In previous articles, we explored the conflict, independence, and dialogue models in science and religion studies. We now turn to Ian Barbour’s favored model, synthesis. In the synthesis model, the goal is to arrive at a unified world picture that incorporates the most important insights from both science and theology. Barbour identifies three principle representatives of the synthesis model: natural theology, theology of nature, and process theology.
Natural theology is the enterprise of reasoning about God on the basis of scientific evidence. A person who thinks that the facts of the natural world, as revealed by science, authorize claims about what God must be like, is doing natural theology. For instance, a person who argues that the origin of temporal reality, in the Big Bang, implies a transcendent reality, prior to and independent of that origin, is involved in natural theology. They are saying that the facts of science tell us something important about God. Another familiar example of natural theology is the “fine-tuning” argument. Cosmologists have discovered that if the fundamental constants of physics—things like the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity and electromagnetism, etc.—had only slightly different values than they do, life as we can conceive it would not be possible. It is difficult to overstate how slight a fluctuation in the values of these constants would be required to generate a radically different universe. Some scientists, such as physicist Freeman Dyson, and biologist Michael Denton, have concluded that the universe must have been set up with us in mind from the beginning. In a future article, I hope to explore these arguments and the counterarguments offered by their critics more thoroughly.
While it is familiar that theists often engage in natural theology, it is somewhat less familiar that atheists and agnostics often do as well. In his book The Panda’s Thumb, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that the improbable architecture of the panda’s thumb (and other, similar examples from physiology) shows that evolution is an open-ended, not a determined, process. In order to flesh out this point, it may be useful to consider another book written by Gould. In The Wonderful Life he argued that if we were to replay “the tape of life” from the beginning, it would likely have a very different outcome, because big effects in evolutionary biology can stem from small, highly contingent causes. It is, after all, not necessary, but only probable, that the organism that is best adapted to its environment will propagate its kind. Suppose, for instance, that there are twenty roaches in a kitchen, and one of them has been endowed with superior intelligence through the process of random mutation. That roach will be better adapted and more likely to propagate its kind, all things being equal, but it is no necessary truth of nature that it will, in fact, propagate its kind. If that roach hatches on a Tuesday, and the exterminator arrives on a Wednesday, then, superior intelligence notwithstanding, it is just as likely to be poisoned as all the rest and thus fail to propagate its kind.
Evolution is made up of an unfathomable number of contingent events just like this, where the qualities of the individual organism are not necessarily decisive. According to Stephen Jay Gould, since any of these events could have been different, the outcome of the evolutionary process could have been as well. That’s why the panda’s thumb looks so haphazard—because it is, in fact, the result of a haphazard, unplanned process. We know that God did not design the process of evolution with any particular goal in mind, according to Gould, because if that were the case, the panda’s thumb (and, by extension, all sorts of other physiological features) would have very different characteristics. They would be elegant, precise, and orderly, like a cathedral or a math equation, rather than the haphazard affairs we actually find in nature.
A person who wanted to pursue the synthesis model, rather than Gould’s independence model, might agree with Gould that the panda’s thumb tells us something important about God, but disagree about what specifically that something is. They might hold that the panda’s thumb shows that God delights in improvisation, variety, and change more than previously suspected. A similar example is furnished by the biologist JBS Haldane, who was once asked what he thought nature revealed about God. Haldane quipped that God must have an “inordinate fondness for beetles,” since there are so many species of them. The comment was meant sarcastically, but an advocate of the synthesis model might just as well take it seriously. They might suggest that perhaps God is less like an architect, or a king, or a mathematician, as represented in earlier theologies, and more like an artist or a poet, who delights in change and variety for their own sake. Rather than jettisoning theology just as such, they might simply modify some of its premises in light of new evidence. Nobody thinks that’s an invalid procedure in physics, why would it be in theology?
The appearance of randomness and haphazardness in nature is genuine, but this does not mean that God is not in control of the overall system.
A second approach identified by Ian Barbour is theology of nature. Where natural theology tries to understand God in scientific context, theology of nature tries to understand nature in theological context. One example of a theology of nature is provided by biochemist and theologian Arthur Peacocke. Peacocke understands the doctrine of providence—the view that God is not only the creator, but the controller, of the natural world—in light of Darwinian evolution. If evolution is an open-ended, rather than a fixed, process, as Stephen Jay Gould has argued, then the doctrine of providence requires reformulation. In what sense is God still the controller of the natural world? Peacocke has suggested that it is in a statistical sense. The appearance of randomness and haphazardness in nature is genuine, but this does not mean that God is not in control of the overall system. A person at a casino may not be in control of the outcome of a game of blackjack, or roulette, or slots, but they do choose to play one game rather than another. In the same way, according to Peacocke, God knows what sort of potentialities are inherent in nature without knowing where it will end up. It is the difference between designing a game, and playing it. The person who designs the game has good information about what sort of outcomes are likely, or possible, but does not know what the result of any particular instance of that game will be.
On the opposite side, philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, that the appearance of randomness in nature is not genuine, but a metaphysical add-on. After all, what does the word “random” really mean? If it means “chancey,” or “uncaused,” does that mean that Gould or Dawkins thinks that there is literally no reason at all for a particular “random mutation”? In the strictly biological sense, randomness means that a mutation has no preset, adaptive purpose. It could be good for the organism and help it thrive, it could be bad and hinder it, or it might not make much of a difference. More often than not, mutations are maladaptive. In order for Darwinian biology to effectively explain speciation, random mutation only needs to be adaptive in a very few instances. Most organisms live and perish without greatly affecting the evolutionary trajectory of the breeding population to which they belong very much, one way or another. Only a few exceptional organisms acquire, through random mutation, an advantage that will be favored by natural selection. It is in this sense that adaptations are random. They don’t appear as if they had any particular end in view. But does it follow that, because we aren’t aware of a particular end in view, or because such an end is not empirically detectable, or because, if we had set up the process, we would have done things differently, that there just is no end in view? It is difficult to see how this conclusion can be established according to normal methods of scientific inquiry. It is really a metaphysical add-on, and no part of Darwinian biology just as such, according to Alvin Plantinga. God may, indeed, be fully in control of the entire evolutionary process—as deterministic and preset as you like—and have had particular outcomes in view right from the beginning, without modifying the empirical, non-metaphysical content of Darwinian biology one way or another.
Although Peacocke and Plantinga disagree about the meaning of the theological doctrine of God’s providence, they agree that it requires engagement and dialogue with Darwinian biology. They are both doing theology of nature. For Peacocke, the result is that structured randomness does not contradict, but just is, the meaning of providence. Why couldn’t God have chosen to set up an open-ended process? For Plantinga, the result is that randomness is real in the biological sense required for Darwinian biology, but not in the metaphysical sense required to disprove the doctrine of providence, as it has historically been understood. By exposing a fallacy of equivocation latent in the term random, which occurs when random selection (Darwinian biology) is used to argue for the randomness of the overall process (as in The Panda’s Thumb), the orthodox doctrine of providence is upheld and harmonized with Darwinian biology, according to Alvin Plantinga.
A third option for synthesis is called process theology, which will be the subject of a future article but a very brief discussion will be given here. Ian Barbour himself was an advocate of process theology, which proposes a radically new conception of God in light of modern science. On this view, God is not the "unmoved mover" or first cause of the universe, but dependent upon, emerging out of, and co-evolving with the universe in a harmonious duet. Process theologians argue that orthodox theology has been unduly influenced by Greek ideas, especially those of Plato, whose notion of being or reality as stasis cannot be maintained in light of what we now know about the natural world. The world is not a being, according to process theologians, but a becoming. It is in a continual process of change. If we understand God in light of science, as the synthesis model urges, then we will understand God as a becoming rather than a being, as well.
The permanent, necessary, and rational nature of mathematics, as understood through Platonism, has deeply informed Christian theology.
Much Christian theology has been based on Plato’s concept of being—it has understood God as transcendent, eternal, immutable, and necessary self-existence. Change is denied, permanence affirmed. The model for Plato’s understanding was mathematics. Seven does not become a prime number, and will never not be a prime number, and is not a prime number as a result of any contingent fact of the world. It simply is a prime number, always and necessarily. So, too, Plato’s forms simply did exist, and when this notion was imported into Christian theology, God too was understood in terms of permanence. The permanent, necessary, and rational nature of mathematics, as understood through Platonism, has deeply informed Christian theology. According to process theologians, the appropriate model for theology is not mathematics, but biology. Just as the world of life is continually creating itself, so too is God. What God was a million years ago is not what God is today, and not what God will eventually become either. Temporality is thus a part of God’s nature, not something created by and independent of God, on their view.
A synthesis model has some attractions for intellectuals who want to do justice to both theology and to science, but it is also open to criticism. To offer just one, scientific theories change very rapidly. A century ago, science definitely discovered the truth, the universe had always existed, and Darwinian biology was struggling for credibility against a resurgent Lamarckism. Today, science gives us access to useful paradigms that may or may not be true, and to technologies that may or may not be a benefit, the universe exploded into being approximately 14 billion years ago, and a firm line has been drawn underneath Darwinian biology. Science moves on a very rapid timescale, when compared to the great theological traditions of the world, which frequently trace their origins back to the Bronze Age—or, indeed, when considered on their own terms, right back to the beginning of the universe! A big part of the attraction of religious involvement just is its promise to relate people to transcendent and eternal truths. It is by no means clear that this promise is made more credible by rewriting foundational doctrines every time the paradigm shifts.
In this, and previous articles, we’ve explored Ian Barbour’s four models of interaction between science and religion. In the next article, we’ll examine a fifth: historian Jonathan Hedley Brooke’s “Complexity Model.”
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.