Posted by: dacalu | 12 November 2020

Knowledge and Love of God

Yesterday, I spoke with the Society of Ordained Scientists on the question of what we can know about God based on science. It was a rather dense presentation of my views on natural theology, but I thought some of my friends might be interested. Here is a copy of my notes.

Stig Graham, the Society’s Warden, asked me to comment on “the extent to which science can display, teach and augment our faith in the existence of God, the nature of God, and the manner of God’s interaction with the Universe.” I should begin with a brief comment about the dangers of asking me about ontology and epistemology, two of my favorite topics. I can talk at great length and have to work to keep myself focus on the practical implications, what I call applied metaphysics.

My goal is to know God, a task for which I feel well qualified. I am much more skeptical of my ability to know about God, a task I consider fun but important only when it helps me know God.

I frequently make a comparison to my mother. You can take for granted that I have a mother. You might even be able to find information about her online, but this is not a replacement for meeting her in person.

I tend to distinguish between two views of God. The ontological view of God captures the idea of God as a fundamental entity in the universe. Examples include the logos of the cosmos in John 1, Aristotle’s unmoved mover, Plato’s and Plotinus’ ONE, and Paul Tillich’s ground of all being. Alternatively, the personal view of God captures the historical person or an individual with whom we have a relationship. Examples include the Elohim ha-Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Comforter.

Having said a little about what I mean by God, I should turn to what I mean by science. I will be focusing my remarks on one way of knowing: empirical reasoning. The exact bounds of science are contentious, and this has been called the “demarcation problem.” I go into greater detail in my book (Thinking Fair: Rules for Reason in Science and Religion, 2016). Here, I will only say that I believe that scientific reasoning depends on “mutual observables,” things that humans (for the most part) can observe and agree about what they observe. We likely can agree that the plant is green but may disagree about the merits of the Green Party. One is a mutual observable; the other is not.

It is important to mention that “science” has many other definitions historically. In particular, I would mention that most “natural theologians” include rationalist claims about the universe, things we can know a priori, that is prior to observation. Examples include the sensus divinitatis of Calvin, the “self-evident” claims of Descartes, and the pure reason of Kant. I do not deny that knowledge may be gained through revelation, intuition, and other forms of a priori reasoning, but when I make claims about knowledge based on science, I refer to empirical reasoning.

Returning to the two views of God, most claims about the ontological view of God rest on a priori reasoning. Famous examples include ontological and cosmological arguments for the existence of God. I find some of these compelling, but do not think of them as scientific. Further, I think they provide evidence for the existence of an Ontological God, an entity at the bounds of our ability to reason about reality, but cannot link this God to the personal, historical, and scriptural God of Christianity. This “sub-natural God” does not exist in additional to natural phenomena but upholds them. The ontological God writes and enforces natural laws.

[NB: This need not be a Deistic God. Nothing in my argument excludes intervention. More significantly, nothing in my argument precludes laws of which we are, as yet, unaware.]

Thus, an argument can be made that science depends (commonly and historically, though not necessarily) upon a belief that there is an underlying order in the universe and that humans may, both individually and collectively, uncover that order. This is not a scientific argument for the existence of God; it is, rather, a theistic argument for the pursuit of science.

Science cannot weigh in on the existence of God or God’s manner of interaction with the universe. I am not convinced that we can reliably imagine alternate universes. If we do live in Deistic or Theistic universe, how would we know what a God-free universe would be like? If we live in a God-free universe, how would we know what a Deistic or Theistic universe would be like? These thought experiments require us to hold the universe (and natural law) constant, while adding or subtracting God. This makes sense if God is supernatural – added on top of a subsistent nature – but not if God is the ground of existence.

[NB: This pre-empts most, if not all, design arguments for the existence of God as well as fine-tuning arguments. The properties of the universe simply are what they are. We can “imagine” possible universes in the weak sense of thought experiments, but never in the strong sense of more or less probable universes. The set of all known actual universes contains only one member. The set of all possible universes is poorly defined – likely bounded by human physical and social conditioning but not bounded by mutual observables and, therefore, beyond the reach of empirical reasoning.]

Meanwhile, claims about the relational view of God rest on personal, explicitly subjective experience. They depend not only upon the object of observation, but also upon the subject, the observer. They are always two-way interactions and, therefore, never objective and never fully “mutual.” (This way of thinking about subjective experience predates modern psychology and epistemology and was championed, if not invented, by Augustine speaking about the soul. For more on the origins of subjectivity, see The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self by Martin and Barresi.)

And yet, our personal experience will always be mediated by reason and common discourse, including science. Thus, science informs our relationship with the personal God, though it will always be based on subjective experience. This leaves us making comparisons between our relationship with God and our relationship with natural objects, in short analogy.

What does that look like? This is a painfully brief discussion, but I’m happy to sketch out four examples of analogies I would be willing to make in the context of science-engaged theology.

I am willing to argue from natural laws to Divine consistency. If God upholds this universe, God upholds order. I do not exclude the possibility of exceptions, but I do note exceptional regularity among events at all scales and all locations in the known universe. God attends to details and cares about consistency.

I am willing to argue from natural diversity to Divine creativity. If God created this universe, God has committed to a profusion of forms and processes surpassing human interest and likely surpassing human understanding. God has more in mind than simply humanity or simply Earth. This emphasizes the radical divide between our perspective and God’s perspective and suggests we attend to an ever-wider range of phenomena if we wish to understand the God who created them.

I am willing to argue from abstract ideals such as truth, beauty, and love to Divine transcendence. God is exceptional relationally as well as ontologically. If God interacts with the universe, God does so in a way that invites conscious beings to contemplate and explore a freedom unimaginable under brute mechanical and physicalist models of interaction. (Again, this reflects the bounds of human explanation, not necessarily bounds to physical causation.)

Finally, I am willing to argue from the radical inter-dependence of living beings to God’s pervasive and integrating Spirit. The breath of God, for me, reflects an understanding of life as the dynamic process of God breathing on, in, and through material creation. Concepts of complete subsistence, independence, and autonomy strike me as contrary to natural science and, therefore, unappealing in the context of science-engaged theology. [For more on this, see my 2018 book Life Concepts from Aristotle to Darwin: On Vegetable Souls, which explores the history of life concepts and the epistemic divide that arose between physics/physiology and psychology/theology or Adam Pryor’s 2020 book Tiny Aliens on astrobiology and theology.]

One last reflection, a beautiful quote from Marie Curie that sums up our current need for open hearts and open minds: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Science and theology, done well, both reveal the world around us and encourage us to keep looking.

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