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Would progressive creation undermine the existence of an order of nature?

Suppose that God intervened multiple times, prior to the advent of man (presumably by some kind of special creation as well), to create species or to make it probable that a new species would come about where this would not have happened absent divine intervention.

For now, I want to set aside the question of the empirical affidavits of this suggestion. I also want to set aside arguments about the age of the earth. I hear that some Christian groups have had to ban, explicitly, arguments about the age of the earth, because they are a kind of Internet black hole. Also, the criticism I am going to answer would apply to both old-earth and young-earth versions of creationism.

So I'd like to set aside the question of whether this scenario is in fact probable and ask instead whether we should be closed to it and not investigate it on the basis of a particular theological concern.

The concern goes roughly like this. (This is my reconstruction.)

There has to be an order of nature in order for even miracles to have any meaning. If one could never know what was going to happen next, if the natural world had no order or meaning, not only would science have no subject of study, but miracles would have no backdrop against which to occur. Therefore, God can't just be keeping nature going by continual bumps and tweaks, or the entire notion of an order of nature is out the window. Therefore, anything like progressive creation or repeated divine intervention in the creation of animal species is enormously improbable even from the theistic or Christian perspective, and we should be highly resistant to such scenarios and should look instead for species to appear by a smooth operation of secondary means, i.e., by the order of nature.

Since readers will know that I have been discussing intelligent design theory with Ed Feser at Extra Thoughts, I hasten to add that I am not (repeat, not) attributing this objection to Ed. In fact, as far as I know, this is not one of his objections to ID.

In fact, since this is a blog post rather than a book, I'm not attributing it to anyone in particular, but I have a sense that it is "in the air." It's one of those things that you hear quite a lot, and I could probably find plenty of examples both in books and on-line. I remember quite definitely that one friend brought it up to me in e-mail discussion of this very topic, and I seem to recall that I've seen it in comboxes as an objection in the past when I've discussed ID. It also seems related to the objection that is much more common, which one sees in the combox here, that there must have been something wrong with the creation at first if God had to keep intervening to do new things in it. All of that will do for my purposes, because I think it's interesting enough to answer.

I myself tend to think that the ID arguments "sit well" with some kind of progressive creation of the sort sketched. By this I do not mean that they require or entail it. In fact, I find that most of the high-profile ID theorists are concerned to emphasize the possibility of front-loading, presumably because repeated literal intervention for purposes of creation is so repugnant to so many people, both Christian and secular. So even as a lay camp follower, I'm a bit of an outlier in saying, "The heck with all that" and leaning in the direction of a more robust interventionism. But there are reasons to think that progressive, interventionist creationism does sit well with the ID argument. Since the ID arguments are best understood (see this post of mine) as using special intention of an agent, and some sort of act or other to carry out that special intent, as an explanation, it is quite natural that all of this should parse out in terms of creation involving acts to carry out the special intent to bring into being some biological entity that otherwise would not have come about by secondary processes.

In a sense one can regard the young earth position in this same philosophical light, with the acts occurring within a short time period of six literal days. The above argument from the natural order is at least as much of an attack on a young earth view as on a more leisurely form of progressive creationism.

I think it is partly because ID arguments do "sit well" with some kind of progressive creationism that the above criticism of ID comes up. Is there something "off" or "wrong," theologically, about the picture of God's "reaching down" and "doing things" to the world that wouldn't otherwise have happened in order to bring into being the species we see today? Does such a picture erase the very notion of an orderly creation or an order of creation?

There are several reasons to reject this criticism. First of all, as I have said before, the natural order is a tough fabric. It would take a lot to break up our reasonable reliance on it, which is based on an overwhelming mass of daily evidence. Christians already believe that there have been periods of rather furious miraculous activity, during the ministry of Jesus and of the apostles, for example. Yet somehow this didn't make people rationally worry that their corn flakes, or the Greco-Roman equivalent, were going to disappear randomly off of the kitchen table.

Second, this is about origins. This is about where at least some biological natural kinds came from in the first place long ago, not about where individual horses and bacteria come from today. In the unlikely event that an ID proponent were to produce an argument purporting to show that a Designer individually creates each animal embryo, all the time, by something other than the operation of secondary causes, I would raise the concern that such a view is not consonant with the existence of a natural order. But arguments for the deliberately designed origin, before the existence of man, of types of animals that then reproduce for thousands or even (depending on your view) millions of years by natural processes hardly seems like a challenge to the existence of a natural order! Of course these types of creatures have to come from somewhere in the first place. Once they are here, they are part of the natural order from then on out.

Third, this concern seems to me to be a result of a kind of temporal parochialism. If we combine highly interventionist views such as arise in both old-earth and young-earth creationism, for nearly two thousand years I would say that the majority of Christians, including educated as well as uneducated Christians, believed that God specially created many animal species, but none of them took this to be a challenge to the existence of a natural order. No, I'm not saying that every Christian thought that, nor even every prominent Christian, but only that a majority did. It seems to me a post-Darwinian prejudice that leads people to think that there is some philosophical prima facie case that the origin of species (!) "ought" to occur or "must occur" by entirely secondary causes. On the contrary. The reason that Darwin's ideas and arguments, as scientific and empirical arguments, were so revolutionary in the religious world is because the opposite was more generally assumed. If we say that there is some a priori theological reason to think that the origin of species ought to be or must be by natural processes, we seem to be arguing that all intelligent Christians should have been Darwinists (at least in broad outline) prior to Darwin. This seems, to put it mildly, to smack of chronological snobbery.

Finally, to affirm the existence of a natural order that includes things with their own powers is to say nothing, I repeat, nothing, in itself about the level at which the natural order operates or about what those powers are vis a vis the origin of animal species. The claim that the biological species developed entirely by natural processes is one possible position about what the natural order is like. It is not, by a long shot, the only possible position consistent with the existence of a natural order.

This should be obvious. We can construct a future scenario in which some aspects of history have been forgotten and people erroneously believe that some weaponized germ form developed entirely by natural processes when in fact, in that form, it was partially bioengineered. In that scenario, one can imagine clever theologians telling Christians who believe that they have evidence for bioengineering that they must instead affirm the entirely natural origin of that germ or else they are denying the existence of a natural order with "its own real causal powers." It should be clear that such a rigid stance blocks the course of inquiry and, in the scenario in question, blocks access to the actual truth of the matter. The fact of the matter should be investigated by reference to the empirical evidence available. Again: To believe in the natural order is not ipso facto to believe that the natural order gave rise to this or that particular type of thing. We discover the workings of the natural order by investigation, not by armchair assumption-making.

If God specially created some species, which came into existence after the origin of the larger universe, there was already a natural order before that time and continued to be a natural order after that time. It's just that that natural order didn't happen to have the inherent causal powers to give rise to that species by those natural causal powers alone. That's all. To say, "There is a natural order" tells us precisely nothing about whether intelligent intervention is a better explanation. That has to be found out empirically or perhaps by reference to revelatory texts. But it is highly implausible (to put it mildly) that philosophical theology alone is going to tell us either "yes" or "no" to the highly specific question of whether such-and-such a species arose in the first place from the order of nature alone.

That brings us around to the empirical considerations I set aside at the outset. It will hardly be a secret after all this time (not just in this post but in others) that, as an interested layman, I think a great many of the ID arguments do succeed on their own terms, empirically. But the course of inquiry is often blocked, even among Christians, by what seem to me extremely strange a priori objections to taking that evidence on its own terms. The one I address here is one I have run across on more than one occasion, and I think a lot of people are indeed influenced by it. Therefore, it needs to be cleared away so that we can get back to examining the evidence, both Biblical and empirical.

It's a sociologically interesting fact that often people who are trying to block an examination of the ID evidence will cast their position as, "Christianity is consistent with Darwinism." But that isn't really the question at issue in such conversations. The question they are really tacitly answering "no" to is, "Is Christianity consistent with design, and evidence thereof?" I get weary in personal conversation, reading web sites, etc., running into what seems to me, perhaps unintentionally, a kind of passive aggressive move: "It's okay, you can be a Christian and a Darwinist" becomes a kind of code for, "You can't be a smart, theologically and philosophically informed Christian, and be anything but a Darwinist."

The theistic evolutionists (and by that I mean the very strong, anti-ID types) have been very successful rhetorically with this passive-aggressive move. They have been very successful, too, at marketing the proposition that it's okay to be a Christian Darwinist. At this point, I think it's important to make the opposite point: It's okay to be a Christian anti-Darwinist! There is nothing what-so-ev-er about the Christian affirmation of a divinely ordained order of nature that entails or even implies that species originated without special creation. It has always seemed to me that this shouldn't need to be said; it's so obvious. But I'm realizing that, sociologically, it does need to be said, so this post is an attempt to say it, and argue for it. Once these kinds of a priori blocks are cleared away, honest inquirers will be free to look into the detailed arguments that others have made much more ably than I ever could.

Comments (13)

Is God Lord over the natural order He created, or is God bound by that order? Those who deny the possibility of miracles, if they believe in a God at all, must hold to the latter. The question then becomes why would God be bound by the natural order of His own creation? In the English speaking world it has long been a political principle that even the king is under the law. Have we, perhaps, developed an unhealthy tendency to extrapolate this principle and apply it to the King of Kings Himself?

My apologies. This should have been included at the end in the previous comment:

If we are now starting to allow the natural order to dictate to God, not only what He can do in His own creation, but how He had to go about creating it in the first place, it would seem that we have elevated the natural order far above God Himself. This brings to mind St. Paul's description of the idolatry of the nations who had forgotten God and "worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator".

As I say, I strongly suspect that quite a bit of it is a post-Darwinian prejudice that goes unrecognized. It's not as though I can't imagine _something_ that a person would hold that I would think sounded like a silly multiplication of miracles. For example, suppose that someone said that the only reason that raindrops fall out of the sky is because God performs a special miracle causing every raindrop to fall individually, otherwise they would all float upwards. I'm just making that up, but you see what I mean. Certain things do seem to happen regularly and by natural processes, so there is a prima facie case that they _do_ happen by the natural order God has made and sustains.

What has apparently happened post-Darwin is that, when one suggests that God might have specially created certain animal species long ago or even if one suggests an argument that "sits well" with God's intervening to create certain species or give them certain attributes, some hearers, including Christians, react as though one had suggested that God performs a miracle to make each raindrop fall. But that springs from an idea that it is blindingly obvious that the origin of new species with all their properties is purely a natural process, like the falling of raindrops, when of course that is precisely what the ID theorist is questioning.

It is my understanding that A-T metaphysics requires at least a small measure of what might be called "progressive creation." Not only would a Thomistic perspective involve creation ex nihilo (contrary to process theism, many open theists, and Aristotle himself for that matter) but it would require that living creatures could not emerge from non-living things without divine intervention, nor could animals from plants, nor could rational animals (humans) from the lower animals. So Thomists would affirm, at minimum, the specific creation of plants, animals and humans not only for reasons from specific revelation in Genesis 1 but for reasons due to A-T metaphysics.
The "tough fabric" issue is important and is what makes a "philosophy of nature" possible for Judeo-Christianity. Islam is different where nature cannot be relied upon and God recreates the universe each instant (this was not the view of al Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes etc, but their arguments did not prevail in Islam).

Thanks for your comment. As you can see, I'm attempting to avoid getting into the whole A-T thing in any specific way in the main post and am concentrating more on the general issue of an order of nature. I am opposed to any attempt to make sweeping _blocks_ to the use of empirical evidence in these areas by metaphysical presuppositions. Obviously, these presuppositions can take many forms--they might be naturalist presuppositions, deist presuppositions, the argument I discuss in the post for an "order of nature," or (apparently, some people think) Thomistic or Aristotelian presuppositions. In any case where the path of inquiry is being blocked by presuppositions that do not allow the evidence to speak or that encourage people to ignore or throw out evidence, as an epistemologist, I am going to protest. I notice that you say

So Thomists would affirm, at minimum, the specific creation of plants, animals and humans not only for reasons from specific revelation in Genesis 1 but for reasons due to A-T metaphysics.

"At a minimum" is fine in itself. It's "at a maximum" that I have problems with. I also have a problem with assertions that "x consideration must be deemed irrelevant" when x consideration is obviously epistemically relevant. When the assertion is made that one _must not_ use, say, complexity considerations as part of deciding whether special creation has taken place, thus limiting one _only_ to arguments that can be made by metaphysics alone (perhaps to those three interventions, for example), then I think something has gone seriously awry.

In the post,my point about the tough fabric of the order of nature is that the tough fabric is obviously _there_. It can handle quite a few miracles without chaos ensuing. Therefore, we don't need to guard the order of nature by avoiding the hypothesis of miracles in the origin of species.

Might have been posted before, just want to alert people to this place: http://www.charlesdekoninck.com/de-konincks-cosmos/ (mp3's also) goes to Tim's point about the jumps inorganic, living, sensitive, rational and need for direct creation.

"DeKoninck thought we need to remember what corporeal beings are, and what makes them different from angels. Modern philosophical objections to evolution, he said:

“attribute to natural beings . . . properties (that) are specific (to) purely spiritual creatures. Our Philosophy of Nature reeks with sins of angelism, it is often no more than bad angelology.”

I want to add a point which I will copy both here and to a thread at Extra Thoughts: I am aware of the dispute in philosophy of religion among conservationists, occasionalists, and concurrentists concerning God's relationship to the order of nature and to all events in the world. It's probably true that most people writing about ID find it convenient to speak in conservationist terms, and perhaps they really are conservationists. I admit that I'm rather inclined in that direction myself. But the inference does not _ride_ on that, because of the point about special agent intention and miracles that I have made in this new post at my blog:


Suppose that one thinks that occurrentism or occasionalism is the best account of God's relationship to the world. That can't per se block an ID inference, because it cannot be used to block an inference to miracles.

It is rather ironic that some people (I seem to recall that Avery Dulles did this, and I know that the since-deconverted Howard van Till, formerly at Calvin, did this) have accused ID of being a "form of deism" because it makes a distinction between God's relationship to *everything* and the _special_ intention postulated in design. But one could just as easily argue the other way: If one is going to use one's concurrentism (for example) or occasionalism or whatever one's philosophy is about God's relationship to nature to _block_ the use of evidence to infer God's special acts, _that_ has a very strong tendency to deism, since deism famously denied the occurrence of miracles.

So that entire debate should be regarded as irrelevant. Whatever one's view--conservationist, concurrentist, or occasionalist--if one is a Christian one must have room for Divine intervention, for some _different_ way in which God is related to some events rather than to Everything That Is, and for us to be able epistemologically to infer those special events and that special relationship. ID arguments are no more per se committed to conservationism than they are to concurrentism, and one who takes any of these views, as long as he isn't committed to denying special divine actions and intentions in the world, should have room for the ID inference.

In a limiting case of divine intervention, J. W. Montgomery has argued that miracles would be meaningful even in an Alice In Wonderland type of world, where irregularity is the rule rather than the exception:


I'm not convinced that Montgomery is right about that. For one thing, just how maximal does this intervention get? Why should we not think that it also affects our eyes, senses, or other measuring equipment? We would, of course, _try_ to investigate as systematically as possible. Nor am I saying that such a world would necessitate irrationality on our own part. But the prospects for epistemologically knowing that a miracle had occurred and when it had not would be quite dim, I would say, if either there were no order of nature to begin with or the order of nature had apparently been thrown out the window. How would one distinguish miracle from chaos?

What C.S. Lewis says later in his book on miracles is relevant here. I don't have my copy at hand, but I recall that one of his points about the Scriptural miracles is that they fit with the ordinary course of nature. For example, the wine was created by miracle, but it then interacted with the rest of creation like ordinary wine. Ditto with the bread. His point is that this, together with the laws of logic, which sit outside of science, indicate that "supernature" is in fact a system of its own, a system of which nature itself is a part. But because we are part of nature, we can't access the supervening system without revelation. Thus, miracles are done for a reason, and that reason is often revealed by God: he is explaining how the miracle actually fits in the supervening system.

So, it's not that the system of order is being violated, but that it is overruled by the larger system of which it is a part.

I'd bet that there are good examples of supervenience in science, but I can't think of any at the moment...

JWDS, I think the classic example would be that of newtonian versus quantum physics. In most arenas, under most types of macro observations that we can perform, the rules that govern physics look just like newtonian physics, to the point where we could simply say that they are newtonian. But the REAL physics (at least, so they say) that is going on is quantum, and under some scenarios those rules defy the newtonian expectations. It's not that special quantum events break down the real newtonian rules, but rather that the newtonian rules are only incomplete descriptions of the real rules and when you have a complete description these events just carry out "the rules".

I am not sure, though, that one can really rely on a sort of "higher" thing to be called supernature, or maybe metanature, that has its own rules of which the natural world is only a subset. For one thing, some of the things that happen are inherently divine as such: the divine indwelling by sanctifying grace is something only the Divine can do only by directly willing it, so there would be something odd about its being a kind of metanatural event. Unless you want to incorporate God's "nature" into the picture, but the problem there is that this would be using the term analogically rather than univocally.

Admittedly, once a special outside-of-nature event happens then certain things 'naturally' follow from that reality, but those things find sufficiency in natural causes once the supernaturally imposed thing is present.

As an aside, Catholics are pretty much obliged to accept that human beings have at their root a direct divine action in the form of a special act of creation at least with respect to the immaterial spirit. At least, that's how I read Pius XII's Humani Generis. Given that much, though, it is almost impossible to suggest a model of the universe that precludes God acting to create new species by direct action, at most one might propose that it would happen only once or only very rarely. Neither of those has an overwhelming argument, as far as I know.

Actually, the point Lewis makes there in Miracles is indeed compatible with the idea that there is some "supernature" whose rules are not interrupted, but it is also compatible with the denial of that proposition. The two strands are two rather different approaches to the issue of nature and miracles. Lewis articulates the view JWDS discusses far more directly in a fictional work, _That Hideous Strength_, in which one member of the Logres company (it may be the lady doctor, if I recall correctly, but it may be Professor Dimble) says that "the real rules" are never broken but only the "local regularities" that we are able to see.

Lewis's point about the wine, on the other hand, is rather different: It is that nature is, in a sense, made to be capable of being interfered with. Nature takes any interruption (even, for that matter, my picking up a bat and hitting a ball) and brings the effects _after_ that into her lawful flow.

Tony, at some point I want to write something about the whole "ensoulment" idea when it is brought forward not *in addition to* the special creation of man's body but *instead of* it. The latter is, I find, often used by Catholics who want to make nice with Darwinism. What is ironic about it (and I will fold this into a post) is a kind of angelism--the idea that the body could come about via entirely natural causes by evolution from the brute beasts, and then that God could just "invest" one or more of *those bodies* with an immaterial soul, whereupon, voila! Man would exist. What happened to the other, physically indistinguishable creatures, presumably we aren't to inquire. Even a self-styled Cartesian like me is inclined to think that it is highly implausible that "the soul" could be "implanted" in a being without making *some* sort of suitable physical change at the same time, and plausibly a great many.

But I'm not attributing that view to you, in the slightest. I'm just pointing out some oddities that have occurred to me when viewing positions designed to postulate some sort of bare minimum of divine action, even with respect to the creation of man.

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