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I. Introduction. - II. Deism in history. - III. Deism today. - IV. Deism and Divine Action. - V. Towards a natural theology in scientific context? 


I. Introduction 

The terms "deism" and "neo-deism" are used today mainly in the context of the "faith and science" field, in relation to the idea of a founding ordering Reason. In contemporary times, "deism" is therefore connected with the question about God as it emerges in the scientific-philosophical context. In Paul Davies’s often cited words, “science offers a surer path to God than religion” (Davies, 1983, p. IX). “Nature’s order—Davies writes—is hidden from us, it is written in code. To make progress in science, we need to crack the cosmic code, to dig beneath the raw data and uncover the hidden order. […] What is remarkable is that human beings are actually able to carry out this code-breaking operation, that the human mind has the necessary intellectual equipment for us to ‘unlock the secrets of nature’” (Davies, 1992, p. 48). Such a cosmic code, Davies states in his book The Goldilocks Enigma (cf. Davies, 2008, p. 4), contains the secret rules on which the universe runs. Galileo, Newton, and other early modern scientists considered their investigations as a "religious" research. By revealing the structures woven into natural processes, they thought they could truly glimpse the mind of God. Even though modern scientists do not share this religious motivation, they still admit – Davies points out – that there is an intelligible pattern behind natural processes, because to believe otherwise would undermine the very motivation to do research. Now, what is surprising is that, although there is no logical reason why nature should have a mathematical underlying background and there is no obvious reason why human beings should possibly be able to understand it, science has revealed the existence of this hidden mathematical world. “The universe has engineered not just its own awareness, but also its own comprehension. […] Could it just be a fluke?” (Davies, 2008, p. 5). According to Davies, no scientific explanation of the universe can be considered complete unless it accounts for the appearance of such "intelligent" design. Davies's own position oscillates between an updated form of deism and sympathy for a contemporary version of panentheism. In any case, as in theism, a clear distinction is drawn between God and the world, between the creator and the creature. John Polkinghorne classifies Davies as a prototype of the deistic category in the typology he outlined in his book Science and the Trinity. (cf. Polkinghorne, 2004, p. 14).

This kind of reflection stems from the need to give reasons for the order and intelligibility of physical reality, its rationality and the stability of natural laws. In this way it is possible to develop a "theology of nature" that allows us to look at the existence of God as a help to explain how things have developed in the physical world according to some “intelligence” (cf. Polkinghorne, 1998, p. 13). On this point Polkinghorne is very clear. He proposes to take seriously the idea that it is really the Creator's Mind that underlies the deep order of the universe, because the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics, and the unexpected consonance between the inner reason of our minds and the outer reason of the physical world, can be understood as a consequence of the fact that our mental abilities and the structure of the laws of nature have a common origin in God's rationality. In this way, God would be the cause of the existence of both human nature and the physical world we inhabit. Polkinghorne observes that science is possible precisely because the universe is "created" and we are creatures made in the image of our Creator.

This approach to the intelligibility of the universe is the way a natural theology should be developed today (cf. Polkinghorne, 1998, pp. 121-122). Natural theology (see also God, natural knowledge of in this portal) is the attempt to understand something of God through the exercise of reason and the observation of the world, complementing the approach of "revealed" theology. In this sense, an adequate theology must resort to both sources. If Polkinghorne favours natural theology, it is because he believes that this discipline offers a valid bridge between the activities of science and the teachings of religion, two truth-seeking human research fields that are consonant rather than in mutual conflict. Science and religion, in fact, share humanity's great quest for the understanding of the whole reality. It should be also pointed out that, probably, natural or rational theology finds its proper place only on the philosophical level.

This perspective certainly contrasts with atheism, in particular the atheism implicit in the "ontological naturalism," including those current widespread forms of naturalism that define themselves as "religious" and yet "non-theistic." (cf. Stenmark, 2013; Peters, 2017; Stone, 2008 and 2017; Crosby and Stone, 2018). In the more markedly philosophical field, particularly that of the philosophy of religion, the debate is centered on the contrast between ontological naturalism and theism. The first comes from an absolutization, on the metaphysical level, of the results and methods of science, involving radical forms of atheism, and therefore to be distinguished from methodological naturalism. The second one is developed within a contemporary rebirth of natural theology. I would like to emphasize here a point not sufficiently highlighted in the critical and historical studies about the recent developments of philosophical studies: alongside the establishment of naturalism as a sort of new philosophical "orthodoxy" (cf. Haldane, 1989, p. 306), there is also a surprising renaissance of natural theology, within the field of analytic philosophy of religion, thus reappraising the notion of "philosophical theism." (cf. Micheletti, 2002, pp. 20-22 and 125-162; Micheletti, 2010). Scholars such as Craig and Moreland, although aware that naturalism is the current "prevailing" philosophical orientation, have highlighted that there is today a renewed interest in the traditional topics of natural theology, and also in theistic approaches to those philosophical problems normally addressed within a naturalistic methodology (cf. Craig and Moreland, 2000, Preface; Craig, 2007; Re Manning, 2017). It must be clear, in any case, that the contrast is between theism and ontological naturalism, not between theism and science. The English philosopher Anthony Kenny sharply notes that many atheists prefer to call themselves "naturalists" to avoid entering into a discussion about the kind of God they deny. An important aspect of this discussion concerns the very concept of God. In what sense is god's denial the denial of God, and not of an idol or a finite and contingent entity? To what extent, in any form of atheism, is the contested concept of God a crucial one indeed? (cf. Kenny, 2006, p. 22; Micheletti, 2012, p. 93). Finally, if it is the very intelligibility of the universe that requires an explanation, then it is the very comprehensibility of the world that points to God, and not the gaps in our understanding of reality. In other words, the scientific forms of intelligence do require an explanation. A reflection on God in these terms, McGrath notes, appreciates and encourages scientific research and does not inhibit it. (cf. McGrath and Collicutt McGrath, 2007, p. 31).

The rise of the problem of God within scientific culture and the rebirth of natural theology in the philosophical realm — in particular, with the metaphysical opening towards a necessary foundation of contingent physical reality, against a widespread metaphysical naturalism — are two distinct but related phenomena, whose relationships should be conveniently analyzed. 


II. Deism in history

The first occurrence of the term “deist” seems to be found in Pierre Viret's dedicatory epistle to the Instruction chrétienne (Genève, 1563). The author refers to a group of people who called themselves “deists” in Lyon, to distinguish them from atheists. Those “deists” believed in God as creator, but denied Jesus Christ and his doctrine. They were ironic about religions while adapting themselves by convention or fear to the external forms of the dominant religion. Marin Mersenne offered a confutation of the deists in the Preface to his Quaestiones celeberrimae in Genesim and in the Impieté des deistes, athèes et libertins (Paris, 1624). In the Impieté he analytically confuted an anonymous poem entitled Les Quatrains du déiste, where the deist is opposed to the atheist and especially to the “bigot.” Among the first occurrences of the term, particularly important are those in Blaise Pascal, once in the Provincial Letters, no. 16, and three times in fragment 449 (according to the ordering by Louis Lafuma) of the Pensées. The déisme criticized by Pascal designates a way of knowing and serving God without any mediator, the adoration of a powerful, eternal God, of a complete and totally unfolded rational evidence, a God that has no existential relationship with the human being, according to the Stoic claim of human self-sufficiency. In England, the term appears in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), and in a sermon by Anthony Tuckney, None but Christ (1652), where “deism” denotes a form of religious rationalism and a prominent form of philosophical morality. The first important text having a deistic orientation is considered to be Herbert of Cherbury's De veritate (1624), in which the five fundamental articles of “natural religion” are enunciated. Later, deism became explicit in authors such as Blount, Toland, Collins, Tindal. The titles of their works are illustrative of their radical content: Christianity not Mysterious by John Toland (1696), A Discourse of Freethinking (1713) by Anthony Collins, Christianity as Old as the Creation, or Gospel a Republication of the Religion of Nature (1730) by Matthew Tindal. In his first Boyle-lectures, A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1704), Newton's disciple and friend Samuel Clarke classified four categories of deists, according to the greater or lesser importance given to divine action in the world. Joseph Butler in the Analogy of Religion (1736) highlighted the inconsistencies of deists. Deism, then, found new formulations in France with Diderot’s early work La suffisance de la religion naturelle (written in 1747, published in 1770), Rousseau, and Voltaire, who still has the expression théiste as main entry in his Dictionnaire philosophique. Even in England, the two terms, theism and deism, were not always clearly distinct until around the beginning of the 18th century. ‘Theism’ itself is a term introduced by Ralph Cudworth in The True Intellectual System of the Universe (1678). Interestingly, however, in his preface Cudworth sharply observed that some opponents of atheism have run into the suspicion or accusation of being "mere theists," i.e. supporters of the sufficiency of the natural religion, or "Natural Religionists only," and not determined proponents of the revealed religion (as Cudworth would like). Moreover, Cudworth also criticizes those he calls "mechanical theists" (Cartesians) who, excluding the final causes, end up emptying theism of any meaning, reducing God to an "idle spectator." He does not deny the "mechanical powers," but considers them subordinate to an "intellectual model." The regularity, unity and harmony of the universe can only be explained by affirming its dependency on a perfect Mind or perfect Wisdom (cf. Cudworth, 1678, pp. 672 and 687). In this context, it is interesting to recall the positive attitude towards the Christian faith adopted by the scientists of the Royal Society, and Robert Boyle's original position on Descartes and the problem of final causes. At the dawn of modern science, Robert Boyle strongly advocates the possibility of appealing to final causes, against a line of thought based on Descartes. Boyle speaks of final causes at the level of metaphysical knowledge of nature, i.e. not to explain "any particular phenomenon," but in relation to "the primary and general causes of the world itself," as he states in A Disquisition about the Final Causes of Natural Things (1688). It would also be interesting to recall the famous "Boyle Lectures," established by the scientist’s last will to defend the Christian religion. The first of these Lectures by Richard Bentley – The Folly of Atheism and what is now called Deism (1692) – was specifically addressed against deism. In more general terms, the interest of the English scientific environment towards the claim of an intelligent Creator is part of the thesis, developed by philosophers and historians of science, on the role played by the Christian faith in the birth of modern science (cf. Whitehead, 1925; Foster, 1934-1936; Hooykaas, 1972; Jaki, 1974).

The distinction between theism and deism was then codified by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason. In the “General Scholium” of the Principia, Newton argues that the system of the universe could derive only from the design and dominion of an intelligent, powerful, and supremely perfect Being, the Lord of all things. One can therefore recall Newton's attempts to preserve a significant idea of providence and to assign specific functions to God, as well as the arguments of his disciples, such as George Cheyne and Colin Maclaurin, on religious apologetics. Likely, this version of "scientific theism" is represented by the figure of Cleanthes, criticized by Philo in Hume's Dialogue concerning Natural Religion. However, it is interesting to note, in light of problems discussed even today, that after Newton many authors began to look at the universe as a giant machine operating according to constant physical laws. This approach did not deny that God was the creator of the universe, but many versions of deism denied or underestimated any involvement of God in the functioning of the universe after its creation (cf. Sweetman, 2009, p. 52).


III. Deism today

What do we mean by "deism" today? As already mentioned, in a broad sense, one can positively approach deism as a generic, but significant, type of reference to God. Tanzella-Nitti writes, "Both the deism and the Enlightenment of the past, as well as the neo-deism of the present, become the expression of a 'direct relationship' between reason and religion. What Cherbury, Locke, Toland, Tindal, and later Kant did in their own way, not a few men and women of science also do today. Although often reluctant to embrace a confessional Church with its moral and existential consequences, they are undoubtedly capable of speaking of God and defending His existence as the foundation of the rationality of the world" (Tanzella-Nitti, 2015, p. 179). This broader concept of deism is apparent, for example, in Paul Davies’s The Mind of God, when he says that “there must be a deeper level of explanation” for the being of the universe, and one could call this level “God” (cf. Davies, 1992, p. 16). This is a thesis that manifests a clear inclination to an opening towards a dimension of transcendence, one born in the field of scientific experience, to which corresponds, in the words of Einstein, “the firm belief, which is bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind revealing himself in the world of experience” (cf. Einstein, 1955, p. 131); or Freeman Dyson's conviction that “the architecture of the universe is consistent with the hypothesis that mind plays an essential role in its functioning.” (Dyson, 1979, p. 251). There are meanings of "deism" where the emphasis is rather on the distant and passive character of the divinity, as well as on the problem concerning the possibility or meaning of divine action in the world. An interesting example of the term “deism” used to refer to the contemporary philosophical-theological context is in David Brown's 1985 book, The Divine Trinity, whose first chapter is entitled "Deism v. theism." What is recognized here as the main connotation of the term is the one referring to particular characteristics of the natural world that may have a special "revelatory" significance, even though they are part of the ordinary course of nature, as we know it. In highlighting this aspect, Brown had in mind scholars like Maurice Wiles, author of The Remaking of Christian Doctrine (1974), in which  Brown identified what he called a “redundancy argument," that is, the idea that what is most important in Christianity can be affirmed without needing to resort to the idea of an "interventionist" God. Brown had in mind Braithwaite, Hamilton, van Buren, Altizer, and Cupitt as well, all of them identifying the core of Christianity precisely by emphasizing ethics and moral experience (cf. Brown, 1985, pp. 10,16-17). The expression "new deism" appeared in the title of a book by Richard Sturch, The New Deism. Divine Intervention and the Human Condition (1990). In the context of the current dialogue between faith and science, the term "deism" sometimes takes on a specific connotation, not unrelated to historical deism, in relation to the issue of whether or not God is involved in nature and history. Arthur Peacocke notes that "deism" is generally understood to indicate the belief in the concept of a Supreme Being who, having created the universe, allows it to proceed according to its own laws and powers, embedded in the universe itself (cf. Peacocke, 2013, p. 185). On this basis there are those who have spoken of a "deistic evolutionism" distinct from a "theistic evolutionism": “The obvious solution to this little conundrum is to reduce to zero God’s role in guiding evolution – to assume that God chose to create life entirely via the mechanism of natural selection. Let us call this position deistic evolution to distinguish it from theistic evolution, which involves at least some direct intervention by God. Deistic evolutionists hold that God created the universe and the laws of nature (and perhaps also that he jump-started life), but that once the ball was rolling, he ceased to intervene in the day-to-day running of the world or in the course of natural law… He no longer had any role to play in the universe” (Stewart-Williams, 2010, p. 70). In the definition given by Polkinghorne (who nevertheless criticizes the notion of God as a mere "deistic supporter of the world"), deism is “that theological viewpoint which sees God as the originator of the world who then leaves it to evolve according to its own laws, taking no further interest in it.” (Polkinghorne, 2007, p. 124). Already in Creation and the World of Science, 1979, Peacocke saw the risks of a split in the divine polarity between transcendence and immanence and the need to avoid two extremes: on the one hand, a completely transcendent God (a position which, in his opinion, results in deism, ending up making divine action in the world always appearing as a form of intrusion), on the other hand, a completely immanent God (a position defined as "pantheism”). Philip Clayton believes that deism and pantheism have important similarities and are often "good allies" (cf. Clayton, 1997, p. 118). Given these premises, for scholars such as Peacocke and Clayton, panentheism ends up being an attractive position. The term indicates the idea that the world is in God, even if God does not identify with the world, as occurs in pantheism. This view is often found associated with process theology, whose main exponent, influenced by Whitehead's process philosophy, is Charles Hartshorne. In his work The Palace of Glory, Peacocke speaks of the definitive overcoming of the extrinsic, deistic notion of God's creative actions, referring precisely to the concept of God developed by panentheism (cf. Peacocke, 2005, pp. 13-14). Peacocke excludes that his position can be defined as a sort of "new implicit deism", precisely because his theistic naturalism conceives God as actively and personally creative through the processes of the world (cf. Peacocke, 2004, pp. 88, 97-98). According to Clayton, among the different options, the best one is the one preserving both the eternal nature of God and the temporal process of God's relationships with other beings. This is, for him, the "bipolar theism,” which represents a continuous attraction and is today defended by the process theologians (cf. Clayton, 2004, p. 82). Armin Kreiner considers a form of naturalistic theism entirely possible, even if it runs the risk of becoming a re-edition of deism "in which God does not act in the world"; he observes that the answer to the question of whether a hidden God is an absent God depends on whether we can develop an understanding of God's action in the world in continuity with naturalism. There are approaches that aim to show how God can act in the world without violating the laws of nature. Hence, some authors refer to quantum mechanics and chaos theory; others argue that panentheism offers a solution. In this perspective, process theology, Kreiner writes, plays an important role (cf. Kreiner, 2016, p. 35).

Of course, the need to envisage the simultaneous and correlative transcendence and immanence of God, with regard to creation, is a legitimate requirement, based on the metaphysics of creation. However, it can be doubted that it is guaranteed by the panentheistic option and by process theology. Ian Barbour raises serious objections to what he calls "reformulated deism," according to which God designed the world as a creative process of laws and chaos, a multi-layered process, a position that Barbour attributes to Paul Davies. This position subscribes to the image of a remote and inactive God, extremely distant from the Bible's active God who continues to be intimately involved with the world and human life. On his own, Barbour inclines towards a form of process theology, in which God is the source of order but also the source of novelty, providing the world with new possibilities, keeping alternatives open. (cf. Barbour, 2009, pp. 35-36, 46). Polkinghorne criticized these sophisticated speculations designed to escape the ambiguities of deism. He observed that panentheism is the eschatological destiny of creation, not its current status, and that process theology does not offer an image of God's action strong enough to make God "the foundation of credible hope". (cf. Polkinghorne, 1994, pp. 64-65). Francis S. Collins, another scientist among the protagonists of the faith-science debate, opposes the "Theistic God" to the "Deistic God." The "Theistic God" wants a living relationship with those special creatures called human beings, and has therefore breathed something of Himself into each of us (cf. Collins, 2006). In my opinion, divine transcendence is not guaranteed by process theology as it is in classical theology. In Hartshorne's view above all, the theme of transcendence is not absent; however, according to him, divine transcendence is nothing but the affirmation of God's superiority over all beings, present or possible beings, i.e. God’s insuperability. God is the all-surpassing, self-surpassing being. For Hartshorne, transcendence implies both necessity and contingency, both independence and contingency, each of them in a unique or eminent form. Hartshorne takes this consideration as sufficient to guarantee the asymmetrical idea of God's superiority. However, while the relationship of the creature with God is constitutive of the very existence of the former, the relationship of God to creatures is extrinsic only with respect to the mere existence of God, not to His total actuality, including His contingent qualities. While all creaturely existence, and yet not every existence, is contingent (God's existence is necessary), every actuality, even the Creator's one, is contingent. The philosophical problem is whether one has, on the metaphysical plan, a sufficient explanation of transcendence to account for the way in which the divine being differs, in its own nature, from the created beings. (cf. Hartshorne, 1983, pp. 225-236; Micheletti, 2018, p. 167; Alston, 1989, pp. 132-133). In classical theism, God is ontologically distinct from the world; He does not depend on the world for His existence and actuality. Instead, for panentheism, God ontologically includes the world, and, in some respects, He depends on the world. A strong form of panentheism argues, in fact, that there is a necessary interdependence between God and the world, and God is metaphysically limited by the world (cf. Gregersen, 2004, p. 22). Classical theists and panentheists, in contrast to deists, support the active presence of God in the world, but in radically different ways (cf. Stenmark, 2019, p. 41).


IV. Deism and Divine Action

Interactions between scientists and philosophers are more frequent than one might suppose. One of them concerns the subject of God's action in the world, especially the objections raised against the so-called divine "interventionism" and, therefore, concerning the very concept of miracle. Maurice Wiles develops an objection to the so-called divine "interventionism" in God's Action in the World (1986). The well-known and influential philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga severely criticized the approach some scientists developed within the Divine Action Project (1988-2003), the Conference series jointly organized by the Vatican Observatory and the CTNS in Berkeley, particularly Arthur Peacocke's view. More generally, after noting that deism is strangely back in vogue today, although its defenders do not use the term "deism", the analytical philosopher of religion Stephen T. Davis observes that, despite certain differences, there are striking similarities between 17th and 18th century deists and many recent and contemporary religious thinkers. The latter affirm God but deny His divine intervention in the world; they mostly accept the concept of "revelation," but in the sense that God "reveals Himself" through ordinary historical, cultural, intellectual or scientific processes, denying the possibility of "special divine actions" (cf. Davis, 2006, pp. 44-45,158. Cf. also Russell, Murphy, and Peacocke, 1995; Russell, Murphy, and Stoeger, 2008). Plantinga questions mainly Peacocke's thesis. Peacock argues that the entire cosmic process manifests the intrinsic creativity of the substance of the world without the need for any divine intervention. He states: “The successes of the sciences in unraveling the intricate, and complex, yet rationally beautifully articulated, web of relationships among structures, processes, and entities in the world have made it increasingly problematic to regard God as ‘intervening’ in the world to bring about events that are not in accordance with these divinely created patterns and regularities that the sciences increasingly unravel. [… The] world appears increasingly convincingly as closed to causal interventions from outside of the kind that classical philosophical theism postulated (for example, in the idea of a ‘miracle’ as a breaking of the laws of nature).” (Peacocke, 2009, p. 80; cf. also Peacocke, 2005, pp. 9-10). Plantinga questions whether it makes sense to demand a criterion to judge divine decisions to intervene (God’s options and possibilities are beyond our reach); special divine actions are not incompatible with the regularity and predictability required for free and intelligent human action. Finally, the theological, non-scientific objection that it would be inconsistent for God to act contrary to the regularities in nature He himself established, is groundless. In fact, it is not reasonable to exclude that God has good reasons to act sometimes in contrast with those regularities which make both science and the free, intelligent actions of creatures possible (cf. Plantinga, 2011, pp. 96-108).

Obviously, Plantinga's objection is reasonable, because the Creator, although operating through the laws of nature he created, does not identify immanentistically with the rational project expressed by those laws. Polkinghorne's judgement is more balanced than Peacocke’s. Polkinghorne denies that divine intervention must necessarily be understood as arbitrary, without reason. This does not mean endorsing the "deistic" notion of a self-sufficient universe, left to the unfolding of its inescapable history (cf. Polkinghorne, 1994, p. 150). In contemporary philosophical discussions on miracle, unlike those who insist on its incompatibility with the regularity and predictability that can be found in nature, other authors see the danger, inherent in post-modernism, of “making the laws of nature disappear,” thus making the impossibility of miracle disappear as well (cf. Viano, 2005, p. X). Understandably, in the epistemology of miracle, there is also the opposite concern: that the exclusion of well-established laws, which cannot be denied without subverting the whole structure of science, frustrates the sense of miracle as divine action; and this especially when this action is understood as the occurrence of a non-repeatable counter-example to a law of nature, which does not imply the abrogation of the latter (cf. Smart, 1964; Swinburne, 1970). As a divine sign, properly, the miracle refers back to a transcendent subject, who is the Author of creation himself.

An observation of the Thomist scholar Michael J. Dodds is interesting in this context. Analyzing the theological responses to the causal restrictions of modern science (in particular deism, liberalism, and process theology), Dodds notes that in these approaches God's causality is considered univocal with creatures' causality, and that a different divine causality would constitute, for those approaches, a major interference with nature's operations. As other scholars have noted, at the basis of the problematic aspects attributed to the notion of special divine action, there is the fact that if God were to act in nature, he would have to do so as one efficient cause among many. Dodds observes that, despite the fact that quantum mechanics and chaos theory have overcome the determinism of the Newtonian universe, our ability to speak of God's action in the world will continue to be compromised, as long as we think of causality solely in terms of matter and energy, although we do see, today, attempts to argue, within the same empirical science, for a broader idea of causality, including formal and final causes. The characteristic feature of causality is generally identified in the epistemological category of predictability, rather than the ontological category of dependence. In relation to the contemporary debate on deism, liberalism and interventionism, Dodds (2012) attributes a certain importance to Thomas Aquinas's acknowledgement of the role of secondary causality in governing the universe. The primary cause does not interfere with the secondary causality, but is rather the true source of that.  While acting through secondary causes, God is always the subject of such an action, as He does not act by means of capabilities extraneous to His own nature. However, God can also cause special events independently of secondary causes. The emphasis is here on divine transcendence. When the transcendence of the primary cause is neglected, its influence on secondary causes becomes an enigma or something contradictory. The correct appreciation of God's transcendence makes it possible to grasp divine omnipotent power as the ultimate source of the activity of secondary causes, while at the same time affirming the possibility of God's direct action in the natural world, even independently of secondary causes. Only keeping in mind God's absolute transcendence over all created reality can we appreciate the immediacy of His intimate presence in all things, and thus find the possibility of speaking about how creatures participate in His being, which is at one with His action (cf. Dodds, 2012, pp. 109-112). A similar position is shared by the American cosmologist and theologian William R. Stoeger. He considers Aquinas’ distinction between primary and secondary causality a useful philosophical tool to clarify the nature of divine action and make the explanation of the essential differences between God and His creation less problematic, while accounting for divine immanence and transcendence. This perspective respects the integrity of science and the transcendence of God, whose action is not similar to causality within the world (cf. Stoeger, 2009, pp. 112, 114, 133-134). Tanzella-Nitti (2018) also offers insights on the relationship between God's and created causality, in the light of divine transcendence.


V. Towards a natural theology in scientific context?

Natural or rational theology works on a properly philosophical level of reflection, even if  consonance exists between (a) the themes emerging in the field of scientific rationality that  make significant the talk of God and (b) the philosophical arguments developed in the field of natural theology (cf. for instance, Copan and Moser, 2003). In the Introduction, the following topics have been emphasized: (i) the openness to the dimension of transcendence, to a transcendent foundation of empirical reality, in the realm of scientific rationality, (ii) the need to give reasons for the order and intelligibility of the reality of the physical world and the stability of natural laws, (iii) the extraordinary circumstance of the very comprehensibility of the world. Recent developments in rational theology are significant in this regard. Peacocke, in Paths from Science Towards God (2013), on the one hand argues that linking our understanding of nature to the theological enterprise must be based on the method of "inference to the best explanation" rather than deductive arguments, and on the other hand warns that the kind of exploration suggested should not be confused with that of natural theology. Indeed, the method of "inference towards the best explanation" is adopted by the philosopher Richard Swinburne in his reformulation of the teleological argument; but Swinburne himself emphasizes the difference with scientific arguments. If there is an explanation of the order of the world, this (given the nature of the scientific explanation) cannot be scientific, because, with this type of explanation, particular phenomena are explained as produced by previous phenomena, in accordance with scientific laws, or the operation of scientific laws is explained in terms of more general scientific laws. Therefore, either the order of nature is the point of arrival of every explanation, or we must – in contrast with Hume's objections (which prove not valid) – postulate an agent subject who, by his continuous action, ensures that the bodies have the same general capabilities and tendencies – i.e. an agent subject who ensures the operation of the more general laws. Now, the simplest agent subject that can be postulated is a being endowed with infinite power, knowledge and freedom, that is God. The cosmological argument has been defended also by Swinburne, using the conceptual tools recently developed in inductive logic and confirmation theory (cf. Swinburne, 2004, pp. 74-89, 153-191). However, there are philosophers, such as John Haldane, who believe that it is possible, even in the current philosophical context, to formulate deductive evidence of God’s existence from plausible, if not obvious premises (cf. Haldane, 2000, pp. 465-468). Another significant aspect of recent natural theology is the avoidance, with valid reasons, of the so-called "brute fact defense," the defense of the idea that the universe does not ask for anything which transcends it, because it may be understood as a brute fact – here "brute fact" means a fact for which an explanation is simply not necessary. Craig noted that the premise of what he calls the "Leibnitian" argument – according to which, if the universe has an explanation for its existence, that explanation is God – is antithetical to the typical atheistic position suggested by Hume and Russell that the universe simply exists as a contingent brute fact: since there is no God, the universe exists without explanation. Affirming that if atheism is true then the universe has no explanation for its existence, atheists also affirm the logically equivalent thesis that if the universe has an explanation for its existence then atheism is not true, i.e. God exists. Of course, it is possible for an atheist to reject the "Leibnitian" argument by claiming that the universe has an explanation of its existence and this explanation consists not in an external foundation but in the necessity of its nature, i.e. it remains open to the atheist to reject the premise in question. However, this is an extremely bold proposal, which the atheist is reluctant to accept. We have a strong intuition of the contingency of the universe and generally rely on our modal intuitions. In order to exclude the modal intuition about the contingency of the universe, the non-theist must give reasons, not easy ones, that justify his skepticism, reasons other than his desire to avoid theism. Finally, we have good reasons to think that the universe does not exist for a necessity of its nature. Excluding the "brute fact defense", which rules out any question about the contingency of the world, in analytic philosophy some scholars have reformulated the argument from contingency in two ways. They have either used the principle of sufficient reason (cf. Reichenbach, 1972), or re-proposed, as Craig does, a version of the so-called kalām argument that, from the two premises that a) everything that begins to exist has a cause, and that b) the universe has begun to exist, deduces that c) the universe must have a cause (cf. Craig, 1980; 2003). However, the argument from contingency can also be developed by reformulating Thomas Aquinas' famous arguments in the light of the conceptual tools offered by logic and by analytical metaphysics (cf. Haldane, 2003; Braine, 1988; Miller, 1992). Craig's reformulation is based on the impossibility of an infinite temporal regression - as distinct from the logical one - of essentially ordered efficient causes: an actual infinite is impossible and therefore past time must be considered finite; the universe must have a cause; philosophical analysis reveals that this cause must have at least some of the main theistic attributes (cf. Craig, 1992; 1994, pp. 91-100; 2003). In the context of the so-called "analytical Thomism," the metaphysical argument is particularly relevant, re-proposed in particular by Haldane and Brian Davies as based on the distinction of essence and existence in contingent finite things, which is in turn based on the necessity of an actuality that is self-subsistent, the actuality of something whose existence, in a unique way, belongs to its nature: God, ipsum esse subsistens (cf. Haldane, 2003, pp. 234-235, and 2010, p. 41. Cf. also Whippel, 2000, pp. 48-49, 460-462).

The teleological argument – that intends to prove the divine reality from the cosmos’s order and finality – is the one with respect to which scientific rational culture, in so far as it is induced to question itself about order and finality, seems today (all the more so than in the golden age of deism) to recognize the meaningfulness of the concept of God. It is, on the other hand, the one with respect to which it is perhaps more necessary to point out the distinction between the proper field of scientific research that searches for specific explanations of particular phenomena within the physical universe, and the field of philosophical reflection addressing the ultimate reasons for existing reality. In this argument it is also necessary that the God who appears in the conclusion cannot be traced back to the mere “God of the gaps,” invoked only to fill any temporary gap in the scientific explanation of the world. The considerations developed in the scientific field that are more consonant with the aims of this kind of argument are perhaps those related to the so-called fine-tuning (the consideration that the fundamental regularities or laws of nature and cosmological constants, the gravitational constant, the speed of light, the fundamental properties of elementary particles, etc., are suitable in the smallest detail to allow life, even intelligent life - see also Anthropic principle in this portal). This consonance is expressed with due caution by Freeman Dyson, when he states, as we have seen, that “the architecture of the universe is consistent with the hypothesis that mind plays an essential role in its functioning.” (Dyson, 1979, p. 251). Both the objections raised to the argument and the defenses against these objections imply the reference to philosophical reasons and the need for a shift of the argument from the empirical-scientific to the philosophical level (cf. Tanzella-Nitti, 2005).

The argument develops on the basis of these premises: the existence of the very precise tuning is not highly improbable given theism; the existence of fine-tuning is very unlikely if one accepts the atheistic hypothesis about the universe. The conclusion is that the fine-tuning offers relevant support for theism, and significant reasons for preferring theism to atheism (where "atheism" means not only the denial of theism but also the denial of any kind of intelligence as the foundation of the existence or structure of the universe). Like any other form of teleological argument, this argument, for Collins, must be integrated with other arguments in order to go beyond the simple characterization of God as a designer and arrive at a more complete and adequate form of theism (cf. Collins, 2003).

Collins presented the argument in a broader form, which includes elements beyond fine-tuning (cf. Collins, 2008; 2002; 2009). At least three characteristics of the universe indicate the existence of transcendent intelligence: a) the very precise attunement of the laws, constants, and initial conditions of the universe for an embodied conscious life, such as that of human beings; b) the extraordinary beauty and elegance of the laws and mathematical structure of the universe; c) the intelligibility of the basic structure of nature, and the possibility to discover it. According to Collins, all these characteristics, not to mention the fact that our best theories seem to require that the universe did have a beginning, give the impression that the universe was created by a transcendent intelligence. This impression can take a philosophical inferential form in terms of a cumulative argument in which many factors – such as fine-tuning, beauty, intelligibility, and the possibility of the laws of nature to be discovered – point in the same direction, and seem difficult to explain under any other hypothesis. In particular, all these factors seem inexplicable from the perspective of ontological naturalism. But this way of articulating the argument does not capture its strength, because the existence of a design is suggested not only by the fact that the aforementioned characteristics of the universe are inexplicable by atheism (and its denying a Cause at the foundation of the cosmos), but also because they appear highly improbable or surprising. Collins also provided an elaborate probabilistic version of the fine-tuning argument, and addressed the objections to the argument, which had been formulated according to the hypothesis of many universes, still based on highly speculative models. This way, he showed how and why invoking a multiverse to give the explanation of fine-tuning means only to move the question of design one step back.

Here too, it is important to distinguish between scientific thought and philosophical reflection and to recognize that, if Collins is right, his argument cannot be configured as a scientific proof of the existence of God, because it concludes with an inference that goes beyond the scope of scientific explanation. His persuasiveness is connected with the exercise of philosophical reflection. In a similar context, Haldane stated that the question whether we should, in our reasoning, come to a conclusion favorable to design or chance is not a question that can be resolved by scientific observation alone. This does not mean that scientific data are not relevant and that the question posed by fine-tuning is not intelligible and meaningful. It means, instead, that we need to find more compelling philosophical arguments (cf. Haldane, 2003, p. 112). On the possible relationship between fine-tuning and intelligent design, see Dembski (1998, 2002).

Although there are scholars who still today point, for example, to alleged gaps in the Darwinian explanation, the common and prevailing orientation is to point out that there are certain general facts about the world that suggest order and purpose, and elude Darwinian kinds of explanation, since such facts do not fall within the processes described by Darwin, but are presupposed by them. For example, some philosophers have pointed out that Darwinian-type mechanisms cannot explain the underlying structure of the natural laws beneath the process of evolution. It should be noted that this interest in the regularity of the laws of nature has clear antecedents in the historical versions of the Argument from design (cf. Wynn, 1998).

Swinburne intends to re-propose Thomas Aquinas' fifth way as a probabilistic inductive argument. It seems to be interesting, in this context, to consider also C.F.J. Martin's approach to the fifth Thomistic way. This approach shows the fifth way to be purely philosophical, metaphysical, to refer to the world as a whole and its ultimate meaning in a holistic perspective, and notwithstanding compatible with the analysis of science (cf. Martin, 1997). For Martin, teleological explanations do not exclude explanations in terms of efficient causality, but require them. In fact, the description of the world as a system of efficient causality is necessarily also the description of an ordered world, as a system of final causality. Non-voluntary causality must be described in terms of tendencies, tendencies towards a paradigmatic effect. Swinburne too, after all, supposes that without the identification of very general tendencies it would be meaningless to talk about natural laws, and regularity in the temporal order. If the world as a whole does not make sense, Martin notes, then those things in the world, which seem to have tendency, orientation, or regularity, would be meaningless. Thomas seems to confront us with a choice: either the world requires an explanation in teleological terms, or nothing in the world actually “has any point,” though it may seem to. Martin remarks: "The problem with this choice is that people may very well take the alternative St Thomas rejects [...]. But this is where my stronger claim, that the world as a whole has been seen as a system of final causality, makes it harder to refuse to take St Thomas' preferred alternative: that the world as a whole is something that requires explanation in terms of some point that it has, in terms of being for something. For if my account of science is anything like right, then the whole of science is entirely fallacious if the world is not the sort of thing that has a point." (Martin, 1997, p. 198). The final step, of course, is the one from the unconscious teleology of the world (the tendencies that ensure the regular operation of the laws) to the divine mind, the foundation of order and regularity (cf. Martin, 1997, p. 201). For Charles Taliaferro, this appeal to a comprehensive account of the cosmos, as present in the current versions of the teleological argument, does not seem to be contradicted by the arguments taken from the logic of Darwinian selection (cf. Taliaferro, 1998, p. 365).

In the background of all these considerations – as mentioned above – there is the conflict between theism and ontological naturalism, there are the philosophical reasons against naturalistic reductionism. In this sense, the emergence of the problem of God in the context of scientific culture, and the philosophical re-proposal of natural theology, as it has been developed in contexts not limited by reductive assumptions, converge in the direction of a rational theism, that is, a reasonable theism, open to the characterizations proper to Christian theology.

Documents of the Catholic Church related to the subject: 

Vatican Council I, DH 3003 and 3028; John Paul II, General Audience, Divine Providence continues to care for Creation, 7.5.1986


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