“Coming out” for evolution

The proponents of intelligent design (ID) and creationism often claim that there is a scientific establishment, a “Darwinist” orthodoxy, which prevents the development of science supporting their ID claims. In the US they are currently promoting “academic freedom” legislation – a sort of “when are you going to stop beating your wife” argument. Because, of course, there is no evidence that real science is being suppressed. Quite the opposite.

But lets put the shoe on the other foot. What about the freedom of religious people to question prevailing creationist ideas? How easy is it for a Christian to voice their acceptance of evolutionary science within a community which generally opposes these ideas?

Some idea of what this involves is given by the blog of Pastor Frank Ritchie, a Methodist minister in New Zealand. Currently he is posting a series of articles describing his “coming out” as a Christian who accepts evolutionary science.

Frank has a radio talkback show so inevitably gets feedback on his ideas. As he says: “amongst my audience, if a whiff is even sniffed that I could be affirming evolution, the rebukes come thick and fast.” He provides some example of feedback in his post I am a Christian who Believes in Theistic Evolution.

The following quotes from his blog provides some idea of the effort requred to voice acceptance of evolutionary science in some Christian communities:

“As a conservative Evangelical Christian, affirming evolution publicly scares me and makes me nervous. For the first time in my life, I have an opinion that I am tentative about sharing” (Theistic Evolution – My Fears). He works “for a conservative Evangelical media organisation that predominantly talks to conservative Evangelicals. Contrary to beliefs and stereotypes held by many, these are not rabid, narrow minded fundamentalists, but they are a group where American young earth creationism and it’s diluted form, Intelligent Design, have well and truly taken hold. I’ve been in churches and heard those who act as apologists for young earth creationism deliver messages that are extremely scathing on anyone who would hold to evolutionary science as being correct. Essentially I am now publicly affirming a position that some Christians consider anti-God and at worst, Satanic.”

“It feels scary and much of me doesn’t want to do this. I don’t know how rational that fear is, but I feel it anyway. In saying that, I completely and utterly feel that I am doing the right thing for so many reasons. Who knows where it will lead, but right now I’m trembling on the inside somewhat, knowing that I have thrown myself into a beast of a discussion where my position is often the minority and is predominantly advocated by people in the scientific field – an area I have next to no knowledge of.”

Theological freedom required?

Despite 75% of New Zealanders accepting evolutionary science a recent survey result indicates that 40 – 50% of Christians do not (see New Zealand supports evolution). So Frank’s situation may not be too unusual. It could be that many Christians accept evolutionary science but do not express that acceptance because of perceived pressure from their peers. They do not “come out.”

What is the situation in the USA where polls show much greater opposition to evolutionary science than in New Zealand? I imagine “coming out” for a Christian accepting evolutionary science would be even more difficult. Perhaps there is need for some legislation guaranteeing “theological freedom?”

To follow Franks experience “coming out” go to Servant’s Thoughts.

Email to a friend

See also:
Christianity vs Evolution – A False Debate
Science in the Classroom

Similar articles:
Religious opposition to “intelligent design”
Intelligent design and the threat to Christianity
New Zealand supports evolution
God’s not as popular as we thought

39 responses to ““Coming out” for evolution


    Pastor Frank wants to align himself with Darwinism. What concord has light with darkness?

    The following dissertation on Darwin is lifted from Volume 1 of The Quest for Right, a series of seven books on origins based on physical science, the old science of cause and effect.

    On the outset, the reader should be aware that Darwin was a self-proclaimed agnostic; he did not deny the possibility that God exists but believed it was beyond one’s mental ability to decide if there is, indeed, any divine force. Darwin, in response to an invitation to become a Patron of the Cat Show (September 18, 1872), lightheartedly referred to himself and cronies as “atheistical cats.” By definition, an atheist either does not believe in, or denies the existence of God. Regardless of the profile, agnostics and atheists alike believe that all questions concerning origins, being, and the like may be explained fully by material phenomena and logic; scientists have since added a third dimension, the orderly application of mathematics, called electronic interpretation—read the matter in detail in Volume 1.

    A cultural note: a marked distinction separates men who profess to be disciples (followers) of Christ and adherents of the Bible and those who profess to be outside Christianity (called unbelievers). Regarding the current definitions of agnostic and atheist, the text of the New Testament refutes the associated attributes, specifically the possibility that man (for whatever reason) either does not believe in the existence of God or else believes it is beyond one’s mental ability to decide if there is a God. Countering the claim, the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, penned, “For the invisible things of him [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they [men who ‘hold the truth in unrighteousness’] are without excuse” (Romans 1:20-22). The things God created are aptly referred to as “the glory of God.”

    In deference to the biblical precept, the eternal power and Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are clearly evidenced (seen and understood) by the things that God created and made. One only has to observe his or her surroundings; for instance, a wilderness setting with stately trees reaching skyward, colorful wildflowers dotting the meadows, wood ducks by a pool, and animals scurrying about in the underbrush, to realize the knowledge of the existence of God. There are, however, men who do “not like to retain God in their knowledge” (Romans 1:28), and cast down every thought of God. Regrettably, the course of action is not without due penalty: “Because when they knew God [everyone has known God at one time in his or her life], they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21, 22).

    In light of the foregoing scriptures, the current definitions of agnostic and atheist are wholly inept: men who hold the biblical precept to be patently false, professing either not to believe or know that there is an eternal power, are neither agnostic nor atheist, but willfully disobedient—willful, “done on purpose; deliberate.” The comprehensive assessment will be fully justified; please read on.

    Concurring with the biblical principle, Darwin may be charged with being willfully disobedient, as observed in his criticism of the tenets of Christianity. Of one certainty the reader may be assured, Darwin did not speak objectively when it came to Christianity—objectively, “uninfluenced by personal feelings, prejudices or agendas.” In a bitter denial of Christianity, Darwin complained that he “could hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” Why was Darwin so embittered? Read Revelation 20:11-15; 21:7, 8.

    In order to access an online, audible Bible, and to read the biblical verses in context, go here: http://www.audio-bible.com/bible/bible.html
    You may wish to bookmark the site. RealPlayer is required to listen to the Audio Bible.

    Darwin once confessed to being a theist, the belief in the existence of a god or gods, in particular the belief that God both created and rules all earthly phenomena. After the publication of the Origin, Darwin charged his original belief in God to the “constant inculcation” (instruction or indoctrination) in a belief in God” during his childhood, which was as difficult to cast down as “for a monkey to throw off its instinctive fear and hatred of a snake.” With self-assurance, Darwin purposed in his heart that he would no longer retain God in his knowledge, resolving instead to become an “agnostic.” The reader is, therefore, cautioned that, whenever reading books and articles about Darwin, most, if not all, biographical authors are predisposed to depict him in a favorable light, oftentimes allowing pro-evolutionist sentiment to prejudice their work.

    The Old Testament did not escape Darwin’s inflamed rhetoric; concerning the validity of biblical histories (in particular, the Genesis account of creation), Darwin pointedly declared that “the manifestly false history of the earth….was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos (sic), or the beliefs of any barbarian.” Thus, Darwin likened the creation of the first man, Adam (Genesis 2:7-25), to a mere fairy tale. As an alternative to the counterfactual history, he summarily disposed of both creationism and God by declaring in the Origin that, once the reader entertains the “volumne (sic) on the origin of species…light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history,” meaning that man and apes diverged from a common ancestor through the agency of evolution without the aid or influence of God—there is no God.

    You will not want to miss the adventure of a lifetime which awaits you in Volume 1 of The Quest for Right.

    The Quest for Right, a series of 7 textbooks created for the public schools, represents the ultimate marriage between an in-depth knowledge of biblical phenomena and natural and physical sciences. The several volumes have accomplished that which, heretofore, was deemed impossible: to level the playing field between those who desire a return to physical science in the classroom and those who embrace the theory of evolution. The Quest for Right turns the tide by providing an authoritative and enlightening scientific explanation of natural phenomena which will ultimately dethrone the unprofitable Darwinian view.


  2. Ken Miller is an evolutionary biologist at Brown University in the US. He is also a devout Catholic, even a theist, I think. How he can do both is mind-boggling to me but he certainly is an example of a Christian who has come out supporting evolution: He was one of the key witnesses at the Dover Trial (see the Nova series on this). He also wrote a book “Finding Darwin’s God,” which might be useful for other Christians struggling with this (though I haven’t read this book). Now, for Miller to come out is probably a lot easier since the Catholic church supports evolution.

    The last part of the PBS series on evolution mentions struggles at the Evangelical Wheaton College in the Western suburbs of Chicago: evolution is apparently openly taught there. They also offer discussions for students who are trying to integrate what they learn about evolution with their Evangelical brainwashing they received as kids.


  3. David Parsons, you need to learn to distinguish between the person and the idea. If Darwin had regularly murdered small children it wouldn’t have made his theory of evolution by natural selection any more correct or incorrect. Testing the validity of a claim about the natural world is the domain of the scientific method. While we might give credit to Darwin for his contribution to the discovery how you feel he behaved or whether your beliefs align with anything else he did or said has nothing to do with the observation and the theory.


  4. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention; if I come up with a ground-breaking theory in physics those who agree with the theory may be called Damianists. But this only relates to their acceptance of the theory and has nothing to do with anything else I may happen to be in to. I have a shaved head, a Damianist would feel little inclination to shave her own head. Sure, there might be some nut-jobs out there who would follow me as a person who would call themselves Damianists and shave their heads but this is totally separate from science and the theory I’d developed.


  5. Sorry for the triple post folks.

    David, I thought I had a sense of deja vu there and I was right; take a look here and tell me if anything seems familiar.

    (My guess is that David won’t actually be back to read or reply to this just like the previous one and that I’ll have just lost another slice of my life that I’ll never get back.)


  6. Ken, thanks for the post 🙂

    Just a small correction, I am a Wesleyan Methodist Minister… we have a very similar structure to the Methodists and share the same roots, but are a different group 🙂

    David may not comment again, but I want to affirm what Damian has said for anyone else who might read David’s tripe and think it holds any weight – an acceptance of Darwin’s basic theory of evolution is not a blatant acceptance of all of Darwin’s thoughts and ideas. I am not a disciple of Darwin, I am a disciple of Jesus.

    The same principle applies when people such as Ken and Damian read my thoughts, they may agree with some things I say without also accepting some of my more deep seated ideas about theism etc.

    The acceptance of evolution is also not a denial of the validity of the Genesis account(s) (there’s more than one creation story), it simply points to a different understanding of the theological emphasis on the text.

    But enough of that, it’s not the point of the post and people can follow my thoughts on the integration of evolution with the Christian world-view on my blog.

    Ken, thankfully my own Church and my closest peer group very much allow for theological freedom… I just have the joy of having a voice into a much broader Christian context.

    It is also my conviction that it is the loud minority that cloud how this discussion is perceived. Literal 6 day creationists often speak very loudly, whilst the theistic evolutionists I have now had the pleasure of having contact with, intellectual giants such as Dr Graeme Finlay, are humble, quietly spoken, truly sincere, compassionate people with no desire to engage in heated arguments.

    I’m not quite so humble 😉


  7. Sorry about the mistake, Frank. Perhaps it’s an example of how we see with our brain – I must have recognised “Methodist”, fitted it with a preconceive pattern in my brain and just didn’t see “Wesleyan.” Of course, it could just be another “senior moment.”

    Also take your point about acceptance of theological freedom in your own peer group.

    Rachel, I enjoy Ken Miller’s videos and also found his evidence at the Dover trial interesting. I also haven’t read the book you mention (doesn’t seem to be available here, maybe because it’s not a recent publication). However, I definitely will get hold of his new book coming out this month Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul.

    C. David Parsons – I realise you are just promoting your book. However, if you do genuinely have an interest in the issues I would expect you to respond to Damian’s comments.


  8. Parsons spreads his spam everywhere. Some people delete his spam, everyone else ignores it.

    I’m a big fan of Ken Miller and I will have to read his new book. Thanks for mentioning it.

    Definitely evolution has religious implications, so I can see why a minister who accepts it might get a lot of criticism from religious extremists.

    I think the best way to solve the religious implications of evolution is get rid of all religions. This might sound impossible and it probably is impossible, but wouldn’t it be nice if creationists were as rare as flat-earthers? As long as there are religions there’s going to be people who believe in magical creation. The creationists are just a symptom of a disease, and the disease is religion.


  9. Literal 6 day creationists can be made as rare as flat earthers even with religion still around. Religion has been around as the numbers of flat earthers has diminished.

    … but I’m not really interested in getting into a debate about your comment Bob. I’m a Christian Minister, it won’t be too hard to work out my thoughts on what you’ve said 😀


  10. Spam is annoying…

    Lately more than half of my traffic on my blog is from people searching for ‘evolution’ (or a combination with other words)…


  11. I just got the latest eSkeptic (Michael Schermer’s group). Michael Schermer has just edited a pamphlet for the (gasp) Templeton Foundation entitled Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete? Although my initial reaction was that Schermer made the skeptic equivalent of a Faustian bargain, the question seems to fit in nicely with this post. Since Templeton has enough money, the essays are available for a free read online… The people Schermer selected to answer the question include Victor Stenger, Chris Hitchens, and Ken Miller, with answers ranging from “Absolutely Not” to “Yes”.


  12. Hey Rachel, thanks for those links; they make for good reading.

    The problem with any discussion on the existence (or non-existence) of God is that the definitions vary so widely. We have people who’s God could not possibly be anyone other than the one that literally made the earth in 6 days 6000 years ago, people who’s God has more of a guiding hand in creation and people who’s God is more of a catch-all for life or the good things we enjoy. Inevitably, when someone says that they don’t think that the concept of a God is feasible for such-and-such a reason there will be believers who say “oh, that’s not MY God you’re describing”.

    I personally prefer to come to a common agreement that science is the study of all that is natural and once that’s established, ask if that person’s God ‘touches’ the natural universe in any way. If so (and I’ve never really found anyone who believes in a God that has nothing to do with the natural universe) then we can get to the nitty-gritty of, between us, discovering what scientific process could be used to see if this overlap might merely be a natural but little-understood phenomena.

    I’ve never found a belief in God that can not be pushed back into the totally supernatural through genuine enquiry into the natural claims made about him. And, for me, ‘supernatural’ means nothing. The supernatural by definition can’t affect me in any way unless I am supernatural too and I’ve seen absolutely no compelling evidence for that. For me, the concept of God is ‘meaningless’ in the truest sense of the word.

    But I respect people’s right to believe in whatever the hell they want. I’ll only object if this unfounded belief is used to affect my life in some way (i.e. legislation) or if we’re discussing truth claims.


  13. Dale – those search terms are weird. Evolution doesn’t seem to rate for mine. My top ones seem to be child abuse, Stalin and global warming.

    I imagine a lot could be related to school projects. For some reason kids seem to be researching Stalin now, perhaps.

    Damian, I agree “supernatural” has no meaning. It’s one of the reasons I really don’t like to define science as the study of the natural because that implies there is something else. I sometimes wonder if definitions of science which make reference to natural and supernatural are not a creeping dogmatist. I’d hate to see such terms being used to justify what is, or isn’t, permissible for science to investigate.


  14. I really don’t like to define science as the study of the natural because that implies there is something else

    Good point. I hadn’t really even considered that before. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Gould lately.


  15. Neato gang…
    Full certainty of the non-existence of ‘something else’ (call it ‘supernatural’, ‘spiritual’ or whatever…) seems a bit (very?) over-certain… heck, even with ‘non-disputedly existing’ things, there’s plenty that our telescopes and microscopes aren’t strong enough to see.
    It’s one thing to say “we can’t be sure” (the agnostic position), and another to say “I’m sure” either way (the ‘strong’ positive denial or affirmative position).


  16. (to clarify my [possibly unclear] point about telescopes/microscopes)
    If we don’t even know ‘all that there is’ when it comes to ‘non-disputedly existing’ thing, isn’t it a little over-certain to say we know ‘all that there is’ when it comes to both disputed OR non-disputed things?
    (I predict the response along the lines of “I prefer ‘non-theist’, etc.”)


  17. Dale – you illustrate the problem of using terms like natural. My point is to keep away from them. As I’ve said before (probably many times now) in 40 years of research the words natural or supernatural never came up in defining knowledge. My concern is that once one starts using these terms we get into dogma and restrictions on research and I would hate to see that happen (again).

    To deny any meaning to “supernatural” (and “natural” when used in this way) says absolutely nothing about what we know, what we don’t know and what we may never know. By its very nature the scientific process never says that we know ‘all that there is.’ And, in essence, it never claims to “know” that it is impossible in principle to know something. That would be extremely dogmatic (and dangerous).


  18. Thanks Ken,
    Can you explain to me how denying meaning to ‘supernatural’ has nothing to do with what we know, etc.??
    Seems to me that, at the very least, it has something to do with knowing that ‘supernatural’ has no meaning…

    Also, could you explain what you mean by “defining knowledge” as it relates to (the absence of) the words ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’??? Sounds pretty philosophical to me… 🙂


  19. “Philosophy” gets in the way. When we set out to really understand reality we surely don’t start by limiting ourselves by dividing reality up and declaring parts “out of bounds.” We just get on with the job.

    These words are never used in the process of investigating and understanding reality – only in the attempts to impose preconceived ideas, or to “muddy the waters.”


  20. Of course, I’m not suggesting ‘limiting’ or making parts of ‘reality’ to be ‘out of bounds’. Indeed, science just gets on with its observations, theories and testing; or as you say gets ‘on with the job’. I totally agree.

    But we all (unless we think the scientific project is an utter waste of time!) assume the universe (or ‘reality’) to be (at least) two things; 1) ordered and 2) intelligible. We make other (philosophical-ish) assmptions too; that reality is consistent (in that it won’t dramatically ‘surprise’ us – otherwise how could an experiment have a ‘control’ in it?), and that it is even worth studying…

    The point? We’ve ALL got “preconceived ideas” (or call them ‘philosophical assumptions’), and philosophy doesn’t ‘muddy the waters’; it can (and does) help clear things up rather well.


  21. I like quantum physics.
    But I don’t like it when I hear quantum physics being used by proponents of The Secret to confound and give weight to their irrational and unfounded ideas.

    I like philosophy.
    But I don’t like it when I hear philosophy being used by proponents of The Supernatural to confound and give weight to their irrational and unfounded ideas.

    I would define science as being “ideas about what we can observe” and philosophy as “ideas about ideas”. Sometimes philosophy describes the real world and when it does it can be extremely useful. But there are other times when it is detached from reality but may one day describe it. Until it is actually shown to describe reality it is really of no use – in much the same way that I stated that, to me, “supernatural” is meaningless.

    Just as people use the complex but very respected field of quantum physics to hide their silly ideas, philosophy is used in much the same way for much the same reasons. The only useful philosophy is that which can be shown to map out against the real world.


  22. Thanks Damian,
    All these things (science, mathematics, physics, philosophy, etc.) can be done for better or for worse…
    It’s one thing to have a philosophical conclusion (or assumption or presupposition) which differs from others; and it’s quite another thing to give a zero value-judgment to another philosophical conclusion (all the while pretending not to be ‘doing’ philosophy at all)…

    We can’t even speak of ‘reality’ without making assumptions (and yes, philosophical ones) about what ‘reality’ is. That is why the notion of (a version of) philosophy being “shown to describe reality” is far from simple. The question begged is “which version of reality?”

    Thankfully, we all (likely) share the same (philosophically derived, I insist) conclusions about the universe (or ‘reality as we know it’); namely, the conclusions such as the ordered-ness, intelligibility and interesting-ness of the universe. These shared conclusions allow the scientific project to go forward unhindered by differences of opinion on more specific philosophical out-workings.

    But, again, if a person is to make a statement concerning meaning, for crying out loud, let us not pretend that this is not a philosophical one. 🙂


  23. Surely “which version of reality?” is, in itself, an attempt to impose a preconceived assumption on reality – instead of deriving our knowledge from reality (leaving aside the many world interpretations of quantum mechanics).

    It’s the sort of thing academic philosophers can discuss in their smoky common rooms while the real work of discovering and understanding reality goes on by actually interacting with it (and without the philosophers help or interference).

    I don’t think those conclusions about the universe are philosophically derived. They are actually derived from interaction with the universe – not just thinking about it (or what it might be).

    Personally I think our philosophies should be checked in at the laboratory door, well away from the real work. Unfortunately the record of philosophical imposition on humanity’s attempts to understand reality have usually been at least a diversion and at most a disaster in terms of human rights.


  24. the question “which version of reality” attempts to impose nothing. It is, rather, a question which acknowledges the varying perspectives about the nature of ‘things’, ‘the whole show’, ‘the universe’, etc.
    What I’m arguing for here is realism. Yes, post-modernist, speculative (the philosophical term is ‘phenomenalist’) notions that “we don’t/can’t/won’t know anything, etc.” are off-base; but the other extreme is the modernist (‘positvist’) idea that a thing is ‘simply what it is’, etc. I’m only scratching the surface of that whole conversation, of course.
    There is an entire field, namely the ‘philosophy of science’ that attests to the link between philosophy and science – or it’s probably better to say thought and experiment. They cannot divorced.
    But – then again – I’m certainly not the one who raised the so-called philosophy v. science ‘problem’. I simply am suggesting that we all admit when we’re doing philosophy; like those times when we talk about such things as meaning (or the lack thereof)…


  25. (durn winky smilies!… I must remember to put a space between my apostrophes and parentheses!)


  26. Dale, I think you using “philosophy” in two ways.

    Of course the act of doing science, just as humanities attempts to investigate and make use of reality, has always assumed the source of our knowledge is in reality itself. That is philosophy with a small p. It gives more importance to reality than idea. It’s something which was bought home to me very strongly in my early career by having to deal with with my Ph. D. supervisor who would always want to discuss weird and wonderful hypotheses just as I was trying to leave work for the day and catch my train. I found that I couldn’t compete with him in the realm of logic and ideas (and argument). However, I could always “win” by doing the experiment which showed what the reality was. And he always accepted the data and then went on to a new weird and wonderful explanation.

    An alternative philosophy with a small p is to assume the primacy of ideas. This approach has been spectacularly unsuccessful in helping us to understand the world though for what, I think, are obvious reasons. Despite my supervisor being very much an “ideas man” he recognised this as all good scientists do. And I would not have been doing science if I never did the experiment to test his ideas and worked only at the level of argument and logic.

    However, there is “philosophy” with a capital P. These usually have a name. They can be very dangerous when they slip into the habit of ignoring reality (and philosophers often do this). These Philosophies will often go to extremes to ignore or remake reality when the data conflicts with the preconceived ideas.

    I am very wary of the so-called “philosophers of science” – especially when they are not involved with (or give credence to) actually working with reality. A prime example is Steve Fuller who appeared as an expert witness for the Dover School Board in the 2005 trial. His concept of science is so divorced from what I experience and he was able to argue that intelligent design was a scientific theory because he didn’t require evidence or testing against reality. This sort of philosopher does not represent science – in fact misrepresents and distorts it. In the process doing damage.

    Give me honest philosophies with a small p any time. It’s so easy for Philosophy with a capital P to become ideology and then dogma.


  27. Thanks Ken,
    Really appreciate your engagement with this one.
    I think I understand what you’re trying to lay out regarding three types of philosophy (1 – source of knowledge in ‘reality itself’, 2 – primacy of ideas, 3 – preconceived ideas and ignore/remake reality).
    My understanding is that philosophy proper (lower-case or capital or whatever) is “thinking about thinking”, per se. Among other things, it seeks to understand how we know what reality is.
    You, Ken, have a materialist or naturalist understanding of reality. Every time (for example in your comments above) you casually use the word ‘reality’ you are talking about material and natural things. For you, there is nothing more to ‘reality’ than the material or natural. But hopefully it is obvious that this naturalistic and materialistic understanding of yours is not the result of scientific experimentation, but rather some kind of (I can think of no better term than ‘philosophical’) non-empirical reflection.

    Experimentation with (and understanding of) material and natural things can never demonstrate that material and natural things is all there is to reality.

    That is (I hope you agree) anything but an anti-science statement. Sure, some brands of ‘philosophy’ can be anti-science; but not mine – and obviously not yours! 🙂

    The view that ‘reality’ is restricted/limited (I know, you’ll hate those words!) to material/natural things may be valid, but it is not a view that derives from empirical observation of material/natural things. Doing lots of cooking/baking will never demonstrate that there is no such thing as, for example, mathematics. But, of course, one can do cooking/baking without mathematics.


  28. Actually I would broadly classify Philosophies into only 2 groups – primacy of reality and primacy of ideas. But I am actually saying the danger of all Philosophies is dogma.

    And I suggest your willingness to describe my “understanding of reality” is really just dogma. To use terms like materialist and natural is injecting dogma – particularly as, I am sure, our definitions of these terms are not the same.

    In fact, my argument and “philosophy” is that our source of understanding reality should be reality itself. My “understanding” (forget the “materialistic”, “naturalistic” words which I think are only misleading here) is in fact “the result of scientific experimentation” (used in the very broadest sense).

    I am in fact arguing against basing ones whole approach on “non-empirical reflection.” I see that position as the dangerous dogma – a common result of Philosophies). And it is exactly this approach which is being pushed by the Wedge people in their attack on science and the rest of society.

    It’s not a matter of claiming “that material and natural things is all there is to reality.” My claim is that reality is “all” there is to reality.

    I know it’s fashionable to be using terms like “natural,” “supernatural,” “materialist,” etc. They are being used by supporters of science as well as the opponents. While, of course, I stand with those who support science I think that by describing the situation using such terms they have fallen into the trap of allowing opponents of science to set the agenda. (After all these terms never arise naturally in their work). And they are in danger of reinforcing dogmatic attitudes within science, abandoning scepticism and limiting themselves to a very narrow and impoverished view of reality.

    It would be very sad indeed if scientists started to use such words to limit their investigations or to deny phenomena without investigation. It would be just as sad (or worse) if “non-empirical reflection” was, by imposition, given the standing in science that the Wedge and similar people wish.


  29. Thanks Ken,
    Again, I really do appreciate your engagement here…
    Rather than classifying philosophy as you have, in terms of ‘primacy’ (either of ideas or ‘reality’), I would want to say that philosophy is an active thing; namely (and etymologically) the study of thinking/thought/ideas/etc. Science, of course, is an active thing as well.

    What I’m simply trying to suggest (or clarify?) is that we admit or appreciate when we are doing philosophy and when we are doing science.

    I would hope it would be obvious how non-explanatory your statement “reality is all there is to reality” is. It doesn’t say anything. That’s not meant as an attack on your intelligence (I’m quite certain that you are of a quite capable level of intelligence), it’s just a specific point concerning the nature of reality.

    I sense we’re beginning to talk past each other a bit, so I’m not sure how much further we can take it? We could try to define terms? Nature? Reality? Material?

    And, again, to bring it back to my point on this thread, I’m simply trying to confirm if you agree or not that your position that “supernatural has no meaning” is very much a philosophical position, rather than (for want of a better way to say it) an empirically derived one.

    We can study DNA or rice-plants or chemical reactions or whatever – the wonderful scientific project can go forward unhindered – whilst at the same time, different people can have different conclusions as to whether or not ‘supernatural’ has no meaning.

    Observing and explaining nature is the role of the natural sciences, while determining the meaning (or lack thereof) of concepts such as ‘supernatural’ is a philosophical task. When you say “supernatural has no meaning”, you are being, not a scientist, but a philosopher.


  30. whoops, missed a tag…


  31. Politically terms like “supernatural” (which I think have no real meaning) are important. Because there are active attempts to redefine science to include “supernatural” explanations. Now I think this is a cover because no one actually defines this “supernatural.” What it really means is that science should stop testing ideas against reality – at least for certain “pet” ideas. Ken Miller likens it to “an intellectual welfare for an idea that can’t make it on its own.”

    Because this is part of a very real attack on science (as Miller points out in Trouble ahead for science) it is only natural that the concepts involved should be properly part of consideration by the scientific community. We shouldn’t allow Philosophers (or Philosophers of a certain tendency) to tell us how to do our job.

    I will actually do a post on this later this week as I want to considers a number of aspects of dogmatism in science which are coming out of current political attempts to redefine science. Maybe 3 posts.


  32. Thanks Ken,
    I wasn’t referring at all to the political issues involving redefinition of science or philosophers trying to tell scientists how to do science. I agree that to include the supernatural in science (which is inherently naturalistic) is just silly (not to mention weird)…
    What I was referring to is your statement that ‘supernatural has no meaning’. I wasn’t arguing directly with that statement, but (again) am seeking to confirm whether or not you agree that your view concerning the meaninglessness of ‘supernatural’ is not a scientific one, but a philosophical one.
    Do you agree?
    If not please explain how natural science shows that supernatural has no meaning.
    Actually, that wording helps much. I would agree that ‘supernatural’ has no meaning in relation to the natural sciences, but would not say that ‘supernatural’ has no meaning in general.


  33. The tyranny of terms! One reason why I prefer to talk about reality rather than “natural”. What is a “natural science?” These sort of terms are used with different meanings. Surely science is concerned with investigating and understanding reality – natural (as it is usually used relating to the environment, animals, chemicals, physical things, etc and including those things we are yet unaware of), social, psychological, etc. ‘Supernatural’ has no meaning in relation to science, or in relation to reality. Thats an observation derived from investigating reality.

    Philosophers may talk about ‘supernatural’ (although I don’t think serious ones usually do – I may be wrong, perhaps just the ones I am more familiar with). But scientists don’t.

    Actually, perhaps we need someone to give a definition of what they mean by ‘supernatural’ – I am aware of dictionary definitions but I certainly can’t give a scientifically meaningful (or sensible) one.


  34. Terms are always key. (And, again, thanks for your patience here.)
    It will bother you, no doubt, but I think in talking about things to do with science (both as a noun and a verb), the term ‘nature’ is better than ‘reality’.
    It is one thing to say that ‘supernatural’ has no meaning in relation to ‘science’ or ‘nature’, but quite another thing to say it has no meaning in relation to ‘reality’ (meaning: ‘all that there is’, or ‘all that is REAL’).
    Before progressing, do you follow me so far here???


  35. ‘Nature’ better than ‘reality? – well, this requires some justification by definition of terms. Some people see nature as animals but not buildings, for example. Philosophically, I would probably equate ‘natural’ to reality. This of course implies ‘supernatural’, ‘unnatural’, etc., have no meaning within reality (but maybe outside of reality in the sense of fantasy, fiction, etc.)

    I think what is required is the definition and use of ‘supernatural.’ For example Behe defines the formation of the universe as a ‘supernatural’ event. I think he also defines some Newtonian concepts as ‘supernatural’ explanations. He is of course arguing that ‘supernatural’ explanations should be acceptable in science because we already do them. (Sort of defeats his argument that science is close-minded).

    So, before progressing I think it’s essential to reach an understanding of what is meant by ‘supernatural’.


  36. Philosophically, I would probably equate ‘natural’ to reality.

    Thank you! 🙂 That’s one thing I wanted to confirm. Your equation of ‘natural’ with ‘reality’ is a philosophical one.
    For me (and probably you as well?) ‘reality’ is the largest of all categories. ‘REAL-ity’ signifies (as seen in the first four letters) all that is real; all that is; all that exists (whether solid, liquid, gas, atom, visible, invisible [to the human eye], living [both plant and animal], non-living, near, distant, etc., ad infinitum)…
    Where we differ, philosophically, is that I would include the (smaller) categories of both ‘nature’ and ‘super-nature’ in the (largest) category of ‘reality’.
    And, again, I repeat that the study of all manner of things within the category of ‘nature’ (trees, DNA, neutrons, pigs, synapses, etc.) does not prove (nor can it prove) the non-existence of another category (i.e. ‘super-natural’). My analogy for this (above) is the cooking-and-mathematics analogy. Doing all manner of activity in the ‘cooking realm’ does not prove the non-existence of the mathematical realm.
    So, while I’m ever-aware you will likely offer a swift reactionary statement about “ring-fencing reality”, I nonetheless would have to define ‘supernatural’ things as things/entities/bits-of-reality that transcend time/space/matter; and therefore are not experienced (or experimented with) in the same way as ‘natural’ things/entities/bits-of-reality…
    Go on, you know you want to – accuse me of ‘ring-fencing reality’… 😉


  37. Thanks for the definition – it helps. Of course, ‘transcend’ is often used by some people in mystical ways but I will take the dictionary definition – ‘to go above and beyond a limit, expectation.”

    Of course there is always part of reality that goes above and beyond our understanding of the limits of ‘time/space/matter’ and of course we need to continually find new ways of experiencing and understanding this part of reality. It drives progress in knowledge. And as we make progress our understanding of the limits of ‘time/space/matter’ change (I say improves – we get closer and closer to the truth about reality). Knowledge is dynamic.

    We have seen abrupt changes in our understanding of the limits with, for example,:
    The Newtonian concepts of time/space/action at a distance;
    The theories of special and general relativity;
    Quantum mechanical theories;
    And we continually feel these days that another abrupt change is coming up.

    We are trying to come to grips with dark matter, for example, which appears to transcend our current understanding of the limits of ‘time/space/mater’. We imagine some great ideas will come out of experiments with the new hadron collider. Perhaps we will make some breakthroughs in the physics involved in the formation of the universe.

    So, it seems to me – yes, we can divide reality into categories but let’s be careful in the process.

    Perhaps the commonly used divide ‘natural’ vs ‘supernatural’ (which I don’t think is useful) really means ‘known’ vs ‘yet to be known’.

    Or perhaps ‘known or able to be understood using our current understanding of time/space/matter’ vs ‘unknown and requiring an improvement in our understanding of time/space/matter to comprehend’.

    I know that most people who use this term ‘supernatural’ do mean it as a way of ring-fencing part of reality to protect it from investigation. And this is implied, for example, in the AAAS statement defining science. But it is a sort of ‘god of the gaps’ argument. Because in reality humanity is far more optimistic. We might ‘say’ that we will never understand a phenomenon but that doesn’t stop us getting to work and investigating it. The AAAS statement is a sort of sop to the ‘god botherers’ who hassle science. “We will let you have those ‘supernatural’ things to play with. We aren’t interested in them so go away and leave us alone to get on with our work.” And then, inevitably, science does develop to a stage where investigation is possible and takes the ‘toys’ back. In the meantime the ‘god botherers’ have made no progress and science shoots ahead producing result after result.

    This happened with phenomena like origin of life, life forces, origin of species, origin of the universe, mind and consciousness, etc. These were all considered out of bounds for science. ‘Ring-fenced’ as ‘mystical’, ‘spiritual’ or supernatural.’ The ‘supernaturalists’ made no progress in understanding these but science did – once it reached the stage of appreciating it could investigate such phenomena.

    Terms like ‘naturalism’ and ‘supernatural’ carry a lot of baggage and that’s why I don’t think they are useful. When spokespeople for science (like the AAAS) use these terms I don’t think they at all reflect the mode of action of working scientists. Better to talk about reality itself and appreciate that it has a huge variation, that our understanding of it is always limited but improving.

    We can accept that there are bits we may never understand (limits in technology, human abilities or even possibly in the ‘logic and order’ of those bits). But it would be extremely pessimistic (and self-defeating) to start with that assumption. Humans are an inquisitive species and don’t give up that easily.


  38. Thanks Ken,
    (was shocker busy with an assignment and sermon this week – sorry for not commenting earlier)

    We may have reached a natural (no pun intended!) ending of this thread. With this comment you have outlined some reflections (mostly on science) which are consistent with your philosophical understanding of reality.

    We may have different views/definitions of what ‘supernatural’ means, but at least it appears we agree that these are philosophical differences, and not scientific ones.


  39. This thread took some reading!

    I will add a few thoughts on this subject. I have a strong appreciation for both a “materialistic” and for a “philosophical” argument. I do however quite strongly differentiate between the two.

    I have been recently reading a bit on modern string theory (Leonard Susskind in particular), and have been very much enjoying the complexity of the landscape of potential mathematical realities. This thread has somewhat reminded me of the feeling of discomfort felt when the theoretical physicists have progressed too far beyond the experimental results (which seems to be a very topical subject in this field). There is a similar feeling of creeping navel gazing that arises. There is however (as I interpret it), quite a big difference between a landscape of mathematical realities, and a philosophical argument, or discussion. To my mind, the mathematic proofs that underly something such as string theory, definitely trump the consistent(or interesting) sounding points of a good philosophical argument. I like to appreciate both, but for me, one is more suited to the pub.


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