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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).

Later:

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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