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Ruminating on the Natural Revelation Argument

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 1/10/14 at 12:01 AM

 

So back in November, I thought I would try my hand at giving a sort of quick and dirty overview of natural revelation: what we can tell about God by looking around at stuff. It wasn’t meant to be a full treatment, of course, but it sketched out a bit of what we are talking about when we say, with Paul in Romans 1:20, that creation points to the Creator.

The series generated the usual controversy one expects, of course. Since its primary point is simply “God exists” the primary audience of interlocutors attracted to such an argument are the people who say “No he doesn’t.” And so various atheists showed up, some to converse, many to blaspheme and do the internet atheist equivalent of spray painting obscenities on the wall while calling it “free thought” (internet atheists tend to worship, rather than use their capacity for reason).

This was no surprise of course. There are people who seem to spend all their free time endlessly repeating some variation on “There is no God and Darwin is his prophet” (a dreadful slander of Darwin, who did not busy himself with the crude atheist polemics of the many Dawkinsian atheist high school sophomores of all ages who inhabit the interwebz). For many such, the notion is that if science can explain a natural phenomenon, God has thereby been banished from that bit of reality and that the Great Rosy Dawn will someday come when science will account for all of nature and God will thereby be banished.

It’s touching and simple faith really: a sort of atheism of the gaps in which (we are assured) some Theory of Everything will emerge in which all of reality will be explicable by the laws of nature. And when that happy day arrives, we will then know not only that apples fall because of gravity and not God and light bulbs work because of electricity and not God, but we will also know that love and personhood and choice and human dignity and everything is just a materialist epiphenomenon of time, space, matter and energy with no need for You Know Who. It is just a matter of time till we figure it all out, according to this scenario, and when we do, God will have been totally explained away. St. Thomas summed up that Grand Vision this way:

Objection 2: Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God's existence.

For those who aren’t fluent in Thomist, this objection means “Everything works fine without God, therefore God does not exist”. It’s one of the only two objections (the other one is “Bad stuff happens, so there’s no God”) that Thomas could find in the whole history of human thought that was a reasonable objection to the existence of God. And it is the primary power source for using evolution as a fig leaf for atheist agitprop. Biological change seems to work fine without God, goes the argument, so there’s no God.

The converse of this way of thinking is, “So long as there are natural processes we can’t explain, it is possible to say, ‘then a miracle occurs!’, therefore God exists!” As I tried to point out in the discussion on creation (and, in particular, evolution), virtually the whole argument between atheist materialists and Intelligent Design folk hinges on this notion that Where Understanding of Natural Processes Is, God Cannot Be. So atheist materialists spend their energies showing the natural processes that account for changes in living forms and saying “This seems to work fine without God” and ID guys spend their time saying “Natural processes can’t account for all changes in living forms, therefore God”.

(Though, to be honest, the ID guys tend to be a bit more cagey often and merely say that “there’s Something Else going on here” while avoiding the God Talk...

However, most people know they aren’t saying this…

...and that the bulk of the people who make this argument are, in fact, theists of one stripe or another.  So we all rightly perceive that, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, the suggestion is pretty clearly that You Know Who (no, not Voldemort, weisenheimer) is the subject of discussion here.)

Some readers, both atheist and Christian, seemed to have a notion that I was making some sort of scientific critique of ID. I’m not, for the very good reason that a) I am not a scientist and b) I don’t see how ID is doing any science. Rather, it appears to me to take the science others have done and say, “We can’t explain these results via natural processes, therefore You Know Who or (aka “Something Else”) did it. Others (typically atheist) simply saw the words “intelligent design” in the text of what I wrote, responded Pavlovianly and went off on a tear about how I was trying to justify ID (I suggest remedial reading comprehension for these). Still others managed to focus on the Big Bang as though it somehow “proved” that God is Creator (something St. Thomas would have cautioned against and no Thomist worth his salt would say). Still others invoked a turnip ghost called “pre-Big Bang physics” (which is a bit like invoking Vacuum Based Music) to argue for something or other. Some managed to hear me observe that atheists are intensely moralistic and interpret that as “Atheists are immoral and only Christians are capable of recognizing morality” (these too need remedial reading lessons). Those interested in going over all that again are welcome to read over the contretemps in the comboxes on that series. It was interesting, if not always enlightening and there is grist for many more arguments in those comboxes.

What interests me, however, is that much of the tussle came down to arguments between two forms of Fundamentalism, one Christian and the other atheist—and sometimes the Christian Fundamentalists seemed to have a bigger issue with the Thomist approach than they had with the atheist approach.

That, to me, was the striking thing, because it’s a strange time to be alive when an explanation of St. Thomas’ argument for the existence of God is attacked—by Catholics—as an assault on the Faith. Of which more next time.