‘Induction over the history of science suggests that the best theories we have today will prove more or less untrue at the latest by tomorrow afternoon.’ Fodor, J. ‘Why Pigs don’t have wings,’ London Review of Books, 18th Oct 2007

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Thomas F.Torrance and Biological Design

Thomas Torrance, who recently passed away, has been described as one of the leading theologians of the second half of the twentieth century according to his obituary in The Times. [1] Torrance also accepted the reality of the creation account, thus rejecting reductionism and naturalistic accounts of origins in science.

But if you listen to some theistic evolutionists they would have us believe that there is no debate against Darwinism in science or theology. Denis Alexander has just written in the Third Way Magazine (Summer 2008 Vol.31 No.6) along these lines [2]. More about that later, but why the lack of candour I wonder when claiming to be a herald of truth?

Torrance specifically rejected the dualism implicit in the division of reality into ‘nature’ and ‘super-nature’ (McGrath 2008: 77-78). Torrance’s approach to both nature and super-nature involved a view of the Word of God as central to the act of creation, and to the sustaining of creation. For Torrance, God established and subsequently continues to maintain the universe through his creative Word, where, from the biblical tradition, the natural orderly laws of creation were to be considered as echoing the commanding Word of the Creator (Torrance: 1980: 122). In this approach the regularities or laws of nature necessarily respond to God’s command, while the concept of the supernatural, as God’s direct involvement in nature, is also a response to God’s commanding Word.

Torrance was critical of the development of science from Galileo and Newton for a number of reasons. Firstly, it involved a conception of the universe where it was viewed as a closed rigid mechanical system (Torrance 1980: 15-18). This approach to science reached its peak with Pierre Simon de Laplace where everything was to be reduced and broken down to atomistic particles for analysis and explained in terms of laws of physics and chemistry only. Torrance comments that this reductionist and deterministic approach to science left the whole of nature and the universe as a vast machine. Secondly, according to Torrance, the universe of time and space came to be seen as a container of matter and natural laws with the supernatural considered external (Torrance 1980: 18-23). Thirdly, Torrance commented that there was a dualism in this approach between the theoretical and the empirical study of nature (Torrance 1980: 23-27).

Torrance found great attraction in Michael Polanyi’s model of irreducible structure, where it was argued that ‘machine-like’ regularity, including that of biological systems, cannot be explained in terms of laws of physics and chemistry, otherwise biological science would lapse into a damaging reductionism (Torrance 1980: 16, 35; Polanyi 1968). In Polanyi’s system of thought there was a stratified structure to the universe and to our understanding of it, and the non-reducible character of mechanical structures in biology should be accepted as a warranted foundational belief. According to Torrance there is in nature an ascending hierarchy that is open upward, but cannot be reduced downward, as mechanical order cannot be explained by laws of physics and chemistry. This Torrance noted represents a ‘coherent integration from above’ (Torrance 1980: 37-39).

Torrance commented further, like Polanyi, that neither is it possible for the mind or spirit of a person to be reduced to a machine. The human person should be considered a rational centre of consciousness that is not reducible to natural science because this would be to mechanise knowledge. Reducing the mind to an entity within nature in effect diminishes science to nothing. Torrance notes, regarding Polanyi’s irreducible model of reality, that only a person has the ability for rational thought and judgement, and is therefore able to freely believe in truth, discerning objective reality from subjective thinking (Torrance 1980: 66-67). Polanyi rejected Laplace’s impersonal model of thought for a personal one and noted that personal participation is essential for rational thought and for the epistemological foundations of science (Torrance 1980: 66-67).

Torrance also argued that the Newtonian model of science has been replaced by the understanding of James Clark Maxwell and Albert Einstein, where space and time are no longer fixed and reality is understood in terms of forces and fields that intersect with matter. For Maxwell scientific explanations are partial and incomplete, and this led him to understand that ultimate explanations must lie outside of science. A mechanistic conception of reality can only be a partial answer and natural science is limited by humanity’s finite and temporal existence. All science is limited and provisional and thus needs framing and revising in light of eternal truths (Torrance 1980: 54-55).

For Torrance belief is a priority and integral to rational scientific discourse as there can be no knowledge of matter apart from the knower (Torrance 1980:62) It is belief that links our minds to reality, and no human intelligence can operate outside of faith as belief that our experiences are true shapes the way we frame the world in our minds. Belief in truth and belief in laws of nature must be assumed prior to their establishment, as science is based on the belief in the intelligibility of nature (Torrance 1980:63-72). Neither did he believe there was a conflict between science and theology, but the conflict was between a philosophy of ‘order and design’ and a naturalistic philosophy that he called ‘romantic naturalism.’ (Torrance: 2000: 107).


[1] Obituary for Professor Thomas Torrance, The Times, 11th December 2007

McGrath A., (2008) The Open Secret, A New Vision for Natural Theology, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing

Polanyi, M. (1968) ‘Life’s Irreducible Structure,’ Science, Vol. 160, pp. 1308-1312

Torrance, T.F (1980) Christian Theology and Scientific Culture, Vol. 1, Belfast: Christian Journals Limited

Torrance, T.F. (2000) God and Rationality, Oxford: Oxford University Press

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