Fire in the Light of Faith: A Response to Dr. Vincent Torley

March 5, AD 2016 8 Comments

Vincent Torley, a philosopher who writes for the intelligent design community at Uncommon Descent, responded to my essay titled, Does Science Prove God Exists? His response, Feet to the Fire: A response to Dr. Stacy Trasancos, addresses a number of different points—particularly the “science in the light of faith” perspective—so I will be as brief as I can and elaborate later.

Intelligent Design is Circular Reasoning

I said intelligent design (ID) theory is circular reasoning. Torley said I am misinformed.

Here is what I mean.

1) ID theorists define ID.
2) ID theorists decide what fits the definition of ID.
3) ID theorists conclude the existence of an ID’er because #1.

He gives a definition. “ID may be considered to consist only of the minimal assertion that it is possible to infer from empirical evidence that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent agent.” In other words, the conclusion depends on the premise. What if someone told you that you are smart because you fit her definition of smart? This form of reasoning can be useful. Educators define success on exams and conclude that students have learned the material if they pass the exam, which highlights the theological problem with intelligent design theory. Who are we to give God a test of intelligence?

He gave a second definition. “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” It sounds like they are saying: “Hey God, nice job on certain things, like DNA and bacteria! Those rocks and mud piles? What happened there?”

Like I said, intelligent design is an all-or-none proposition. Either we believe God created everything and holds everything in existence before we even think about science, or we take a lesser view and posit some science-dependent god.

On Science Falsifying God

Torley disagrees with my statement about using a single scientific conclusion as evidence or proof of God. “She is mistaken,” he says, “when she pooh-poohs the notion that ‘some scientific conclusions are compatible with the idea that God exists and others are not.’” He continues, “This, I have to say, is nonsense. Suppose that science were to establish that determinism is true. If that were the case, then there can be no freedom and hence no moral agency.”

But hang on. Science cannot establish that determinism is true. Determinism is the philosophical doctrine that human action is not free but determined by external forces acting upon the will. (OED) Science—physics, chemistry, and biology—cannot establish the truth of any philosophical doctrine. You do not need to fear scientific conclusions that reach outside the limits of science. You simply need to spot those Pinocchios and dismiss (pooh-pooh, if you prefer) them as the deceptions that they are.

That is why we need to be clear about the difference between inductive and deductive proofs, the point of my original post. At most, science can provide evidence to support a philosophical claim inductively. Science could provide evidence that is consistent with the claim that determinism is true, such as Newtonian physics does with its calculations of objects in motion, but science can never go beyond its own evidence to deductively prove a philosophical absolute.

If you invoke science to (inductively) prove God exists, then in my opinion you have no ground to complain if someone else invokes science to (inductively) prove God does not exist. Both of you play the same game. I freely admit that grappling with research in laboratories has left me sensitive to the incompleteness and limits of science, but I share this opinion with other scientists who are people of faith. There is something humbling about designing, conducting, and analyzing experiments that makes us reserved about making too much of tentative conclusions.

At any rate, to repeat: science cannot establish the truth of a philosophical doctrine, not a theistic one and not an atheistic one, because science is limited to the analysis of matter and energy. I say thee, keep it there.

If we claim, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth” because we are people of faith, then 1) we appreciate science as the study of God’s handiwork, and 2) we are free to navigate science, rejecting bad conclusions and accepting good ones (a skill that must be learned), as we see where scientific discovery leads. Even better, 3) we help lead where science goes because our faith illuminates the dialogue.

Atheists Won’t View Science in the Light of Faith

Torley disagrees with my suggestion that we view “science in the light of faith” because a “hard-nosed atheist” will not be convinced of that view. His solution is: “If I were trying to convince an atheist of the existence of a Creator, I would point to something far more convincing, like the ATP synthase enzyme … Any unbiased viewer can see at once that ATP synthase is the product of design.”

Okay, but enzymes are systems of elements. Any unbiased viewer can also see that the periodic table, which orders the elements by the number of protons and arrangement of electrons, reveals the existence of a Creator who orders things by measure, number, and weight. An atheist will not necessarily be convinced by what convinces us. The “science in the light of faith” view is obviously not for atheists. It is a view for the faithful so they can learn to see science clearly for what it is and what it is not, because only then can a person engage in the faith and science discussion confidently.

Look at it like this: when Christians sit down to eat a meal, we say a prayer of thanks to God for the gift. Atheists do no such thing. What is the correct response? Should the faithful stop praying because the atheist will not pray? Or should the faithful keep praying, keep eating, and keep hoping the atheist will wonder why we are grateful for even the little things? We no more need to set aside our faith when we learn about (or conduct) science than when we dine (or cook). Food, after all, is made of matter and energy, and meals are prepared by practicing the skills of physics and chemistry. (It is worth mentioning that for all the design we put into preparing a meal, we all know that we use ingredients that we do not ourselves create out of nothing.)

The Pope Said Science Proves the Existence of God

Torley offers the statement of Pope Pius XII in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on November 22, 1951, titled “The Proofs For The Existence Of God In The Light Of Modern Natural Science” to show that a pope said science provides evidence for the Creator. That story can teach us much about the faith and science dialogue.

It is true; two decades after Fr. Georges Lemaître proposed (what would later be called) the Big Bang theory, and as support for it grew, Pope Pius XII went so far as to make a logical inference his 1951 address that science had become a witness to that “primordial Fiat Lux, uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies.”

The pope went so far as to say that the Big Bang theory was scientific evidence for God. “Hence, creation took place in time. Therefore, there is a Creator. Therefore, God exists! Although it is neither explicit nor complete, this is the reply we were awaiting from science, and which the present human generation is awaiting from it.”

The pope was clear, however, in the section immediate following the “Fiat Lux” statement that science only provides, as I originally explained, inductive evidence for creation in time, that science awaits further research, and that absolute proof of creation in time is outside the limits of science. (Emphasis is mine.)

45. It is quite true that the facts established up to the present time are not an absolute proof of creation in time, as are the proofs drawn from metaphysics and Revelation in what concerns simple creation or those founded on Revelation if there be question of creation in time. The pertinent facts of the natural sciences, to which We have referred, are awaiting still further research and confirmation, and the theories founded on them are in need of further development and proof before they can provide a sure foundation for arguments which, of themselves, are outside the proper sphere of the natural sciences.

As the story goes, Fr. Lemaître intervened after this address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He was a high-ranking member of the academy and contacted the science advisor to the pope. Lemaître was not in favor of such strong statements because he knew that his theory was subject to further revision, like I explained two sections prior. Lemaître insisted that the incomplete scientific theories be judged on their scientific merits alone and not be used in support of theological conclusions.[1]

Lemaître’s counsel must have been convincing. Less than a year later and amid continuing evidence in support of the Big Bang, the pope addressed 650 astronomers in Rome for the Eighth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union. This address included no specific mention of any religious implications of the Big Bang.[2] According to George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory, “Never again did Pius XII attribute any philosophical, metaphysical, or religious implications to the theory of the Big Bang.”[3]

Since that time, the debate has continued about the extent to which science can provide evidence or proof of God’s existence. I understand that some people think some created things provide better evidence for a Designer than others. Nevertheless, I remain devoted to the pervasive and elegant “science in the light of faith” view, which I take from Pope Francis’ encyclical Lumen Fidei (The Light of Faith). “Faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation.” (34) Confident in our faith in Christ and His Church, we realize that science is a human endeavor—never complete, subject to error and revision as more data is gathered, in need of illumination, always the study of the Handiwork of God.

The Feet to Fire Thought Experiment

Torley gives a lengthy thought experiment. What if you are a skeptic and an evil atheist leader demands that you publicly vow atheism or die by foot burning? He goes through the arguments for the existence of God, and concludes that science will reinforce your conviction that the “world has a Creator” before you “die screaming in agony” in your “last moments on this earth.”

I really do not know what to make of this kind of reasoning. I find no mention in the testimonies or witnesses of the martyrs that science strengthened them in their final moments. Among the news of today’s martyrs, I have never heard that the intelligent design arguments convinced any of them to die for a Creator. Rather, it is grace that strengthens a martyr at his or her moment of death—not logic, not science, not even reason, but a supernatural gift in the soul called grace.

If the point of intelligent design is really to convince a skeptic to believe in God, then the intelligent design theorists ought to say so. If their purpose is to evangelize and lead people to Christ, I am happy to join them, and I imagine so are many of my friends. But guys, there is a more effective way to evangelize than to cook up your own science sauce to sway the skeptics.

Live the life of a Christian. Pray. Hope. Practice virtue. Be prepared to answer questions if an inquisitor is sincerely seeking truth. And, with ample awe and wonder—everybody say it with me—view “science in the light of faith.” All of it, including fire because the light emitted during combustion is a marvelous display of an electron emission spectral symphony that challenges our imagination. What people do with fire? Evil? Good? Those questions are not for science to answer.

A Question for the Intelligent Design Community

Because good responses to responses end with a request for another response, I will send out a question.

If 1) certain molecules provide the best evidence for a Designer; and if 2) the “primordial Fiat Lux, uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of chemical elements split and formed into millions of galaxies” is inductive evidence for the Creator; and if 3) we can agree that atoms and the orchestration of all their subatomic particles guiding the physical and chemical interactions of matter and energy throughout the universe can be described as intelligently designed…

…then how can anything within the legitimate purview of science not be intelligently designed?


[1] Rodney D. Holder, Simon Mitton editors, Georges Lemaître: Life, Science and Legacy (New York: Springer, 2012), pages 71-72.
[2] Pius XII, Acta apostolicae sedis, Vol. 44 (Vatican City State: Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, 1952), page 739.
[3] Holder, 72.

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  • WHB

    Amen. These guys just don’t get it, Stacy. By slicing and dicing God’s created matter into categories that ‘they conclude are better or worse” in terms of complexity, they just make themselves into God’s assistants by self-anointment. A very dangerous, near heretical practice, in my view.

  • Your last paragraph moved the conversation from reductionism back to religion.

    My thought, without knowing the man, is that P12 would have presented himself as overly-anxious to shore-up our faith if he had mentioned
    the BBT again. That would not have been a very firm example of faith in Jesus Christ, who is our foundation. He acknowledged it for what it truly represented at the time. Since we still have not gone further into the past using physical observation (only esoteric mathematical speculation which always needs physical verification) nothing has changed since his time. What is there to say?

  • Vincent Torley

    Hi Dr. Trasancos. Here’s my final response to your post. If you’d like to have the last word, then I’m happy to let you do so.

    • Hi Dr. Torley. Please call me Stacy. I was not sure how to post on your site, but hopefully you will see this comment. I would enjoy responding to your final response; you ask some great questions and make some interesting points. I am out of time this week. Hopefully I can respond later. Thank you for the discussion! I hope you have a great weekend!

      • Vincent Torley

        Hi Stacy. Please call me Vincent. You’re welcome to post on Uncommon Descent: all you need to do is set up your own ID, under the username and password of your choice. I understand you’re busy right now, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. I’m sure your response will be a thought-provoking one.

  • Declan
  • I find this conversation sparked by Dr.Torley interesting but irrelevant. I am sure that getting into the weeds of science is interesting
    and a life’s work for some, but, not for all. Scientific “weeds” even exist on the universal scale because this line of thinking of life is grounded in
    endless analysis of the particular.

    It is not even necessary in order to be drawn into the faith. Why did it take so long for Antony Flew when a hypothetical, but probable, illiterate rural man in the back country of Central or South America came to the same conclusion way before him? Resistance of some kind existed until some change occurred in both. Truth then entered their lives. What they both kept as objections to belief is important only because it was their preference
    as to how to view the world. We have this clue, “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord;…” He does not leave us alone.

    I find this sentence of Dr. Torley’s interesting. “But today’s martyrs are not being asked to die for the proposition that God exists Rather, most of them are being martyred for their faith in Christianity.”

    The ones killing the martyrs of course do this for the reason stated in news releases. Being the martyr however, involves not converting to Islam, not subjecting yourself to the Islamic State, and keeping your faith in Christ who is God. A foolish death if they only identify with a social club called Christianity.

    Although very valuable for other reasons, I find that science is more of a subset of Christianity. Not worthy of trying to define or prove or disprove it.

  • Yarwain

    First, a correction: Vincent Torley is an English language teacher who happens to have a PhD in philosophy. He has never published an academic paper in a peer reviewed journal and uses Uncommon Descent as his bully pulpit. So, to call him a ‘philosopher’ is a stretch. That said, he seems like a decent guy who simply uses far too many words to opine about Intelligent Design theory as both apologetics & theological scientism.

    When Stacy wrote, “I see everything as intelligently designed,” this is indeed the classical Christian (Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant) perspective. Torley otoh is defending something else entirely, which he clarifies in his response to Stacy’s post: “Intelligent Design is the science of design detection: it tells us how to recognize patterns arranged by an intelligent cause for a purpose. Thus the kind of evidence ID appeals to is strictly scientific evidence – not philosophical reasoning or theological argumentation.”

    Let’s pause right now because Torley is pulling an obvious bait-and-switch and doesn’t seem to recognise it, though it has been pointed out to him before. He insists Intelligent Design is a SCIENCE.

    Phillip Johnson clarified this already: “This [the intelligent design movement] isn’t really, and never has been, a debate about science, it’s about religion and philosophy.”

    Nevertheless, Vincent speaks of (Divine) Design as ‘scientifically’ discernible, detectable, available to ‘inference’. In short, Vincent believes in theologically-dictated science. Of course, that’s his philosophical position, not a scientific position, as Stacy patiently shows.

    The irony is that Vincent has already stated that “to claim that “ID is not about God and metaphysics” is arrant nonsense.” ( Yet when his mood changes, Vincent readily states that Intelligent Design is ONLY a scientific theory of Design by Designer, as the Discovery Institute
    repeatedly insists. Thus, one needn’t spend any more time with such double talk, as honestly as it seems to come across from a seemingly genuine Christian as Vincent.

    Stacy writes: “Who are we to give God a test of intelligence?”

    Apparently Vincent wants to do just that with his definition of a science of Intelligence, i.e. God’s Intelligence. One can’t just drop the ‘Intelligence’
    from the ‘Design’ as easily as Vincent does here. Most people, thankfully most Catholics, aren’t willing to go as far as Vincent. And that’s why the Discovery Institute has neither provided a clear definition of ‘Intelligence’ nor made any legitimate attempt to empirically test the Design process by the Intelligence, i.e. the instantiation of Intelligent Design, not just the apologetic hint of It that Vincent prefers.
    For a guy like Vincent, to reject Intelligent Design theory would be the same as rejecting his Catholic faith, whereas others see clearly and calmly that such a position is dangerous and not required.

    As Edward Feser says, “The fact that ID theory is just an evangelisation/apologetics gimmick makes it philosophically all the more uninteresting.” Why doesn’t teacher Vincent simply agree? The “you just don’t understand Intelligent Design properly” defense is an insult to all Christians who already do, even without the Discovery Institute’s Scientific ‘theory’.

    Over at Strange Notions, where Stacy also writes, another solid piece is written that explains why Vincent’s theologically-dictated “Intelligent Design” science is misguided and unnecessary for Catholics.

    “Like I said, intelligent design is an all-or-none proposition. Either we believe God created everything and holds everything in existence before we even think about science, or we take a lesser view and posit some science-dependent god.” – Stacy

    Yeah, it pretty much boils down to that. Vincent’s committed not to ‘all-or-none,’ but rather to trying, in long-winded blog posts at a fundamentalist-owned Uncommon Descent almost exclusively, to sciencify the Discovery Institute’s apologetics (gimmick) strategy.

    “we help lead where science goes because our faith illuminates the dialogue.” – Stacy

    Nicely stated! It’s a shame that the Discovery Institute doesn’t share this openness in public. Perhaps Vincent will eventually come around to this more mature and balanced Catholic position. It’s not like teaching Intelligent Design in English class is a way to make a living.