Science, Philosophy, and God

An understanding of the transcendence of creation forms the essential foundation of natural science. But does that understanding require revelation?

Understanding what natural entities are—and how they are the kinds of things that they are—is a central goal of all scientific endeavor. It is an endeavor that cannot be undertaken without at least an implicit theology and philosophy. We might distinguish the natural sciences from philosophy and theology, but it is a mistake to see them as extrinsic to one another, each existing in its own neat epistemological and ontological compartment. Although at first it might seem counter-intuitive, the proper autonomy of these areas of inquiry depends upon their interdependence.

Such, at least, is the general claim that informs Michael Hanby’s No God, No Science? Theology, Cosmology, and Biology. Hanby’s analysis is wide-ranging, erudite, and sophisticated; his is a challenging and important book.

For Hanby, “science is constitutively and inexorably related to metaphysics and theology;” the latter are “internal to science even as they are distinct from it.” The key to understanding this constitutive relationship is the doctrine of creation, and Hanby argues that we need “to retrieve the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo from the distortions imposed upon it by the totalizing claims of positivist science and especially by that most theological of sciences, evolutionary biology.” Hanby claims that the appropriate autonomy of the natural sciences and metaphysics is “theologically grounded” in science’s very own “creaturely constitution.”

The Notion of Creation

Distorted notions of God as Creator, that is, as extrinsic cause of things and events in the world, are behind the view that we must choose between divine agency in the world and the kinds of causes that the natural sciences disclose. Too often, God has been seen as a finite object among other finite objects, albeit one who is juxtaposed to the world: a cause among causes, a thing simply vastly greater in degree from all other things. God becomes a master craftsman and the created order his artifact. God so conceived is one who “imposes his design upon passive subjects.” It is this conception of creation that Darwinism claims to supplant.

For Hanby, this theological “extrinsicism” fails to capture the truth of God’s transcendence, a transcendence so radical that God as Creator is the immanent source of the very existence of all that is. The doctrine of creation, properly understood, is not an alternate cosmological theory of the temporal origins of the universe, nor a rival to scientific explanations of change (e.g., natural selection). Creation is not “a process of bringing forth the animate from the inanimate or one species from another.” Rather, it discloses the ontological structure of the world and is the necessary precondition for the world and for science itself.

The claim that Hanby defends in considerable detail—historically, philosophically, and theologically—is this:

the doctrine of creation is essential to an understanding of the universe that is both comprehensive and nonreductive; and that the scientific and Darwinian revolutions, for all their stunning success in increasing our knowledge of the universe, have left us with a universe so reduced and fractured that it threatens to undermine the rationality and intelligibility of their own achievement.

The error, according to Hanby, is seeing the relationship between God and the world in extrinsic terms rather than seeing God’s abiding presence as cause of existence immanent in the world. As a result of embracing an extrinsic notion of God as creator, the modern world “evacuates creatures of the unity, intelligibility, and interiority inherent in our elementary experience of them.” To see nature simply as the product of a divine craftsman is to reduce nature to an artifact and to find the intelligibility of nature exclusively in terms of “extrinsic relations” governing the interaction of parts.

Darwin, according to Hanby, inherited a mechanistic ontology and an “extrinsicist” theology (God as a finite object within the order of being) that has shaped the continuing debate about evolution and creation. The debate, however, often reveals a false dilemma rooted in defective notions of God, creation, and causality. A vision of God as an artisan/designer was evident in the natural theology of William Paley, which Darwin rejected. It’s also evident in contemporary “intelligent design” theories. Paley understood creation as a kind of manufacturing; he did not see the Creator as the interior source of the creature’s very existence but as an extrinsic cause who imposes order and design on the world. The world is a “cluster of contrivances” and God is the master contriver.

The Unity and Interiority of Living Beings

There is a related failure to understand that living beings are true unities, each of which possesses an irreducible interiority that is not possible for artifacts or machines. Here we have a key feature of a reductionist view of the world that claims to explain all things exhaustively in terms of their material constituents. Hanby argues that the failure of modern biology to speak intelligibly of what an organism is follows from the prior commitment to mechanism that has its roots in a defective understanding of what it means for God to create. Accordingly, Hanby identifies a program for achieving a better grasp of what the world truly is:

We must restore to the things of the world the unity and the interior depth of being that was taken away from them in the modern conflation of nature and art, being and history, truth and utility, and knowledge and power. We must dispose with the natural theology and mechanistic ontology commenced in the seventeenth-century and brought to fulfillment by Darwin and his disciples, a theology and metaphysics which continue to deform the meaning of the doctrine of creation and the stakes in its confrontation with the totalizing claims of evolutionary biology. We must distinguish the act of creation—that gratuitous gift of being that calls forth its own recipient—from a process of immanent manufacture, and we must distinguish the doctrine of creation from any mechanical explanation seeking to account for the ‘how’ of the world. To do this, we must begin by setting aside that finite and idolatrous God simultaneously affirmed and denied by Darwinian biology and approach, at long last, the Creator God.

Hanby argues that the mistaken metaphysics and theology implicit in Darwinian biology are the sources of considerable confusion in what the biological sciences tell us about the world.

Recognizing the distinction between an organism and an artifact—a recognition that, according to Hanby, requires a correct understanding of what it means for God to be the Creator—leads us to see how activities such as metabolism, respiration, reproduction, and self-movement properly belong to living things precisely as living. An organism is, in this sense, both the cause and effect of itself. Organisms maintain themselves in being, whereas artifacts engage in none of these activities because their parts are essentially external to each other and their unity is not intrinsic to them. The significance of this way of distinguishing between organism and artifact is clear:

Whereas the unity of an organism ontologically precedes its development, so that its development is the development of an organism such as an embryo or an oak tree, the unity of an artifact resides primarily in the mind of its maker and only comes about in the thing itself as the end result of a process of manufacture.

The conflation of created nature with artifact eliminates the organism as the subject of its own being and action. The organism is considered only “an accidental aggregation of parts which are the parts of no real whole.”

Faith, Reason, and the Revelation of Transcendence

Throughout his analysis of what it means for God to create, Hanby incorporates important insights from Hans Urs von Balthasar and David Schindler. To see the distinction between God and nature as being “operative in every conception of nature” is in one sense correct, since all of nature is the result of God’s creative act. A complete view of nature requires this recognition, which ultimately involves an appeal to doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Hanby does not grant to metaphysics the ability to reach the conclusion that all that is depends upon the agency of a transcendent source of existence. For him, the doctrine of creation out-of-nothing can only be a revealed theological insight, even if it appropriates metaphysical language.

Following the lead of scholars such as Étienne Gilson, Hanby thinks that, without Christian revelation, Greek philosophy was not and is not able to understand that there must be a transcendent cause of the existence of things.

At issue here are complex historical, philosophical, and theological topics concerning the relationship between reason and faith, including questions about the proper autonomy of various modes of inquiry. As we have seen, Hanby argues against a separation of these modes of inquiry (including the separation of theology and metaphysics from the natural sciences), and he thinks that the distinctions he draws maintain a kind of autonomy for each. For Thomas Aquinas, however, reason alone, in the discipline of metaphysics, can come to a recognition that the world is created. Faith, based on divine revelation, deepens this understanding of creation. Hanby, I think, would take issue with the phrase “reason alone,” since he would think that, following Thomas, I have granted too great a distinction between reason and faith.

Hanby calls for a profound rethinking of the explicit and implicit assumptions of much of modern thought. He thinks we must “retrieve the doctrine of God from the idolatrous natural theology presupposed by modern science in its founding gesture and exemplified, above all, by Darwinian biology.” This rethinking will also lead to retrieving “the world from the endemic reductionism of a pervasive mechanistic ontology. Retrieving creation, then, means retrieving the ontological question suppressed by positivist science and its reduction of being from act to brute facticity.” This is all true, but, as Thomas Aquinas can help us to see, retrieving the ontological question of cause of existence does not initially require an appeal to revealed theological claims about the Trinity and the Incarnation. There is a philosophical sense of God’s creative act that does not involve appeals to a theology that sees creation in terms of the dynamics of a triune God—no matter how correct such theology may be.

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