipulate or disrupt them as we can other forms of energy. Perhaps we could "kill" them. At this point we should be beginning to feel a little uncomfortable about our earlier conclusion about what was confirmed here.

By discussing the confirmation of "ghosts" in this way we have tacitly taken them out of the supernatural realm and placed them squarely in the natural world. To conceive of ghosts as supernatural entities is to consider them to be outside the natural realm, outside the law-governed world of cause-and-effect physics. But to say that science could test and confirm their existence, as in our hypothetical case, is to reconceive them as natural entities. Perhaps there really are "coherent energy patterns" as the story postulates, but such "ghosts" are no longer supernatural--they have been naturalized. Surely the Christian will properly object that, whatever these things are, they are definitely not departed souls in the religious sense of the term.

So what does this tell us about theistic science? How does God figure in this picture? Will theists be happy to think of the Creator as a scientific hypothesis as we just considered the hypothesis of a spirit afterlife? For the creation hypothesis to be scientific, it must be intersubjectively testable and fit within the framework of law-governed cause-and-effect relationships. This is the core of what it means to be a natural object and to be amenable to scientific investigation. Being constrained by this sort of epistemological approach as the means of gathering public knowledge about the empirical world is just what it is to be a methodological naturalist. This is no different from what we tacitly assume in everyday situations. All science does is make careful extensions of our ordinary experience in what is simply a more precise and explicit version of the ordinary way we get such knowledge.

In proposing a theistic science, Johnson claims to be expanding science to supernatural possibilities undreamed of in naturalist philosophy. Yet what he is really doing is reducing God to a scientific object. Ironically, Johnson may not be a supernaturalist after all, but a super naturalist. On such a naturalized conception of God, one could have a theistic science, but like the Star Trek example, it is not theistic in the religious sense.

The design argument works in just this way, drawing an inference to the nature of God from what is already known and familiar to us in human, natural terms. God becomes a watchmaker in the sky, a divine genetic engineer, or a soupped-up "intelligence." But philosophers long ago revealed the flaws in the design argument, and Scripture itself warns against analogizing God to human experience. As Isaiah 40:18 rhetorically asks, "To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?"

Johnson quotes John 1:1-3 as the scriptural basis of his theistic science, but Christians might better judge this passage and the prospects for a theistic science in the light of another New Testament passage:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Rom. 11:33).


1 Robert T. Pennock, "Naturalism, Evidence and Creationism: The Case of Phillip Johnson," Biology and Philosophy 11, no. 4 (1996): 543-59 and  "Reply: Johnson's Reason in the Balance," Biology and Philosophy 11, no. 4 (1996): 565-8.

2Phillip Johnson, "Response to Pennock," Biology and Philosophy 11 (1996): 561-3.

3Robert T. Pennock, "Reply: Johnson's Reason in the Balance," 568.

4Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial, 1st ed. (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1991), 4.

5William Whewell, History of the Inductive Sciences, 3d ed. with additions (New York: Appleton and Company, 1894), 151.

6Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial, 14, 113.

7Ibid., 4.

8Ibid., 71.

9Ibid., 67.

10Wayne Shumaker, The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns, (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972), 78.