"Sing, O Goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought
countless ills upon the Achaeans." In these opening lines of the Iliad,
Homer invokes the Muse. For Homer the act of creating poetry is a divine
gift, one that derives from an otherworldly source and is not ultimately
reducible to this world. This conception of human creativity as a divine gift
pervaded the ancient world, and was also evident among the Hebrews. In
Exodus, for instance, we read that God filled the two artisans Bezaleel and
Aholiab with wisdom so that they might complete the work of the tabernacle.
The idea that creative activity is a divine gift has largely been lost these
days. To ask a cognitive scientist, for instance, what made Mozart a creative
genius is unlikely to issue in an appeal to God. If the cognitive scientist
embraces neuropsychology, he may suggest that Mozart was blessed with a
particularly fortunate collocation of neurons. If he prefers an information
processing model of mentality, he may attribute Mozart's genius to some
particularly effective computational modules. If he is taken with Skinner's
behaviorism, he may attribute Mozart's genius to some particularly effective
reinforcement schedules (perhaps imposed early in his life by his father
Leopold). And no doubt, in all of these explanations the cognitive scientist
will invoke Mozart's natural genetic endowment. In place of a divine
afflatus, the modern cognitive scientist explains human creativity purely in
terms of natural processes.
Who's right, the ancients or the moderns? My own view is that the ancients
got it right. An act of creation is always a divine gift and cannot be
reduced to purely naturalistic categories. To be sure, creative activity
often involves the transformation of natural objects, like the transformation
of a slab of marble into Michelangelo's David. But even when confined to
natural objects, creative activity is never naturalistic without remainder.
The divine is always present at some level and indispensable.
Invoking the divine to explain an act of creation is, of course, wholly
unacceptable to the ruling intellectual elite. Naturalism, the view that
nature is the ultimate reality, has become the default position for all
serious inquiry among our intellectual elite. From Biblical studies to law to
education to science to the arts, inquiry is allowed to proceed only under
the supposition that nature is the ultimate reality. Naturalism denies any
divine element to the creative act. By contrast, the Christian tradition
plainly asserts that God is the ultimate reality and that nature itself is a
divine creative act. Within Christian theism, God is primary and fundamental
whereas nature is secondary and derivative. Naturalism, by contrast, asserts
that nature is primary and fundamental.
Theism and naturalism provide radically different perspectives on the act of
creation. Within theism any act of creation is also a divine act. Within
naturalism any act of creation emerges from a purely natural substrate--the
very minds that create are, within naturalism, the result of a long evolutionary
process that itself was not created. The aim of this talk, then, is to
present a general account of creation that is faithful to the Christian
tradition, that resolutely rejects naturalism, and that engages contemporary
developments in science and philosophy.
The Challenge of Naturalism
Why should anyone want to understand the act of creation naturalistically?
Naturalism, after all, offers fewer resources than theism. Naturalism simply
gives you nature. Theism gives you not only nature, but also God and anything
outside of nature that God might have created. The ontology of theism is far
richer than that of naturalism. Why, then, settle for less?
Naturalists do not see themselves as settling for less. Instead, they regard
theism as saddled with a lot of extraneous entities that serve no useful
function. The regulative principle of naturalism is Occam's razor. Occam's
razor is a principle of parsimony that requires eliminating entities that
perform no useful function. Using Occam's razor, naturalists attempt to slice
away the superstitions of the past-and for naturalists the worst superstition
of all is God. People used to invoke God to explain all sorts of things for
which we now have perfectly good naturalistic explanations. Accordingly, God is
a superstition that needs to be excised from our understanding of the world.
The naturalists' dream is to invent a theory of everything that entirely
eliminates the need for God (Stephen Hawking is a case in point).
Since naturalists are committed to eliminating God from every domain of
inquiry, let us consider how successfully they have eliminated God from the
act of creation. Even leaving aside the creation of the world and focusing
solely on human acts of creation, do we find that naturalistic categories
have fully explained human creativity? Occam's razor is all fine and well for
removing stubble, but while we're at it let's make sure we don't lop off a
nose or ear. With respect to human creativity, let's make sure that in
eliminating God the naturalist isn't giving us a lobotomized account of human
creativity. Einstein once remarked that everything should be made as simple
as possible but not simpler. In eliminating God from the act of creation, the
naturalist needs to make sure that nothing of fundamental importance has been
lost. Not only has the naturalist failed to provide this assurance, but there
is good reason to think that any account of the creative act that omits God
is necessarily incomplete and defective.
What does naturalism have to say about human acts of creation? For the moment
let's bracket the question of creativity and consider simply what it is for a
human being to act. Humans are intelligent agents that act with intentions to
accomplish certain ends. Although some acts by humans are creative, others
are not. Georgia O'Keefe painting an iris is a creative act. Georgia O'Keefe
flipping on a light switch is an act but not a creative act. For the moment,
therefore, let us focus simply on human agency, leaving aside human creative
How, then, does naturalism make sense of human agency? Although the
naturalistic literature that attempts to account for human agency is vast,
the naturalist's options are in fact quite limited. The naturalist's world is
not a mind-first world. Intelligent agency is therefore in no sense prior to
or independent of nature. Intelligent agency is neither sui generis nor
basic. Intelligent agency is a derivative mode of causation that depends on
underlying naturalistic--and therefore unintelligent--causes. Humans agency
in particular supervenes on underlying natural processes, which in turn
usually are identified with brain function.
It is important to distinguish the naturalist's understanding of causation
from the theist's. Within theism God is the ultimate reality. Consequently,
whenever God acts, there can be nothing outside of God that compels God's
action. God is not a billiard ball that must move when another billiard ball
strikes it. God's actions are free, and though he responds to his creation,
he does not do so out of necessity. Within theism, therefore, divine action
is not reducible to some more basic mode of causation. Indeed, within theism
divine action is the most basic mode of causation since any other mode of
causation involves creatures which themselves were created in a divine act.
Now consider naturalism. Within naturalism nature is the ultimate reality.
Consequently, whenever something happens in nature, there can be nothing
outside of nature that shares responsibility for what happened. Thus, when an
event happens in nature, it is either because some other event in nature was
responsible for it or because it simply happened, apart from any other
determining event. Events therefore happen either because they were caused by
other events or because they happened spontaneously. The first of these is
usually called "necessity," the second "chance." For the
naturalist chance and necessity are the fundamental modes of causation.
Together they constitute what are called "natural causes." Naturalism,
therefore, seeks to account for intelligent agency in terms of natural
How well have natural causes been able to account for intelligent agency?
Cognitive scientists have achieved nothing like a full reduction. The French
Enlightenment thinker Pierre Cabanis once remarked: "Les nerfs-voilā
tout l'homme" (the nerves--that's all there is to man). A full reduction
of intelligent agency to natural causes would give a complete account of
human behavior, intention, and emotion in terms of neural processes. Nothing
like this has been achieved. No doubt, neural processes are correlated with
behavior, intention, and emotion. Anger presumably is correlated with certain
localized brain excitations. But localized brain excitations hardly explain
anger any better than do overt behaviors associated with anger--like shouting
Because cognitive scientists have yet to effect a full reduction of
intelligent agency to natural causes, they speak of intelligent agency as
supervening on natural causes. Supervenience is a hierarchical relationship
between higher order processes (in this case intelligent agency) and lower
order processes (in this case natural causes). What supervenience says is
that the relationship between the higher and lower order processes is a
one-way street, with the lower determining the higher. To say, for instance,
that intelligent agency supervenes on neurophysiology is to say that once all
the facts about neurophysiology are in place, all the facts about intelligent
agency are determined as well. Supervenience makes no pretense at reductive
analysis. It simply asserts that the lower level determines the higher
level--how it does it, we don't know.
Supervenience is therefore an insulating strategy, designed to protect a naturalistic
account of intelligent agency until a full reductive explanation is found.
Supervenience, though not providing a reduction, tells us that in principle a
reduction exists. Given that nothing like a full reductive explanation of
intelligent agency is at hand, why should we think that such a reduction is
even possible? To be sure, if we knew that naturalism were correct, then
supervenience would follow. But naturalism itself is at issue.
Neuroscience, for instance, is nowhere near achieving its ambitions, and that
despite its strident rhetoric. Hardcore neuroscientists, for instance, refer
disparagingly to the ordinary psychology of beliefs, desires, and emotions as
"folk psychology." The implication is that just as "folk
medicine" had to give way to "real medicine," so "folk
psychology" will have to give way to a revamped psychology that is
grounded in neuroscience. In place of talking cures that address our beliefs,
desires, and emotions, tomorrow's healers of the soul will manipulate brains
states directly and ignore such outdated categories as beliefs, desires, and
At least so the story goes. Actual neuroscience research has yet to keep pace
with its vaulting ambition. That should hardly surprise us. The
neurophysiology of our brains is incredibly plastic and has proven
notoriously difficult to correlate with intentional states. For instance,
Louis Pasteur, despite suffering a cerebral accident, continued to enjoy a
flourishing scientific career. When his brain was examined after he died, it
was discovered that half the brain had completely atrophied. How does one
explain a flourishing intellectual life despite a severely damaged brain if
mind and brain coincide?
Or consider a still more striking example. The December 12th, 1980 issue of Science
contained an article by Roger Lewin titled "Is Your Brain Really
Necessary?" In the article, Lewin reported a case study by John Lorber,
a British neurologist and professor at Sheffield University. I quote from the
"There's a young student at this university," says Lorber,
"who has an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honors degree in
mathematics, and is socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually
no brain." [Lewin continues:] The student's physician at the university
noticed that the youth had a slightly larger than normal head, and so
referred him to Lorber, simply out of interest. "When we did a brain
scan on him," Lorber recalls, "we saw that instead of the normal
4.5-centimeter thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the
cortical surface, there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a
millimeter or so. His cranium is filled mainly with cerebrospinal
Against such anomalies, Cabanis's dictum, "the nerves--that's all there
is to man," hardly inspires confidence. Yet as Thomas Kuhn has taught
us, a science that is progressing fast and furiously is not about to be
derailed by a few anomalies. Neuroscience is a case in point. For all the
obstacles it faces in trying to reduce intelligent agency to natural causes,
neuroscience persists in the Promethean determination to show that mind does
ultimately reduce to neurophysiology. Absent a prior commitment to
naturalism, this determination will seem misguided. On the other hand, given
a prior commitment to naturalism, this determination is readily
Understandable yes, obligatory no. Most cognitive scientists do not rest
their hopes with neuroscience. Yes, if naturalism is correct, then a
reduction of intelligent agency to neurophysiology is in principle possible.
The sheer difficulty of even attempting this reduction, both experimental and
theoretical, however, leaves many cognitive scientists looking for a more
manageable field to invest their energies. As it turns out, the field of choice
is computer science, and especially its subdiscipline of artificial
intelligence (abbreviated AI). Unlike brains, computers are neat and precise.
Also, unlike brains, computers and their programs can be copied and
mass-produced. Inasmuch as science thrives on replicability and control,
computer science offers tremendous practical advantages over neurological
Whereas the goal of neuroscience is to reduce intelligent agency to
neurophysiology, the goal of artificial intelligence is to reduce intelligent
agency to computer algorithms. Since computers operate deterministically,
reducing intelligent agency to computer algorithms would indeed constitute a
naturalistic reduction of intelligent agency. Should artificial intelligence
succeed in reducing intelligent agency to computation, cognitive scientists
would still have the task of showing in what sense brain function is
computational (alternatively, Marvin Minsky's dictum "the mind is a
computer made of meat" would still need to be verified). Even so, the
reduction of intelligent agency to computation would go a long way toward
establishing a purely naturalistic basis for human cognition.
An obvious question now arises: Can computation explain intelligent agency?
First off, let's be clear that no actual computer system has come anywhere
near to simulating the full range of capacities we associate with human
intelligent agency. Yes, computers can do certain narrowly circumscribed
tasks exceedingly well (like play chess). But require a computer to make a
decision based on incomplete information and calling for common sense, and
the computer will be lost. Perhaps the toughest problem facing artificial
intelligence researchers is what's called the frame problem. The frame
problem is getting a computer to find the appropriate frame of reference for
solving a problem.
Consider, for instance, the following story: A man enters a bar. The
bartender asks, "What can I do for you?" The man responds,
"I'd like a glass of water." The bartender pulls out a gun and
shouts, "Get out of here!" The man says "thank you" and
leaves. End of story. What is the appropriate frame of reference? No, this
isn't a story by Franz Kafka. The key item of information needed to make
sense of this story is this: The man has the hiccups. By going to the bar to
get a drink of water, the man hoped to cure his hiccups. The bartender,
however, decided on a more radical cure. By terrifying the man with a gun,
the bartender cured the man's hiccups immediately. Cured of his hiccups, the
man was grateful and left. Humans are able to understand the appropriate
frame of reference for such stories immediately. Computers, on the other
hand, haven't a clue.
Ah, but just wait. Give an army of clever programmers enough time, funding,
and computational power, and just see if they don't solve the frame problem.
Naturalists are forever issuing such promissory notes, claiming that a
conclusive confirmation of naturalism is right around the corner--just give
our scientists a bit more time and money. John Polkinghorne refers to this
practice as "promissory materialism."
Confronted with such promises, what's a theist to do? To refuse such
promissory notes provokes the charge of obscurantism, but to accept them
means suspending one's theism. It is possible to reject promissory
materialism without meriting the charge of obscurantism. The point to realize
is that a promissory note need only be taken seriously if there is good
reason to think that it can be paid. The artificial intelligence community
has thus far offered no compelling reason for thinking that it will ever
solve the frame problem. Indeed, computers that employ common sense to
determine appropriate frames of reference continue utterly to elude computer
Given the practical difficulties of producing a computer that faithfully
models human cognition, the hardcore artificial intelligence advocate can
change tactics and argue on theoretical grounds that humans are simply
disguised computers. The argument runs something like this. Human beings are
finite. Both the space of possible human behaviors and the space of possible
sensory inputs are finite. For instance, there are only so many
distinguishable word combinations that we can utter and only so many
distinguishable sound combinations that can strike our eardrums. When
represented mathematically, the total number of human lives that can be
distinguished empirically is finite. Now it is an immediate consequence of
recursion theory (the mathematical theory that undergirds computer science) that
any operations and relations on finite sets are computable. It follows that
human beings can be represented computationally. Humans are therefore
functionally equivalent to computers. QED.
This argument can be nuanced. For instance, we can introduce a randomizing
element into our computations to represent quantum indeterminacy. What's
important here, however, is the gist of the argument. The argument asks us to
grant that humans are essentially finite. Once that assumption is granted,
recursion theory tells us that everything a finite being does is computable.
We may never actually be able to build the machines that render us
computable. But in principle we could given enough memory and fast enough
It's at this point that opponents of computational reductionism usually
invoke Gödel's incompleteness theorem. Gödel's theorem is said to refute
computational reductionism by showing that humans can do things that
computers cannot--namely, produce a Gödel sentence. John Lucas made such an
argument in the early 1960s, and his argument continues to be modified and
revived. Now it is perfectly true that humans can produce Gödel sentences for
computational systems external to themselves. But computers can as well be
programmed to compute Gödel sentences for computational systems external to
themselves. This point is seldom appreciated, but becomes evident from
recursion-theoretic proofs of Gödel's theorem (see, for example, Klaus
The problem, then, is not to find Gödel sentences for computational systems
external to oneself. The problem is for an agent to examine oneself as a
computational system and therewith produce one's own Gödel sentence. If human
beings are non-computational, then there won't be any Gödel sentence to be
found. If, on the other hand, human beings are computational, then, by
Gödel's theorem, we won't be able to find our own Gödel sentences. And
indeed, we haven't. Our inability to translate neurophysiology into
computation guarantees that we can't even begin computing our Gödel sentences
if indeed we are computational systems. Yes, for a computational system laid
out before us we can determine its Gödel sentence. Nevertheless, we don't
have sufficient access to ourselves to lay ourselves out before ourselves and
thereby determine our Gödel sentences. It follows that neither Gödel's
theorem nor our ability to prove Gödel's theorem shows that humans can do
things that computers cannot.
Accordingly, Gödel's theorem fails to refute the argument for computational
reductionism based on human finiteness. To recap that argument, humans are
finite because the totality of their possible behavioral outputs and possible
sensory inputs is finite. Moreover, all operations and relations on finite
sets are by recursion theory computable. Hence, humans are computational
systems. This is the argument. What are we to make of it? Despite the failure
of Gödel's theorem to block its conclusion, is there a flaw in the argument?
Yes there is. The flaw consists in identifying human beings with their
behavioral outputs and sensory inputs. Alternatively, the flaw consists in
reducing our humanity to what can be observed and measured. We are more than
what can be observed and measured. Once, however, we limit ourselves to what
can be observed and measured, we are necessarily in the realm of the finite
and therefore computable. We can only make so many observations. We can only
take so many measurements. Moreover, our measurements never admit infinite
gradations (indeed, there's always some magnitude below which quantities
become empirically indistinguishable). Our empirical selves are therefore
essentially finite. It follows that unless our actual selves transcend our
empirical selves, our actual selves will be finite as well--and therefore
Roger Penrose understands this problem. In The Emperor's New Mind and in his
more recent Shadows of the Mind, he invokes quantum theory to underwrite a
non-computational view of brain and mind. Penrose's strategy is the same that
we saw for Gödel's theorem: Find something humans can do that computers
can't. There are plenty of mathematical functions that are non-computable.
Penrose therefore appeals to quantum processes in the brain whose
mathematical characterization employs non-computable functions.
Does quantum theory offer a way out of computational reductionism? I would
say no. Non-computable functions are an abstraction. To be non-computable,
functions have to operate on infinite sets. The problem, however, is that we
have no observational experience of infinite sets or of the non-computable
functions defined on them. Yes, the mathematics of quantum theory employs
non-computable functions. But when we start plugging in concrete numbers and
doing calculations, we are back to finite sets and computable functions.
Granted, we may find it convenient to employ non-computable functions in
characterizing some phenomenon. But when we need to say something definite
about the phenomenon, we must supply concrete numbers, and suddenly we are
back in the realm of the computable. Non-computability exists solely as a
mathematical abstraction--a useful abstraction, but an abstraction
nonetheless. Precisely because our behavioral outputs and sensory inputs are
finite, there is no way to test non-computability against experience. All
scientific data are finite, and any mathematical operations we perform on
that data are computable. Non-computable functions are therefore always
dispensable, however elegant they may appear mathematically.
There is, however, still a deeper problem with Penrose's program to eliminate
computational reductionism. Suppose we could be convinced that there are
processes in the brain that are non-computational. For Penrose they are
quantum processes, but whatever form they take, as long as they are natural
processes, we are still dealing with a naturalistic reduction of mind.
Computational reductionism is but one type of naturalistic
reductionism--certainly the most extreme, but by no means the only one.
Penrose's program offers to replace computational processes with quantum
processes. Quantum processes, however, are as fully naturalistic as
computational processes. In offering to account for mind in terms of quantum
theory, Penrose is therefore still wedded to a naturalistic reduction of mind
and intelligent agency.
It's time to ask the obvious question: Why should anyone want to make this
reduction? Certainly, if we have a prior commitment to naturalism, we will
want to make it. But apart from that commitment, why attempt it? As we've
seen, neurophysiology hasn't a clue about how to reduce intelligent agency to
natural causes (hence its continued retreat to concepts like supervenience,
emergence, and hierarchy--concepts which merely cloak ignorance). We've also
seen that no actual computational systems show any sign of reducing
intelligent agency to computation. The argument that we are computational
systems because the totality of our possible behavioral outputs and possible
sensory inputs is finite holds only if we presuppose that we are nothing more
than the sum of those behavioral outputs and sensory inputs. So too,
Penrose's argument that we are naturalistic systems because some
well-established naturalistic theory (in this case quantum theory)
characterizes our neurophysiology holds only if the theory does indeed
accurately characterize our neurophysiology (itself a dubious claim given the
frequency with which scientific theories are overturned) and so long as we
presuppose that we are nothing more than a system characterized by some
Bottom line: The naturalistic reduction of intelligent agency is not the
conclusion of an empirically-based evidential argument, but merely a
straightforward consequence of presupposing naturalism in the first place.
Indeed, the empirical evidence for a naturalistic reduction of intelligent
agency is wholly lacking. For instance, nowhere does Penrose write down the
Schroedinger equation for someone's brain, and then show how actual brain
states agree with brain states predicted by the Schroedinger equation.
Physicists have a hard enough time writing down the Schroedinger equation for
systems of a few interacting particles. Imagine the difficulty of writing
down the Schroedinger equation for the multi-billion neurons that constitute
each of our brains. It ain't going to happen. Indeed, the only thing these
naturalistic reductions of intelligent agency have until recently had in
their favor is Occam's razor. And even this naturalistic mainstay is proving
small comfort. Indeed, recent developments in the theory of intelligent
design are showing that intelligent agency cannot be reduced to natural
causes. Let us now turn to these developments.
The Resurgence of Design
In arguing against computational reductionism, both John Lucas and Roger
Penrose attempted to find something humans can do that computers cannot. For
Lucas, it was to construct a Gödel sentence. For Penrose, it was finding in
neurophysiology a non-computational quantum process. Neither of these
refutations succeed against computational reductionism, much less against a
general naturalistic reduction of intelligent agency. Nevertheless, the
strategy underlying these attempted refutations is sound, namely, to find
something intelligent agents can do that natural causes cannot. We don't have
to look far. All of us attribute things to intelligent agents that we
wouldn't dream of attributing to natural causes. For instance, natural causes
can throw scrabble pieces on a board, but cannot arrange the pieces into meaningful
sentences. To obtain a meaningful arrangement requires an intelligent agent.
This intuition, that natural causes are too stupid to do the things that
intelligent agents are capable of, has underlain the design arguments of past
centuries. Throughout the centuries theologians have argued that nature
exhibits features which nature itself cannot explain, but which instead
require an intelligence that transcends nature. From Church fathers like
Minucius Felix and Basil the Great (third and fourth centuries) to medieval
scholastics like Moses Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas (twelfth and thirteenth
centuries) to reformed thinkers like Thomas Reid and Charles Hodge
(eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), we find theologians making design
arguments, arguing from the data of nature to an intelligence operating over
and above nature.
Design arguments are old hat. Indeed, design arguments continue to be a
staple of philosophy and religion courses. The most famous of the design
arguments is William Paley's watchmaker argument. According to Paley, if we
find a watch in a field, the watch's adaptation of means to ends (that is,
the adaptation of its parts to telling time) ensures that it is the product
of an intelligence, and not simply the output of undirected natural
processes. So too, the marvelous adaptations of means to ends in organisms,
whether at the level of whole organisms, or at the level of various
subsystems (Paley focused especially on the mammalian eye), ensure that
organisms are the product of an intelligence.
Though intuitively appealing, Paley's argument had until recently fallen into
disuse. This is now changing. In the last five years design has witnessed an
explosive resurgence. Scientists are beginning to realize that design can be
rigorously formulated as a scientific theory. What has kept design outside
the scientific mainstream these last hundred and forty years is the absence
of a precise criterion for distinguishing intelligent agency from natural
causes. For design to be scientifically tenable, scientists have to be sure
they can reliably determine whether something is designed. Johannes Kepler,
for instance, thought the craters on the moon were intelligently designed by
moon dwellers. We now know that the craters were formed naturally. It's this
fear of falsely attributing something to design only to have it overturned
later that has prevented design from entering science proper. With a precise
criterion for discriminating intelligently from unintelligently caused
objects, scientists are now able to avoid Kepler's mistake.
Before examining this criterion, I want to offer a brief clarification about
the word "design." I'm using "design" in three distinct
senses. First, I use it to denote the scientific theory that distinguishes
intelligent agency from natural causes, a theory that increasingly is being
referred to as "design theory" or "intelligent design
theory" (IDT). Second, I use "design" to denote what it is
about intelligently produced objects that enables us to tell that they are
intelligently produced and not simply the result of natural causes. When
intelligent agents act, they leave behind a characteristic trademark or
signature. The scholastics used to refer to the "vestiges of
creation." The Latin vestigium means footprint. It was thought that God,
though not physically present, left his footprints throughout creation. Hugh
Ross has referred to the "fingerprint of God." It is
"design" in this sense--as a trademark, signature, vestige, or
fingerprint--that our criterion for discriminating intelligently from
unintelligently caused objects is meant to identify. Lastly, I use
"design" to denote intelligent agency itself. Thus, to say that
something is designed is to say that an intelligent agent caused it.
Let us now turn to my advertised criterion for discriminating intelligently
from unintelligently caused objects. Although a detailed treatment of this
criterion is technical and appears in my book The Design Inference, the basic
idea is straightforward and easily illustrated. Consider how the radio
astronomers in the movie Contact detected an extra-terrestrial intelligence.
This movie, which came out last summer and was based on a novel by Carl
Sagan, was an enjoyable piece of propaganda for the SETI research
program--the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. To make the movie
interesting, the SETI researchers had to find an extra-terrestrial
intelligence (the actual SETI program has yet to be so fortunate).
How, then, did the SETI researchers in Contact find an extra-terrestrial
intelligence? To increase their chances of finding an extra-terrestrial
intelligence, SETI researchers have to monitor millions of radio signals from
outer space. Many natural objects in space produce radio waves. Looking for
signs of design among all these naturally produced radio signals is like
looking for a needle in a haystack. To sift through the haystack, SETI
researchers run the signals they monitor through computers programmed with
pattern-matchers. So long as a signal doesn't match one of the pre-set
patterns, it will pass through the pattern-matching sieve. If, on the other
hand, it does match one of those patterns, then, depending on the pattern
matched, the SETI researchers may have cause for celebration.
The SETI researchers in Contact did find a signal worthy of celebration,
namely the sequence of prime numbers from 2 to 101, represented as a series
of beats and pauses (2 = beat-beat-pause; 3 = beat-beat-beat-pause; 5 =
beat-beat-beat-beat-beat-pause; etc.). The SETI researchers in Contact took
this signal as decisive confirmation of an extra-terrestrial intelligence.
What is it about this signal that warrants us inferring design? Whenever we
infer design, we must establish two things--complexity and specification.
Complexity ensures that the object in question is not so simple that it can
readily be explained by natural causes. Specification ensures that this
object exhibits the type of pattern that is the signature of intelligence.
To see why complexity is crucial for inferring design, consider what would
have happened if the SETI researchers had simply witnessed a single prime
number--say the number 2 represented by two beats followed by a pause. It is
a sure bet that no SETI researcher, if confronted with this three-bit
sequence (beat-beat-pause), is going to contact the science editor at the New
York Times, hold a press conference, and announce that an extra-terrestrial
intelligence has been discovered. No headline is going to read, "Aliens
Master the Prime Number Two!"
The problem is that two beats followed by a pause is too short a sequence
(that is, has too little complexity) to establish that an extra-terrestrial
intelligence with knowledge of prime numbers produced it. A randomly beating
radio source might by chance just happen to output the sequence
beat-beat-pause. The sequence of 1126 beats and pauses required to represent
the prime numbers from 2 to 101, however, is a different story. Here the
sequence is sufficiently long (that is, has enough complexity) to confirm
that an extra-terrestrial intelligence could have produced it.
Even so, complexity by itself isn't enough to eliminate natural causes and
detect design. If I flip a coin 1000 times, I'll participate in a highly
complex (or what amounts to the same thing, highly improbable) event. Indeed,
the sequence I end up flipping will be one of 10300 possible sequences. This
sequence, however, won't trigger a design inference. Though complex, it won't
exhibit a pattern characteristic of intelligence. In contrast, consider the sequence
of prime numbers from 2 to 101. Not only is this sequence complex, but it
also constitutes a pattern characteristic of intelligence. The SETI
researcher who in the movie Contact first noticed the sequence of prime
numbers put it this way: "This isn't noise, this has structure."
What makes a pattern characteristic of intelligence and therefore suitable
for detecting design? The basic intuition distinguishing patterns that
alternately succeed or fail to detect design is easily motivated. Consider
the case of an archer. Suppose an archer stands fifty meters from a large
wall with bow and arrow in hand. The wall, let's say, is sufficiently large
that the archer cannot help but hit it. Now suppose each time the archer
shoots an arrow at the wall, the archer paints a target around the arrow so
that the arrow sits squarely in the bull's-eye. What can be concluded from
this scenario? Absolutely nothing about the archer's ability as an archer.
Yes, a pattern is being matched; but it is a pattern fixed only after the
arrow has been shot. The pattern is thus purely ad hoc.
But suppose instead the archer paints a fixed target on the wall and then
shoots at it. Suppose the archer shoots a hundred arrows, and each time hits
a perfect bull's-eye. What can be concluded from this second scenario?
Confronted with this second scenario we are obligated to infer that here is a
world-class archer, one whose shots cannot legitimately be referred to luck,
but rather must be referred to the archer's skill and mastery. Skill and
mastery are of course instances of design.
The type of pattern where the archer fixes a target first and then shoots at
it is common to statistics, where it is known as setting a rejection region
prior to an experiment. In statistics, if the outcome of an experiment falls
within a rejection region, the chance hypothesis supposedly responsible for
the outcome is rejected. Now a little reflection makes clear that a pattern
need not be given prior to an event to eliminate chance and implicate design.
Consider, for instance, a cryptographic text that encodes a message.
Initially it looks like a random sequence of letters. Initially we lack any
pattern for rejecting natural causes and inferring design. But as soon as
someone gives us the cryptographic key for deciphering the text, we see the
hidden message. The cryptographic key provides the pattern we need for
detecting design. Moreover, unlike the patterns of statistics, it is given
after the fact.
Patterns therefore divide into two types, those that in the presence of
complexity warrant a design inference and those that despite the presence of
complexity do not warrant a design inference. The first type of pattern I
call a specification, the second a fabrication. Specifications are the non-ad
hoc patterns that can legitimately be used to eliminate natural causes and
detect design. In contrast, fabrications are the ad hoc patterns that cannot
legitimately be used to detect design. The distinction between specifications
and fabrications can be made with full statistical rigor.
Complexity and specification together yield a criterion for detecting design.
I call it the complexity-specification criterion. According to this
criterion, we reliably detect design in something whenever it is both complex
and specified. To see why the complexity-specification criterion is exactly
the right instrument for detecting design, we need to understand what it is
about intelligent agents that makes them detectable in the first place. The
principal characteristic of intelligent agency is choice. Whenever an
intelligent agent acts, it chooses from a range of competing possibilities.
This is true not just of humans, but of animals as well as of
extra-terrestrial intelligences. A rat navigating a maze must choose whether
to go right or left at various points in the maze. When SETI researchers
attempt to discover intelligence in the extra-terrestrial radio transmissions
they are monitoring, they assume an extra-terrestrial intelligence could have
chosen any number of possible radio transmissions, and then attempt to match
the transmissions they observe with certain patterns as opposed to others.
Whenever a human being utters meaningful speech, a choice is made from a
range of possible sound-combinations that might have been uttered.
Intelligent agency always entails discrimination, choosing certain things,
ruling out others.
Given this characterization of intelligent agency, the crucial question is
how to recognize it. Intelligent agents act by making a choice. How then do
we recognize that an intelligent agent has made a choice? A bottle of ink
spills accidentally onto a sheet of paper; someone takes a fountain pen and
writes a message on a sheet of paper. In both instances ink is applied to
paper. In both instances one among an almost infinite set of possibilities is
realized. In both instances a contingency is actualized and others are ruled
out. Yet in one instance we ascribe agency, in the other chance.
What is the relevant difference? Not only do we need to observe that a contingency
was actualized, but we ourselves need also to be able to specify that
contingency. The contingency must conform to an independently given pattern,
and we must be able independently to formulate that pattern. A random ink
blot is unspecifiable; a message written with ink on paper is specifiable.
Ludwig Wittgenstein in Culture and Value made essentially the same point:
"We tend to take the speech of a Chinese for inarticulate gurgling.
Someone who understands Chinese will recognize language in what he hears.
Similarly I often cannot discern the humanity in man."
In hearing a Chinese utterance, someone who understands Chinese not only
recognizes that one from a range of all possible utterances was actualized,
but is also able to specify the utterance as coherent Chinese speech.
Contrast this with someone who does not understand Chinese. In hearing a
Chinese utterance, someone who does not understand Chinese also recognizes
that one from a range of possible utterances was actualized, but this time, because
lacking the ability to understand Chinese, is unable to specify the utterance
as coherent speech.
To someone who does not understand Chinese, the utterance will appear
gibberish. Gibberish--the utterance of nonsense syllables uninterpretable
within any natural language--always actualizes one utterance from the range
of possible utterances. Nevertheless, gibberish, by corresponding to nothing
we can understand in any language, also cannot be specified. As a result,
gibberish is never taken for intelligent communication, but always for what
Wittgenstein calls "inarticulate gurgling."
This actualizing of one among several competing possibilities, ruling out the
rest, and specifying the one that was actualized encapsulates how we
recognize intelligent agency, or equivalently, how we detect design.
Experimental psychologists who study animal learning and behavior have known
this all along. To learn a task an animal must acquire the ability to
actualize behaviors suitable for the task as well as the ability to rule out
behaviors unsuitable for the task. Moreover, for a psychologist to recognize
that an animal has learned a task, it is necessary not only to observe the
animal making the appropriate discrimination, but also to specify this
Thus to recognize whether a rat has successfully learned how to traverse a
maze, a psychologist must first specify which sequence of right and left
turns conducts the rat out of the maze. No doubt, a rat randomly wandering a
maze also discriminates a sequence of right and left turns. But by randomly
wandering the maze, the rat gives no indication that it can discriminate the
appropriate sequence of right and left turns for exiting the maze.
Consequently, the psychologist studying the rat will have no reason to think
the rat has learned how to traverse the maze.
Only if the rat executes the sequence of right and left turns specified by
the psychologist will the psychologist recognize that the rat has learned how
to traverse the maze. Now it is precisely the learned behaviors we regard as
intelligent in animals. Hence it is no surprise that the same scheme for
recognizing animal learning recurs for recognizing intelligent agency
generally, to wit: actualizing one among several competing possibilities,
ruling out the others, and specifying the one chosen.
Note that complexity is implicit here as well. To see this, consider again a
rat traversing a maze, but now take a very simple maze in which two right
turns conduct the rat out of the maze. How will a psychologist studying the
rat determine whether it has learned to exit the maze. Just putting the rat
in the maze will not be enough. Because the maze is so simple, the rat could
by chance just happen to take two right turns, and thereby exit the maze. The
psychologist will therefore be uncertain whether the rat actually learned to
exit this maze, or whether the rat just got lucky.
But contrast this now with a complicated maze in which a rat must take just
the right sequence of left and right turns to exit the maze. Suppose the rat
must take one hundred appropriate right and left turns, and that any mistake
will prevent the rat from exiting the maze. A psychologist who sees the rat
take no erroneous turns and in short order exit the maze will be convinced
that the rat has indeed learned how to exit the maze, and that this was not
This general scheme for recognizing intelligent agency is but a thinly
disguised form of the complexity-specification criterion. In general, to
recognize intelligent agency we must observe a choice among competing
possibilities, note which possibilities were not chosen, and then be able to
specify the possibility that was chosen. What's more, the competing
possibilities that were ruled out must be live possibilities, and sufficiently
numerous so that specifying the possibility that was chosen cannot be
attributed to chance. In terms of complexity, this is just another way of
saying that the range of possibilities is complex.
All the elements in this general scheme for recognizing intelligent agency
(that is, choosing, ruling out, and specifying) find their counterpart in the
complexity-specification criterion. It follows that this criterion formalizes
what we have been doing right along when we recognize intelligent agency. The
complexity-specification criterion pinpoints what we need to be looking for
when we detect design.
The implications of the complexity-specification criterion are profound, not
just for science, but also for philosophy and theology. The power of this criterion
resides in its generality. It would be one thing if the criterion only
detected human agency. But as we've seen, it detects animal and
extra-terrestrial agency as well. Nor is it limited to intelligent agents
that belong to the physical world. The fine-tuning of the universe, about
which cosmologists make such a to-do, is both complex and specified and
readily yields design. So too, Michael Behe's irreducibly complex biochemical
systems readily yield design. The complexity-specification criterion demonstrates
that design pervades cosmology and biology. Moreover, it is a transcendent
design, not reducible to the physical world. Indeed, no intelligent agent who
is strictly physical could have presided over the origin of the universe or
the origin of life.
Unlike design arguments of the past, the claim that transcendent design
pervades the universe is no longer a strictly philosophical or theological
claim. It is also a fully scientific claim. There exists a reliable criterion
for detecting design--the complexity-specification criterion. This criterion
detects design strictly from observational features of the world. Moreover,
it belongs to probability and complexity theory, not to metaphysics and
theology. And although it cannot achieve logical demonstration, it is capable
of achieving statistical justification so compelling as to demand assent.
When applied to the fine-tuning of the universe and the complex,
information-rich structures of biology, it demonstrates a design external to
the universe. In other words, the complexity-specification criterion
demonstrates transcendent design.
This is not an argument from ignorance. Just as physicists reject perpetual
motion machines because of what they know about the inherent constraints on
energy and matter, so too design theorists reject any naturalistic reduction
of specified complexity because of what they know about the inherent
constraints on natural causes. Natural causes are too stupid to keep pace
with intelligent causes. We've suspected this all along. Intelligent design
theory provides a rigorous scientific demonstration of this longstanding
intuition. Let me stress, the complexity-specification criterion is not a
principle that comes to us demanding our unexamined acceptance--it is not an
article of faith. Rather, it is the outcome of a careful and sustained
argument about the precise interrelationships between necessity, chance, and
design (for the details, please refer to my monograph The Design Inference).
Demonstrating transcendent design in the universe is a scientific inference,
not a philosophical speculation. Once we understand the role of the
complexity-specification criterion in warranting this inference, several
things follow immediately: (1) Intelligent agency is logically prior to natural
causation and cannot be reduced to it. (2) Intelligent agency is fully
capable of making itself known against the backdrop of natural causes. (3)
Any science that systematically ignores design is incomplete and defective.
(4) Methodological naturalism, the view that science must confine itself
solely to natural causes, far from assisting scientific inquiry actually
stifles it. (5) The scientific picture of the world championed since the
Enlightenment is not just wrong but massively wrong. Indeed, entire fields of
inquiry, especially in the human sciences, will need to be rethought from the
ground up in terms of intelligent design.
The Creation of the World
I want now to take stock and consider where we are in our study of the act of
creation. In the phrase "act of creation," so far I have focused
principally on the first part of that phrase--the "act" part, or
what I've also been calling "intelligent agency." I have devoted
much of my talk till now to contrasting intelligent agency with natural causes.
In particular, I have argued that no empirical evidence supports the
reduction of intelligent agency to natural causes. I have also argued that no
good philosophical arguments support that reduction. Indeed, those arguments
that do are circular, presupposing the very naturalism they are supposed to
underwrite. My strongest argument against the sufficiency of natural causes
to account for intelligent agency, however, comes from the
complexity-specification criterion. This empirically-based criterion reliably
discriminates intelligent agency from natural causes. Moreover, when applied
to cosmology and biology, it demonstrates not only the incompleteness of
natural causes, but also the presence of transcendent design.
Now, within Christian theology there is one and only one way to make sense of
transcendent design, and that is as a divine act of creation. I want
therefore next to focus on divine creation, and specifically on the creation
of the world. My aim is to use divine creation as a lens for understanding
intelligent agency generally. God's act of creating the world is the
prototype for all intelligent agency (creative or not). Indeed, all
intelligent agency takes its cue from the creation of the world. How so?
God's act of creating the world makes possible all of God's subsequent
interactions with the world, as well as all subsequent actions by creatures
within the world. God's act of creating the world is thus the prime instance
of intelligent agency.
Let us therefore turn to the creation of the world as treated in Scripture.
The first thing that strikes us is the mode of creation. God speaks and
things happen. There is something singularly appropriate about this mode of
creation. Any act of creation is the concretization of an intention by an intelligent
agent. Now in our experience, the concretization of an intention can occur in
any number of ways. Sculptors concretize their intentions by chipping away at
stone; musicians by writing notes on lined sheets of paper; engineers by
drawing up blueprints; etc. But in the final analysis, all concretizations of
intentions can be subsumed under language. For instance, a precise enough set
of instructions in a natural language will tell the sculptor how to form the
statue, the musician how to record the notes, and the engineer how to draw up
the blueprints. In this way language becomes the universal medium for
In treating language as the universal medium for concretizing intentions, we
must be careful not to construe language in a narrowly linguistic sense (for
example, as symbol strings manipulated by rules of grammar). The language
that proceeds from God's mouth in the act of creation is not some linguistic
convention. Rather, as John's Gospel informs us, it is the divine Logos, the
Word that in Christ was made flesh, and through whom all things were created.
This divine Logos subsists in himself and is under no compulsion to create.
For the divine Logos to be active in creation, God must speak the divine
Logos. This act of speaking always imposes a self-limitation on the divine
Logos. There is a clear analogy here with human language. Just as every
English utterance rules out those statements in the English language that
were not uttered, so every divine spoken word rules out those possibilities
in the divine Logos that were not spoken. Moreover, just as no human speaker
of English ever exhausts the English language, so God in creating through the
divine spoken word never exhausts the divine Logos.
Because the divine spoken word always imposes a self-limitation on the divine
Logos, the two notions need to be distinguished. We therefore distinguish
Logos with a capital "L" (that is, the divine Logos) from logos
with a small "l" (that is, the divine spoken word). Lacking a
capitalization convention, the Greek New Testament employs logos in both
senses. Thus in John's Gospel we read that "the Logos was made flesh and
dwelt among us." Here the reference is to the divine Logos who
incarnated himself in Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand, in the First
Epistle of Peter we read that we are born again "by the logos of
God." Here the reference is to the divine spoken word that calls to
salvation God's elect.
Because God is the God of truth, the divine spoken word always reflects the
divine Logos. At the same time, because the divine spoken word always
constitutes a self-limitation, it can never comprehend the divine Logos.
Furthermore, because creation is a divine spoken word, it follows that
creation can never comprehend the divine Logos either. This is why
idolatry-worshipping the creation rather than the Creator-is so completely
backwards, for it assigns ultimate value to something that is inherently
incapable of achieving ultimate value. Creation, especially a fallen
creation, can at best reflect God's glory. Idolatry, on the other hand,
contends that creation fully comprehends God's glory. Idolatry turns the
creation into the ultimate reality. We've seen this before. It's called
naturalism. No doubt, contemporary scientific naturalism is a lot more
sophisticated than pagan fertility cults, but the difference is superficial.
Naturalism is idolatry by another name.
We need at all costs to resist naturalistic construals of logos (whether
logos with a capital "L" or a small "l"). Because naturalism
has become so embedded in our thinking, we tend to think of words and
language as purely contextual, local, and historically contingent. On the
assumption of naturalism, humans are the product of a blind evolutionary
process that initially was devoid not only of humans but also of any living
thing whatsoever. It follows that human language must derive from an
evolutionary process that initially was devoid of language. Within
naturalism, just as life emerges from non-life, so language emerges from the
absence of language.
Now it's certainly true that human languages are changing, living
entities--one has only to compare the King James version of the Bible with
more recent translations into English to see how much our language has
changed in the last 400 years. Words change their meanings over time. Grammar
changes over time. Even logic and rhetoric change over time. What's more,
human language is conventional. What a word means depends on convention and
can be changed by convention. For instance, there is nothing intrinsic to the
word "automobile" demanding that it denote a car. If we go with its
Latin etymology, we might just as well have applied "automobile" to
human beings, who are after all "self-propelling." There is nothing
sacred about the linguistic form that a word assumes. For instance,
"gift" in English means a present, in German it means poison, and
in French it means nothing at all. And of course, words only make sense
within the context of broader units of discourse like whole narratives.
For Christian theism, however, language is never purely conventional. To be
sure, the assignment of meaning to a linguistic entity is conventional.
Meaning itself, however, transcends convention. As soon as we stipulate our
language conventions, words assume meanings and are no longer free to mean
anything an interpreter chooses. The deconstructionist claim that "texts
are indeterminable and inevitably yield multiple, irreducibly diverse
interpretations" and that "there can be no criteria for preferring one
reading to another" is therefore false. This is not to preclude that
texts can operate at multiple levels of meaning and interpretation. It is,
however, to say that texts are anchored to their meaning and not free to
float about indiscriminately.
Deconstruction's error traces directly to naturalism. Within naturalism,
there is no transcendent realm of meaning to which our linguistic entities
are capable of attaching. As a result, there is nothing to keep our
linguistic usage in check save pragmatic considerations, which are always
contextual, local, and historically contingent. The watchword for pragmatism
is expedience, not truth. Once expedience dictates meaning, linguistic
entities are capable of meaning anything. Not all naturalists are happy with this
conclusion. Philosophers like John Searle and D. M. Armstrong try
simultaneously to maintain an objective realm of meaning and a commitment to
naturalism. They want desperately to find something more than pragmatic
considerations to keep our linguistic usage in check. Insofar as they pull it
off, however, they are tacitly appealing to a transcendent realm of meaning
(take, for instance, Armstrong's appeal to universals). As Alvin Plantinga
has convincingly argued, objective truth and meaning have no legitimate place
within a pure naturalism. Deconstruction, for all its faults, has this in its
favor: it is consistent in its application of naturalism to the study of
By contrast, logos resists all naturalistic reductions. This becomes evident
as soon as we understand what logos meant to the ancient Greeks. For the
Greeks logos was never simply a linguistic entity. Today when we think
"word," we often think a string of symbols written on a sheet of
paper. This is not what the Greeks meant by logos. Logos was a far richer
concept for the Greeks. Consider the following meanings of logos from Liddell
and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon:
the word by which the inward thought is expressed (speech)
the inward thought or reason itself (reason)
reflection, deliberation (choice)
calculation, reckoning (mathematics)
account, consideration, regard (inquiry, -ology)
relation, proportion, analogy (harmony, balance)
a reasonable ground, a condition (evidence, truth)
Logos is therefore an exceedingly rich notion encompassing the entire life of
The etymology of logos is revealing. Logos derives from the root l-e-g. This
root appears in the Greek verb lego, which in the New Testament typically
means "to speak." Yet the primitive meaning of lego is to lay; from
thence it came to mean to pick up and gather; then to select and put
together; and hence to select and put together words, and therefore to speak.
As Marvin Vincent remarks in his New Testament word studies: "logos is a
collecting or collection both of things in the mind, and of words by which
they are expressed. It therefore signifies both the outward form by which the
inward thought is expressed, and the inward thought itself, the Latin oratio
and ratio: compare the Italian ragionare, 'to think' and 'to speak'."
The root l-e-g has several variants. We've already seen it as l-o-g in logos.
But it also occurs as l-e-c in intellect and l-i-g in intelligent. This
should give us pause. The word intelligent actually comes from the Latin rather
than from the Greek. It derives from two Latin words, the preposition inter,
meaning between, and the Latin (not Greek) verb lego, meaning to choose or
select. The Latin lego stayed closer to its Indo-European root meaning than
its Greek cognate, which came to refer explicitly to speech. According to its
etymology, intelligence therefore consists in choosing between.
We've seen this connection between intelligence and choice before, namely, in
the complexity-specification criterion. Specified complexity is precisely how
we recognize that an intelligent agent has made a choice. It follows that the
etymology of the word intelligent parallels the formal analysis of
intelligent agency inherent in the complexity-specification criterion. The
appropriateness of the phrase intelligent design now becomes apparent as
well. Intelligent design is a scientific research program that seeks to
understand intelligent agency by investigating specified complexity. But
specified complexity is the characteristic trademark of choice. It follows
that intelligent design is a thoroughly apt phrase, signifying that design is
inferred precisely because an intelligent agent has done what only an
intelligent agent can do, namely, make a choice.
If intelligent design is a thoroughly apt phrase, the same cannot be said for
the phrase natural selection. The second word in this phrase, selection, is
of course a synonym for choice. Indeed, the l-e-c in selection is a variant
of the l-e-g that in the Latin lego means to choose or select, and that also
appears as l-i-g in intelligence. Natural selection is therefore an oxymoron.
It attributes the power to choose, which properly belongs only to intelligent
agents, to natural causes, which inherently lack the power to choose. Richard
Dawkins's concept of the blind watchmaker follows the same pattern, negating
with blind what is affirmed in watchmaker. That's why Dawkins opens his book
The Blind Watchmaker with the statement: "Biology is the study of
complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a
purpose." Natural selection and blind watchmakers don't yield actual
design, but only the appearance of design.
Having considered the role of logos in creating the world, I want next to
consider its role in rendering the world intelligible. To say that God
through the divine Logos acts as an intelligent agent to create the world is
only half the story. Yes, there is a deep and fundamental connection between
God as divine Logos and God as intelligent agent-indeed, the very words logos
and intelligence derive from the same Indo-European root. The world, however,
is more than simply the product of an intelligent agent. In addition, the
world is intelligible.
We see this in the very first entity that God creates--light. With the
creation of light, the world becomes a place that is conceptualizable, and to
which values can properly be assigned. To be sure, as God increasingly orders
the world through the process of creation, the number of things that can be
conceptualized increases, and the values assigned to things become refined.
But even with light for now the only created entity, it is possible to
conceptualize light, distinguish it from darkness, and assign a positive
value to light, calling it good. The world is thus not merely a place where
God's intentions are fulfilled, but also a place where God's intentions are
intelligible. Moreover, that intelligibility is as much moral and aesthetic
as it is scientific.
God, in speaking the divine Logos, not only creates the world but also
renders it intelligible. This view of creation has far reaching consequences.
For instance, the fact--value distinction dissolves opposite God's act of
creation--indeed, what is and what ought to be unite in God's original
intention at creation. Consider too Einstein's celebrated dictum about the
comprehensibility of the world. Einstein claimed: "The most
incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible."
This statement, so widely regarded as a profound insight, is actually a sad commentary
on naturalism. Within naturalism the intelligibility of the world must always
remain a mystery. Within theism, on the other hand, anything other than an
intelligible world would constitute a mystery.
God speaks the divine Logos to create the world, and thereby renders the
world intelligible. This fact is absolutely crucial to how we understand
human language, and especially human language about God. Human language is a
divine gift for helping us to understand the world, and by understanding the
world to understand God himself. This is not to say that we ever comprehend
God, as in achieving fixed, final, and exhaustive knowledge of God. But human
language does enable us to express accurate claims about God and the world.
It is vitally important for the Christian to understand this point. Human
language is not an evolutionary refinement of grunts and stammers formerly
uttered by some putative apelike ancestors. We are creatures made in the
divine image. Human language is therefore a divine gift that mirrors the
Consider what this conception of language does to the charge that biblical
language is hopelessly anthropomorphic. We continue to have conferences in
the United States with titles like "Reimagining God." The idea
behind such titles is that all our references to God are human constructions
and can be changed as human needs require new constructions. Certain feminist
theologians, for instance, object to referring to God as father. God as
father, we are told, is an outdated patriarchal way of depicting God that,
given contemporary concerns, needs to be changed. "Father," we are
told is a metaphor co-opted from human experience and pressed into
theological service. No. No. No. This view of theological language is hopeless
and destroys the Christian faith.
The concept father is not an anthropomorphism, nor is referring to God as
father metaphorical. All instances of fatherhood reflect the fatherhood of
God. It's not that we are taking human fatherhood and idealizing it into a
divine father image ā la Ludwig Feuerbach or Sigmund Freud. Father is not an
anthropomorphism at all. It's not that we are committing an anthropomorphism
by referring to God as father. Rather, we are committing a
"theomorphism" by referring to human beings as fathers. We are
never using the word "father" as accurately as when we attribute it
to God. As soon as we apply "father" to human beings, our language
becomes analogical and derivative.
We see this readily in Scripture. Jesus enjoins us to call no one father
except God. Certainly Jesus is not telling us never to refer to any human
being as "father." All of us have human fathers, and they deserve
that designation. Indeed, the Fifth Commandment tells us explicitly to honor
our human fathers. But human fathers reflect a more profound reality, namely,
the fatherhood of God. Or consider how Jesus responds to a rich, young ruler
who addresses him as "good master." Jesus shoots back, "Why do
you call me good? There is no one good except God." Goodness properly
applies to God. It's not an anthropomorphism to call God good. The goodness
we attribute to God is not an idealized human goodness. God defines goodness.
When we speak of human goodness, it is only as subordinate to the divine
This view, that human language is a divine gift for understanding the world
and therewith God, is powerfully liberating. No longer do we live in a
Platonic world of shadows from which we must escape if we are to perceive the
divine light. No longer do we live in a Kantian world of phenomena that bars
access to noumena. No longer do we live in a naturalistic world devoid of
transcendence. Rather, the world and everything in it becomes a sacrament,
radiating God's glory. Moreover, our language is capable of celebrating that
glory by speaking truly about what God has wrought in creation.
The view that creation proceeds through a divine spoken word has profound
implications not just for the study of human language, but also for the study
of human knowledge, or what philosophers call epistemology. For naturalism,
epistemology's primary problem is unraveling Einstein's dictum: "The
most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is
comprehensible." How is it that we can have any knowledge at all? Within
naturalism there is no solution to this riddle. Theism, on the other hand,
faces an entirely different problematic. For theism the problem is not how we
can have knowledge, but why our knowledge is so prone to error and
distortion. The Judeo-Christian tradition attributes the problem of error to
the fall. At the heart of the fall is alienation. Beings are no longer
properly in communion with other beings. We lie to ourselves. We lie to
others. And others lie to us. Appearance and reality are out of sync. The
problem of epistemology within the Judeo-Christian tradition isn't to
establish that we have knowledge, but instead to root out the distortions
that try to overthrow our knowledge.
On the view that creation proceeds through a divine spoken word, not only
does naturalistic epistemology have to go by the board, but so does
naturalistic ontology. Ontology asks what are the fundamental constituents of
reality. According to naturalism (and I'm thinking here specifically of the
scientific naturalism that currently dominates Western thought), the world is
fundamentally an interacting system of mindless entities (be they particles,
strings, fields, or whatever). Mind therefore becomes an emergent property of
suitably arranged mindless entities. Naturalistic ontology is all backwards. If
creation and everything in it proceeds through a divine spoken word, then the
entities that are created don't suddenly fall silent at the moment of
creation. Rather they continue to speak.
I look at a blade of grass and it speaks to me. In the light of the sun, it
tells me that it is green. If I touch it, it tells me that it has a certain
texture. It communicates something else to a chinch bug intent on devouring
it. It communicates something else still to a particle physicist intent on
reducing it to its particulate constituents. Which is not to say that the
blade of grass does not communicate things about the particles that
constitute it. But the blade of grass is more than any arrangement of
particles and is capable of communicating more than is inherent in any such
arrangement. Indeed, its reality derives not from its particulate
constituents, but from its capacity to communicate with other entities in
creation and ultimately with God himself.
The problem of being now receives a straightforward solution: To be is to be
in communion, first with God and then with the rest of creation. It follows
that the fundamental science, indeed the science that needs to ground all
other sciences, is communication theory, and not, as is widely supposed an
atomistic, reductionist, and mechanistic science of particles or other
mindless entities, which then need to be built up to ever greater orders of
complexity by equally mindless principles of association, known typically as
natural laws. Communication theory's object of study is not particles, but
the information that passes between entities. Information in turn is just
another name for logos. This is an information-rich universe. The problem
with mechanistic science is that it has no resources for recognizing and understanding
information. Communication theory is only now coming into its own. A crucial
development along the way has been the complexity-specification criterion.
Indeed, specified complexity is precisely what's needed to recognize
Information--the information that God speaks to create the world, the
information that continually proceeds from God in sustaining the world and
acting in it, and the information that passes between God's creatures--this
is the bridge that connects transcendence and immanence. All of this
information is mediated through the divine Logos, who is before all things
and by whom all things consist (Colossians 1:17). The crucial breakthrough of
the intelligent design movement has been to show that this great theological
truth--that God acts in the world by dispersing information--also has
scientific content. All information, whether divinely inputted or transmitted
between creatures, is in principle capable of being detected via the
complexity-specification criterion. Examples abound:
The fine-tuning of the universe and irreducibly complex biochemical systems
are instances of specified complexity, and signal information inputted into
the universe by God at its creation.
Predictive prophecies in Scripture are instances of specified complexity, and
signal information inputted by God as part of his sovereign activity within
Language communication between humans is an instance of specified complexity,
and signals information transmitted from one human to another.
The positivist science of this and the last century was incapable of coming
to terms with information. The science of the new millennium will not be able
to avoid it. Indeed, we already live in an information age.
Creativity, Divine and Human
In closing this talk, I want to ask an obvious question: Why create? Why does
God create? Why do we create? Although creation is always an intelligent act,
it is much more than an intelligent act. The impulse behind creation is
always to offer oneself as a gift. Creation is a gift. What's more, it is a
gift of the most important thing we possess--ourselves. Indeed, creation is
the means by which a creator--divine, human, or otherwise--gives oneself in
self-revelation. Creation is not the neurotic, forced self-revelation offered
on the psychoanalyst's couch. Nor is it the facile self-revelation of idle
chatter. It is the self-revelation of labor and sacrifice. Creation always
incurs a cost. Creation invests the creator's life in the thing created. When
God creates humans, he breathes into them the breath of life--God's own life.
At the end of the six days of creation God is tired--he has to rest. Creation
is exhausting work. It is drawing oneself out of oneself and then imprinting
oneself on the other.
Consider, for instance, the painter Vincent van Gogh. You can read all the
biographies you want about him, but through it all van Gogh will still not
have revealed himself to you. For van Gogh to reveal himself to you, you need
to look at his paintings. As the Greek Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras
writes: "We know the person of van Gogh, what is unique, distinct and
unrepeatable in his existence, only when we see his paintings. There we meet
a reason (logos) which is his only and we separate him from every other
painter. When we have seen enough pictures by van Gogh and then encounter one
more, then we say right away: This is van Gogh. We distinguish immediately
the otherness of his personal reason, the uniqueness of his creative
The difference between the arts and the sciences now becomes clear. When I
see a painting by van Gogh, I know immediately that it is his. But when I
come across a mathematical theorem or scientific insight, I cannot decide who
was responsible for it unless I am told. The world is God's creation, and
scientists in understanding the world are simply retracing God's thoughts.
Scientists are not creators but discoverers. True, they may formulate
concepts that assist them in describing the world. But even such concepts do
not bear the clear imprint of their formulators. Concepts like energy,
inertia, and entropy give no clue about who formulated them. Hermann Weyl and
John von Neumann were both equally qualified to formulate quantum mechanics
in terms of Hilbert spaces. That von Neumann, and not Weyl, made the
formulation is now an accident of history. There's nothing in the formulation
that explicitly identifies von Neumann. Contrast this with a painting by van
Gogh. It cannot be confused with a Monet.
The impulse to create and thereby give oneself in self-revelation need not be
grand, but can be quite humble. A homemaker arranging a floral decoration
engages in a creative act. The important thing about the act of creation is
that it reveal the creator. The act of creation always bears the signature of
the creator. It is a sad legacy of modern technology, and especially the
production line, that most of the objects we buy no longer reveal their
maker. Mass production is inimical to true creation. Yes, the objects we buy
carry brand names, but in fact they are largely anonymous. We can tell very
little about their maker. Compare this with God's creation of the world. Not
one tree is identical with another. Not one face matches another. Indeed, a
single hair on your head is unique--there was never one exactly like it, nor
will there ever be another to match it.
The creation of the world by God is the most magnificent of all acts of
creation. It, along with humanity's redemption through Jesus Christ, are the
two key instances of God's self-revelation. The revelation of God in creation
is typically called general revelation whereas the revelation of God in
redemption is typically called special revelation. Consequently, theologians
sometimes speak of two books, the Book of Nature, which is God's
self-revelation in creation, and the Book of Scripture, which is God's
self-revelation in redemption. If you want to know who God is, you need to
know God through both creation and redemption. According to Scripture, the
angels praise God chiefly for two things: God's creation of the world and
God's redemption of the world through Jesus Christ. Let us follow the angels'