It’s Not About Supernaturalism: My Ultimate Salvo Against Creationism

January 14, 2011

My last post on Dr. Mohler’s article on evolution needs further clarification. Thanks for the feedback on that post. Mohler’s framework should be roundly rejected, and here’s why:

Dr. Mohler wants to frame the issue as a matter of naturalistic presuppositions in a systematic worldview: “The entire intellectual enterprise of evolution is based on naturalistic assumptions, and I do not share those presuppositions.” This is one of the most careless — and surely one of the most harmful — statements I’ve ever read on this issue. When geneticists discovered the cell degeneration in cancer victims, did they do this on “naturalistic assumptions”? Of course. When physicists discovered the speed of light and applied it in astronomy to gauge the distance of galaxies, did they do this on naturalistic assumptions? Of course. So, when these same geneticists measure the variations in the genetic code and determine enough variables that point toward hominid origins of millions of years past, are they working on naturalistic assumptions? Of course. When the astronomers measure the time it takes for light to reach us from distant stars (billions of years), are they using naturalistic assumptions? Of course. When geologists measure the substrata of the earth and create models (billions of years) to account for the accumulation, are they using naturalistic assumptions? YES!

I trust that you see where I’m going with this. Mohler discredits evolution because evolutionary conclusions arise from naturalistic assumptions, but Mohler would have to discredit all of natural science. The work of the scientist always follows upon naturalistic assumptions: that’s the whole point of what they’re doing — discerning properties and effects in nature. This has absolutely nothing to do with a belief in the reality of supernatural occurrences or divine governance: some scientists believe, some don’t. Whether they believe or not has nothing to do with their calculations as geneticists, astronomers, and geologists. Every example I provided in the previous paragraph stands regardless of whether you believe in supernatural agency.

Mohler’s epistemology of science is the quintessence of what we call “fundamentalist,” “sectarian,” or “anti-intellectual.” It is deeply harmful to the church. It creates suspicious and closed minds in the pews, and it forces any congregant, who wishes to pursue the great calling of being a scientist, to reject his or her faith. More importantly, the lordship of Christ in our lives does not require an Ancient Near-Eastern cosmology, nor does a modern cosmology harm our witness to his mighty works in Israel and the Church.

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14 Responses to “It’s Not About Supernaturalism: My Ultimate Salvo Against Creationism”

  1. Iohannes said

    I love philosophy and theology, but one thing I hate about them is the proliferation of thought-sapping buzzwords. Rather than gripe about “naturalistic assumptions,” people should be concrete about what they find objectionable. At least half the time, if they did that, they might see that what they reject isn’t some bogey “naturalism,” but commonsense principles indispensable to sane living.

    That’s not to say complaints about “naturalism” and “scientism” and so forth are never justified. But heaven help us if the apostles’ trustworthiness is apparent only on “supernaturalistic” assumptions.

    • Kevin Davis said

      There’s a lot of wisdom in your last sentence. I wish that a lot more people would recognize that. Also, “thought-sapping buzzwords” is a great way to characterize Mohler’s rhetoric.

  2. Kevin

    I am not going to fall on my sword over this. Mohler can be irritating and I don’t read him anymore.

    But I have been talking to scientists about this since I learned to talk. My father was a scientist and he had friends who who were TE people, one of which was the theologian Bernard Ramm. Naturalism and science are not the same thing. F. Schaeffer had formula for it “the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system.”

    It seems to me that you are calling smart people stupid. I going to back off now and let someone else pick up the ball so to speak.

    • Kevin Davis said

      I’m playing on Mohler’s use of “naturalism.” Obviously, as a comprehensive system that disallows metaphysics or miracles, then I certainly don’t adhere to naturalism. However, in regards to the basic task of the natural sciences, I think “naturalistic assumptions” is a pretty obvious way to describe what the scientist is doing. Mohler’s categories are unhelpful and, moreover, deceiving.

      I think Mohler is beginning with some bad presuppositions about how authority works in dogmatic systems. He’s not stupid, but this blindness results in some stupid conclusions. It’s a matter of faithfulness for him, so I can at least respect him for that.

  3. Mike Cheek said

    What follows is not a defense of Dr. Mohler’s essay, but it does seem that the folks on the other side of the fence can be rather hostile sometimes. I have a book on my shelf entitled “Science and Creationism” edited by Ashley Montague with essays by many accomplished scientists. The mocking, biting and at times vicious attacks on faith and Christianity can be unsettling. To believe in evolution is to be an atheist. With that they are in agreement with those they most despise in this world, the creationist. I suppose one should not expect non-Christians to act with Christian charity, but if these scientists, tops in their fields, have such a hatred for God, it would be expected that such attitudes would be passed onto their students.

    I think this makes it harder for many Christians to accept the general tenets of evolution when it seems that if you do, you are joining a group of people who despise your guts, which I think these Christians know intuitively.

    • Kevin Davis said

      True, it cannot be forgotten that, as sinners, our minds are hostile to God. So, it should not be surprising that a number of scientists exhibit this hostility with greater force, as they detail the how and why of secondary causation. Science can surely open one’s mind to wonder and awe at creation, but, without the promises of redemption, the impression of absurdity eventually shapes the narrative.

      Of course, if I were a non-believing scientist and I read Mohler’s piece, I would be fairly pissed and dumbfounded. And if Mohler represented all Christian attitudes toward science, I would have a hard time distinguishing Mormon and Creationist modes of empirical investigation.

  4. alexbpop said

    Excellent points there. I’m fully in agreement with everything you say in this post and I’m glad to find a kindred soul on this issue. Being able to step into the perspective of an outsider, or even an opponent, and see a complex issue the way they see it is one of the best skills that an intellectual can have.

  5. Sam said

    Let me say two things up front. First, I respect Mohler and think he is generally exemplary in many respects (e.g. the way he talks with people, his open-mindedness – see his interviews with Stanley Fish, Peter Berger, and many others who are far from his camp). I am to the left of him but that doesn’t change my general assessment of him. Second, however, I find his comments of late on evolution to be very disappointing, and to fall below the standards he normally tries to maintain when characterizing positions, etc.

    That said, I think you’re too quickly dismissive, Kevin. While Mohler suffers from what I call over-extended “worldview” thinking (more on that below, or later), his argument is actually not as bad as it’s made out to be, though I don’t think it’s a persuasive argument nor one I would ever use in this context.

    But here is how I would reconstruct it, trying to put it in a stronger form than just a few lines.

    The scientific theory of evolution is predicated on naturalistic assumptions. Stated weakly, these assumptions at least include methodological naturalism, the idea, roughly stated, that only naturalist explanations can be invoked in scientific theories (there is, incidentally, a real problem here with how underdetermined both “naturalistic” and “explanation” are, something philosophers of science would want to point out).

    As a consequence of these naturalistic assumptions, any domain construed as a object of science is ipso facto a domain that excludes traditional ideas of divine action, or direct divine intervention in nature. Put more precisely, any account of such divine action is strictly irrelevant (on the weakest reading) or incompatible (on the strongest reading) with a scientific account of the domain.

    But Christians are reasonably committed to the idea that God has in fact so acted, and he has so acted in domains that are part of contemporary science. Given science’s assumptions, the Christian interpretation of certain domains (like the origins of life, humans, or the universe) is ruled out in advance as having scientific validity or relevance.

    Therefore, the fact that science predicated on such assumptions adduces evidence and theories that are inconsistent with Christianity in some respects need not count against the Christian claims. Rather, Christians have antecedently good reasons for rejecting at least some of the naturalistic assumptions held to be part of natural science, and with those assumptions rejected, seeking alternative explanation of the relevant domains that are compatible with Christian belief.

    Now I have plenty of issues with that argument and its use, but I think it’s not a terrible argument, and that is, I think, one way to carefully reconstruct what Mohler is saying.

    • Kevin Davis said

      Thanks, Sam. I agree, as stated in the post, that naturalistic assumptions cannot be over-extended to preclude supernatural “interventions” or governance. But, I’m more concerned about the particular work that is being done in each field (astronomy, genetics, etc.) which reveal the empirical evidence for evolution. It is these particular models (e.g., genetic multiplication) that has to be dealt with, and then the question is why does all of this evidence yield a consistent (though rough and inexact) picture of an old and evolving cosmos. Why would God give us this preponderance of evidence, converging as it does to a common vision of evolution, if we are then required to say that is is deceptive?

      In other words, is empirical data inherently untrustworthy? Why? The answer cannot be the noetic effects of sin because the correctness of these particular models are not contingent in any way upon the sanctity of the observer. Yet, that’s pretty much what Mohler is saying.

  6. Sam said

    Kevin,

    I’m not going to speak for Mohler; I have the same problems with his view you do, my point was that his general argument is stronger than it was made out to be. If people like Mohler want to maintain a certain pig-headness, as I see it, to empirical evidence, my point is it’s not the biggest offense in the world, nor is it irrational. People like Mohler preserve orthodoxy the way the quick-accomodating pushovers do not, so if they are always a few “cranks” in the theological community who want to see certain theological issues addressed with some cogency, like issues about Adam’s historicity, the fall, etc. before they submit to a growing body of empirical data, I tend to think in the long run that isn’t such a bad thing.

    Much as I appreciate what, say, the people are BioLogos are doing, I think a lot of it is tremendously sloppy, theologically, and that young-earth creations tend to ask some of the best and sharpest theological questions to these types, and get very shabby answers. I don’t think that justifies, by itself, YEC (I certainly do not hold the position), but it does justify being skeptical of the theological coherence of those who tend to accommodate to science.

    There are very deep tensions here, and I just don’t want people like Mohler dismissed, is all, even if sometimes they put things badly, or indefensibly.

  7. […] of Al Mohler, who judges empirical research altogether as inadmissible (as I discuss here and here). If the genetic evidence (against the historicity of Adam) is as strong as the astronomical and […]

  8. […] scientific community. I’ve criticized the former several times on this blog (e.g., here and here and here); now I am offering a criticism of the […]

  9. […] we can use it to subvert the Word of God. Everything is reduced to epistemology — namely, one’s presuppositions about where truth is found. Mohler, the tireless combatant of all things modern and postmodern, is […]

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