This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blogs/dennis-venema-letters-to-the-duchess/biological-information-and-intelligent-design-amino-acids-and-apologetics
Does God micro-manage life at the atomic level?
As always, I’m happy to answer questions. Thanks for reading!
I read your column today with much interest, since I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Edwards or his book–despite its topic. I understand it’s actually very rare, so until the digital age it was very difficult to study.
Anyway, I had a quick look at his objections to the Copernican theory, and right up there at number two is this one: Copernicanism “confronts that Historical part of the Bible, Jos. 10.13. [and] Isaiah 38.8. In such a plain Narration of Matter of Fact, and that of a Miracle, it is not to be supposed that Words are spoken any otherwise than according to the Real Nature of the thing, and the Propriety of Speech.”
Where have we heard that before?
As for Edwards denying the Copernican view as late as the 1690s (after Newton), that’s fairly interesting but still not too surprising. He was almost sixty years old, and his university education (assuming he had one) would all have taken place while Copernicanism was still very controversial scientifically. Boyle still spoke of it as a “hypothesis” (which he accepted) not too many years before Edwards published that book. Newton’s ideas had not yet become widely understood and accepted at that point, and it was Newton’s ideas more than the aberration of starlight that were probably decisive in persuading people that the earth really does orbit the sun.
Thanks Ted! I find the Edwards book a fascinating read - not least for the reasons you mention (he is post Newton, and thus a relatively late hold-out for geocentrism; his mix of Scriptural and “scientific” reasoning against Copernicus, and so on). I think the book is an excellent cautionary tale for those keen to fight mainstream science for apologetics purposes.
Without too much trouble one can find the full text here. And for the purpose of comment I’ll paste an excerpt below this. It is revealing of the thoughts and debates so present in his day. Note how he already is aware of the principle of accommodation and fully acknowledges it even as he then rejects it in this instance! Also note how right and wrong he is at the same time regarding what we would now call inertia and its application to both large and small bodies! This (beginning around p. 32) makes for intensely fascinating reading. If it looks too long, at least scroll down and just read the part I made bold.
Here Edwards is reacting to Copernicus and his followers! It will be very apparent that the next words are his!
Thus they all along fancy that it is a very troublesome thing for these huge Globes to re∣move from place to place: They conceit that the greatness of these Bodies makes them un∣capable of moving with ease.
But this is Unphilosophical, and therefore we may justly look upon the Argument drawn from it as so too. What Man of un∣prejudiced Thoughts can perswade himself that *Varenius (who sums up in brief the Sense of all the Copernicans) discourses closely when he saith,
It will appear that the Earth moves about its Axis, if we consider the vast Magnitude of the Stars in respect of the Earth. The Sun is above two hundred times bigger than the Earth, and the Fixed Stars are above a thousand times bigger than it. Now, is it not more likely that the Earth moves than that these vast Bo∣dies move from Place to Place?
I answer, No: the thing is not at all likely, for the vaster these Bodies are, the more easy is their Motion. This is plain, because where there are the more parts in Motion, there the im∣pulse is stronger and more vehement: And where there is this Vehemency the Motion must needs be facile, it being put on with so much Strength and Vigour; especially, if we remember that God impress’d this Motion at the very first, and so it is natural, and conse∣quently is easy. This, I think, sufficiently proves that they who argue from the Bigness of the Sun and other Heavenly Bodies to the Stability and Rest of them, have no ground in Reason and Philosophy. No: they talk after a popular manner, and because they see that Bulky Persons do not stir about with that nimbleness which is observ’d in others of a lesser Size, they think it is so with the Sun and Stars, or that they are idle and lazy, and loth to bestir themselves. Or it may be they proceed on that Vulgar Maxim, viz. That great Bodies move slowly. And because that those of the Heavens are very great, they will not suffer them to move at all; forgetting in the mean time that it is their very Nature to move, and that their Make and Constitution prompt them to it.
Secondly, The Copernican Opinion seems to confront a higher Principle than that of Rea∣son. If we will speak like Men of Religion, and such as own the Bible, we must acknow∣ledg that their Assertion is against the plain History of the Holy Book; for there we read that *the Sun stood still in Ioshua’s time, and †went back in King Hezekiah’s. Now, this Relation is either true or false, (it must be one of them): If it be the latter, then the Inspi∣red Scripture is false, which I take to be as great an Absurdity as any Man can be reduced to: If it be the former, i. e. if the Relation be really true, then the Sun hath a Diurnal Motion about the Earth; for the Sun’s stand∣ing still could not be a strange and wonderful thing (as it is here represented) unless its general course was to move. This any Man of Sense will grant. And so likewise the Sun’s going back doth necessarily imply that it went forward before: And if it did so, surely it moved. This I think no Man can deny, and consequently it is evident that the Sun hath a Progressive Motion, and goes from one part of the Heavens to the other. If it be said (as it is suggested by some) that the Sun only seemed to stand or to go backward, then fare∣well all Miracles, for they may be only seeming Ones according to this Answer: Which is as much as to say, There are no such things in Truth and Reality. If it be said (as I know it is) that this manner of speaking is only in compliance with the Speech and Notion of the Vulgar, I grant indeed that the Scripture speaks so very often, (as I have * elsewhere shew’d from several Instances both in the Old and New Testament): yea even when it makes mention of some of the Heavenly Bodies, the Expressions are according to the Capacity and common Apprehension of Men, and not according to the Accuracy of the Thing. So that I do not think that a Body of Natural Philosophy, or a System of Astronomy, is to be composed out of the Bible; this being de∣sign’d for a far greater and higher Purpose: Yet this I say that whenever the Scripture speaks after the foresaid manner, concerning these things and several others, it doth it in that manner that we may plainly see that the Words are not to be taken strictly and proper∣ly, but only in a popular way, as might be shew’d in abundant Instances. But it is not so here, for in the forenamed Places we have Matter of Fact plainly and directly set down; we are told what Prodigious Things happen’d in those Days, viz. that upon the Request of Ioshua the Sun stood still (as well as the Moon stayed): And that we might not think that this is spoken popularly, and meerly accord∣ing to the common Notion of Men, the very same words are repeated, and others are ad∣ded to convince us that they must be meant in the plain and proper Sense of them. So the Sun stood still, yea in the midst of Heaven, and hastned not to go down about a whole Day. All this is said to let us know that it was a Reality, and not an Appearance; that what is here said is spoken properly, and not in conformity to a receiv’d Opinion.
And this ends the pasted excerpt. Added emphasis mine of course.
I’m so glad you’ve consulted the original source. Thanks for that helpful insight. In my view it rather defuses the “cautionary tale” understanding, because Edwards is shown not to be treating the Bible illegitimately as a science textbook, but questioning as yet unsettled science (as Ted points out) on the basis of biblical history.
That to me makes it a legitimate enterprise, if using faulty arguments, to which any other author was free to respond. I think if I was a Christian living at that time, I’d have pressed him on just why the text could not have been faithfully describing the sun appearing to stop because God stopped the earth instead… but you’ll immediately see that although I’d have “saved the appearances” of Copernicanism over geocentrism, I’d not have done anything whatsoever that would deal with modern scientific skepticism about the miracle itself.
Bear in mind that on neither side of the heliocentrism debate (except perhaps a Socianian’s) was the option of simply discounting the story as a myth, or an allegory, available. It’s hardly fair to expect Edwards to invent Enlightenment critical scholarship on the fly and sell it to the Christian academic world. And indeed, the only decent explanation which I’ve seen that takes the text seriously historically, and yet removes the need for a major cosmic intervention within historical memory, is John Walton’s “divination miracle” explanation, which requires insights into ancient culture not available until recently.
If we make the “two book” division absolute, so that nothing in the Bible can speak of anything in nature, we’re guilty of an almost schizopherenic dualism. Regarding biblical history, there would be everything to encourage us to regard Jesus’s incarnation, miracles and resurrection as incoherent scientifically and therefore irrelevant to actual history in the “real world”. Meanwhile, we would do a kind of liberal “Jesus of faith” mental gymnastics to base our lives on them whilst sidelining their historicity. That’s in most of our views an unstable position - and it’s at least un-Evangelical!
If on other hand (and this is my main point) we believe the importance of the historical and physical truth of those things, then our account of physical reality must be affected by them. We cannot take the two books simply as “Bible” and “Science”, because there is much in Creation that doesn’t match those categories… not all of which is neatly confined to “The Bible as spiritual guide”.
For example, is not philosophical reasoning a third “book”, which will underpin how we do both science and theology? Yet it’s an everyday part of the world. History too (that is, non-biblical history) does not arise from science, and cannot be done purely scientifically, but to a Christian relates both to natural causes of all kinds, and to the providence of God whom we believe to be the Lord of history.
Then again, there are everyday natural realities which the physical sciences do not address, but which fundamentally impinge on them, as well as on the Bible. “Mind” would be a notable example, and also “information”. “Mathematics” is a third. “Randomness” a fourth. “Teleology” a fifth". All are parts of nature which can only be coherently understood in the light of a theological position on their origin.
If we believe in the human soul (whether a Cartesian “immortal soul” or a more integrated Thomistic/Aristotelian concept) it is part of the created order, not just a “religious truth”, and therefore ought to be dealt with as part of the “Book of Nature” (because it governs what we are within nature) as well as part of the “Book of Scripture” (because it governs our relationship withour Creator).
One could think of many other examples of how the Bible - which is the narrative of God’s dealings with the real world in real time - must interact in a two-way conversation with the understanding of Nature. If we don’t attempt something like what Edwards did (for all that his specific effort may have been based on poor understandings and arguments) then we’re falling into the trap of Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria”, and almost inevitably unconsciously prioritising one over the other since our minds can’t live for long with such hermetically sealed compartments.
In short, I think the appeal of keeping Scripture and Science apart is based on a superficial compartmentalisation of reality into “Natural” and “Supernatural” which even scientists have realised is false (I’m thinking of the leading quantum physicists here, mainly).
That’s a good point, Jon; and I’m glad you raise it because I had been thinking of it precisely as a cautionary tale, probably along the lines intended by Dennis in bringing it up. So now you cause me to wrestle with the differences.
Let me clarify (for myself as much as anything – thinking aloud here). So Edwards is put forward as a direct parallel to some of today’s creationists: He saw science taking a direction he didn’t like (toward heliocentrism), because this (on his view) undoes what the Bible plainly teaches about these matters. Phrased in that way it is hard to avoid seeing a very neat parallel indeed!
But you see Edwards being cautious about upsetting his understandings of certain passages, for a scientific proposition that (on Edwards’ and others view at the time) was not yet settled. His hermeneutic to distinguish between passages in which God spoke in ‘vulgar’ terms to meet the common understanding (and he is aware of many of these), and those passages where God takes a higher course of telling it like it is – Edwards is confident that for these cases involving miraculous solar events, the categories are very clear and non-negotiable. So you think we shouldn’t fault him for the position he chose at the time. Have I understood correctly?
And if so, doesn’t the parallel still persist, then that YECs (which have so often been wrongly maligned for taking all the Bible in a flat literal manner) --that they would also claim to have this categorical clarity in place? And yet history does not reward this particular “clarity” that Edwards has.
It would take some digging to find more on this Edwards, which would be a worthy task. He died in 1716 (on the strength of one source I found anyway), and wouldn’t it be worth asking how he would have (if indeed he didn’t!) responded to the apparent strengthening of the Copernican cause as Newton’s ideas slowly permeated the intellectual culture. His reticence or adjustment respectively, I think, would be a critical for our discernment in how this parallel could play out, and whether Dennis is right to see in his story a sharply pointed cautionary tale.
Actually as I continue my, not-very-well-developed steam of thought here, I’m not sure how Edward’s unknown development in this would influence its use as a cautionary tale either way. It would still be interesting to know. If he persisted in his reticence far beyond warrant (that we can so easily adjudicate on now from our perspective), then it would simply deepen the cautionary nature of the tale.
There’s a difference, it seems to me, between just getting something wrong within a legitimate research programme (which can be corrected either by the advance of knowledge or, in Edwards’ case, by pointing out flaws in his arguments), and making an epistemological error like, “The Bible is intended as a source of scientific theory.”
It’s equally illigitimate, it seems to me, to treat the Bible as totally isolated in a spiritual world, its historical accounts being completely sidelined as irrelevant to the “real” physical world.
For example, if we believe that there is an historical basis to biblical miracles, we need to adjust our account of the universe, don’t we? The Humean “miracles are impossible” philosophy that prevails in scientism is challenged by the historical accounts of the Bible - and likewise that will affect whether we believe God might answer a prayer for healing today.
If he does, how does that affect our idea of “natural law” and even the direction of evolution? But if we were rigorous in treating the Bible as off-limits to scientific discourse, we may well accept the physical universe as a closed system, and explain away God’s providential works by closing our eyes to them. Surely that can’t be right?
I am at a loss to find a link between amino acids and the opinions of Edward
Ah – your objection comes into better focus for me, I think. So you see in this a defusing of the compartmentalization error.
I see two extremes that may help define this. The one being the Humean error of thinking that all miracles must be rejected as impossible. Lou Jost used to hold out here with the inexplicable conviction that modern science would implode or crumble away should any exception to its perceived “laws” be observed. He never was able to give a good defense of this (of which I am aware), beyond repeatedly declaring his allegiance to that principle. The other extreme would be the insistence that any Scriptural reference to anything that sounds incredible to the scientifically sensitive ear must be held up as just such a physical event lest the witness be emptied of its content. The extreme version of this might insist for example that even Ezekiel’s “vision” of the valley of dry bones must have really happened or else Ezekiel’s entire narrative is humbug. God could do it, after all, and to call that into question is to chase after Hume.
Surely there is a vast expanse to be explored and settled by the pilgrim sensitive to both faithful theology and science somewhere between these two erroneous extremes?
You’d have to go back to Dennis’ article to find any relationship between these two topics, GJDS, since (to Dennis’ high credit) he brought it up (and I hope I haven’t made him regret that.)
In that vein, I certainly understand if all our Edwards conversation here needs to get shuffled off into a new topic.
The fact that Edwards was a geocentrist as late as 1696 is not insignificant. Overwhelming evidence for heliocentrism was available prior to the advent of either Newtonian mechanics or the evidence from the aberration of starlight. It consisted in the vastly superior predictive success of Kepler’s laws over both the geocentric Ptolemaic system and the Copernican system that employed circular orbits. As soon as the motions of the planets could be predicted as accurately as Kepler’s hypothesis predicted them, resistance to heliocentrism became irrational, despite the fact that strict logic does not rule out either of the preceding competitors. (It would be very helpful here to have a fully satisfying account of rationality that would support such claims, but we lack anything like that, so the best I can do is make the claim and hope that others will recognize it as highly plausible.)
Of course, one must be aware of the available evidence before one can be irrational for resisting it, and many people in 1696 we were simply unaware of it. I assume Edwards was aware of it though, given his background. If not, then so much the better the for Edwards. But if so, then Edwards appears to be a victim of his own enthusiasm, which led him to overstate his case when there was evidence enough to have prevented that. Ted, I’m also assuming that Boyle called heliocentrism a “hypothesis” out of social politeness, and not because of any significant doubts on his part that remained after he became aware of Kepler. If that’s not right, I would be interested in hearing why.
All this points to a general lesson, which I take it was part of Dennis’s point. If one’s apologetic argument consists of evidence that even could be overturned at a later date by subsequent scientific inquiry, then at best one should hold it very loosely. And such arguments (let’s call them “gappy” arguments because their only dialectical force derives from exploiting gaps in the present state of scientific knowledge) should never be one’s only basis for theological or theistic beliefs. Edwards seems to have put too much stock in his gappy argument, though I assume (and hope) that he had other, non-gappy, arguments. The general lesson is directly applicable to the dependence of ID on “irreducible complexity.” Gappy arguments do not consititute a “God-of-the-gaps” theology if they are offered in a tentative and revisable way, and do not stand alone as the basis of one’s faith, but there seems to be a great temptation to abuse them.
Yes, there is Merv. Which I guess is my point. Not that I think the two example to hand would be other than a straw man: the sun standing still stands describes as a miracle within what is presented an historical account. The Vision of dry bones is… a vision, and though I may be mistaken I’d be surprised if anybody has ever interpreted it otherwise.
There would be no point in disputing with Lou about the violability of physical laws if we had no purported evidence of miracles. And as Christians we’re prone to place greater credance in biblical miracles than in reports from distant lands (or even the local revival meeting).
But if we accept them as factual (or even some of them) then we’re accepting them as evidence against Lou’s view of science, that exceptions to law don’t happen. So the question is, how must the Christian’s science differ from the atheist’s to accommodate miracles?
But not only miracles - the harder question to me is always that of special providence. Do we regularly pray the Lord’s Prayer, and if so, how do we understand “Give us this day our bread for the morrow”, especially if we’re in dire need? Unless we believe that God is absolutely prodigal with his miracles, how does our scientific understanding of the universe deal with an immanently providing God?
We would think so, wouldn’t we! I met a lady once, who when it was suggested that the parable stories didn’t literally happen, was horrified at the suggestion. (So much for my trying to find any common territory with her, when my extreme example from the “everybody’s gotta agree with this” bag is met with an abrupt “get behind me you doubting sinner!” – she didn’t really say that to me, but it is fun to imagine she might have). I would lay odds that she feels the same way about everything else in the Bible too — from dry bones to the apocalyptic predictions of Revelation (which, after all, were part of a “mere” vision as well, right?) You and all of us here can accuse her of horrible exegesis or inattentiveness to what the bible really says. But she could come full-throttle right back and accuse us all of succumbing to Hume’s influence as we follow him down his highway to perdition. Why else would we be doubting that God really did and could do fantastic things? If I am right about her example, then we all here are in the same (uncomfortable?) boat of being asked to produce all our brilliant (and no doubt quite valid!) rationalizations for why Scriptures don’t really claim all these things to be 20th century-style historicity. I would also lay odds that she isn’t alone (this is the U.S. after all).
For some, from 17th century anti-Copernicans to their pious contemporaries, it is just “ever so clear” what Scriptures teach. That their pious conviction in this can turn out to be ever-so-clearly wrong in at least some of these matters should give us reflective pause.
Amen to all you say here. One thing that seems to emerge from such an example is that slam-dunk principles on epistemology are comforting, but in the end unsatisfactory. One can say the Bible shouldn’t speak to science on principle, but then you have to reach a judgement on whether the resurrection is irrelevant too.
You can say that there wasn’t an actual prodigal son, but have to make a judgement on whether the genre of the Adam narrative is entirely divorced from history - or come to that, what is clearly an historical narrative in the Joshua story.
The fact is that your lady is an extreme example of a continuum in which one simply has to execute judgement on matters of interpretation, and some judgements are better than others not so much on principle, but because they are wiser.
Being wise can be hard!
Amen! Thanks for your discussion that helps push us all towards higher wisdom.
One additional comment, if I may. Anyone who engages in science/religion debates has to have some notion of how strong one’s evidence must be before it becomes irrational to resist it. But judgments of rationality are notorious for being fraught with vagueness and imprecision. And yet we have no choice but to make them, and we do have some clear examples to work with. It would be wonderful if we had a reliable algorithmic procedure that could take all our experience and indubitable propositions as inputs, and produce as an output a conclusion about the rationality of some proposition given the input evidence. But that is a pipe dream. We have to learn to proceed without it, and to just put up with all the vagueness and imprecision.
Does Cell-Building Require Intelligence?
I am all for simplicity, clarity, and logic.
Just returning to the original theme of “biological information and intelligent design”: our research and development work at RealityRandD.com has come up with a proposal for a new Godly science we are calling Atomic Biology. It goes a step deeper than molecular biology down to where the real action of building cells with atoms occurs. Our hypothesis is that Intelligent Design is only a part of the super-intelligent work of building living cells and entities. To build each cell, the right numbers of the right atoms have to be found in available sources, sorted from the wrong ones, selected, precisely placed and fastened in their proper part of their particular cell, have the breath-of-life added to make these inanimate atoms functional, have the DNA, RNA, etc. precisely programmed, and then have the cell placed, fastened, and hooked up in its proper part of the entity being constructed by the builder. It doesn’t happen by magic, does it. Then the entity has to be sustained and maintained, all phases of which require supernatural intelligence, speed, dexterity, and reliable care.
Oh, what an awesome God we serve.