How Can We Increase Theological Knowledge in the Same Way We Increase Scientific Knowledge?

This room, in the British estate Bowood House, was the library and laboratory in which Joseph Priestley discovered the element oxygen in 1774.This room, in the British estate Bowood House, was the library and laboratory in which Joseph Priestley discovered the element oxygen in 1774.Wikipedia

I must admit that when the nice folks at Templeton asked me to write 1500 words in response to the title question, my initial response was to wonder how I would use the 1498 words that would remain after my two-word reply “We can’t!” Science is empirical.  Theology isn’t.  We increase scientific knowledge and discoveries by taking bits of the world and doing experiments on them.  But we cannot do experiments in theology.  (I trust it’s clear already that I’m no philosopher of science. I do know that the real story is more complicated.  Some scientists don’t do experiments at all but just… think really hard about the universe.  Whether that means that some sciences are not empirical or that some scientists are actually philosophers is a question for another day.)

So how do we increase theological knowledge and discoveries?  I’m not sure.  On many traditional forms of theism, we cannot make theological discoveries on our own at all, because theological knowledge must be revealed by God.  Other traditional theists insist that before we can attain theological knowledge, we must first grow in virtue and personal holiness.  Whether one accepts these claims or not, it is surely a mistake, a naïve and disastrous mistake, to treat theological inquiry as just another example of empirical inquiry. For the theologian, that way lies madness—and Dawkins.

So I doubt that we can make progress in theology by looking more carefully at objects in the world, or by designing better experiments.  Well-meaning theists have long sought to confirm the existence of God by claiming that certain specific empirical observations can only be explained by attributing them to divine agency. Surely the marvelous complexity of the human eye, or the cell, or the biome can only be explained by appealing to a God who intervenes in the natural order, tinkering with natural events?  Theologians rightly criticize this sort of project as “God-of-the-gaps” reasoning, and its track record has so far been one of unremitting failure.

And yet… theology may not be an experimental science, but it is (or ought to be) a form of rational inquiry.  Perhaps there are assumptions, conceptual tools, and patterns of reasoning that are common to theology and the empirical sciences, precisely because they are presupposed by all forms of rational inquiry.  I can think of several candidates—the laws of logical inference come immediately to mind—but I wish to focus on a pattern of reasoning found at the very heart of the empirical sciences, and argue that it has also played a major role in theology, even theology of a very traditional sort.  I have in mind abduction, also called inference to the best explanation (IBE).  In particular, I want to think about how we can distinguish IBE from the God-of-the-gaps reasoning I criticized above.

IBE is certainly plays a prominent role in our ordinary, everyday reasoning.  Consider:  you come home from work one day only to discover that the box of chocolates you had been saving is empty.  You conclude that the best explanation for this lamentable state-of-affairs is that while you were out, your shiftless, chocolate-loving housemate ate the whole box.  Of course, other explanations are possible.  Your landlord could have used his master key to enter your apartment and eat your chocolates.  Or a particularly crafty thief could have broken in and eaten them without leaving any other trace.  But all in all, the best explanation is that your housemate is the culprit.  Similarly,  IBE is also a fundamental feature of scientific reasoning.  Every datum or observation can be explained by a vast array of logically possible hypotheses.  Among the plurality of possible hypotheses, scientists prefer the single hypothesis that best explains the relevant data.  (For more examples, and for a guide to some of the tricky philosophical problems posed by IBE, see the entry on Abduction in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Many theologians repudiate any role for IBE in theology, because they assume that IBE can only result in bad, God-of-the-gaps reasoning.  But whatever the problems with the latter, theologians who sympathize with traditional orthodoxy should not reject IBE as such.  Indeed, there are vital theistic claims and practices that depend on IBE.  For example, on a traditional understanding of the miraculous, when we call an extraordinary event a “miracle,” we mean to say that God has brought about that event by means of a special divine action, instead of by means of ordinary causes alone.  When we judge that some event is a miracle, we engage in IBE.  Suppose you ask God to heal your terminal illness, and the next day you wake up cured.  You infer that the best explanation for your sudden recovery is that God has healed you.  Other explanations are possible (sometimes diseases go into spontaneous remission as a result of natural causes) but on the balance of the evidence, you attribute your recovery to an act of God.

My point is not that your attribution is correct.  My point is that theologians who repudiate IBE altogether must either deny that miracles occur or else give an alternative account of how we attribute them, one that does not rely on IBE.  The point generalizes to all religious experiences, insofar as they are regarded as extraordinary experiences in which God communicates with someone uniquely and immediately.  Someone who judges that he is in the presence of God, instead of, say, in the grips of a mental illness, is making an inference to the best explanation of his unusual experience.  Theists cannot give up on IBE as a valid form of theological reasoning without also giving up on the ability to call some events miracles or religious experiences—a high price to pay.  More controversially, I would also argue that some of the most central Christian claims—for example, that Jesus is divine, or that God is Trinitarian—were formulated as a result of IBE.  I accept that I cannot really defend that argument now, however.

How, then, can we distinguish legitimate theological uses of IBE from illegitimate appeals to the God-of-the-gaps?  I confess that I am not entirely sure about that either, but the question deserves further thought.  One possibility is that “IBE”  and “God-of-the-gaps” are not two different forms of reasoning but different labels—one positive, the other pejorative—for the same form of reasoning.  We use “IBE” to describe those explanations that, as far as we know, remain sound, and “God-of-the-gaps” to describe those explanations that we now know or suspect to be false.  Another possibility is that we can distinguish IBE from God-of-the-gaps at the level of the explanandum, by distinguishing the phenomena that they each purport to explain.  Recalling the examples above, perhaps it is legitimate to appeal to special acts of God in order to explain extraordinary, unrepeatable events, but not ordinary, observable features of the natural world, like the complexity of the eye.

To return to the central question, I still don’t think that we can increase theological knowledge and discoveries “in the same way” that we increase scientific knowledge and discoveries.  In my view, theology is more like metaphysics than physics.  (I pause to note that this claim does not commit me to the view that it is very much like metaphysics…)  Properly theological claims are rarely open to empirical falsification. But if it is a mistake to treat theology and natural science as too similar, it is also a mistake to treat them as utterly different.  They are both forms of rational inquiry, and so they share certain features of rationality as such, features that are common to any form of rational inquiry.  Inference to the best explanation is one such feature.

One way to make progress—or, at least, avoid regress—in theology is to continue to think carefully about how theological claims differ from, and are similar to, scientific claims.  We should not conflate the two, but nor should we consign them to utterly separate spheres.  In particular, we should think more carefully about what distinguishes IBE from God-of-the-gaps reasoning, so that we will have a better idea of how to employ the former while avoiding the latter.  Some theists would deny that theological claims can ever be explanatory, even in principle, and they would resist all talk of “theological data” or “theological hypotheses.”  But of course theology offers explanations, at least sometimes, and we need not subsume theology into science to admit that it can have its own data and its own hypotheses. We should worry about appeals to a “God of the gaps” because the track-record for such appeals is so poor.  But we ought not take the further step of insisting that divine action can never be the best explanation of anything ever.  That step not only cuts theology off from science, but also from our ordinary practices of reasoning.  That step would make it seem as though theology is not really a form of rational inquiry at all.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When, if at all, can we appeal to divine action as the “best explanation” of an event?
  2. What, if anything, distinguishes “God of the gaps” reasoning from inferences to the best explanation?
  3. In what sense, if at all, are appeals to the existence or activity of God “explanations”?

Discussion Summary


In my original piece, I first cast doubt on the suggestion that we can increase theological knowledge “in the same way” we increase scientific knowledge.  I emphasized the fact that science is an empirical inquiry, but theology is not. Yet I also argued that both share important patterns of argument and modes of reasoning, and I identified inference to the best explanation (IBE) as one such pattern or mode.  I also speculated about what, if anything, distinguishes “God of the gaps” reasoning from inferences to the best explanation.

The piece provoked a lively and high-quality discussion.  One or two commenters were happy to bite the god-of-the-gaps bullet.  They insisted that if some form of theism is true, then there must be gaps in our ability to give a scientific account of specific observable phenomena—consciousness was a popular example.  To the extent that science is unable to give a purely physicalist or naturalist account of consciousness, theology gains; to the extent that the converse is true, theology loses.

I remain deeply uncomfortable with this line of argument.  As I indicated in the original piece, my discomfort arises in part from induction on the record of similar moves made in the past:  in the long term, when theists bet on the failures of science, they tend to lose.  I am also not persuaded that consciousness is in principle unexplainable by science, as opposed to currently unexplained.  Nor am I persuaded that theology (or at least, Christian theology—about which more below) really requires that consciousness arise from something immaterial or otherwise scientifically inexplicable.

Several commenters argued on various grounds, that theological inquiry is actually very similar to empirical inquiry. At the most fundamental level, they suggested, theology and science are both ways of asking the question “what is going on here?” They differ primarily with respect to the phenomena that they each regard as falling under the scope of the question.

To some extent, I agree with this line of argument. It is quite similar to my own proposal that IBE is a pattern of reasoning basic to both theology and science. I do insist, however, that the methods of theology and science are very different, because the latter relies on empirical investigation whereas the former does not. I agree that theology and science both lie on a continuum.  As the questions asked by science get more-and-more general, they eventually resolve into properly theological (or metaphysical) questions like “why does anything exist at all?”

Whether expressly or implicitly, many commenters noted the Western and Christian assumptions that underlie my own piece, and they suggested that better answers to the title question might be found in Whitehead’s process theism or in various non-Western religions.

My own response to such suggestions is:  maybe; maybe not; but it is not for me to say.  I don’t intend that response to be flippant at all, and in fact, I think it is actually the most respectful thing I can say.  I am shaped by my Western and Christian assumptions, and so I am interested primarily in bringing those assumptions to bear on the questions I was asked to address.  Others would no doubt proceed differently.  I don’t know enough about any non-Western religions to have informed views about how to bring their assumptions to bear.  (I know a little more about process theism, actually, but that’s a topic for another day…)

One of the most interesting suggestions raised in the discussion was based on a point attributed to the philosopher David Lewis: that philosophy progresses by getting clearer on the conceptual costs of various positions. (As the commenter put it, “if we accept P, the cost is that we must also accept Q, which is unpalatable for reason R, etc.)  Perhaps theology progresses in the same way?

I am inclined to think that it does, or at least that the suggestion captures one way that theology progresses.  I also note—happily, from the point of view of the title question—that there is a sense in which science progresses in a similar way. When we test a scientific hypothesis, we try to ascertain the costs of holding it in comparison with rival hypotheses.  The difference, as ever, lies in the kinds of tests we perform and the kinds of data we examine.  But the idea that science and theology are both ways of asking the question “what is going on here?” and then trying to assess the costs of rival answers is a fruitful one.

New Big Questions

1. Is human reason universal, or does the fact that different cultures have different understandings of what is rational mean that reason is culturally constructed?

2. What is self-deception and why, if at all, is it bad?

3. What does it mean to “love the truth”?

33 Responses

  1. Kevin Aldrich says:

    One way theological knowledge can increase is by seeing connections among the datum of divine revelation. This is what Catholic theologians do in regard to the Deposit of Faith. Related to this is new knowledge that is drawn out by applying theological knowledge to new developments, as for example, how to respond to in-vitero fertilization. 

  2. Tam Hunt says:

    William, I think you exclude a ton of relevant history in your piece, that could and should have made the cut. Theological questions are, when approached correctly, on the same continuum as highly empirical inquires like those in the natural sciences. I see the primary question: “what is going on here?” (here being everything we can witness) susceptible to a continuum of answers, ranging from “God made everything” on one end of the scale to “there is no God and instead we have regular laws that determine how everything works” on the other end. But even if one is an incorrigible atheist and determinist, there is still room for a first-mover concept that we can call the ground of being, “the laws of physics,” or God or any other term. But we generally are left with the recognition that there has to be some starting point in our chain of explanation and that’s where theology can play a role. Empirical science really has nothing to add at this level of explanation, despite the best efforts by folks like Lawrence Krauss (A Universe From Nothing). Theology thus blends seamlessly with philosophy at this level of inquiry, and these inquires merge eventually into empirical science as the questions become more specific. So, ultimately, theology still has a place in every scientist’s worldview, it’s just not generally acknowledge. We can, and most do, call it instead philosophy but the line between theology and philosophy is even more murky than that between philosophy and science. Alfred North Whitehead, a distinguished scientist and philosopher is also now the patron saint of the “process theology” school of thought because he included a notion of God in his higly detailed and comprehensive metaphysics that he describes in Process and Reality and other works. 

    • William Wood says:

      Thanks, Tam.  I think you are right that theology (or theistic metaphysics) has a role to play in offering explanations that are presupposed by any empirical observations whatsoever.  I guess the question is: are explanations like that still “on the continuum” of highly empirical enquiries or are they fundamentally different?  I like your mention of Whitehead.  I think it’s interesting that Whitehead was (apparently) not any sort of theist, but found himself pushed to posit a divine reality purely by the internal logic of his own metaphysics.

      • siti says:

        I don’t think it is correct to say that Whitehead was not any sort of theist. It is certainly true that he did not develop a theology (of any kind), but his scheme in Process and Reality is very definitely (at least in my far-from-professional layman’s opinion) a panentheistic (all-in-God) metaphysics. I actually don’t agree with Whitehead (in going that far from physical realism in an attempt to expalin the world) and I suspect he was beguiled by his own reason into what seems to me a regressive Platonic dualism which puts God back (at least in large part) beyond the reach of genuine empirical thought (i.e. thinking on the basis of what our senses reveal about the real world). I am not saying it is wrong to do this or even that I think it is the wrong answer. What I am suggesting is that I don’t believe we have anywhere near exhausted the possible ways in which the reality of God may yet be revealed in much fuller measure (as opposed to finer detail) by non-reductive empirical science. In that direction we have so far taken but our first baby steps and progress was stalled for much of the 20th century by the apparent triumphs of materialistic reductionism. Prior to that I think perhaps the most significant contribution (ironically perhaps) was that of Darwin. We have a very long way to go, but I do think that theology and philosophy need to keep in lockstep with the kind of empirical science that reveals how the intricately interconnected world really works but certainly not the kind of scientism that supposes that its microscopic details are ultimately all that can be said about its own disconnected and necessarily God-less world. Theology cannot afford to abandon science and science that rejects theological scale thinking out of hand is woefully impoverished.

      • Tam Hunt says:

        Hi William, I think foundational philosophical/theological questions define one end of the continuum, which is defined at the other end by entirely empirical inquiries. So the continuum goes from purely speculative questions that almost certainly can never be answered empirically to entirely empirical questions that are the domain of science. Whitehead was happy to be labeled a theist, though certainly any traditional type of theist. You are right that his God sprang from his metaphysics and not the other way around. God for him had two aspects: a primordial aspect and a consequent aspect. The primordial aspect is the set of all “eternal objects,” very similar to Plato’s Ideas, and the consequent aspect is the combination of all actual entities, which are what we commonly think of as manifest things. For Whitehead, things are entirely processes, not static things, and each process is a “drop of experience.” So the umpteen drops of experience that are the manifest universe around us can, in Whitehead’s metaphysics, combine in some manner to create the consequent God as the largest “drop of experience.” 

  3. siti says:

    Thanks William for a thought-provoking essay. My intitial response was that I was with you apart from the last 1498 words! However, I am glad that Tam has mentioned Whitehead because I think he really hit on the approach that is needed with what he called a “philosophy of organism”. What I think it really entails is, in a sense, the opposite of what the title question of your essay implies. Rather than attempting to approach theology more “scientifically” – by which term we normally imply an analytical empirical process – as you put it “taking bits of the world and doing experiments on them” – we need to make science more circumspect and philosophical, dare I suggest, even theological, in its approach to explaining the world. The problem for science is that it is extraordinarily adept at explaining the bits of the world in isolation but almost at a loss to accurately explain the most commonplace complex systems such as the weather or the human brain – much less the intricately interconnected nature of the tangled web of uncountably many such systems that compose the real world. It seems fairly clear to me that the genuine creativity at work in the world – whether it is of divine or purely natural (or even whether both are ultimately the same) – functions not at the quantum or atomic level of physics but rather at the complex systemic levels of organisms. For some (otherwise atheistic) scientists who are beginning to probe these levels (philosophically and scientifically) such as Stuart Kauffman (author of Reinventing the Sacred), that natural, systemic, organismic but “unpredetermined” creativity is “God enough”. I am not saying that theologically we should be completely satifisfied with that – but perhaps if science continues down the track of studying (evolving) systems and complexity at increasingly ecological levels of organism, we might yet see “enough of God” through science to propel our theology to new and profoundly insightful discoveries.

    • William Wood says:

      I agree that there is a lot of valuable work to be done in seeking non-reductive, but still properly empirical and scientific, explanations of complex phenomena. I don’t think I myself would want to say that “unpredetermined creativity” is “God enough” but I do think it beats mechanistic determinism!

  4. Michael Carroll says:

    Thank you William and the Templeton Foundation for this spirited discussion.

    Another path to consider for “increasing our Theological knowledge” is by first acknowledging that the starting point for such an investigation may precede taking a dualistic view.  Rather than taking a “theistic” stance where a “subject” seeks to find meaning in its relationship to an “object” , the investigation could follow the path of “phenomenology” where we recognize that the “subject/object” distinction is questionable – (even science will admit the inability to even locate a subject or an object) and instead explore the immediacy of “what is going on here?’ as Tam mentioned.  

    While Europe was developing the scientific (or ‘theistic’) method for rationally exploring “reality”, Asia was developing a phenomenological  (or “non-theistic”) method for directly experiencing reality, widely known as Buddhism. While Whitehead and Hartshorne’s Process Theology seems to track with many of the dynamics found in the Buddhist “non-theistic” approach to exploring divinity or what is sacred, they did not, unlike Buddhism, provide practical tools for actually exploring the immediacy of “what is going on here?”, which in Buddhism is accomplished by practicing mindfulness-awareness meditation. As with some Christian contemplative approaches (St. John of the Cross; St. Theresa of Avila; St. Francis of Assisi)  Buddhist phemonenology recognizes dualism as basically misleading and that through proper training, one can become familiar with “the original nature of existence” and it is here in this familiarity – whether it is labeled “Reality”, “Primordial Mind”, “God”, “Sacredness”, or  “The Divine” – where we may be able to “increase our theological knowledge.”    

    In closing, may I bring our collective attention to this recent interview with Sam Harris on this topic of “Science” and “religious experience” that offers yet another angle on this intriguing question.   

    Thanks again to everyone for this great discussion. 

    • Vladimir says:

      think that we should do more in-depth steps to overcome the dualism – from phenomenology to ontology. Science is going through the ontological crisis of understanding. Need to rethink more deeply logos” in Tradition and Science, as well as the Cartesian «Cogito, ergo sum», to make a comprehensive synthesis of knowledge of East and West, and to construct the primordial eidos of  the Universum of Information Era. Only the concept  “logos” and the deeper interpretation of the Super Axiom “In the beginning was the Logos ” provide a deeper understanding of the One Source knowledge and faith, the One Source of the “LifeWorld” and its deepest meanings (Edmund Husserl), “the original nature of existence“.



  5. abed.peerally says:

    Scientific and theological knowledge. A difficult question for this period of our history but we can attempt to explain a bit the relevant facts over and above the good job done by the author of the article. In my view we cannot imagine a world without both science and religion. Science exists to explain our realities of existence in its totality, to the extent we are capable of doing so. Religion exists to interpret our realities of existence and in that, unlike science which is totally derived from human’s search for new materialistic knowledge, religion has been endowed to us from divine will. To interpret our realities of existence we examine what religions say about humanity and the universe but all of it can be discussed and new interpretations given. Religions say we need to search for new knowledge, analyse human’s affinities, human’s roles in societies and what spirituality entails. Religion is not in my opinion like or a bit like metaphysics, first because we yet do not know what is metaphysics really and exactly, but principally because it is meant, as I happen to have begun to understand metaphysics, is going to be shown as the right arm of metaphysics. Once we get to understand what is metaphysics, which we are going to really start to understand in the future, then we will see how we can use science to elaborate the scope of religion to interpret our realities of existence. When this will happen we will realise that the whole of humanity, theists and atheists,  will progressively be inclined to accept, as Einstein wished, that there exists a mind behind the universe. Once we see how it works then there will be quite an easy choice to make out of faith: is the mind God or an impersonal mind. I think the choice will not be difficult. This is because although we still do not understand what that mind was and is, we nevertheless have the great majority of humankind theistic while atheists constitute a minority. Second once we understand how the mind worked we will be far better placed to interpret the words of God. Even what the author describes as metaphysics such as for instance,my example, the Biblical description of the origin of the universe as ‘be and it is there’ could most probably be exactly how it happened scientifically. We will in short be then far better prepared to give lots of new interpretations to our realities. The difference between theists and atheists, when they will happen to believe in Divine Mind and an Impersonal Mind respectively, will be a matter of choice. Once this will be so they will both have to delve deep into the Mental Processes of how the realities of existence unfolded from each of these two perspectives. So briefly science and religion are the two main arms of the spirit of the universe, each with its straight jacket terms of reference, one empirical/scientific/materialistic/explanatory and the other spiritual, conceptual, philosophical interpretation. Theists and atheists will agree to disagree in their interpretations/beliefs, along parallel paths of discourse, respectively as believers in a Divine Mind and the other in a Personal Mind. The main differences between the two will be the issue of prayers, rituals, religious beliefs and the existence of afterlife, rewards or punishments for one’s actions.

  6. Bob says:

    The basic (but often hidden) theological assumption is that consciousness does not emerge miraculously from bllind dead matter.  The contrary statement, that consciousness evolves from unconscious contituents leads to materialism and atheism, which is the mainstream academic view.  Very simply theological knowledge can progress if we empirically and scientifically study the nature of consciousness, and if that study reveals that consciousness does not emerge from blind dead matter.  However, one should give up on traditional religions where God in any way is thought to be a man or like a man.  This idea should, at the minimum, be exchanged for God as an absolute person which is not a human person, but rather an infinite conscious understanding that is eternal and self-caused.  If by theology, you mean a defense of antiquated traditional religions, then no progress will be made, in my humble opinion. 

    • William Wood says:

      Thanks Bob.  This is a great example of why I still worry about “God of the gaps” reasoning.  Suppose scientists do develop a well-grounded, completely naturalistic or physicalistic account of how consciousness can emerge from “blind dead matter.”  Other philosphers disagree, but I’m not prepared to say a priori that that is not so much as possible, and it doesn’t seem ideal to make any crucial theological claims to depend on it.

  7. Richard Morgan says:

    “Theological knowledge” is an oxymoron.  

    A theological IBE is an instant fail, mostly because the Prime mover or God is neither defined nor identified. An IBE as a “one-off” is no more than an anecdote. Great narrative maybe, but lousy science.

    Scientific knowledge,  a “fact” about the real world discovered by using the scientific method,  is never accepted without being verified through simple repetition. The brain is hard-wired to create reliable maps of the environment. Doing science is one way of increasing the accuracy of those maps, of filling in the details.

    Theology starts, I suppose, with revelation. Theologians talk about that which has been “revealed”. They also talk at great length about what other theologians have said. In fact, it’s theology-speak all the way down. The only way one can talk about theological knowledge is by referring to what is known about what other people have said. That includes revelation. Even revelation is something that some guy said.  “Theo”, himself remains absent.

    Theology seems to talk God into existence. Science endeavours to find out what actually exists. The title of this essay is flawed from the outset by using the words, “in the Same Way”. To anyone satisfied by the way the subject is worded, how do you react to this, “How Can We Increase Scientific Knowledge in the Same Way we Increase Theological Knowledge”?

    • William Wood says:

      Richard is your position simply that theology gives us no knowledge of what “actually exists” and therefore divine action can never be the best explanation for anything?  I just want to make sure that I am understanding you correctly.

  8. aisiantonas says:

    1. ‘Theists cannot give up on IBE as a valid form of theological reasoning without also giving up on the ability to call some events miracles or religious experiences—a high price to pay.’ Won’t many  be tempted to make a Reformed epistemology type move at this point, claiming that we can keep this ability on the basis of the sensus divinitatis or similar?

    2. I can’t find a citation right now, but I believe David Lewis says something to the effect that philosophy progresses by getting clearer on the cost of various positions – as in, if we accept p, the cost is that we must also accept q, which is unpalatable for reason R, etc. Perhaps theology makes progress in this philosophical kind of way? It does seem to make good sense of some cases of putative doctrinal development, eg, Nicene pneumatology. As theologians got clearer on the implications of various doctrines, especially creatio ex nihilo, they recognised how great the real cost of denying the (fully Nicene) divinity of the Spirit is. 

    3. On avoiding he god-of-the-gaps. I like to think that there’s an important difference between saying ‘there is no plausible natural mechanism to explain phenomenon x’ and saying ‘the actual operation of the natural mechanisms responsible for x is, at bottom, better explained by God than by chance’. 

    For example, gappist might say: ‘there’s no plausible natural mechanism to explain human religiosity, therefore God (is rendered more probable)’. 

    To which naturalist replies ‘au contraire, both a hyper active agency detection device and a taste for elaborate ritual as a social cement would have conferred reproductive advantages, and these factors jointly explain human religiosity, therefore God is not rendered more probable’.

    To which a subtler natural theologian answers ‘Sure, those mechanisms will do the work, and we should invoke them in our evolutionary story, but we are still left with the bare fact that these mechanisms came to operate together on the one species at ‘successfully-explains-its-own-origins levels of intelligence’, with certain specific consequences. Evolutionary explanation leaves us with lots of this type of bare fact, and we usually shrug our shoulders at them. Still, the probability of any particular such bare fact obtaining by chance seems low, perhaps especially low in the case of this bare fact – meanwhile the probability of human religiosity arising is very high, given theism. So our best explanation is that the natural mechanisms took the course that they did because God, somehow or other, ensured that they would, and so God is rendered more probable after all’.

    • William Wood says:

      Asiantonas, thanks for your very high quality remarks.  As to your second point:  That’s helpful, at least as a way of looking at the development of doctrine. As to your third point: Your claim appears to be, “yes, it is possible that human religiosity evolved due to natural causes alone [=on naturalism], but it is more probable that they evolved due to natural causes that God specifically intended [=on theism].” Is theism really doing any explaining there?

      • aisiantonas says:

        Thanks for the reply.  I think theism is doing some explanatory work; it’s explaining human religiosity. But it’s offering explanation at a level that we are not intially inclined to be particularly interested in. We can point to specific traits that a) plausibly conferred reproductive advangtages and b) raised the probability that human religious behaviours would emerge as they did in fact. And that, in a certain sense, is a good enough explanation. That’s the sort of thing we look for when we look for evolutionary explanations. It’s not a complete explanation – a truly complete explanation, presumably, would have to tell the entire history of the universe. But it’s an explanation at a level beyond which we are inclined to shrug. Why did those mutations happen? Why were those environmental pressures so salient? Why did the underlying traits manifest in that pattern of behaviour? We’re inclined to say that that’s just how it happened, and leave it at that. It would be like following up ‘why are polar bears white?’ with ‘why is the Arctic white?’ It’s how it is.  But it’s at this further level of explanation where I propose theism is relevant. Somewhere or other – perhaps in fixing the initial conditions, perhaps in favourably resolving objective randomness, perhaps in minor departures, perhaps in major, departures from the laws of nature, perhaps in all these ways – God acted to ensure that these traits were selected for, and manifested themselves in theistic religions.  That’s part of the explanation for the prevalence of theistic religion, and it’s a better expanation than attributing the selection pressure towards the relevant traits, and the ways in which those traits manifested, to chance. 

  9. vasavada says:

    Thank you for starting an interesting debate. It seems that you are coming from the Abrahamic traditions. You probably know that in non-Abrahamic eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, God is regarded as an ultimate superconscious entity, synonymous with laws of nature. It would belong to the non-sensory world and it would be only accessible by deep meditations and not by any sensory experience or argument. This may be one of the reasons why science has not understood consciousness and meaning of quantum theory for which there have been some 90 years of debate without any resolution, in spite of the amazing empirical success in explaining physical phenomena! I would like to see your comments on these issues. 

    • William Wood says:

      Thanks for your comment, Vasavada.  You are right that I am coming from the perspective of the Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, specifically).  As such, I think the most responsible and respectful thing I can say in response to your question is that I don’t know enough about Buddhism and Hinduism to have informed views.  What do you think?  How would someone coming from those perspectives answer the title question, or some of the quesitons for discussion that have arisen?  Thanks again.

  10. Rebecca Gormally says:

    In as much as scientific method is concerned with learning from observation of the material world, this method can tell us something about God. In as much as the material world must have an origin that is not itself, it tells us that God exists. In as much as the world is amazing in actuality it tells us that the creator is more amazing in actuality that it.

    As Augustine says  ‘I replied unto all the things which encompass the door of my flesh: “Ye have told me of my God, that ye are not He; tell me something of Him.” And they cried out with a loud voice, “He made us. ” My questioning them, was my thoughts on them: and their form of beauty gave the answer.’

    Private theological understanding can therefore be greatly enhanced by observation of the world, in as much as we come to understand something of the awsomeness of nature we can conceive more of the breadth of the powers of the creator. 

    As St Ninian says ‘What is the fruit of study? To perceive the eternal Word of God reflected in every plant and insect, fruit and flower, man and woman.’

    I would therefore argue that increased observation of the material world can spread both scientific and theological knowledge. Scientific observations come first and lead to, mainly private, theological understanding. 

    • William Wood says:

      Hi Becky, and thanks for commenting.  For the most part, I agree with what you have written. From a theistic point of view, one should certainly say that God is an explanation for the fact that anything exists at all (other than God), and we can also infer something about God– that God is capable of creating and sustaining this actual world.  But are these kind of explanations and inferences relevently like scientific explanations and inferences?

      • Rebecca Gormally says:

        I think in many ways they are very similar. Scientists assume that what exists must have a cause, an origin in the case of all things, and in the case of  the make up of animate things a telelogical explanation. So we ask ‘why is the sun hot?’ assuming that there must be an origin of heat. We ask ‘Why do ducks have webbed feet?’ assuming that there must be a purpose to their shape. By asking these questions scientists show that fundamental to their reasoning is a more basic assumption that nothing they observe in the world is self originating but must have some other origin. (I wont even try and go down the telelogical route). God is simply the only answer, to the same type of question scientists ask about origin when it is posed about the entire material world. It is the same question, and the basic principles of scientific reasoning are used to generate the answer i.e. that given that everything must have an origin, and this cannot go on infinitely there must be an unoriginated origin. God seems initally very different from scientific explanations as he is invisible except through His effects. But many modern scientific explanations are theoretical in the sense that nothing but their effects are visible. The key difference then is not that one type of explanation is really visible and the other is not, as one initially assumes when you think about the difference and imagine a footprint or some such. But natural theology being metaphysics is explaining science itself, and the reasoning on which it is based and has therefore stepped outside of Science’s realm of authority and the questions it can answer.  But this is only because Science cannot give authority to itself, but the fundamental principles which give authority to science and scientific inference and enquiry, give authority also to the claim that God exists e.g. the principle that material beings must have an origin. (I miss theology)

        • William Wood says:

          Thanks again, Becky.  Theology misses you too!  As you would expect, I agree with the line that you are taking.  When you say “God is simply the only answer, to the same type of question scientists ask about origin when it is posed about the entire material world. It is the same question, and the basic principles of scientific reasoning are used to generate the answer” that is basically what I was getting at by saying that inference to the best explanation is a basic move in both science and theology.  As long as we keep straight the distinction between metaphysics (the search for the explanation of everything / anything at all) and physics (causal explanations that already presuppose the existence of natural laws at least), then I think we are in good shape.

          • siti says:

            William Wood wrote: “As long as we keep straight the distinction between metaphysics (the search for the explanation of everything / anything at all) and physics (causal explanations that already presuppose the existence of natural laws at least), then I think we are in good shape.”

            William, I’m afraid I couldn’t disagree more with this remark. After decades of grappling with the Jekyll and Hyde dualism of faith versus science in my own life I am thoroughly convinced that no such distinction (between physics and metaphysics) truly exists. They are simply two sides of the same coin – two alternative views of the same reality. Plato struggled with this and was so very uncomfortable with the idea of an ever-changing fundamental reality, such as process-relational types of philosophy propose, approximately following Heraclitus’ panta rhei vision of the world, that he decided to place his ultimate reality in a separate, eternally unchanging ideal realm beyond the “leaky pots” of temporal change. This, of course, was the very move that gave birth to the division between physics and metaphysics.

            And whilst the question (why does this or that or the world exist?) might be the same from both a scientific and a theological point of view, it is surely not the same process that leads to an answer – theology deduces the answer from the top down and science (generally) induces from the bottom up. The assumption that there exists an eternal, unchanging deity as the necessary cause of all that exists is profoundly unscientific and will always end up as a “God of the gaps” from a scientific point of view because (in a novelty-producing creative universe) there will always be some parts of reality that are not (yet) amenable to (proper) scientific analysis. But at the same time, it is absurd to assume that we could inductively reason our way to an explanation of (say) the ten commandments from the standard model of particle physics. Clearly, science needs to adopt (and to some extent is increasingly adopting) a more ecological and systems-based approach to the “why” questions. (One example is James Lovelock’s “Gaia” hypothesis). But at the same time, theology needs to let go of its cherished “ne’er-the-twain-shall-meet” ideal/real divide that screens off God from human sight behind the veil of Plato-Kantian dualism like some ultimate Wizard of Oz character mysteriously turning the cogs of the world while we stand in open-mouthed awe and wonder at the spectacle – (until that irreverent little pup pulls back the curtain and reveals only more of the same reality on the other side).   

            OK – I am getting carried away, but the point is – reality is probably all there is and God, if there is such a thing, is probably its ultimate expression – and yes, it author too. Reality is probably far more mysterious can we can even imagine. But we are children of the whole universe, not just parts of it, as “atheistic scientism” tries to convince us – and certainly not children of “no part” of it – as the standard formulations of dualistic theism would have us believe. That’s my hypothesis – and I believe that the evidence in favour of it (or against it) should be approachable from both scientific inductive inference (minus the unfounded assumption that knowledge of the bits in isolation hold the full explanation of all that they may become) and theological deductive inference (minus the unfounded assumption of an entirely separate “realm” of universals which could have no potency whatsoever in the absence of a real world in which they might be “instantiated”). The point is to use all the tools in our arsenal to investigate and probe and revel in the mystery, not to label it “too mysterious to be understood” and screen it off from human sight behind a curtain of blind faith. I think. I hope that’s it – for the future of my grandchildren I hope that’s it.

  11. MJBalboni says:

    William, I think it is important to distinguish within theology different strata of knowledge, each strata as holding sometimes more and sometimes less accessibility using empirical measures.  Some aspects of theological investigation, such as the nature and character of the divine, appear to be far less accessible to any form of empirical investigation.  It is curious, however, that Augustine argued for the imprint of the Trinity in human psychology in On the Trinity.  This is itself smacks of some level of crude empirical measure of God’s nature reflected in human anthropology.  But there are other strata of theological knowledge more accessible to empirical validation.  For example, in the Christian Reformed tradition, there has been a belief in progressive sanctification (increasing holiness over a Christian’s lifetime as they grow in their encounter with the Holy Spirit).  This would on the face of it be a measurable dynamic by using measures of sanctification based on the Reformed tradition, and then following people over a long period of time.  The empirical evidence would “test” the theological claim of progressive sanctification, and may provide evidence that affirms it is a measurable dynamic or provide counter-evidence that perhaps it is a doctrine worth reconsidering (since there is little evidence in the lives of those upon who the doctrine is claimed to be active).  It seems to me that theologians are afraid to put doctrines to the test, and if they are true, then we should see a level of evidence that is available by way of measurement.  Use of emperical investigation is not intended to prove doctrinal claims to outsiders, but a tool that serves theology in testing its own claims.   

  12. gandolfication says:

    I don’t think we can increase theological knowledge in the same way as we increase scientific knowledge.  The question framed as such (albeit and good and interesting one) is somewhat miss-conceived as it implicitly seeks to conflate methodologies.

    To the question of can theological knowledge progress, the answer is ‘yes.’  It can, it has, and it does.  We do first though need some basic working definition of theological knowledge – I’ll simply suggest here we mean knowledge about the existence and nature of god, a deity or higher power (and we could of course further define those).
    In the same way that general philosophy (the more precise form of what we call logic and reason) progresses, so to can our knowledge and rational beliefs about the existence and nature of god.  The testing is not the same as scientific experimentation, but rather is through argumentation and observation, and experience.  But it is there.  Non-contradiction and the other laws of logic and reason were discovered at some point in human history and they have certainly been built on.  We moderns are generally not as well versed in them as some of the ancient thinkers, so a good first steop would be to better know and remember what they learned.  But we can and do build and progress philosophy.

    Ultimately, I think the late Dr. Greg Bhansen (and Kant and others) had it right by pointing out this is a presuppositional question and choice of world views, showing that god must exist because knowledge itself would not be possible without one.  Bahnsen points out that different types of questions are and should be answered in different ways.  He also points out that an atheist world view cannot account for the inductive principle–the uniformity of nature–upon which science is based, along with the other laws of logic and reason also.  Hume pointed out there is no rational basis for trusting in the uniformity of nature in a naturalistic universe.  I’m probably not explaining this too well, but the debate does:

    Last, I would point out that some religious/theological claims such as Christianity’s core claims are–or at least were–empirically falsifiable in that they rest on the claims of Christ’s life, actions, death and resurrection as real events that occurred in time and space in this world. That doesn’t make it open to testing by experimentation in the same way as science, but it does make it falsifiable. 

  13. vasavada says:

    @ William Wood

    Thanks for your reply. I understand, gaining knowledge of divinity by meditations has been also suggested by many western religious scholars. But I do not know enough about them to make comments. As for Hinduism (Buddhism), meditation is a basic prescribed way to know about divinity, to understand non-sensory world. If one cannot do this, then (equivalent) path of devotion, including rituals, is suggested. If you or some of your readers are interested, perhaps as a shameless personal advertisement (!!), I can suggest a recent guest blog I wrote and the articles

    I apologize for mentioning my articles. But there is a lot of misunderstanding in West about eastern religions.  I cannot possibly explain them in a comment in your blog. Such blogs as yours are very useful in understanding various approaches to the questions about divinity. Thanks again.


    • William Wood says:

      Thanks again, Vasavada.  I certainly appreciate that you cannot explain Buddhism and Hinduism to westerners in a blog comment!  Thanks also for the links.

  14. abed.peerally says:

    I am impressed with the level of the various comments on a very exciting topic. In particular I find Rebecca Gormally’s views very balanced and she says very precise things about the present role of science in theology. There is one point on which I wish briefly to comment and a quote from her is:

    But many modern scientific explanations are theoretical in the sense that nothing but their effects are visible.

    I am working precisely on this issue because it is absolutely correct that that is where the most significant missing link lies. As William Wood’s work hopes to achieve is to what extent religion can assist both religion and science in elucidation the mysteries of the realities of existence. Actually both atheist(for atheism is a religion) and theists can contribute to all this. On my side what I intend hopefully to achieve is to delve deeply into aspects of cosmology right from the moment time did not exists and the ensuing period to try to understand how scientifically based facts, supported by realities of existence, push the balance of power towards a Divine God or an Impersonal Mind .

  15. d.w.young1984 says:

    To move theology understanding forward in the same way understanding within science has moved forward, it is necessary to eliminate theological biases that limit honest exploration into the nature of God and accept scientific methods of confirmation within the realm of theology.  Presently, theologians fear the scientific method, believing in the back of their minds the assertion Dawkins makes in The God Delusion, that scientific exploration will demonstrate that God does not exist.  Consequently, the only safe space for God is within the untouchable realm of faith that connects humanity with a supernatural world that empiricism cannot disprove.  So long as this remains the view of theologians, then the author of the article is correct in supplying the early answer to the topic – “It can’t.” 

    If one has genuine faith, however, then one should realize a God would never fear science.  Theologians fear scientific inquiry because they want to adhere to their biases about the nature of God, supplied by their particular dogma, rather than trying to understand the nature of God independently of what anyone else has said or written.  To genuinely understand the nature of anything, one must remain open to new understanding which may conflict entirely with what one believes at present, meaning one must be willing to have their biases exposed and corrected for knowledge to expand.   This is not an indictment of theologians, but of anyone who sees the world through his or her biases and beliefs; in other words, everyone.  Science is no more immune to this problem than theology.        

    Consider the scientific process that led to our current understanding of gravity.  Newton derived his theory of gravity almost entirely from the application of his unique human creativity and independent thinking saturated with the knowledge available to him at the time, and his theory is exceptional at explaining the interactions of objects with mass.  Over time, as often happens in any field, other scientists bowed down to Newton and his theory, lifting him up to a kind of god status because he had managed, among many other brilliant things, to explain mathematically the movement of the heavenly bodies.  Unfortunately, this bias engendered by the success of Newton’s theory caused physicists to stop thinking independently and individually.  Instead, physics became institutionally biased by Newton’s theory.  Rather than attempting to understand gravity, physicist attempted to understand Newton’s theory of gravity, and from that point of origin, attempted to correct the seemingly small problems that arose from it; the orbit of Mercury being a primary issue.  The bias in favor of Newton’s theory of gravity, however, limited the creativity of physicists to considering only a tiny piece of the much larger puzzle that Newton had considered in reaching his conclusions.  Physicists accepted that Newton had solved the major problems, what remained was merely to iron out the details.  Consequently, a host of explanations were created to try and explain Mercury’s orbit, while generally adhering to Newton’s theory of gravity.  Not surprisingly, from this bias in favor of Newton’s correctness, no scientist was able to find a solution.  To ‘fix’ Newton’s theory of gravity, a scientist had to come along who was not looking through the prism of Newton’s theory, but rather who was willing to step back, as Newton himself had done, using additional knowledge Newton was not privy to in his time, and allow that new more expansive material along with the stuff Newton did know, to become the problem of gravity that was needing a solution, rather than the much smaller problem of Mercury’s orbit that is left over when one stands firmly upon Newton’s conclusions.  Obviously, Einstein was the scientist who did this.  Rather than trying to correct Newton’s theory, he considered all the existing knowledge and data that related to the subject, then attempted to independently understand this more expansive problem of gravity, as Newton had done, and Einstein’s unique creativity led him to a solution that did not merely correct Newton’s errors, but demonstrated that while Newton had approximated gravity brilliantly, fundamentally he was incorrect about its nature. 

    Science still has not learned its lesson.  It is happening again in connection with evolutionary theory and Darwin.  Currently, most scientist pondering problems associated with evolutionary theory, such as Godel’s theorems (a la Roger Penrose), consider these to be small problems, requiring small explanations; a subpart needing to be written into a short chapter within an otherwise complete and compendious book on evolution.  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Darwin’s status has been lifted by scientists toward the scientific heavens and God only knows how long it will take for an Einstein-like biologist to see the problems Darwin considered, not through Darwin’s conclusions, but as Darwin did, with fresh eyes taking into account the modern knowledge that Darwin did not have available to him. 

    Turning back now to theology however, we can begin to see the problems within theology and how, in the end, science has fared much better when it comes to expanding understanding.  Despite suffering from similar maladies, theology and science differ in one dramatic aspect – in science, empirical proof trumps bias.  Existing biases may impede the work of creative scientists, and inhibit experimentation that would lead to contrary and better theories, but ultimately if valid empirical proof is offered, the biases of science fall and understanding expands.  Names are removed from the history books, or consigned to a footnote, and replaced with new names.  Everyone laughs awkwardly, and moves on.  Not so in theology.    

    If theology is genuinely about discovering the nature of God, rather than the nature and meaning of Christianity’s God and dogma, then theologians need to consider the nature of God in the same way it was done by Christ, by Buddha, and more recently by Krishnamurti; but as far as I can tell, this is not what is being done – in reality, it is not allowed.  Christ, like Newton, has been raised to God status, except not figuratively as sometimes happens in science, but literally.  Just as scientists erred, and continue to err in limiting the creative process by using the conclusions of Newton, Darwin, and others, as their starting point, theologians have erred in accepting that Christ was entirely correct, and based on that assumption, they spend their time trying to discern what Christ might have said, and meant, through the diluted writings of his followers (the authors of whom likely never heard him speak), rather than pursuing the problem of metaphysics in the same way Christ did, with fresh eyes and an open mind.  Moreover, by turning Christ (or Buddha, or Krishnamurti, or any other mystic genius) literally into God, it is nearly impossible to consider the questions Christ considered independently and creatively.  This position of theology creates an entirely different level of rigidity and bias than arises in science, making it far more difficult to allow our modern empirical understanding to combine with creative genius in leading the way to a deeper more expansive understanding of metaphysics, and possibly the deeper understanding of the nature of a god that may exist and be discoverable through the empirical realm, not hidden away in some imagined supernatural realm, untouchable by science. 

    This problem of rigid bias in theology is compounded by the related disrespect theology has for logic, reason, and the scientific method.  If theologians could set aside their biases and think creatively and independently about the nature of god, they might well experience the kind of insight that Christ experienced, or Buddha experienced, or Krishnamurti experienced, and even derive some understanding of god that that eluded these persons because the knowledge available now from which understanding may arise through creativity is so much greater than in the past.  Of course, creative insight arises in both fictional stories and non-fiction and there must be some way of telling the difference.  Thus, if one claims their creative insights reflect reality, the claims must be subjected to analysis using logic, reason, and the scientific method, as a way of confirming the validity of creative solutions and theories.  Without these pillars only conjecture, and then any wild and crazy conjecture, is possible in theology.  Theologians can hardly complain about the dangerous crackpots of religions, that Dawkins’ uses to give religions a bad name, when theologians are the ones holding open the door to let them in.  Dawkins’ has not proved anything within his book, The God Delusion, and he certainly has not done so scientifically, but theists cannot see his errors because they are viewing his book through their own biases that they are unwilling to release.  I consider myself an atheist concerning any God of any religion of which I am aware.  With regard to some possible god, I am agnostic.  Nonetheless, I am confident that if any god exists, whatever its nature, it has no fear of science, or Richard Dawkins.  Theologians shouldn’t either.  If god exists, independent human creativity provides the only opportunity for discovering its nature, and science must be allowed to confirm the validity of that creativity.

  16. Vladimir says:

    Sir John Marks Templeton put the fundamental question before researchers XXI-st century:

    Do Scriptures need interpreting to accommodate an expanded notion the universe?”

    He gave us the direction of research: “The unknown is not unknowable and is vastly greater than the know” and “There are more possibilities in the universe than one can imagine“.
    In the original, the Scriptures into Greek language is the fundamental conclusion: “In the beginning was the Logos…
    We need a new modern interpretation of the Logos” as a “Meta-law” (Lee Smolin “Time Reborn”) that makes it possible to overcome the “crisis of representation and interpretation” in science, a new vision of Logos” in religion and society in the modern Information age. Logos as the single Beginning, the single Source: the beginning of knowledge and the beginning of faith, creations of new knowledge and deepening of faith.

  17. ianful says:

    I cannot see that theological knowledge can be acquired or built in the same way as scientific knowledge; one is derived from the spiritual world through the soul and translated into language; the other is derived from the physical world through the senses and translated into language. Scientific investigations often require tweaking a system with cause and effect. I cannot see God playing that game in order to build our theological knowledge, as we are too insignificant in the scheme of things. We cannot know God, as our mind is puny in comparison. At the same time it would be an error not to know God at all like Dawkins.

    It is best to allow God to determine how much we know Him as individual humans, and if we attempt to know too much or infer too much then we are likely to end up mad as well. So the end result of totally enveloping our life in the study of God or totally denying God is likely to end in madness. Scientific knowledge is acquired through investigation and observation of the physical or rational world. Maybe there is room in theology for observation of individual events of circumstance from the spiritual world, but there is no room for generalisation or rationalisation for all things spiritual. For example: God being limited to existing as a trinity, excludes the notion that God is everything and in everything.

    Preoccupation with the divine is also likely to interfere greatly with our life on earth, as we need to be grounded and allow the self to deal with day to day challenges of life. We are in this world for many purposes and it is a school for us.

    The best bet is to take the middle path, facing and acknowledging the existence and power of God, and at the same time facing the reality of our worldly existence with responsibilities and interaction with other people. We need to master this paradox in order to move on.

    Directly receiving from God is the ultimate proof of the existence of God. Such understanding is exactly to the point and beyond the power of reasoning.

    I asked what was the significance of the Eucharist …

    The old covenant rescued the Jews from slavery in Egypt and the Passover celebrates this. The Passover meal, at the end of the celebration, included unleavened bread and wine.

    In the Jewish tradition, the wine represents the blood of a lamb smeared on the front door post for protection of male Jewish children from the Holy Spirit (as the destroyer).  The unleavened bread is representative of the haste with which the Jews left Egypt with no time to allow the bread to rise.

    Jesus said that the old covenant is ended, replaced by a new covenant and he is the replacement for the bread and wine.  Jesus is the way to eternal life – back to the Garden.  Jesus may have asked them to remember him and the new covenant through the bread and wine of the Seder meal.  The Eucharist represents the new order of eternal life and celebration of the person and rather than symbols from the past.

    Jesus was the trail blazer of the resurrection, the crucifixion being a stage in enabling the resurrection. Only the work of Jesus, the new covenant, and the resurrection need be celebrated.  Without him, the old reincarnation cycles would have continued and there would be no resurrection.