God and nature: a biblical approach to origins
Does God have any relation to nature? If so, how? One must have a foundational understanding of this relationship in order to develop an approach to origins. The way one views oneself and one’s relationship to the cosmos becomes strongly influenced by one’s view of the relationship of God and nature and its implications for the origin and nature of humans.
Different worldviews offer different takes on the relationship of God and nature, each carrying its own set of implications for the study of origins. The atheistic worldview sees no relevance for the idea of God and hence views nature as autonomous. Chance and natural causes are the only processes available to explain origins; hence, the crucial question whether they have the power needed to produce the cosmos.
The pantheistic worldview, common to Eastern religions, sees God and nature as being identical. With nature as autonomous or having its own “mind,” the idea of a separate deity is meaningless. In pantheism, nature possesses divine power. Therefore, in nature an inherent tendency toward self-organization leading to the emergence of life and its complexity exists.
In the theistic worldview,1 God and nature are separate but nature is not independent of God; God acts continuously to maintain nature and occasionally acts in special ways to accomplish His will in specific instances. Nature is totally dependent on God, for both its origin and its continuing existence, with this view shared by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The crucial question here is not about the properties of nature, but about the plausibility of the existence of a God with sufficient power to create nature.
This article will explore briefl y the question of whether nature has necessary powers to explain origins. After concluding that it does not, I will show that theism provides the basis for the most plausible story of origins.
Using observations to understand the relationship of God and nature
The probability of theism versus atheism or pantheism can be investigated by looking at the question of whether nature possesses the properties needed to generate life and complex organisms. If it does, all three worldviews are open for consideration; if it does not, atheism and pantheism are falsified, and theism remains the most likely to be true.
Let’s focus on two questions. First, does chance indicate a sufficient causal explanation for the origin of the universe and life? The alternatives: The causative explanation must be either natural law or intelligent design. I will conclude that chance is not a sufficient explanation. Next, I will consider whether natural law seems a sufficient causal explanation. I will conclude it is not. Finally, I will consider whether intelligent design appears a probable and sufficient cause. In this case, the answer is affirmative.
Question 1: Is chance a sufficient causal explanation for life and the universe?
Two lines of evidence strongly point to the insufficiency of chance in causing the origin of nature. First, the universe has a specific set of properties without which life would be impossible.2The relative strengths of the fundamental forces, such as gravity and the forces of the atomic nucleus, along with the values of the physical constants, such as the speed of light, are finely tuned in a way that makes life possible. Slight changes in these factors could make it impossible for atoms and molecules to exist.
Other slight changes could make it impossible for hydrogen or water to exist. The probability is vanishingly small that all these factors would be so finely tuned by chance. The highly specific features of the universe rule out chance as a sufficient causal explanation for its origin.
Second, living organisms are made of cells composed of highly specific biomolecules, including proteins made of amino acids and nucleotides. The potential number of different ways in which amino acids and nucleotides can be combined into proteins and nucleic acids, respectively, is far greater than the number of electrons in the known universe. Only a relatively small proportion of proteins and nucleic acids are suitable for sustaining life. Proteins and nucleic acids interact in a number of different ways, and slight changes in the sequences of even a single protein or nucleic acid can sometimes cause death. The probability that amino acids would arrange themselves by chance into sequences appropriate for life is so remote as to be unthinkable.3
Question 2: Is natural law a sufficient causal explanation for origins?
Natural law does not seem adequate to explain the origin of the universe. No natural law specifi es that the properties of our universe should be suitable for life. As far as we can tell, the universe could just as well have had other properties that would have made life impossible. Neither chance nor natural law, nor any conceivable combination of the two, is a sufficient causal explanation for the origin of the universe.
The origin of life is not explained by natural law. Life depends on a number of components, including proteins with specific shapes which are the result of specific amino acid sequences. In the origin of life, the first proteins and nucleic acids would have to be produced abiotically through natural law. No abiotic process is known for making proteins or nucleic acids. Natural law is sufficient to drive the disintegration of proteins and nucleic acids, but as far as we can tell, is not sufficient to cause their production under abiotic conditions. Our present knowledge may be incomplete, but there is no reason to suspect that there is some undiscovered “law of abiotic protein construction.” The abiotic origin of nucleic acids faces the same problems, natural law is sufficient to destroy them but not to produce them abiotically. Generally, natural processes are commonly observed to cause death of living organisms, but have never been observed to cause life to arise abiotically. These facts rule out natural law as a sufficient causal explanation for origins.
Question 3: Is design a suffi cient causal explanation for origins?
Design implies purpose, which implies an intelligent mind. To claim that the universe and life are designed is to claim that they are the result of a decision made by an intelligent mind for a purpose. The design explanation is favored by most Christians, including many scientists and philosophers.
A case for origin by design can be made in two ways. First, the only kinds of causal explanations known are chance, natural law, and design.4 Since both chance and natural law have been shown to be inadequate as explanations for the origin of the universe and of life, design is the only viable causal explanation available. With this as a weak argument, we would like to have positive evidence for design.
Some critics have claimed that design is an unreliable inference because there are no objective criteria for identifying design. But this criticism is not valid. A number of criteria are commonly used to identify design.5 For example, consider how an archaeologist might identify a stone ax as designed. First, a stone ax has an unusual shape not normally found among stones in natural settings. Second, the ax has fracture marks on it suggesting its shape has been modified by nonrandom processes such as being struck against another rock. Third, this unusual shape fi ts the object for a recognizable function associated with human activity. Fourth, the ax shows evidence of having been used in a manner associated with human activity. Thus, it appears that the stone ax was intentionally altered for a purpose. In short, it was designed.
More recently, two more sophisticated identifying marks of design have been proposed—irreducible complexity and specifi ed complexity. These features are thought to be reliable indicators of design, although they are not necessarily present in every object that has been designed. Irreducible complexity6 refers to a system composed of a number of parts in which removal of any single part leaves the system without any function. Such a system is said to be “irreducible” in terms of its functionality and complex because of several interacting parts, with the ordinary mousetrap as the classical example of irreducible complexity.
Specified complexity7 refers to a phenomenon with multiple interacting parts that form or produce a recognizable pattern. In this case, the term “specifi ed” means that the pattern in question carries some information or meaning to the observer. For example, a pattern of marks on a beach would be “specifi ed” if it was in the form of a written message but not if it were merely a series of ripples produced by wave action. Implicit in this idea lies the notion that information is both created and recognized by intelligent minds, not by mindless physical processes.
When we examine living organisms, do we see “marks” that we might reasonably interpret as the result of design? Yes, we do. Many examples have been proposed, although not all are equally persuasive. Some examples that seem persuasive include the information content of DNA, the cilium, the bloodclotting mechanism, the living cell, the mechanism for protein synthesis, sexual reproduction, and others.
In conclusion, design seems a compelling explanation for the origins of the universe and life. This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that chance and natural law seem insufficient causes. The evidence for design implies that God acted with purpose to create both the universe and life.
God’s actions in nature and a proposed classification
God may act directly in nature through primary causation or indirectly through secondary causation. In primary causation, God acts directly on matter and energy to cause a desired effect. In secondary causation, God causes an event indirectly, such as by allowing natural processes to proceed toward some predetermined end. Thomas Aquinas noted the distinction between primary and secondary causes,8 although the application here is my own.
The distinction between direct action and acting through secondary processes can be illustrated by comparing a painting with a photograph taken by remote sensing. The picture is accomplished through the direct agency of a painter who directly applies the paint to the canvas. In the case of the photograph, the picture is produced through secondary processes in which the photographer uses a remote sensing device to trigger the camera. The photograph was produced through the intentions of the photographer so it was not the result of chance (although certain details might be due to chance, such as which direction an animal was looking when the camera was triggered), but the image was produced indirectly rather than being directly applied by the person.
God might also act in nature continuously or intermittently.For example, God acts continuously to sustain the existence of the universe. At certain times, God acts in special ways as a voluntary agent, much as a human being may act as a voluntary agent. Thus, God acts both continuously and discontinuously.
Questions of whether God’s actions are continuous or discontinuous and whether they are the result of primary or secondary causation may be used to classify God’s activity in nature into four categories. These categories are illustrated in Table 1 with examples of each type of action described below. Not intended to be taken as new, these points are part of the traditional Christian view of God and nature.
Continuous, direct activity
In the ordinary operations of nature, God continuously acts by, “upholding the universe by his word of power” (Heb. 1:3, RSV). God’s actions are so consistent and reliable that we recognize the patterns as “laws of nature.” We often are able to use these “natural laws” to predict what will happen in a given set of circumstances. If God were to stop acting in this way, the universe would cease to exist.
God’s continuous, consistent direct action is the cause of the general “laws of nature.”9 These general laws maintain the existence of the universe. By “general laws” I mean observed regularities that seem to be in effect throughout the observable universe. The general laws of nature include the fundamental forces (gravity, strong and weak nuclear forces, and the electromagnetic force) and the values of the physical constants (e.g., the masses of the elementary particles, the speed of light, Planck’s constant, etc.). The number of known general laws of nature may be surprisingly small.
The practice of science is based on the consistency of God’s continuous direct action. One of the aims of science is to identify these consistencies.
Discontinuous direct activity
God also acts discontinuously. God’s discontinuous direct action may be the cause of events perceived as supernatural events or miracles.10 By supernatural eventI mean an event that could not have been predicted from the preceding state of matter and that would not have occurred except for the action of an intelligent agent. Supernatural events would include “miracles” and perhaps many activities of human beings. Supernatural events normally are consistent with the general laws of nature, although in theory exceptions could occur. For example, if God created through a process like the big bang, we do not know of any laws that would apply to the process. On the other hand, no reason exists to suppose that God had to break the laws of the fundamental forces or change the physical constants in order to create wine from water, or to raise the dead to life, or to calm the stormy sea. These were miracles indeed, but there was no need to break the general laws of nature. Anyone could probably do the same thing, without breaking general natural law if he or she were omnipotent, omniscient, and able to manipulate matter and energy by fiat. Science may have a very diffi cult time analyzing supernatural events, since one cannot observe what God is doing. This does not necessarily mean that a scientist should not attempt to study supernatural events, but it does mean that scientists cannot rely on explanations with which they are already familiar. In such cases, the probability of successful analysis would likely be rather low.
Continuous indirect activity
God also continues to be active through secondary mechanisms. For example, the weather system stays continuously maintained through the general laws of nature. However, the specific state of weather itself is probably not directly manipulated by God, except for special (“supernatural”) events. He ordinarily “causes” the weather through secondary, rather than direct means. The weather system can be compared to a machine that operates on consistent principles without continuous external guidance. The consistency of weather processes may lead us to consider weather patterns to be laws of nature, but they really are only localized effects of general laws.
Human development is another example of continuous activity through secondary processes with each of us developed from a single living cell into a multicellular individual. Although this appears to be a purely physical process, yet we speak of ourselves as having been created. In doing so, we acknowledge that God may “create” through secondary processes, such as in the continuity of human life.
Science is especially well suited to studying events that result from God’s continuous activity, whether direct or indirect. Events caused through secondary mechanisms are a major subject matter of science, with explanations sought, ultimately, in terms of general laws.
Discontinuous secondary activity
God may also act intermittently through secondary causation.11Answers to prayer are often a result of God’s special actions using secondary causes. For example, the needy family who prays for help may fi nd a package on their doorstep. The package may have been put there by an individual who was impressed to do so. In this case, God may have acted directly on one person, using that person as a secondary cause in answering another person’s prayer. Certain biblical miracles seem to have involved God’s action through secondary mechanisms. Examples include the use of wind to bring “quails” to the Hebrews in the wilderness, the use of hornets to drive away Israel’s enemies, the payment of the tax for Peter and Jesus by the coin in the fi sh. However, in each case, the secondary process was probably initiated by direct divine activity. Hence, a miracle may involve both secondary activity and direct activity.
Science may have some success in analyzing events involving discontinuous secondary causation, but failure to recognize divine activity will likely cause difficulties in reaching conclusions in harmony with Scripture.
Distinguishing origins and operations
In studying God’s activities in nature, we should distinguish between questions of origins and questions of operations. Origins are singularities while operations occur continuously. Having a good understanding of operations does not necessarily imply a good understanding of origins.
For example, consider the operations of an automobile. Fuel is burned in an internal combustion engine, releasing energy that drives the pistons. This movement is transferred to the wheels through a series of mechanical linkages, with the result that the wheels are turned, propelling the car forward. Several control mechanisms guide the direction of the car’s movement and cause it to move or stop at the will of the operator.
A good mechanic understands the “automobile laws” that govern the operations of the automobile and takes appropriate action to maintain the machinery in good order or to make repairs when needed. It might seem that the mechanic knows everything there is to know about an automobile.
Does a mechanic’s thorough understanding of the operations of an automobile also give him the ability to explain how automobiles are made? Of course not. The mechanic has probably never visited a manufacturing plant to see how an automobile is made. We would be skeptical of any mechanic who claims that the manufacturing of an automobile does not require any processes they have not observed nor use any principles unknown to them.
As scholars, we are a little bit like the mechanic. Although able to observe many physical processes operating in the universe, we have never seen the origin of a universe. Likewise, we understand a great deal about physicochemical processes in living cells, but we have never seen life originate abiotically. The origins of life and the universe involve processes that are not involved in their day-to-day operations. Thus, we fi nd it useful to consider questions about origins as a separate category from questions about operations in nature.
Miracles and natural law
I have stressed that miracles do not necessarily require violations of “natural laws.” I do this because many scholars seem to feel that miracles are, by definition, violations of natural laws, and thus a threat to the practice of science.12 This is not necessarily the case. Science may not be able to explain miracles, but the cause of this failure often may be because we cannot see what God is doing rather than because we are incapable of understanding the physical mechanism. Thus, it is not fatal to the practice of science to admit that miracles may occur, unless one adopts the philosophical position that all events must be explained by science, appealing only to natural processes.
What about the ability of scientists to study supernatural events? For example, is it justifi able for a scientist to study Creation if it was a supernatural event? Does the biblical story of origins render science irrelevant?
The answer to this question depends on what the scientist is trying to discover. For example, suppose a scientist wishes to study the origin of life. The Bible states that God made the atmosphere (heaven) and the dry land (earth) and the living organisms in six days. To the creationist, it becomes pointless to attempt to test whether God created in six days, since the process clearly was unique and miraculous, and therefore, outside the realm of science. But there are plenty of other questions a creationist scientist may pursue. For example, a creationist might wish to study the relationships among organisms to determine to what extent they have diversified since Creation. Or one may wish to investigate some aspect of cell and molecular biology. They might even wish to examine whether the Creation account applies to the entire world or to a localized region, although this will not be a strictly scientific study, since they must take into account the biblical text as well as a study of the physical world.
Origins may sometimes be a contentious issue in science and faith because of differing presuppositions about God’s relationship to nature. An argument has been presented here that the evidence points to divine activity in nature, expressed in both direct and indirect causation. God’s actions in nature may be described in four categories: continuous and direct, continuous and secondary, discontinuous and direct, and discontinuous and secondary.
With science well-equipped to study God’s continuous activities, Scripture emphasizes God’s discontinuous activities. Scientific methodology restricted to observable physical mechanisms is inadequate to discover and explain our origins. Certain aspects of reality seem to be best explained by design and direct personal causation. The biblical description of God provides essential information in our quest to understand the relationship of God, nature, and humans.
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