by Mailen Kootsey
Comment: This excellent essay by Dr. Kootsey raises an important issue rarely considered when we address issues dealing with the assumptions we hold when we are discussing the topics surrounding the relationship between science and religion including the contentious issues surrounding evolution. I hope this will generate much discussion. Erv Taylor
This startling title does not announce a sudden change in beliefs of either ultra-Darwinists or conservative Christians, but rather a consideration of a fundamental assumption held in common. What could ultra-Darwinists and conservative Christians possibly agree on? In fact, these two groups both believe that proof for the existence of God is to be found in the supernatural. Of course, ultra-Darwinists insist that such proof does not exist and some Christians are convinced they have found it. But, there is agreement on the connection between God and the supernatural.
Who are these “ultra-Darwinists”? The term is used to describe Darwinists who attempt to turn Darwinism into a universal atheistic philosophy. Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are prime examples. There are, after all, also Darwinists (believers in evolution) who are Christians. “Ultra-Darwinist” is not a derogatory epithet, but is used by fellow Darwinists and atheists.
Ultra-Darwinists have accepted the conservative Christian supernatural definition of God, as spelled out by Richard Dawkins in his book “The God Delusion” (p31): “…a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” Dawkins argues that it is no longer necessary to believe in such a supernatural intelligence to account for miracles, life, and the universe because it appears that there are or will be scientific explanations that don’t require the supernatural.
While ultra-Darwinists and conservative Christians both identify the supernatural as proof of God’s existence, there is a profound difference between the two groups in the significance assigned to the connection. For the conservative Christian, belief in God’s existence is central, so proofs such as the supernatural are anchors for certainty. God and the supernatural are not part of the ultra-Darwinist philosophy so the proof does not carry the emotional strength that is has for the conservative Christian. The ultra-Darwinist accepts the conservative Christian’s assumption and proceeds to ridicule it.
Distinguishing between natural and supernatural is a relatively recent concept. Prior to the scientific revolution, people looked to the gods for control of the world. In every ancient culture, aspects of life that humans could not control and did not understand were assumed to be governed by the gods. Favorable weather, fertility of flocks and crops, and success in battles were all sought by appealing to the gods through ritual and sacrifice. Important stories about remarkable exploits of the gods were common to all ancient cultures. These favorable actions and exploits would now be called “supernatural”, although in ancient times there was no “natural” for contrast.
Links between gods and the supernatural are frequent in the Biblical record, although the term itself never appears. The Old Testament describes many events considered possible only for gods and therefore proofs that the God of Israel was more powerful than the gods worshiped by Israel’s heathen neighbors. For example, the plagues on Egypt preparing the way for the Exodus served to draw a sharp contrast between the powerless Egyptian gods and the powerful and true God of Israel. Elijah’s sacrifice contest on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18) was set up specifically to show that only Israel’s God was powerful and real. Israel didn’t always win, though, so the Canaanite gods sometimes came out on top.
In the New Testament, the word supernatural still does not appear, but there are numerous unusual events we now call miracles. Jesus’ ministry was preceded by a confrontation with Satan in the desert (Matt. 4), Satan asking for Jesus to work a (supernatural) miracle to prove that He was God. During the following three and a half years, no less than 35 of His miracles were recorded in the gospels, many of them attracting large crowds. The New Testament ends with the book of Revelation containing a description (Rev. 13: 13, 14) of a beast that uses miracles to deceive, drawing attention away from the true God to an impostor.
As the Christian church grew and organized in the centuries following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, the church clung to what we now call the supernatural as evidence of God in the world. Saints, believed to be the humans closest to God, were identified by miracles they performed, emphasizing the strong connection between God and the supernatural.
In the Abrahamic religions, including Christianity, God is also believed to be the Creator of the universe. The Scriptures begin with God creating the earth and end with God recreating it. Before the scientific revolution, God as Creator and the source of the supernatural caused no controversy because the average person knew little about regularity in the universe, what we now call natural laws. Common events both good and bad were attributed to God as well as miracles, although the latter always attracted public attention as sites of God’s direct presence.
With the rise of scientific investigation and the discovery of natural laws, natural and supernatural are now more clearly differentiated. Should God be associated with the natural (as Creator), the supernatural (as the All-powerful One), or both? There is the long tradition, summarized above, of identifying God through the supernatural. This tradition is very strong and does not die easily, even with the development of science. Conservative Christians and Muslims prefer to stick with the supernatural God and are suspicious of science. Many Christians, especially those not involved in science, see no problem in simultaneously believing in the value of research to learn about the natural world and at the same time continuing to believe in the supernatural as proof of God’s existence. But, other Christians see this combination as paradoxical, requiring strict compartmentalization.
Can the supernatural really be identified? Intuitively, it seems like separating supernatural from natural should be easy. Events such as recovery from killer diseases, resurrection from the dead, and protection from extreme danger seem like obvious candidates for the supernatural. A street definition of supernatural would be “beyond or outside of the natural”.
But there is a logical problem here. What is natural is derived from human experience, so that supernatural also means outside of human experience. Applications of this intuitive classification have repeatedly been superseded. For millennia, it seemed clear that humans could not fly. Such behavior was only possible for birds, insects, and (supernatural) angels. Now that limitation seems quaint. Until recently, communication between humans was only possible when they were in direct sight or hearing of each other. Now we can communicate instantly with anyone on the planet, utilizing technologies firmly based on well known and understood natural laws.
Scientifically, though, isn’t there such a thing as being impossible according to the known laws of physics? Take the example of the perpetual motion machine. Every physics student knows that perpetual motion is impossible. All machines lose some energy through “friction” and therefore gradually run down, some rapidly and others more slowly. So wouldn’t a machine that kept running indefinitely or even one that produced net energy be supernatural?
The problem in this example comes in identifying when a machine is truly isolated from all sources of energy, internal and external. Many people have fooled others into believing their device has achieved perpetual motion by cleverly hiding an energy source, such as a hidden battery or receiver of radio or some other invisible energy. Our family owns a clock that has no wind-up spring, no weights to lift daily, no hidden receiver of radio energy, no battery, and sits motionless on the shelf. Yet it continues to run year after year – extracting energy from the natural changes in atmospheric pressure. Not obvious if you don’t know some science!
Even if we had perfect knowledge of natural laws, we can and do have very incomplete knowledge of what can be accomplished through those laws. The scientific identification of the truly supernatural thus depends on our current level of knowledge and technology. As a consequence, supernatural events do not constitute a reliable method for establishing belief in God. On the other hand, our inability to separate natural and supernatural does not mean that God does not or cannot act in the world through events that are beyond human knowledge, for example creating “design”. The believer can recognize such events, but scientific identification as supernatural is unreliable, making the event unsafe as proof of God’s involvement.
The recent Intelligent Design (ID) movement has put much effort into recognizing and defining “design”, even in mathematical terms. The purpose has been to connect design to the supernatural (and God), based on the assumption that there is no natural origin for design. This assumption intuitively seemed reasonable because the evolutionary source of design that ID opposed (i.e. the existing scientific theory) relied on chance events to produce new structures. ID proponents could quote vanishingly small probabilities for the existence of biological designs through random events alone so they argued that they had proof of the supernatural. Further scientific investigation, however, has now made it clear that there are natural – meaning regular and repeatable – sources of design and order in the universe. These sources are not contrary to the known physical laws, but neither can they be derived from the physical laws. Random events do occur and play some role in changes, but it is no longer necessary to depend entirely on random events to account for the origin of order. The new recognition of naturally-arising order has arisen from studies of complex systems and such studies are still in early stages.
Physicist Frank J. Tipler has investigated many claims of Christianity from the viewpoint of physics in his books “The Physics of Immortality” and “The Physics of Christianity”. He concludes, based on current knowledge of physics, that Christianity’s traditionally supernatural claims – such as immortality, virgin birth, and resurrection – are not actually contrary to physical laws and thus are not necessarily supernatural. They are admittedly far beyond human experience and human technical capabilities, but that is not the same as being contrary to known physical laws.
If the recognition of the supernatural is always relative to current knowledge, we must conclude that true and absolute scientific identification of the supernatural is not humanly possible. Proving the existence of God by identifying the supernatural is thus a temporary illusion and always in danger of eventual disproof. Is this a great blow to Christianity and religion, not having scientific proof of God’s existence? Some may regard it as such, but I disagree. The existence of God is a religious and a spiritual matter, not something that requires proof by science.
Eliminating the scientific proof for a supernatural God does not mean that there can be no relationship between religion and science, as suggested by Stephen Jay Gould with his concept of “non-overlapping magisteria”. Given the spiritual conclusion that God exists and is the Creator of the Universe, it is appropriate and even essential to learn about God by studying the universe at all levels with all the creativity and imagination of the human mind. The natural world was once called “God’s Second Book” by Christians, but recently this volume has been abandoned by many with the determination to derive knowledge of God only from revelation.
There are theological problems, too, with God as identified by the supernatural. Connor Cunningham, in “Darwin’s Pious Idea” (p278) writes: “For the I-D ‘god’ [identified by the supernatural] could not elicit worship, because it would be merely a domesticated god, a ‘natural’ god. This ‘god’ might have bigger biceps, a Jedi Knight of sorts. He might be merely Homeric, but he certainly would not be Abrahamic. To worship him would be like worshipping a whale or a mountain – one worships it because it’s big…This is, therefore, ‘The idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature.’ “ This kind of god is worshipped in the same way that the ancients worshipped their heathen gods.
Does the abandonment of supernatural proof for God amount to a giving in to the precedence of science over religion? Not at all. Bible writers clearly understood God as a God of law. By laying aside the fascination with the supernatural, the focus is placed on natural laws as God’s creation. Philosophically, we are accepting a God who creates laws and then works through them to form a universe, humans, and all the rest and we are rejecting a God who supersedes His own laws to manipulate. It is God the Creator rather than God the Magician.
Is the natural world too damaged by sin to be regarded as another revelation of God? A central focus of scientific investigation is the understanding of basic laws and mechanisms behind everything we observe and experience. Some examples would be gravity, the properties of light and radio waves, atoms and molecules, and motion and forces. Observations beyond the surface of the earth to our solar system and the universe far beyond clearly show that the basic laws and mechanisms we observe on earth work exactly the same way at great distances as they do on the surface of the (sinful) earth. Since we have no hint from written revelation that the universe beyond the earth is tainted with sin, it is reasonable to conclude that these basic laws and mechanisms can be regarded as created by God in the manner we observe.
The situation is more complex when it comes to the materials and things made out of atoms and molecules, living and non-living, that make up the world on a human scale – the rocks and mountains, lakes and oceans, plants and all other forms of life. Humans have clearly had an effect on the natural environment as well as on each other and other life forms. Study will be necessary to build a picture of God’s methods in the natural revelation, just as study is necessary to understand God’s workings in the written revelation. The Bible is not a direct dictation from God, but was produced by inspired (but sinful) human writers and is written in imperfect human language. The writings have even gone through multiple steps of assembly and translation. Yet, their value as a revelation from God, understood with the aid of the Holy Spirit, is acknowledged by many. Finding God in the natural world – sometimes called “God’s second book” — is no different. It is this writer’s belief that the two forms of revelation – the written word and nature – can together give a more complete picture of God than either one studied independently. Each of the two aids in understanding the other.
Much of the supposed conflict between science and religion fades for the person who shifts the emphasis away from proving God’s existence to studying God’s qualities as revealed in the amazing universe. Belief in God is a spiritual decision that rightly rests on revelation and personal experience. The Believer can appreciate natural scenic beauty, new scientific insights, and staggering complexity with the same fervor as conservative Christians now are inspired by (assumed) supernatural events. There is also a collateral benefit: abandoning the supernatural proof for God lets the air out of ultra-Darwinists’ ridicule of the supernatural argument.
Dr. Mailen Kootsey received his PhD in nuclear physics from Brown University. From 1994 to 1997, he served as academic vice president at Andrews University. Until his retirement in 2005, he was professor of physiology and pharmacology in the School of Medicine at Loma Linda University and chair of the department for four years. The focus of his research is on cardiac electrophysiology and specifically the mathematical modeling of physiological processes.