Order Project Narrative

Since the Scientific Revolution, natural philosophy and Christian natural theology have united to place man in a well-ordered universe, and with powerful argument. Appearances notwithstanding – so the argument goes – the empirical and conceptual successes of modern science testify that we live in a world in which every natural event is the outcome of universal and immutable natural law. This image even survived quantum indeterminacy and chaos theory: the universe is still universally law-governed though some of its most basic laws are probabilistic and some events may always be beyond our ability to predict [1]|

In the last decade this 400-year old image has been powerfully challenged, unsurprisingly perhaps in the social sciences, but importantly in biology and even in physics. The challenge appears through an unheralded revolution in the philosophy and history of science where increasingly the traditional view of an ordered science is being put into question. This breakdown of order is not along any one fissure nor provoked by any one great discovery like the quantum of action or chaos theory, nor does it emerge from just one science. Rather, it appears in many distinct, highly detailed studies of scientific practice. Though generally unrelated to one another, these diverse studies have in common a radical split from the standard view. They propose alternatives to universal laws as the central explanatory and predictive mechanisms of nature. This can be seen in the work of William Bechtel, Sandra Mitchell, John Beatty, John Dupré and Alexander Rosenberg in biology or in the work of Tony Lawson, Nancy Cartwright and Mary Morgan in economics. Even in physics, previously a bastion for advocates of the standard view, the work of Nancy Cartwright, Peter Galison and younger scholars like Robert Bishop challenges the view of science as totally ordered and universal.

These studies are widespread, detailed and diverse, by serious scholars seriously trying to account for how the sciences work.  They are naturally controversial, but they must not be ignored, neither in our attempts to understand the world nor in our attempts to understand God and His intentions about our responsibility for the order of nature. This project is in the tradition of natural theology, which looks to the world to teach us about the Nature of its Creator, a tradition that has special appeal to many scientists because of its emphasis on the empirical basis for religious belief. The intimate connection supposed there between God's Nature and the nature of the world He created implies that this revolution in thought about the order of nature can have profound theological implications. This project aims to make sense of these new images of nature and to understand their theological implications with respect to God's role in nature and the role He assigns to mankind for the order that is to emerge in nature.


Since at least the Scientific Revolution three theses have marched hand-in-hand:

  •  God has created a perfect world fine-tuned to his ends.

 The perfection of God's plan is reflected in the fact that

  •  There is a universal and complete order in nature.

 Because of its complete and perfect order,

  •  What happens in nature can be described in universal and exceptionless laws.

 Generally these complete and exceptionless laws have been taken to be mathematical, though there have been notable exceptions such as the Romantic movement that extolled the variety and complexity of nature and A. N. Whitehead and fellow thinkers at the turn of the last century who took the biological as the basic order.

 There have been over two centuries of questioning the connection between the first and second theses, whether the universal order of nature needs God as its source. But there has been little challenge to the assumption that if God is the source of nature, it will be a nature completely ordered, regimented under natural law, and equally little challenge of the second and third theses that support this. In the last decade and a half, however, a quiet revolution in Anglophone philosophic thought about the character of the laws of nature and the order they describe has cast serious doubt on whether the sciences describe a uniformly law-governed world. This questioning of the order of science has come from analyses of successful scientific practice across the disciplines, from fundamental physics through biology to political economy. In philosophy of science it is no longer assumed without question that the order of nature is complete and that its laws are universal and exceptionless.[2]|

 If the canonical assumptions of the second and third theses are to be called into question, it is natural to inquire into the fundamental coherence of the positive picture of the world described by contemporary science and especially into the implications this new picture has for understanding God's role and the responsibility God assigns to us in the unfolding and fine-tuning of nature. The revolution in contemporary history and philosophy of science introduces the possibility that it was a mistake to assert the link between God's perfect omnipotence and the idea of a complete and uniform order in nature. Once we are freed from the assumption that order must come in the form of exceptionless regularities, we can consider alternative senses in which there could be an order to the world. We can also ask how such an order is consistent with the idea that God fine-tunes nature to direct what emerges,as well as what lessons follow about His intentions for man's role in nature. If God made a universe in which much of the creation of order is left to man, what conclusions should we draw about the Nature of God, of God's relation to man, and of man's responsibility in the universe?  

 Others too have noted the implications of the new pictures of nature for the Nature of God and God's relation to man. In a recent book Owen Gingerich [2006] argues that the recent groundbreaking views of nature as not universally law-governed fit particularly well with his claim that God judiciously intervenes in nature at key points to direct its ends. This then adds support to his impassioned argument that science and theism be viewed as compatible and complementary. Arguments like these show just how significant the new positions on the order of nature can be in relation to natural and theological issues.

Project Tasks

One task that is obviously essential for carrying out such a reassessment lies in developing a more nuanced conception of the different notions of order involved in our understanding of both the world described by science and God's perfect plan. Some of the work involved in this will involve metaphysical and theological investigations, for instance, of notions of powers and agency, in both the human and the divine case, which are now being taken seriously after years of disrepute. But much work also comes from developing a comprehensive narrative for the natural and social sciences, especially in biology, physics, economics and the earth and climate sciences. The primary emphasis here would be not on what the theories in these fields say, nor on what the scientists say about them, but rather on how the different subdisciplines work, in detail – their practices, the way their theories are put to use, their modelling techniques, their measurement procedures, and their successes and failures at prediction, forecasting, policy and technology. These are the areas where notions of order and perfection play a central role even though they are not the explicit centre of attention.

 A second essential task lies in coming to a much more detailed historical appreciation of the connection between the perfection of God's plan, the order of nature, and the laws of nature as it was understood in the modern period. For part of what is distinctive about the project undertaken by modern philosophers – especially by those committed to the "new sciences," – is that they rejected Aristotelian natural philosophy, introduced in its place a powerful new picture of the order of nature as governed by exceptionless regularities that followed from God's Nature, supported it with the three-step argument described above, but also called it into question in various respects. Aristotelians typically held that the bodies investigated in physics are primarily living organisms, are composed of prime matter and qualitative forms, and operate according to final causes that are ultimately determined by God's benevolent, but not fully transparent intentions. Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, rejected this account in its fundamentals, asserting instead that the bodies of physics are both lifeless and purposeless, consist merely of extension (including size, shape, rest, and motion, all of which are quantifiable features that can be grasped with certainty and precision), and act according to exceptionless mathematical laws that follow directly from God's perfect and unchanging rational nature. While many early modern philosophers disagreed with various aspects of Descartes's specific claims, the general picture of natural philosophy that he espoused was extremely influential; it was accepted, in its essentials if not in all its details, by Malebranche, Leibniz, Spinoza and Newton. Thus, Newton's law of universal gravitation is an excellent illustration of the view that all of nature, and not just the heavenly bodies, acts in perfectly regular ways, even if Newton's public views on theology departed in significant respects from those of Descartes and Leibniz.

 By the end of the modern period, however, this basic picture had come under serious attack on several fronts. Hume, while accepting the notion that nature operates according to exceptionless regularities, presented several influential epistemological arguments in natural religion against the connection between laws of nature and God's perfect plan, and Kant, the figure with whom modern philosophy culminates, argued that God is not an object of experience we could know and that therefore, man, not God, must be responsible, by means of his reason, for whatever universal and exceptionless laws of nature we could know. In sum, modern philosophers articulated foundational arguments both for and against different kinds of connections between God's Nature, the order of the world, and universal laws of nature. It is crucial that we come to a proper appreciation of these thinkers' considerations not only so that we do not repeat their mistakes, but also because their projects as well as their specific vocabularies, motivations, insights, and illusions can be an indispensable resource for understanding the genesis of and motivation for our current understanding of these issues as well as what we should think about them in their own right.[3]|

 An important issue related to the project is emergentism. Though the concerns of our project dovetail with this theme, they are orthogonal to it. Emergentism has to do with the possible failure of vertical reductionism: the idea that the more 'basic' levels of reality do not determine or fix what happens at 'higher' levels; that new phenomena, new characteristics, even new laws of nature emerge at larger dimensions, more mass, higher velocities or increased complexity. Philosophical support for emergentism can be found in wide-ranging work in philosophy of science, philosophy of religion and in philosophy of mind over the last 30 years, some of this work supported by the Foundation itself. In this project we are concerned with the possible failure of what can be described as horizontal reductionism: the idea that the cover of natural law, at any one level or crossing all levels, may not be complete; that order may remain to be made in nature by us, not just discovered.   The recent philosophical work we draw on is less well understood and concomitantly less regimented than that on vertical reductionism and emergence – open we feel for new perspectives and a new visioning of the kind of order science reveals in nature. That said, one may describe the possibility of making order where none is dictated as a kind of emergentism that is distinct from the conventional emergentism in which downward reduction fails. It is one that rests in new considerations about failure of the universal cover of law.


The project aims to accomplish a new bridge between science and religion by exploring groundbreaking new ideas about the order of nature as pictured through modern science and bringing them to bear on well-established views of God, nature and man.   This will be done by pursuing systematic and historical lines of thought, to make comprehensive sense of the new images of nature that are being revealed to us today and to understand some of their fundamental theological implications. In particular, it aims


  1. to understand and evaluate the scientific sources of the discontent with the traditional picture of absolute order and exceptionless law, including: conceptualizing and describing in detail how this discontent is embodied in scientific practice, and understanding and evaluating the kinds of order of nature implied 
  2. to investigate the consequences of various versions of disordered nature for our image of God and ourselves, especially with respect to
  3. God's role in the unfolding and fine-tuning of nature, including new implications for understanding how His direct action may be possible
  4. the responsibility God assigns to man for the perfecting of the natural and social order
  5. to revisit the historical connection between the 'new sciences' and the role of God in the universe, both to understand the historical roots of contemporary thought and to investigate alternative philosophical models of the connection to aid and enrich the proposed analyses of 1 and 2.


We are now experiencing a revolution in our understanding of what modern science teaches about the order and determinism of nature. This project aims to articulate just what these new images are and to investigate the challenges they pose for theology. It will be on the leading edge of research in this revolution: we expect to become the 'standard source' on both intertwined issues. Of course no revolutionary conceptions last forever. What should endure is the challenge to what has long been the dominant understanding, a permanent shift in the terms of our thinking. It should never again be possible to assume without serious defence that nature is thoroughly ordered, nor that God can be pictured as what Shaun Henson calls 'the unifier of nature'.[4]|

This research offers critical, original thinking that is central to many disciplines across the natural and social sciences and to philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, theology and science studies. Though the main aim is to redirect academic thinking, this is done with the view that academic thinking is central and crucial to current, topical political ideas and to the overall intellectual life of society. The revised image of scientific order from which this project proceeds is an exciting and challenging one, that is already having an impact in theology and is rapidly being picked up in media discussions of science and in general intellectual circles. Original ideas developed in the project can thus be expected to take hold in the media, in popular science/religion books and in the public view of science and religion. It thus presents a rare opportunity to make a significant, long-standing difference to society's understanding of the relationship between science and religion, God and man.

Project Organisation

The project looks at big issues and asks big questions; and it is ambitious about the quality and detail of the results. To that end, we have assembled a large and varied team of experts on science, on science and theology, and on the history of interaction between the two, including scholars of varying ages from both the U.S. and Europe, expert on disciplines from physics to biology to political economy to social science.

The topics require detailed interaction with the sciences but their core is philosophy, and the principal researchers are drawn from philosophy.


 Adams, R. 1998, Leibniz: Determinist, Theist, Idealist, Oxford University Press.

 Ayers, M. 1993, Locke (Arguments of the Philosophers), Routledge.

 Beatty, J. 1995, 'The Evolutionary Contingency Thesis' in G. Wolters and J. G. Lennox (eds.), Concepts, Theories, and Rationality in the Biological Sciences, The Second Pittsburgh-Konstanz Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh Press.

 Bechtel, W. and Abrahamsen, A. 2005, 'Explanation: A mechanistic alternative', Studies in History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 36, 421-441.

 Bhaskar, R. 1975, A Realist Theory of Science, Leeds Books Ltd.

 Bird, A. 2005 'The Dispositionalist Conception of Laws', Foundations of Science, 10, 353-370.

 Cartwright, N. 1989, Nature's Capacities and their Measurement, Oxford University Press.

 Cartwright, N. 1999, The Dappled World: A Study of the Boundaries of Science, Cambridge University Press.

 Cartwright, N., Shomar, T., Suarez, M. 1995, 'The Tool-Box of Science: Tools for the Building of Models with a Superconductivity Example', Poznan Studies in the Philosophy of Science and the Humanities.

 Dupré, J. 1996, The Disorder of Science: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science, Harvard University Press.

 Ellis, B. 2002, The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism, McGill-Queen's University Press.

 Friedman, M. 1992, Kant and the Exact Sciences, Harvard University Press.

 Galison, P. 1997, Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics, University of Chicago Press.

 Garber, D. 2001, Descartes Embodied: Reading Cartesian Philosophy through Cartesian Science, Cambridge University Press.

 Giere, R. 1999, Science Without Laws, University of Chicago Press.

 Gingerich, O. 2006, God's Universe, Harvard University Press.

 Glennan, S. 2002, 'Rethinking Mechanistic Explanation', Philosophy of Science, 69, S342 -S353.

 Gould, S. J. 1989, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, W. W. Norton & Co..

 Harré, R. 1993, Laws of Nature, Duckworth.

 Heckman, J. 2005, 'The Scientific Model of Causality', Sociological Methodology, 35: 1–97.

 Henson, S.C. 2006, God as Unifier or Pluralist: Scientific Fundamentalism, Metaphysical Pluralism, and the Christian God, Oxford University DPhil Dissertation.

 Lamb W. 1993, 'Quantum Theory of Measurement', Three Lectures, London School of Economics, July 1993.

 Lawson, T. 1997, Economics and Reality, Routledge.

 Lipton, P 1999, 'All Else Being Equal', Philosophy,74, 155–168.

 Longino, H. 2001, The Fate of Knowledge, Princeton University Press.

 Machamer, P., Darden, L., Craver, C. 2000, 'Thinking about Mechanisms', Philosophy of Science, 67, 1-25.

 McMullin, E. 1978, Newton on Matter and Activity, University of Notre Dame Press.

 Mitchell, S.D. 1997, 'Pragmatic Laws', in L. Darden (ed.), PSA 1996: Part II, Symposia. Papers, Philosophy of Science (special issue), S468–S479.

 Morreau, M. 1999, 'Other Things Being Equal', Philosophical Studies,96, 163–182.

 Molnar, G.2003, Powers: a Study in Metaphysics, Oxford University Press.

 Mumford, S. 2004, Laws in Nature, Routledge.

 Murphy, N. and Brown, W. S. 2007, Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will, Oxford University Press.

Pickering, A.1984, Constructing Quarks, University of Chicago Press.

 Rosenberg, A. 1994, Instrumental Biology or the Disunity of Science, University of Chicago Press.

 Rutherford D. 1995, Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature, Cambridge University Press.

 Van Fraassen, B. 1989, Laws and Symmetry, Oxford University Press.

 Watkins, E. 2005, Kant and the Metaphysics of Causality, Cambridge University Press.

 Woodward, J. 2002, 'There is No Such Thing as a Ceteris Paribus Law', Erkenntnis, 57, 3, p. 303-328.

 Woodward, J. 2003, Making Things Happen: A Causal Theory of Explanation, Oxford University Press.

[1]| This is true even in radical new thought about order and the God of nature. Consider, for example, Nancey Murphy's account of how God can act directly in the world, especially in us, while still respecting the laws of nature and the natures of what He has created. This relies on quantum indeterminacy, thereby at least suggesting that that is all the indeterminacy there is in the order of nature.

[2]| . The reaction against the received view of scientific laws as universal and exceptionless has been as diverse and widespread as the scientific disciplines from which criticisms have been developed. To give just a brief and incomplete overview there are accounts that argue that

  • laws are ineliminably ceteris paribus [e.g. Rosenberg 1994, Lipton 1999,Morreau 1999]
  • laws emerge historically [Beatty 1995, Gould 1989, Pickering 1984]
  • laws hold only relative to a model [Giere 1999, Heckman 2005, Van Fraassen 1989]
  • laws obtain only in structured environments [Cartwright 1999, Bhaskar 1975, Harré 1993, Lamb 1993, Lawson 1997]
  • nature is governed not by laws but bypowers, capacities and tendencies [Bird 2005, Cartwright 1989, Ellis 2002, Molnar 2003, Mumford 2004]
  • nature is governed merely by local necessities [Bechtel and Abrahamsen 2005,Machamer et al. 2000, Glennan2002]
  • laws hold with varying degrees and kinds of invariance [Dupré 1996, Woodward 2003]
  • laws of science should not be taken to mirror laws of nature but rather as tools or guides to practice [Cartwright, Shomar and Suarez 1995, Mitchell 1997, Woodward 2002]
  • laws of science arise as negotiated principles [Longino 2001, Galison 1997]
  • laws may look univocal and universal but have different meanings for different practitioners or in different circumstances [Galison 1997].

[3]| . The recent work of Daniel Garber on Descartes, Ernan McMullin on Newton, Robert Adams and Donald Rutherford on Leibniz, Michael Ayers on Locke, and Michael Friedman and Eric Watkins on Kant have all emphasized in different ways how these philosophers' conceptions of science are more central and more sophisticated than had been thought, and also how theological factors were fundamental to the accounts these thinkers developed [see Garber 2001, McMullin 1978, Adams 1998, Rutherford 1995, Ayers 1993, Friedman 1992 and Watkins 2005].

[4]| See Henson 2006, p. 28.