Against Natural Theology

May 22, 2015    By: Jeff G @ 2:33 pm   Category: Apologetics,orthodox,Scriptures,Theology,Truth,Universalism

“Of course it was not given to mortal reason to decipher the hieroglyph of the universe in detail; but the important fact is that this was the fundamental aim of all wisdom and learning, coloring the whole intellectual life and all but excluding any interest in prediction and control, in “natural science” as we know it. From this follows the intense faith in the intelligibility of the world that makes the medieval scholar, whether mystic seeking wisdom by intuition and vision, or rationalist seeking it by dialectic, reject our modern agnosticisms and romanticisms…
“Whether the mystic sought symbolism in nature or in history, or the scholastic sought the form and end of all things, there was this same hierarchical order of importance leading up to God, supreme reality, supreme end, supreme genus. And since such was the use of learning, it mattered little, after all, whether nature be exactly described or history accurately written…
“Indeed, a knowledge of natural history for its own sake would have been regarded as almost blasphemous, taking men’s thoughts away from its essential meaning for man.”

                                        – John Herman Randall, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind, pg. 35

“…all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”

                                        -Alma 30:44

It has become almost a platitude of sorts to say that the relationship between science and religion is “complicated” if only because science deals with facts and mechanisms while religion deals with morals, meaning and salvation.  Stephen Jay Gould went so far as to claim that the two have non-overlapping magisteria such that the two can never be directly compared to one another since they are never (ever!) talking about one and the same thing.  Most people in the bloggernacle aren’t will to follow Gould that far, but they do seem to follow him to some extent or another.  These people typically agree that religion is primarily concerned with morals and meanings, but they also notice that the scriptures do make quite a few factual claims.  Consequently, such people tacitly assume, if not outright state that religion is often guilty of stepping on science’s toes but not the other way around.  There is a lot in this perspective that I want to push back against.

At the heart of this confused perspective lies the mistaken belief that scientific investigation just is the paradigmatic search for truth.  It sees science as the scientific investigation of facts and religion as the (ideally) scientific investigation of morality, meaning or salvation.  In fact, it would be difficult to provide a better definition of theology.  Thus, to the extent that there is a non-overlapping magisteria between science and religion, it parallels the non-overlap that exists between different scientific disciplines such as molecular biology and linguistics.  In other words, religion is taken to be a systematic and potentially academic investigation into moral phenomena that more or less follows the same rules of reason that structure well-established science.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  (It is worth noting that this misunderstanding of religion is the real danger to be found within natural theology – ID in particular – as well as the LDS tendency to project it onto Alma 30:44.)

The problems with this view of religion-as-moral-science are more transparent from a historical perspective.  The quote from Randall (above) provides a concise description of what academia consisted in prior to the scientific revolution.  The truth that scholars sought had very little to do with accurate description, prediction or control and the idea of gaining knowledge of the natural world “for it’s own sake” simply made no sense in that context.  Several things are quite clear from his description:  First, there was clearly no distinction between facts and values such that one could distinguish the magisteria of factual truths from that of moral truths.  Second, even if such a distinction could be made, truth clearly did not consist in the non-moral description of the natural world, no matter how accurate it might have been.  Third, the absoluteness/relativity of truth was totally unrelated to the accuracy or objectivity of any such non-moral description, but was instead situated within an absolute moral hierarchy that culminated with God.  Thus, while there is already a Greek influence (mostly Aristotle) in this picture of which Mormons are rightly suspicious,  the point I wish to highlight is that this view of the systematic investigation truth radically differs from that of modern science.  It would thus be a major mistake to, on the one hand,  read the definitions, truths and virtues of modern science back into most of our canonized texts and, on the other, uncritically accept the definitions, truths and virtues of modern science as “natural” or in some sense non-negotiable.  In fact, once one rejects the very idea of natural theology, there seems little reason to believe that science seeks truth (in its pre-scientific sense) at all.

The historical distance which the Randall quote provides also allows us to identify many of the ways in which science has transformed and continued various aspects of this medieval tradition.  First, medieval scholars assumed the world around us to be intelligible to human minds since it was created for us by a mind that is itself very similar to ours.  Modern science, by contrast, continues with this strong assumption while at the same time placing the supernatural justification for it out of bounds.  Within this context we can better understand Galileo’s rejection of not only Catholic teachings, but of Tycho Brahe’s empirically indistinguishable model of the universe, a great deal of Kepler’s empirical data along with his fabrication of data.  Such behaviors on his part were almost certainly motivated not by any kind of objective or scientific virtues, but by his quasi-religious commitment to Pythagorean mysticism in which the universe is literally and deeply shaped according to mathematical relationships.  This mystical religion was a major historical influence for the claim that quantifiable properties are “primary” and thus more real than the qualitative and thus “secondary” qualities, thus making quantitative descriptions more true than qualitative descriptions.  It is from this perspective that many prioritize the quantitative facts of science over the qualitative metaphors of scripture.  The Hebrew prophets took qualitative descriptions of morals and meanings to be deep truths behind the world.  The Pythagorean mystics took quantitative descriptions of facts to be deep truths of the universe.  Modern science seems unable to justify either position.

Second, within the medieval context skepticism and relativism both constituted subversive attacks that undermined moral authorities and as such were no different from moral weakness and/or deviance.  It is obvious why such things would be resisted and condemned within such a context – think Korihor.  Within the context of modern science, however, it’s not at all clear what danger actually follows from an everyday person’s rejection of the absoluteness of natural science – especially if science is as value-free as it sometimes claims.  In the case of the science wars, for example, it’s far from obvious what the scientists were supposed to be protecting (other than their own position within society) from “post-modern” attacks.  In fact, it is not clear if or why I personally have any obligation beyond mere cafeteria-like personal convenience to accept anything that scientists say, let alone ahead of religious truths that I am clearly obligated to believe.  The view that science is getting at deep and absolute truths that all people are under some obligation to adhere to is clearly the remnants of the natural theology tradition in which natural philosophers (they would later be relabeled “scientists” in order to further distance themselves from other philosophers) were merely continuing theology by different means.

In summary, ID is not bad because religion has no place in science since modern science was originally created as the intelligent design of physics and there is plenty of religion within it still.  Instead, ID is bad because science has no place in religion in the sense that it is not and was never meant to be a systematic or scientific investigation of morals, meanings and salvation.  Such human reasoning – as natural theology clearly is – simply has no place within religious faith.  To be sure, I am not at all comfortable rejecting science as a whole, nor am I saying that practicing scientists should change any of their practices.  We should, however, acknowledge that it would be a mistake to equate the useful information that science can provide us with an absolute truth that is in any sense morally binding upon the everyday person.



  1. The problem I have with this approach is that it tends to presuppose there is a univocal method of science. And that this single thing “science” can be opposed or even contrasted with religion. (As if religion were a single thing)

    But of course, despite the nice first order approximations we give kids in High School, there is no scientific method. It’s difficult to say that the approaches of biology are the same as the approaches of physics or that individuals doing actual science follow a method at all. It’s a complex social process. It seems the most accurate of our broad social types of knowledge primarily because there are many people doing it, there’s skepticism and testing to try and find flaws, and it’s evolutionary. Further people try and draw out implications and test those. Yet it’s also messy and in the particulars might not even be that stable.

    The best science are ideas that have been around a long time, have proved remarkably stable and fruitful, and have limits of application fairly well known. So the ideal gas law is great because we understand when to apply it and when it’s inappropriate.

    I’d say that the whole attempt to split religion and science is problematic for a slew of reasons. Ethics and science seems more justifiable if only due to the the “ought” vs. “can” distinction Kantians always bring up. (Although to be fair not all agree with the Kantians) The problem of splitting religion and science along a similar ground is that religion simply doesn’t purport to only be about ethics nor even primarily about ethics.

    To your particulars I’d be careful with the medievals. Anselm obviously had a quite different position. I think the scholastics were far more sophisticated about the intelligibility of the world and God than we often give them credit. One could say that the classic raging debate among scholastics was nominalism. And nominalism ultimately is a debate about the intelligibility of the world. Aquinas’ was condemned by other scholastics for limiting the will of God. This debate continues through the Renaissance. (And in some way Renaissance reactions against scholastic Aristotelianism is a continuation of this older debate by other means – primarily due to the new texts spreading)

    Comment by Clark — May 23, 2015 @ 4:08 pm

  2. ” it tends to presuppose there is a univocal method of science”

    I would agree that Gould and Dawkins do speak in such a way, but it is against them that I am arguing. I certainly don’t buy into any such uniformity. Nevertheless, despite the non-trivial differences between the methods of physics and biology, the features that they share, features that are radically opposed to the medieval view, justify such talk in my opinion. (Quantitative vs qualitative, meaning vs mechanism, facts vs values, systematic doubt vs. moral certainty, etc.)

    “the whole attempt to split religion and science is problematic”

    Even though I assume that you’re still arguing against Gould and Dawkins here, I too resist any attempt to ascribe some unity to religion and science. I think given the way in which science and reason was explicitly held up in contrast to and competition with religion and faith (the French Enlightenment and its culmination in the French Revolution) show that however much these two might claim to be compatible within one and the same mind, their social functions and influences cannot be run together. When it comes to, at the very least, the morality of discourse, there is some ineliminable zero-sumness in which one side’s gain is the other sides loss.

    “religion simply doesn’t purport to only be about ethics nor even primarily about ethics”

    I absolutely agree with this. I think this is typically a claim put forth by the science side in order to give the false impression of value-neutrality.

    Comment by Jeff G — May 23, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

  3. (Sorry – daughter pulled poopy diapers off and made a huge mess before I could finish)

    To the science wars and postmodernism, as you know I think postmodernism often gets unjustly treated. However there were enough adopting relativism that I think there was a real danger. It’s true the real concern was nonsense in universities. There the concern was the type of scholarship and indirectly funding issues. More directly though I think the science wars both against postmodernism broadly construed and creationism are related. That is there’s a sense is which emotions trump inquiry. And I think that’s detrimental to society in several ways.

    1. people are less prepared in school – especially for STEM

    2. people vote for politicians who reject scientific evidence which then leads to practical policy issues. (To me this is both a left and right thing although the right has the majority of the bad press right now)

    3. people defund science (as I think we’re seeing with some key Republican Senators and NSF/NIH funding at the moment) In my opinion they’re acting very unconservatively.

    4. as people reject scientific evidence in preference to relativism to feelings or ideology that creeps more broadly and the significant of evidence in adjudicating disagreements becomes more and more watered down. (I think we’re definitely seeing that)

    The real issue in the debate is how to adjudicate disagreements. When ideology and power matter more than arguments, evidence or even the notion of truth I think our society is in grave danger.

    Comment by Clark — May 23, 2015 @ 6:59 pm

  4. Jeff (2) I think the real problem in the medieval era is that empirical evidence ultimately was irrelevant and inquiry was all too often prevented as well. The key changes start with Bacon but also just the general attitude of inquiry in the Renaissance. You’re right that there’s a strong sense of anti-authoritarianism that makes that successful though.

    I should have been clearer whose arguments I was addressing though.

    Comment by Clark — May 23, 2015 @ 7:10 pm

  5. Religion and Science are so notoriously hard to define that its a bit pointless to make arguments concerning them.

    The aspect of this vagueness that I would call attention to is that in the USA a growing portion of people hold to worldviews that are neither religious nor scientific.

    They just have beliefs. Most of those beliefs have little relation to any authority other than a personal one.

    Comment by Martin James — May 26, 2015 @ 10:46 am

  6. I am curious why you think scientists think people are “obligated” to believe them. There is something of this in norms for publication, legal proceeding with expert testimony or other institutional situations but it is rarely scientists acting as scientists that are presenting the obligation. In fact, the whole point of science is that one is subject to scientific laws whether or not one believes in them.

    Comment by Martin James — May 26, 2015 @ 5:22 pm

  7. Martin,

    “Religion and Science are so notoriously hard to define that its a bit pointless to make arguments concerning them.”

    I see this as a huge cop out. Why should we simply shut up about the most important things in our lives just because they aren’t clearly defined?

    “I am curious why you think scientists think people are “obligated” to believe them.”

    I think it’s pretty self-evident. After all, the state requires mandatory science education seeing a failure to do so as “leaving them behind.” While the science wars did not (nor should they have) change how actual physicists went about their work, the whole point behind them was that various intellectual were attacking the idea that we are obligated to believe what scientists teach us, trying instead to paint science as one more interpretation of the world that we merely had the option of accepting. Those most concerned with the relationship between science and society (popularizers and spokesmen for the scientific establishment, not with science, technology and society studies) Fought very hard and largely succeeded in putting these humanistic intellectuals in their place. The slightly more current debate surrounding intelligent design are very closely related to this, in that the creation narrative of science has exclusive rights to be taught as truth (rather than some ironic “survey” class). Within a court of law, the only expert witnesses allowed are scientific experts. If there is an orthodoxy within our secular society – a way in which we are supposed to believe and think – it is science.

    Comment by Jeff G — May 29, 2015 @ 4:06 pm

  8. I think the scope of beliefs where science is important in setting secular priorities is actually fairly limited.

    If you take the four major social power types: political, economic, military and ideological science and scientists seem to be a tool rather than the power.

    The USA in particular has a longstanding tradition of separating expertise from power.

    What qualifications are required for political office or to vote or be on a jury?

    Scientists almost never have direct power due to scientific credentials. Scientific bodies don’t determine the power that science has, the other power centers determine what role expertise gets.

    You are selecting one part of the power spectrum in ideology and education and then trying to use it to shower scientific hegemony in secular society.

    What about all the ethical panels constraining research on human subjects? No one pretends these are scientific ethics. What about the opposition to GMO’s and genetic modification in general?

    Where in society, secular or otherwise, is it an effective argument to say, action X is morally preferred because it is scientifically possible?

    Does anyone even pretend that campus speech codes or inclusive diversity policies are justified primarily through science? Are double-blind clinical trials required to show that these should be adopted?

    Is there any real sanction for being scientifically illiterate?

    Yes, there is deference to science in certain educational, occupational and juridical roles but those roles are completely circumscribed by other types of power.

    Comment by Martin James — June 1, 2015 @ 6:50 am

  9. When I talk with my more secular friends I tend to make that point too Martin. That said I think the concerns within education are fair. If you are a secularist expecting to have your child educated then having a bunch of religious people blocking science topics is frustrating. On the other hand public education is already so bad that I’m not convinced it’s not lost in the noise. Still, I find high school science education is the big place this conflict really has teeth.

    In more public policy questions I think these things pop up in deciding about GMO foods, which is actually a pretty huge issue. (A lot of food is GMO and GMO arguably can help subsistence farmers a great deal) Then there’s the vaccine question which actually leads to deaths. While I tend to think both sides misrepresent global warming, it clearly is a place where public policy has big effects even if we go by more conservative readings of how fast warming will occur. Then there are issues like water contamination issues whether due to fracking, natural chemical contamination of some water, fluoride, etc. Finally I think social science, while much more mushy and biased, is a place where data affects a lot of public policy. I’m rather disappointed that conservatives in the House are blocking studies whose conclusions they don’t like.

    I do agree that how social power from science arises is complex. It’s not a simple issue of scientists having some authority. (That may have been true in the 50’s, but backlash against nuclear power pretty well destroyed the model of scientist as trusted authority)

    Comment by Clark — June 1, 2015 @ 8:54 am

  10. Jeff (7) I think we have to distinguish between the authority of established science versus the authority of scientists. For one, I think scientists outside of their field have little scientific authority. Admittedly the public doesn’t understand how narrow of knowledge most scientists have in practice. On the other hand many individual scientists on their own become more broadly informed. But I’m not sure that makes them an authority even if it means they can argue more broadly.

    Ultimately the scientist as authority seems less interesting to me. Rather what ought count is strength of argument. It’s interesting to me though that society doesn’t want to engage in discussing the strength of arguments themselves and prefers the simplicity of authority. That’s changing somewhat, even in legal cases. But society certainly could do better with how it engages science. I think the HORRIBLE way the press covers science doesn’t exactly help.

    Comment by Clark — June 1, 2015 @ 8:58 am

  11. Martin,

    “scientists seem to be a tool rather than the power.”

    I absolutely agree. This is an important distinction that I did not make clear enough. It’s not that I think scientists are calling the shots, per se. Rather, they are the guardians of justification. Their monopoly in this aspect is evident from the fact that both sides of any debate feel compelled to have an “expert witness” or a “consultant/analyst” on their side. The effect of this fact is that it reinforces the authority of science without science every having to actually come down on one side or the other. After all, if one side doesn’t have a scientific authority, the other automatically wins and if there are authorities on both sides, then it is not really science that decides the issue. Thus, science can either win or tie, but never lose. (As a side note, could you imagine a prophet being called in as a prophetic witness for one side or the other?)

    Right now I’m working as an economic analyst and in this business it is perfectly clear that expert consultants are hired in order to support an already-made decision or policy by picking and choosing data points as much as possible without compromising the integrity of their credentials (the PhD that the client is paying for). In other words, clients do not want scientists to tell them how to run their business, but instead hire them to stand by the decisions that they themselves make. Like I said at the beginning: the scientist is not in control of much anything, but are instead the guardians of justification.

    “the other power centers determine what role expertise gets”

    They definitely play a role, but scientists happily play into this since it is in their own interest to do so. Like I said above, they reap all the cultural capital that comes with it without risking much of anything at all. The relationship is VERY much like when the kings of old sought the blessing from the church for some choice or policy. Just because the priest or pope was not making the decision did not mean that they weren’t very important. If anything, a more Machavellian interpretation would say that the priest and scientist enjoy a much better position in many ways due to their ability to distance themselves from all failures since it was not they would made the decision.

    My position has always been that I am not necessarily against how science is practiced in any sense at all. What I am arguing against is how we perceive the authority of science and how science is used to justify and criticize things such as faith, etc. While I am concerned about scientists running the church, the much greater threat, I think, is people using science to criticize and attack the church. Indeed, isn’t the popularity of apologetics a sure indication that we feel pressure to receive science’s blessing even for religious beliefs?

    In summary, scientists do not exercise much authority over how we ought to behave. They do, however, exercise a great deal of authority over what we ought to believe, claim and preach.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 2, 2015 @ 12:51 pm

  12. I haven’t come up with a good way to express my perspective on this but here is an attempt.

    Since, consistent with LDS doctrine I view almost all religious views as mistaken and since I consider all true science to be compatible with LDS doctrine, I have much more to gain than to lose in supporting the authority of science. It is not like the authorities that use science would lack for other authorities to substitute for science should it not exist and I think the preponderance of the evidence is that they would be worse for LDS practices.

    Comment by Martin James — June 2, 2015 @ 2:11 pm

  13. Jeff (11), I confess I’m having a hard time separating out how you distinguish authority from influence. Scientists seem to exercise a great deal of influence over what we ought believe. I’m not sure they exercise a great deal of authority.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I suspect there’s some equivocation going on over the meaning of “authority” and we’re not always using the same sense.

    Comment by Clark — June 2, 2015 @ 2:20 pm

  14. Martin,

    “I consider all true science to be compatible with LDS doctrine”

    This is where they might get you, though. Against what standard do we measure “compatibility”? Who is to say what is and is not compatible? I suspect most people define this in the ways that they teach in school, critical reasoning classes to be exact. Such definitions of compatibility are very well suited to modern state powers that attempt to both 1) balance and constrain the exercise of political power and 2) empower individual within their mortal lives. Neither one of these, however, is what the gospel is really about though.

    “It is not like the authorities that use science would lack for other authorities to substitute for science should it not exist and I think the preponderance of the evidence is that they would be worse for LDS practices.”

    This is actually an interesting point. Put in terms of my above taxonomy, I think the gospel is definitely geared at limiting OTHER authorities and for empowering the righteous desires within this mortal world. On the other hand, I am very suspicious of mixing even this church’s authority with that of the state. (Hopefully it has been clear that my model is only morally appealing – tolerable? – for non-compulsory membership within the church.)

    With that in mind, I think the best I can hope for in this life is a plurality of authorities and my argument is aimed to subverting the monopoly that science is coming to have over the process of justification. I am completely and unequivocally for people learning as much science as they want, but I am very much against the idea that any and all ideas or policies that are not supported by science must go. In other words, science must be our good and faithful servant rather than our (largely?) benevolent master.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 2, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

  15. Clark,

    You might be right, and I’m open to being called out on this front.

    What I mean by authority basically has to do with how much justification is to be gained from their endorsement of a position. In other words, how far does “because I said so” go in practice?

    Power and influence, by contrast, have more to do with asymmetries of dependency as in the case of an unequal bargaining situation. The fact that everybody might think any such asymmetry is illegitimate does not change the influence of power of the asymmetry. In the case of authority, by contrast, everybody seeing some justification as illegitimate drastically changes its authority. Of course there is a lot of overlap between these two things in practice, but I hope that’s a good start.

    What is important in the religion vs science distinction is that the reasons that we accept when a scientist says “because so and so said so” are very different from those of a prophet. In the former case, we talk about expertise and (ideally) publicly available evidence, etc. while in the latter we talk about their ordination and inspiration. Science says that inspiration and (especially) ordination count for absolutely nothing, since social distinctions of this kind are very much part of what enlightenment science was aimed at subverting. On the other hand, expertise and publicly available evidence are, at most, optional and peripheral sources of legitimacy since such authority comes from God, not limited and corruptible human reasoning.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 2, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

  16. Authority has two senses I think. A persuasive one and an enforcing one. We can choose to accept what someone says because we think they are a reliable guide on that matter and are trustworthy. Then there is the sense of authority because they can force me.

    So a police officer is an authority when giving me a ticket through force or the threat of force. A person I see having a lot of experience in say metal work is an authority on metalworking because I choose to grant it to him.

    In both cases “because I said” goes a long way. But why is different.

    I think science, on its own terms, can only be an authority because it’s reliable and not due to some kind of force.

    Moving to the Church, I think Church authorities have both kinds of authority but which is which depends upon what they are doing. They have the authority to say what is church doctrine, what practices are official practices and even who gets excommunicated. I think with respect to truth (in the sense of “what is actual, real, or happened”) it’s a bit more complex. Certainly they have the authority in the sense of permission to say “this is so.” I’m not sure they have authority in the sense of force to make people believe. At best they can persuade because of their experience.

    Comment by Clark — June 2, 2015 @ 9:00 pm

  17. I disagree with your second conception of authority which to me sees no difference between the force that a cop and a school yard bully might bring against me.

    I would also disagree that what I as an individual choose has that much bearing on whether somebody is an authority. What matters is whether an collective audience considers them to be an authority since it is their questions that must be answered with an appeal to authority. In the case of the cop, it doesn’t matter what I choose to think, since what a judge, the police force and the rest of society chooses that really matters.

    In other words authority is when “because X says so” is accepted as an acceptable answer to some persons’ question. In this situation, there is me, the person interrogating me, and the authority figure that I appeal to when answering my interrogator.

    In the case of science, our secular society has collectively chosen to accept scientists as authorities (and not without bad reasons) whereas I think we’ve gone too far with this. At the very least, LDS society should be much more ambivalent on this choice.

    Comment by Jeff G — June 3, 2015 @ 11:43 am

  18. I’d just note that we’re now purely focusing in on semantic issues.

    If you don’t see my giving authority to a person to be authority that’s fine. You appear to see authority qua authority purely as a broad social permission where a group with authority grants authority. (I’ll skip what gives authority to a state or organization as I don’t think that matters for the discussion – although obviously one could quibble there) I just want to be clear how you’re using authority.

    The problem area of course is when one group considers someone an authority and an other group doesn’t consider them an authority. Further, it seems to me, that for the individual it has to matter whether they consider the person an authority even if their thinking that doesn’t make the person an authority.

    But ignoring that issue (however important) I’m still not sure secular society has chosen scientists as authority. Perhaps parts of science (rather than individual scientists) are. Even in court while a science can testify the other side typically will find peer reviewed studies and other scientists to contradict them. That undermines the very notion of authority as you present it.

    Comment by Clark — June 3, 2015 @ 12:06 pm