Forks in the Road in Choosing a Model of Origins

UnknownIn my last post, I introduced Gerald Rau’s new book Mapping the Origins Debate: Six Models of the Beginning of Everything. Rau’s book is very helpful in framing the issues surrounding the debate over the origin of the universe, life, species, and humans. I don’t find it as helpful in its assessment of the merits and shortcomings of each model (indeed this isn’t Rau’s goal). But, I do think we can discern from the book certain “forks in the road” that can help us in choosing a model of origins.

Recall our six models: Evolutionary Naturalism (EN), Nonteleological Evolution (NTE), Planned Evolution (PE), Directed Evolution (DE), Old-Earth Creationism (OEC), and Young-Earth Creationism (YEC).

I offer three “forks in the road” that may guide your thinking in deciding which origins model to endorse.

First, pick a proper scientific methodology. This is a question for the philosopher of science. The reigning scientific methodology employed by everyday scientists is called methodological naturalism (MN). According to MN, the goal of science is to explain natural phenomena in terms of other natural phenomena. That is, science should proceed as if nature is all there is (no appeal to God’s creative activity or intervention in nature is permitted in proper science). MN is not to be confused with philosophical (or ontological) naturalism—the belief that there is no supernatural. Rather, MN is a proposed condition or constraint on proper science, or the proper practice of science, not a statement about the nature of the universe. Alternatively, one may reject MN and instead adopt what philosopher Angus Menuge calls methodological realism (MR). MR “asserts that it is the iconoclastic nature of reality itself that must judge the effectiveness of our methodologies.”[1] Thus, the object and domain of science should be the physical world, but the goal should be to follow the evidence were it leads to find truth, not merely to produce physical explanations. While science is restricted to examining physical effects, when causes are inferred, there should be no such limit. As Menuge puts it, “the scientist must humbly allow himself to be dictated to by nature itself. The scientist’s job is not to dogmatically anticipate nature, but to interpret what nature is doing.”[2] So, our first fork in the road is to choose between MN and MR. According to Rau, NE, NTE, and PE all endorse the scientific methodology of MN. I reject MN (and favor MR, especially with respect to so-called historical sciences which investigate origins), hence I am inclined (it seems) by my choice toward DE, OEC, or YEC.

Second, specify the relationship between sciences and religion. The relationship between science and religion can be understood in terms of conflictindependence, or convergence.[3] The conflict model sees science and religion (or theology) in perennial competition. The scientist often cries, “the freedom of scientific research and its offspring of technological innovation are always under threat of suppression or outright persecution by religious zealots.” The theologian often cries that, “the divine truth of Scripture is under constant assault from atheistic, anti-religious scientists.” The independence model (sometimes called the complementarity model) endorses the idea that while we need both science and theology to give us a complete picture of reality, the two describe such different domains of reality that propositions in one domain are incommensurable with (independent of) propositions in the other. Recall, for example, Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA principle, which claims that science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria. As Gould says: religion tells us how to go to heaven; science tells us how the heavens go. Finally, the convergence model holds that science and religion converge on a truthful description of the world. Sometimes science and theology will tell us different kinds of things about the same thing, sometimes they will tell us the same things about the same things. At any point in history, conflict is possible due to the incomplete or inaccurate theories/doctrines and descriptions in one or the other of science or theology. When conflict occurs, theology may correct science OR science may correct theology. Our second fork in the road then is a choice between models of the science/religion relationship: conflict, independence, or convergence. NE and YEC endorse the conflict model; NTE and PE the independence model, and DE and OEC the convergence model. I think the convergence model fits best with a Christian worldview. We live in an objectively existing world, so science investigates and makes claims about a portion of reality. But the world also includes nonnatural and supernatural entities (properties, propositions, moral facts, angels and demons, God), so theology (and philosophy) likewise investigates and makes claims about a portion of reality. Thus, my options seem to be DE or OEC.

Third, develop a mature theory of the doctrine of creation. I can think of at least five salient questions a mature doctrine of creation answers: How did God create? What did God create? Why did God create? Where did God create? And when did God create? In answering these questions, Christians must engage the relevant texts of Scripture, importantly Genesis 1. A proper understanding of the Biblical data with respect to God’s creative activity is key. For example, does Scripture reveal simply that God created, or does it reveal the timing and mechanism of creation? Is that mechanism scientifically detectable (that is, does God create life, or species, or humans via secondary causes) or not (that is, does God create life, or species, or humans via primary causation, in which case we would not expect a scientific mechanism). The product of God’s creative activity is relevant as well. For example, did God create the contingent only or the contingent and the necessary? Did God create the small only (say atoms) or medium and big objects that come composed of constituent parts? Does God create fundamental objects or derivative objects? Answers to these questions and more like it will require patient, thoughtful attention to the deliverances of theology, philosophy, and science. And, they will help us decide on a model of origin. For me, I think the deliverances of Scripture, say in Genesis 1, speak of God creating according to natural kinds. Thus, I seem to be pushed toward a kind of OEC perhaps. I say perhaps. These are “forks in the road”, but in theory construction, as in life, roads don’t always take us directly to our final destination, nor without bumps, wrong turns, and potential accidents along the way.




[1] Angus Menuge, “Against Methodological Materialism,” in The Waning of Materialism, eds. Robert Koons and George Bealer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 392.


[2] Ibid., 393.

[3] Actually, according to Ian Barbour, there is a forth model of the relationship between science and religion, the so-called dialogue model. I set this model aside for the simple reason that it does not help in advancing the discussion of how to resolve apparent conflicts between science and religion. See Ian g. Barbour, Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 77-105.

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