On Being with Krista Tippett

Jim Bradley + Michael Ruse

The Evolution of the Science-Religion Debate

Last Updated

June 26, 2014

Original Air Date

June 26, 2014

We tend to frame our cultural conversation about science and religion as a debate — two either/or ways of describing reality. With mathematician Jim Bradley and philosopher Michael Ruse, we trace a quieter evolution of science and religion in interplay — not a matter of competing answers, but of complementary questions with room for humanity, nuance, and humor.

  • Download


Image of Jim Bradley

Jim Bradley is professor emeritus of mathematics at Calvin College. He’s currently helping lead a multi-year project called Randomness and Divine Providence.

Image of Michael Ruse

Michael Ruse is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University. His books include The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw and Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science.


June 26, 2014

JIM BRADLEY: One of the definitions of randomness is something that’s irreducibly infinite. There’s no way to bring it down to a finite description. And if I look at that as being part of the nature of God, then suddenly this opens up a whole world of mystery and wonder. And it says that the world is never going to be, uh, we’re never going to find a theory of everything. It’s never going to be completely explicable.

MICHAEL RUSE: You know, we may be modified monkeys, but at a certain level, we’re modified angels, too. I mean, I think even God would agree with this at this point. God’s existence isn’t important. It’s what we do with what we’ve got that counts.

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: We tend to frame our cultural conversation about science and religion as a debate — two either/or ways of describing reality. And it’s true that in recent decades there was a re-emergence of religious voices hostile to science, followed by a “new atheist” response hostile to religion. But in the years that have followed, I have been tracing a quieter evolution — below the radar and behind the scenes — of science and religion in interplay. Not a matter of competing answers, but of complementary questions — in conversation — with room for humanity, nuance, and humor. That’s the territory we step onto today, with mathematician Jim Bradley and philosopher Michael Ruse.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

Michael Ruse is a philosopher of science. He has delivered the prestigious Gifford Lectures on a Darwinian understanding of ethics. He testified in McLean v. Arkansas in 1981, that creation science should not be allowed in public science classes. But he’s also written widely on the rationality of science and religion in a constructive partnership.

Jim Bradley is a mathematician, with a specialty in game theory, and an emeritus professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He’s currently helping lead a multi-year project to reconcile the scientific observation of randomness in the universe with the religious observation of God’s action in the world. We brought the two of them together in Minneapolis with an audience at On Being on Loring Park.

MS. TIPPETT: I am just thrilled that you are all here, each and every one of you. So, I want to start, um, by asking each of you the same question — I think I’ll start with Jim — just to say a little bit about, if you can think back to the earliest roots of your reflection on science and religion together, and if that was shaped by the religious background of your childhood.

DR. BRADLEY I was brought up Roman Catholic.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, okay.

DR. BRADLEY Relatively nominally, though. I mean, I took it very seriously as a child, but, uh, um, my family was not particularly religious. Um, my awakening religious experience actually was an adult, um, and it was much more of an experiential thing than a reflective scientific thing.

MS. TIPPETT: Were you already a mathematician?

DR. BRADLEY Well, I graduated with a mathematics degree as an undergraduate. Then I spent two years in the Peace Corps.


DR. BRADLEY In India. So it was while I was teaching in India that, uh, um, kind of the religious dimension of my life blossomed, if you like. So for me, for many years, um, I really just totally compartmentalized these. You know, I did my scientific work over here, and my, uh, religious work over here, and the twain didn’t really meet. So it was only when I got to be, what, uh, kind of into my 50’s that I began to try to integrate these things.

MS. TIPPETT: Really?


MS. TIPPETT: Um, and Michael, is that right that you were raised Quaker?

DR. RUSE: Yes. Um, as you can obviously tell from my accent, I wasn’t born on this side of — of the Atlantic, although looking around the audience, I think I’ve lived over here longer than most of you have.


DR. RUSE: Um, yeah. You laugh. You get to my age, it’s not so funny.


DR. RUSE: No, I was born in England. Uh, and, uh, my parents — my father was a conscientious objector. They joined the Religious Society of Friends, as they were called, after the war. And one of the things, Quakers were always very big on science. I think this is a historical thing, as much as anything. Uh, because they were dissenters or non-conformists in the 17th and 18th century, it meant that they couldn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge. You had to be an Anglican or what you’d call an Episcopalian. And so they couldn’t become priests. They couldn’t become soldiers. They couldn’t, probably — most of them couldn’t become lawyers.

So they went into business. And, of course, business in the Industrial Revolution meant chemistry. So, I grew up very comfortably, um, with both science and religion, and it never crossed my mind or the minds of any of my teachers that there would be any conflict at all. I mean, we’d heard of American Fundamentalists, but we kind of assumed that that ended in 1925 with the Scopes Trial. But I think about the age of 20 or so, I think my faith fell away. I didn’t have a sort of reverse, uh, soul on the road to Damascus experience. I — I think I found that prayer didn’t seem to work very much. Um, and it wasn’t just that. It — it just somehow, God just didn’t seem to be very much part of my life. And — I mean, on the other hand, I will be honest, I read Descartes’s Meditations and halfway through the first meditation, where he’s wondering about whether he’s awake or asleep, I knew I was going to be a professional philosopher. And I am. I mean I do have conversion experiences.

MS. TIPPETT: And how — and so it’s really intriguing you became a philosopher of science, and a philosopher in particular biology.

DR. RUSE: Well…

MS. TIPPETT: Which I find really intriguing.

DR. RUSE: Right. I — it — I — well…

MS. TIPPETT: And that took you into…

DR. RUSE: Right.

MS. TIPPETT: …evolution.

DR. RUSE: So what was I going to do? I’d done a lot of science. And I was looking for an ecological niche. And, uh, you know, Jim will bear this out, there’d been a fair amount of philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of physics, but nobody had done any biology. And so, the chance to work on Darwin and around Darwin was manna from heaven, to use a, to use a turn. And, so, just to finish, why I’m not a new atheist is that coming from Quakerism, it’s very difficult to hate Christianity, if you’ve been a Quaker. Uh, you may not agree with it, you may not accept it, but the loving kindness that I was shown by my parents and their co-religionists, I mean, this was a God of love. And so, I’m — I’ve always been very empathetic, uh, to Christianity and to religion. And so for me, I can’t accept it, but I don’t hate it.

MS. TIPPETT: When we were thinking about doing this — because Jim is really one of the primary people out there, very overtly integrating some cutting edge science with some classic theology — and we asked him who he would like to have as a conversation partner, and you told me about some correspondence that you and Michael had been having, and so they’ve corresponded, but not actually met. So, Jim, here’s something you’ve written, um, which I think gets at, uh, the difficulty people have, ordinary people, not trained in science. You know? So here’s one way you’ve said it: “The idea that, A, an infinite omniscient/omnipotent God would use a process for creating living creatures on Earth that, B, took an estimated 3.6 billion years, and was driven by a random mutation process seems incredible to many folks.” But I want to ask how you, as a scientist, um, and as a Christian, uh, how you work with the theory of evolution, in your thinking.

DR. BRADLEY Mm-hmm. Um, well, first of all, I don’t really have a big problem with the theory of evolution. I never have.

MS. TIPPETT: No, I didn’t expect that you would.


MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I have to say that, you know, one word that comes up with scientists across the years who I’ve interviewed who are also religious is that they often — because they’re scientists, you know, they have an appreciation for the theory. And they’ll say it’s — it was an ingenious solution on God’s part.

DR. BRADLEY Yeah. Um, I guess I speculated about this. So I think, you know, I find myself in this awkward position of being a person who trusts science, who loves it. I’ve been trained in it. But also a person with fairly strong religious convictions. And, with the inability to keep doing what I was doing of keeping the two separate. So I’ve got to find some way to try to integrate them. And so, I’ve spent some time speculating about why would God do it that way? Part of it, I think, is that, at least the way I see God, um, He’s a person who — He/She/God [laughs] — delights in simply the process of things becoming. Uh, you know I think of a parent, uh, with young children, who just loves and delights watching their children discover things. That’s how I see God. God has created this world, um, he’s given all of his creatures their own identity, their own properties, their own capabilities, their own limitations. Um, but he’s created everything with a degree of freedom, from human beings right down to the tiniest electron. And then just delights simply in watching His creation become. So I think that’s one aspect of it.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BRADLEY Um, the other is I think God has done it for us. I sometimes imagine God, uh, doing things in the way that certain type of creationists would say. You know, there’s an instantaneous seven-day creation. So God would say something like rabbit, and there would be a rabbit. Uh, fox, and there would be a fox and the fox would chase off the rabbit. Um but, uh, there’d be absolutely no way that we as human beings could have any understanding of how God did that, or any way for us to be able to participate, um, in — with Him, in that process of creation.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BRADLEY And so, rather, I think what God has done is taken a much slower process that we can really understand, that we can participate in, and I think it’s God’s — as I understand — God’s intention is to, to really make us stewards of creation, to give us the kingdom. And He wants us to be able to understand that kind of process, participate in it. And that seems to me what — is what God has done through the process of evolution.

MS. TIPPETT: And you also sent along some of the materials you teach with, and, um, you are — I think as much as anything else exposing your students to questions they may not have asked, and really asking them to puzzle with them.

DR. BRADLEY Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: Um, you’re also introducing them to a more sophisticated and, um, complex account of the history of Christianity’s relationship with science, including, you know, very rich thinking on the part of St. Augustine, for example.

DR. BRADLEY Mm-hmm, mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: I love some of what you’ve, um, you know, that — that Augustine said that “numbers were already present in God’s mind at the time of the beginning.” That “God has given us a kind of mathematical sixth sense that serves as a starting point for thinking about mathematics.” Um, but I also feel like this — this larger story of Christianity’s grappling with science, which is — which has not always been what it has been in the latter decades of the 20th century and the early decade of the 21st is also knowledge that our culture has kind of lost.

DR. BRADLEY Yeah. Um, Augustine, of course, was kind of a unique person. Um, he was a great thinker, but he also was very much influenced by — by the Greek framework.


DR. BRADLEY Uh, and so, you know, Plato had this great idea of abstract forms. Uh, we sat out in some netherworld somewhere where nobody knew where they were, and then God shaped the world in accordance with those. Well, Augustine took and put all of those things in the mind of God for eternity. And, with it, he put all of mathematics in there as well.

So, you end up with what’s called, in mathematics, is called Christian Platonism, um, the idea that numbers and, uh, geometric forms, and even more abstract higher-level mathematics so just, uh, are not something that are created. They’re uncreated. Um, they existed from eternity in the mind of God. And, mathematicians, uh, tend to be an irreligious sort, by and large. Um, but, um, still most of them incline to the idea that when they do mathematics, they’re discovering something. Something that already exists.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Oh, that — that is a debate, but.

DR. BRADLEY It is a debate. That’s right. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Whether mathematics is invented or discovered.

DR. BRADLEY That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: I think the thing I love most about talking with mathematics is this absolute, uh, connection between if something is not beautiful and elegant, it’s not true.

DR. BRADLEY Yeah. In fact, most mathematicians — pure mathematicians, if you ask them why do you what you do? Their answer is always because it’s so beautiful.


DR. BRADLEY And the people who don’t really like mathematics kind of scratch their head and just are totally puzzled by that kind of response.

[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today in our studios on Loring Park in Minneapolis with mathematician Jim Bradley and philosopher Michael Ruse.

MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, Michael, I feel like you — you — you make a similar move with very different material in terms of opening up the history of Darwinism. Right? I mean, you’ve said, uh, you know, you’ve written: “The Darwinian revolution cannot be considered a single thing. It had different sides, different causes, and different effects. Often it is portrayed as a triumph of science, of religion but though there is some truth to this idea, as a total assessment of the Darwinian revolution it is far from adequate.”

DR. RUSE: Well, I don’t think I’m saying anything that most historians of science, certainly historians of evolutionary theory, would want to deny. Um, I don’t think you have to be sort of an out-and-out cultural relativist or social constructivist, to use the trendy term, to recognize that Western science is very much a product of Western culture. And that you’re going to see the tropes, the metaphors, the analogies, and the concerns, and a lot of these things reflected in the science. Um, and no more so than any science, which ultimately has implications for human beings. And so, when it comes to Darwinian evolutionary theory effect, I mean, Karl Marx writing to his friend Engels about a couple of years after the origin of species was published in 1859, said isn’t it remarkable how Darwin finds British industrial society down amongst the plants and animals, you know, struggle for existence, Malthusian population, division of labor, all of these things. The answer is absolutely and completely. So, um, the way I like to put it, it’s a little bit like relationships. You know, you’ve got a kid who’s so different from the parent and then in the half-light or whatever it is a gesture, an act, or something, you know, you say oh my God, now I see, this kid was not adopted. They really are — there really are genes at work here. We’ve all had that kind of experience. I always feel the same about Darwinian Theory that even in the hands of Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne and these others, I mean, for instance, the obsession with ends with purposes. Uh, these sorts of things. I mean, these — this is right out of…

MS. TIPPETT: Say some more.

DR. RUSE: This is right out of — out of natural theology.

MS. TIPPETT: What — whose obsession with ends and purposes?

DR. RUSE: Well, the idea that, I mean, if — if you, um, if you’re a physicist…

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, you mean Darwin’s…

DR. RUSE: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: Darwin’s obsession.

DR. RUSE: The biologist. I mean, if you are a physicist, by and large, you don’t say, you know, you — you discussed the nature of the sun, but you don’t say what what’s the sun for? You said the sun does this. But, you know, what’s the moon for? I mean, the joke is, the moon is some light on the way home for drunken philosophers.


DR. RUSE: Well, it’s a, you know, it’s a half a joke, but, you know, because moons are not in that business. But, I, you know, I’m looking around at the rather handsome-looking gentleman in the front row, better dressed than I was on my wedding day. And they’ve got all, I mean, they’ve got, say, you know the knob in the middle of their face, nose. And I mean, it makes perfectly good sense — is — what is the function of the nose? Why do you have a nose? In a way that you don’t say of the moon, what’s the function of the moon? So…

MS. TIPPETT: So, biologists— you’re saying biology, um, in its nature, but also in how it was always interacting with culture and — and culture then in that time in England meant religion.

DR. RUSE: I — I think so. Well, religion…

MS. TIPPETT: Has taken up, I mean, it argues with some of the tenets of religion but it also is…

DR. RUSE: Right. But, uh, not just religion. I think British religion.


DR. RUSE: Um, you know the whole business of the, of the emphasis on the argument from design, and things like this.


DR. RUSE: I mean, the English were never heavy duty into existentialism, for instance. So, Darwin was not reacting against Kierkegaard, if you — well, to give you an example. But he was reacting against Archdeacon Paley to give — so yeah, it, it…

MS. TIPPETT: And what was — what was Archdeacon Paley saying?


MS. TIPPETT: What was Archdeacon Paley saying?

DR. RUSE: Archdeacon Paley wrote the textbooks, uh, at the beginning of the 19th century. And his famous one is natural theology. The eye is like a telescope. Telescope have telescope makers, therefore the eye must have an eye designer, an eye maker, the great optician in the sky. Darwin himself admitted this. He swallowed this hook, line, and sinker. Now, I think towards the end of his life, he became an agnostic. But he always accepted that the eye is not just, you know, random. And of course Darwin thought that natural selection could do it, rather than using God. Although, for a long time, right through discovering evolution, Darwin thought that God acted through unbroken law. And in fact, I don’t suppose Darwin, in many respects, was so very different from the kind of theological position that you probably subscribe to now.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And I think that’s a story that we just don’t know.

DR. BRADLEY Correct. There’s another factor that you are alluding to here which is — is that not only is there a science and religion issue going on here, but there is also a power struggle going on, too. This is very much tied up with issues of power. Um, if you go back to the 19th century and look at the writings of people like T. H. Huxley, and, uh, Andrew dinkson White, um, these folks, um, saw so much of the formative influences in culture as coming from religion and they wanted to switch the locus of the power to shape culture to scientists.

And so it became a power struggle. And you see it on the Christian side as well. There are communities that, uh, that kind of want to stay closed, and one way is to make sure that people don’t talk too much to people who think differently themselves. And to create fear and suspicion and I think that’s a lot of what’s going on as well. So you’ve got all these power dynamics outside of the science and religion…

MS. TIPPETT: You have the human condition mixing in with…

DR. BRADLEY Yeah, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …the real issues at stake. I mean, Michael, you wrote, um, about — I think maybe this was in the Huffington Post — you’d just spent a week at a field station in Kenya, uh, which was inspired by Richard Leakey of the famous, um, fossil hunting family, and, you know, you talked about the excitement of the science of human origins. Just how thrilling it is. And you also said something I wanted to ask you to draw out. Um, you said, “and this isn’t just a matter of knowledge but a moral quest in a way.” I think this is interesting because it also gets at the discussion that science and religion can…

DR. RUSE: Yeah. Let me explain. I’m sure most people know the background is that the 20th century really was the century when a huge amount of fossil evidence about human evolution was dug up. And the Leakey family, uh, who’ve lived in Kenya for many, many years, was right at the front of this. So, at the one level, I had tremendous respect for — I won’t say that they were doing the Lord’s work, because I don’t think they were. But I do think that they were doing work, if you like, and — I’m a very conservative, Protestant, non-believer who takes the…


DR. RUSE: …who takes the parable of the talents very seriously. I don’t think we’re put on this earth just to have a good time. I think we’re put on this earth to use what we’ve got to help others, and to discover the world. And I really felt for a week there that this was really cutting-edge of people who were going there, taking students out there, because for me, as a teacher, this is tremendously important.

But taking students, both black and white, Kenyan, and American, and British, and going and trying to, you know, find these grubby little bits of stone, which are just little bits of stone. You know, and putting together a story from this. I mean, you know, we may be modified monkeys, but at a certain level, we’re modified angels, too. I mean, if humans can do this sort of thing, it just seems to me it’s like a Mozart opera. You know, it’s better than we should be in some — do you understand what I mean?

I mean, I think even God would agree with this at this point. God’s existence isn’t important. It’s what we do with what we’ve got that counts. Can we — can we do it? And yeah, I really felt that this was if you like transcendent. It did not for me prove the existence of God. As I say, but at some level, I really felt that in a way, the hereafter didn’t matter, because it’s like listening. I was at at “Così Fan Tutte” last week, at the Met. And, to hear these melodies, the action, somehow that’s where it’s at. Nothing else really matters.

[Music: “Soulmate,” by Chris Beaty]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Michael Ruse and Jim Bradley through our website, onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[Music: “Soulmate,” by Chris Beaty]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today — a civil conversation on science and religion — with philosopher of science Michael Ruse and Christian mathematician Jim Bradley. We spoke in Minneapolis at On Being on Loring Park.

MS. TIPPETT: So one thing I believe with all of the work we’ve done in trying to have civil conversations about things that are usually just pointless arguments, um, is that it doesn’t actually make things simpler, right? I mean, you clear away the false framing that leads to predictable places.


MS. TIPPETT: And then you stumble upon the real challenges, um, which again, might not need to be fights or arguments, but I mean, let me just ask the two of you, you know, what are — what are the real puzzles, um, again, not — not necessarily to fight about, but to chew on.

DR. BRADLEY Well, let me just lay out one. I don’t know if this is the most important one, but it’s one in which I know that Michael and I are somewhat in disagreement. So, let’s air it.


DR. BRADLEY Um, and that’s the question of purpose.

MS. TIPPETT: Purpose.

DR. BRADLEY Yeah. Um, is there such a thing as purpose in — in the world? Um, now you can look at the, uh, aside from the big bang, and look at the formation of galaxies, and then, uh, planets, and stars, and eventually you get water on earth and living creatures all the way up to where we are today. And you look at that whole story and say, well, if that’s not clearly a purposeful direction to something that’s progress I don’t know what would be. So I would see it that way, as something that would point towards religion. Now, I suspect that Michael would look at exactly the same information and would interpret it very, very differently.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, I think Michael just told a story about purpose embodied…

DR. BRADLEY Yeah, yeah. So, the, uh, I think that issue of interpretation is critical.

DR. RUSE: Yes, I don’t think there’s any question about that. I mean, I’m quite happy to talk about purpose in the context of individual organisms.

DR. BRADLEY Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

DR. RUSE: I’m inclined to say you can’t do biology without talking about purpose. So I’m happy to talk about purpose there. But you’re right, Jim. I mean, ultimately, when push comes to shove, at the big question, I guess I’m with, you know, Steve Weinberg. The more you do science, the less you see any point to it. I mean, not the point to doing science, but…

MS. TIPPETT: But he’s — his — he said the more we learn, the more pointless it becomes.

DR. RUSE: That’s — something like that.


DR. RUSE: And at a certain level, I’m inclined to agree. Now, I think part of the reason is you don’t set off looking for purpose. So you’re not going to find something which, you know, which isn’t there. Although that’s never stopped philosophers, you understand.


DR. RUSE: The definition of a philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black hat, which isn’t really there.


DR. RUSE: And the definition of a theologian is he’s somebody who finds it.

[laughter and applause]

MS. TIPPETT: Okay, well…

DR. RUSE: You would bring me there. He would bring me…

DR. BRADLEY A mathematician calculates the probability of us finding it.

[ laughter ]

DR. RUSE: Yeah. Touché, touché.

MS. TIPPETT: All right. So I think that points us where I wanted to go next. So we’ll talk for a few more minutes and then open it up. And that is…

DR. RUSE: You mean somebody else is going to talk, other than me?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.


MS. TIPPETT: Um, so this is something I have really been chewing on in a number of conversations I’ve had lately. This whole notion of randomness.


MS. TIPPETT: Which, uh, on the surface, uh, looks like a real problem for religious people. Now, you’re doing this — and the fact that, uh, you know, mathematicians and physicists…


MS. TIPPETT: …I think, will tell you, most of them, that the math that we have right now doesn’t really leave room for human free will or certainly not for the intervention of God.


MS. TIPPETT: Now, you, Jim, are working on this project on Randomness and Divine Providence, which really, uh, pushes the envelope. Um, so, I mean, let’s just talk about that for a few minutes. Uh, so that seems to me a place where you are taking a cutting edge of science and trying very purposefully to integrate it with classic theology.


MS. TIPPETT: Is that right?

DR. BRADLEY Yeah. Mm-hmm. Well, part of the problem here is terminology.

MS. TIPPETT: Terminology?



DR. BRADLEY Uh, because randomness has so many meanings. I mean, if you start out and you define randomness as meaning — meaninglessness, and purposelessness, then, uh, there’s no problem saying that there’s an inconsistency between Randomness and Divine Providence. I mean, they simply can’t go together.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BRADLEY But, that’s not the way the scientists actually define, uh, randomness. If you look fairly carefully at what they actually write, for mathematicians, randomness primarily means unpredictability. For biologists, it means that there’s no causal connection between the, uh, adaptive needs of an organism or species, and the mutations that occur. Um, for physicists, it sometimes mean an absence of observable causality. Uh, so these are very different meanings than purposelessness or meaninglessness.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Okay. I think somewhere you said you — you think — or maybe you’re asking, “Can God have it both ways?”

DR. BRADLEY Yeah. And I…

MS. TIPPETT: Can — can God have create – and so let me, uh, let me ask you this. Is this what you mean by that? Can God have created, uh, a universe that operates on these — with these laws of physics, and that has, uh, randomness built in, and also be in charge, or…?

DR. BRADLEY Yeah, sure.


DR. BRADLEY The word — the word you want is sovereign.

MS. TIPPETT: That feels a little simplistic…

DR. BRADLEY That’s — that’s a good Calvinist word.

MS. TIPPETT: What is? What’s a good — in charge?

DR. BRADLEY Sovereignty.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, sovereignty. That’s right. And be sovereign. Yeah.

DR. BRADLEY Is He sovereign? And my answer is yes. See, randomness doesn’t mean any old thing can happen. It means freedom within constraints, within certain boundaries. Um, I mean if I roll a die, uh, there’s only one of six things can happen, doesn’t mean that infinitely many things can happen. Though we know exactly those six things, and I know exactly the probability of each one. I know far more than that I don’t know. And to my mind, that’s the way it is with randomness. God has given an enormous amount of freedom. It’s an incredible way to manage and configure the world. Um, just for instance, uh, if I — I had lunch a few minutes ago, all right. And somehow my system digests that and transports it to every cell in my body, a trillion some-odd cells, um, every one gets nourished. Little cell down in the big toe doesn’t get ignored in favor of one in the brain. How does it do that? It’s all done by the random transport of these nutrients through the walls of cells into different parts of our body. It’s a fantastically effective way to manage things.

And I can’t imagine any other way to do it. So, to my mind, yes, God has created randomness, but then also, He – randomness — there are mathematical laws that govern how randomness operates. And it often configures into an incredible order at a higher level. So, God can have it both ways. Can have the randomness at the lower levels, structure at the higher levels, and sometimes those two levels are — are — get flipped, you know.

MS. TIPPETT: And that is precisely the — the, uh, the puzzle of modern physics, right?


MS. TIPPETT: The order at the higher levels…

DR. BRADLEY …and it’s very subtle…

MS. TIPPETT: …and chaos at the lower levels and how to reconcile those things.


MS. TIPPETT: What are you thinking, Michael?

DR. RUSE: But, uh, you see, I’m a little bit discombobulated here, because I don’t put randomness and freedom, as it were, on the same line. It seems to me that almost randomness is a, um, is almost an enemy of freedom. And of course, I — all moral education goes this way.

MS. TIPPETT: That we can only define freedom by…

DR. RUSE: Yeah, I mean, for me…

MS. TIPPETT: …by defining the boundaries.

DR. RUSE: A moral education is, you teach some — a child something expecting it will have an effect in the future, if you like. It doesn’t mean they’re less free, but it does mean they’re less random in some sort of sense. And you say, well, you know, you should have done this because you were taught this. So, as I say, I — and I’m right with Jim on these different notions of randomness. I think that that’s right. And — maybe this is a good point to go out on — is that I worry about this juxtaposition. It’s not saying that you’re doing it, Jim, but I think is something a lot of people do do. And I think a lot of scientists do this. Oh, well, quantum physics proves free will. Quantum physics may do many things. It does not prove free will. Because as I see it, that freedom — it’s freedom, not license, in a way, that freedom demands the world working properly. Otherwise, things happen randomly.

MS. TIPPETT: So, so you’re arguing for order…

DR. RUSE: Yeah, I’m arguing…

MS. TIPPETT: …even where we see chaos.

DR. RUSE: Yeah, you know, in my field, it’s known as compatibilism.

MS. TIPPETT: But, I don’t hear you objecting to the words divine providence. Not that I think you’re not objecting because you believe in them, but I mean, let me ask the two of you. I feel like maybe this is kind of an evolution in the science/religion struggle. That this question of does God exist, or does God not exist, doesn’t seem the interesting question to be debating anymore, partly because everybody kind of agrees that it’s not going to be proven one way or the other.

DR. RUSE: I think that here’s the point, I think, that Jim and I do disagree on.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. RUSE: Is I think we both think that randomness is a very important phenomenon. I think that Jim thinks nevertheless, that within his Christian perspective, he can accept modern science, and at the same time, accept some of the very important beliefs that he holds, for instance, about the status of humans. I’ve no reason to think you think humans are the only important organisms or anything like that. But, as a Christian, I take it you think that we’re made in the image of God, and that we have a particular place in the Christian world picture. Let me put it that way. I mean, sufficient of a place that God suffered on the cross for our salvation. He didn’t do that for warthogs.

Uh, whereas I, as a non-believer, take randomness seriously. And although we have evolved, I have big problems in seeing that we had to evolve. In a way I’ve got the nasty feeling we’re doing it backwards. And so within my world picture, as long as we just consider this world of ours, then I have big problems with the notion of randomness. As to why, I think we’re radically contingent in a way that I personally don’t find particularly comfortable or compatible with — with the Christian story.

Now, I know you would disagree with me on that. But I think that’s the point. I think there is a point where you and I, respectfully, if you like, really do have very different takes on the world.

DR. BRADLEY I think anyone who affirms the Christian story is going to have to say that there’s some degree of divine guidance or direction to that process. Um, that is not totally and utterly contingent.

DR. RUSE: Right.

DR. BRADLEY You know, I’m sure you’re referring back to, uh, Stephen Jay Gould’s famous, um, example about running the tape back a million years and replaying it.

DR. RUSE: Yep. But…

DR. BRADLEY And there’s so many contingent things that happen.

MS. TIPPETT: So tell it. Tell us that.

DR. BRADLEY Sure. Okay.

MS. TIPPETT: Is this that we’re moving backwards, you said?

DR. BRADLEY Well, all right, so Gould said, let’s go back a million years. Okay. Now, there’s so many mutations that could happen, so many different contingent events that could happen, that each of those is like a branch on a tree. And you down one branch, and then there’s another branch, there’s another branch. By the time you get through millions and billions of these branches, we’ve only followed one of those branches to where we are today. So, the chances of our actually following the same branch again is so infinitesimally small that we could not possibly end up at the same place. This world is so utterly and radically contingent. That’s Gould’s argument.


DR. BRADLEY Okay. Um, and most Christians will say well, there may be some room. Perhaps it’s totally front-loaded, you know, that God or somebody set up the system in such a way that things converge in a certain direction. Perhaps it was more interactive, God guiding it along the way. But nevertheless, it’s not as contingent as Gould would make out. Or as I think probably, Michael, you would say.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today in our studios on Loring Park in Minneapolis with mathematician Jim Bradley and philosopher Michael Ruse.

MS. TIPPETT: And now, um, I believe one or more of my colleagues is going to circulate — Lily. Lily Percy, our senior producer, with a microphone. And we’ll have a few minutes of anything you’d like to add.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Uh, so my question is on the notion of harmony. You talked about purpose for a little. Uh, I’d like you both to address the notion of interrelationships vis-à-vis where you’re coming from, the notion that we are, I believe to be a harmonious world, and how your philosophies would support or not support that.

MS. TIPPETT: But — but that’s a complicated notion, because it’s not all harmonious, right? You’re saying that — what are you saying then, that ultimately…

AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: Well, I think at least coming from a Christian tradition, we are to be in relationship with one another.


AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: And that is what I get from my faith. So, um, so I’d like to hear what both of you would say about relationships, about how Jim and how Michael both would feel about, uh, this notion of are we to have harmony, or is existing so much these days disharmony?

DR. BRADLEY Well, I may be taking this in a different direction than you want to go, but it seems like, um, if you’re talking about harmony and disharmony, you can’t deal with it from within the Christian framework without talking about the Christian concept of sin. And then that gives the whole question of the origins of sin. It gets into the whole question of the notion of Adam and Eve. Now we’re getting into things that are really sort of traditional Biblical, uh, science problems, right. I can say that this whole virtually a cottage industry in the evangelical theological world right now, um, trying to figure out questions like the origin of sin. How did this come into the human species? Is it an evolutionary product? Is it…

MS. TIPPETT: And can we just define sin broadly as all of those things which, uh, work against harmony?

DR. BRADLEY Yeah. I guess I kind of like Augustine’s definition here. It’s inordinate desires. Uh, having our affections disordered in some way. Other people might define it behaviorally. But yes, it’s all those kinds of things. Mm-hmm. Um, so, uh, this is a huge question that is on the table right now. Um, now that doesn’t answer your question, but it, you know, it points to the fact that there’s a lot of disagreement about this question. I don’t know, Michael, do you have thoughts on that?

DR. RUSE: Yeah. Um, I really think Darwin put a bomb into this one. I think that…

MS. TIPPETT: Darwin?

DR. RUSE: Darwin did.



DR. RUSE: I think that before Darwin, whether for Christian or I would go back to Greek metaphysics.


DR. RUSE: That we really had some idea of balance, a balance of nature, uh, a harmony of some sort. As I say, I mean, you have to dig into the history on this one. But my understanding is that this is a pre-Christian notion and certainly one that you find very much in a lot of Greek thought. And I think that Darwin put a bomb in it in this way. He said, of course there’s going to be harmony. But only if it’s in our interests, as it were. And normally it is in our interests. I mean, we’re much better off. My personal feeling is that thoughts of harmony are very dangerous. And say well, it’s okay, folks, God will look after us. You know, if God was worried about fracking, he wouldn’t have put the gasses there in the first place. So don’t worry about it. If, you know, we need it, we can use it.

DR. BRADLEY I agree.

MS. TIPPETT: What do you agree with? I mean…

DR. BRADLEY That we’d find ourselves on the page with these issues, like global warming, fracking, so forth. To say that, well, you know, the world will just recover. God isn’t going anything bad to happen. No. I don’t think that’s the case. We have to be responsible. And these are serious issues that we have to take some responsibility for.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. BRADLEY We can’t just say it’s — it’s all going to work out.

MS. TIPPETT: Another question? Yeah.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Yeah, uh, could talk, both, a little bit about how your world views affect your, uh, your ethical views. How do you each think that ethics needs to be grounded, or does it?

DR. BRADLEY Well, you’re the philosopher, why don’t you go first on this one?

DR. RUSE: Well, does it make any difference about the things I think which really matter? I’m inclined to think not. I’m inclined to think that we all hold to a common sense morality about caring about people, those sorts of things. Sure, there are differences there, but…

MS. TIPPETT: But I think the question is, um, where is your ethical sensibility rooted, or what…

DR. RUSE: I think it’s rooted in my psychology. I mean, I’m a Humian. I mean, ultimately, I’ve — David Hume says you can do all this philosophy you like, but it, you know, you end in skepticism, but fortunately, you know, I dine, I converse with my friends, I play a game of backgammon, uh, when I get back to my study, it all seemed cold and strained. And basically that’s where I’m at. I personally think that, you know, psychology — I don’t go through life worrying about whether the world is going to end tonight.

I don’t go through life thinking, okay, I’m a Darwinian, it’s okay for me to go out and rape and pillage, and, you know, and get away with it, because I’m an evolved human being. So why would I do anything else? So, at a certain level, I know Jim would disagree with me, I think Christianity is irrelevant. You know, in fact, it’s just something of a…

MS. TIPPETT: You mean in terms of…

DR. RUSE: …scab on the situation?

MS. TIPPETT: You mean in terms of having an ethical sensibility?

DR. RUSE: Yeah, right. Right. I probably, you know, have certain feelings about pacifism. I’m more strongly drawn to pacifism than I think a lot of my fellow Americans, or fellow whatever, but that’s because of my Quaker background. I mean, there’s certainly a lot of Christians who would say the Quaker attitude on pacifism, we understand it, but we don’t think it’s the Christian position. I mean, so, this is the difficulty I have.

DR. BRADLEY Yeah. Well, I guess speaking just for myself, I see myself as a very ordinary Christian. I mean, what I believe is, I try to emphasize what’s common to Protestantism, Catholic tradition, and Orthodox Christianity. And kind of put my roots in that. But for a person who’s a religious believer, um, their identity is very much tied up with their faith and with their relationship with Christ, and who they are, um, and so in this sense, it can’t be irrelevant, because it becomes the very root of identity itself.

DR. RUSE: Right, no absolutely.

DR. BRADLEY And in that sense, the ethics flow out of that sense of identity, uh, and the identity being rooted in the person of Christ. But that’s so, kind of the view from 1,000 feet, or 10,000 feet perspective. I guess, I want to get back to you. I want to do something more specific, uh, that you have in the back of your mind, and as you asked that question, that you’re wondering about.

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: You want to know what was on my mind when I was asking the question?


DR. BRADLEY Yeah, yeah. What motivated your question?

AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Uh, well, um, I am in the middle of pushing through Hilary Putnam’s book, Ethics Without Ontology. Um, and, uh, I was just wondering from your two very educated perspectives, obviously, uh, whether you can have a really robust sense of ethics without having a metaphysical support for it, like religion.

MS. TIPPETT: So, I think Michael says yes, and Jim, I…

DR. BRADLEY Well, I think it’s certainly possible to do that, yes. Certainly, I think I would agree with Michael on that. It doesn’t have to be my particular foundation…

MS. TIPPETT: No, for you. But for you it’s not separable.

DR. BRADLEY Right. It wouldn’t work for me, but I think it’s possible for others.

MS. TIPPETT: Um, you’ve both written, uh, in different ways about the anxiety that these questions cause, and that they’ve caused across history. And Michael, I think, you know, you wrote about it, the anxiety of the Victorians and, right? And the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and how people weren’t even — the, um, approaches to this aren’t always rational, and that’s partly because this kind of thinking and this kind of change is actually frightening. Um, so, I guess I’m curious about, you know, as we — as we come to a close about how the two of you think about calming that fear and, you know, what might the framework be of, uh, a new discussion, or a new encounter with these ideas. And also, if you — if you see that happening in your spheres.

DR. BRADLEY Well, okay, looking from my perspective, I feel those tensions very much and that anxiety very much in myself, both as a person who loves and is committed to science, and a person with a religious commitment as well. And those two worldviews sometimes clash, and I feel the tension of that. And I think discussion helps. I think it helps to have kind of plausible accounts of things, from people who can say, yeah, I can see how these two things both make sense. And that can relieve some anxiety. I think in this case simply education and learning, uh, can go a long ways to relieve some anxieties.

DR. RUSE: You know, like, I agree entirely. I want to pick up on your point, the man on the front row, about harmony, too. I honestly thought when I was 20 that I was going to get back on in the fold by the time I was 70. You know, better — better — better cover my options on this one. But I do find now I’m in my 70s, in fact, I’m not drawn to going back to Christianity. And this picks up on a number of the questions. And I do think it’s a question of inner harmony in a sense of self-worth, a feeling, have you used your talents wisely and in a worthwhile – I mean Plato makes a lot of this in the Republic. Getting the parts of your soul, and don’t forget, Plato means something broader by soul than just a Christian soul, your whole psychic being, but getting these things in a sense of harmony. And I’ve found, as I get older, that that’s become something tremendously important to me. And so that’s where I’m at. And I don’t know, Jim, I don’t know. Maybe my God was a Presbyterian who didn’t like the world. I’m just a happier human being since I gave up Christianity.


Now, yeah, I hate to say this. I really, truly speaking for myself, feel a sense of balance, and I’m not scared. And I’m not doing it because the brownie points. I’m doing it because I want to do it. And somehow, for me, that’s really important. So, maybe this is a big difference that we, that we have. And I’m trying not to be too snarky or superior towards you.


DR. BRADLEY Well, Michael, in an email I sent you one time, I don’t remember what the conversation, but, uh, I made the comment, I said, Michael, the problem is, you just haven’t fallen in love with Jesus Christ. And, um, I wish I could have been there to see your face when you read this. I was kind of visualizing it. And I sort of read some things into your response to me, as you kind of tried to, uh, um, um, stumble over what I had just said, that you felt obviously very awkward about. Um, but, um, you know, you say you’re pretty comfortable with the way it is right now, and that’s fine, but I think the fact is that you just really haven’t that love relationship just hasn’t developed.

DR. RUSE: Yeah.

DR. BRADLEY And that’s the difference. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: I just want to throw this out there, um, I often feel that, uh, that scientists have the most robust vocabulary of mystery and wonder, and that it’s something that religious people could learn from. Um, and that, and that it could be, uh, a kind of a shared vocabulary, which by definition doesn’t need agreement or, you know, a definition of terms. Um, that there’s this shared space. And I feel like even, um, as the two of you have kind of danced around, you know, your best answers or your best thinking on some big questions, that the big questions remain, right? And they’re fascinating, and they’re kind of wonderful in themselves, that they’re sitting between us. Um, and…

DR. RUSE: Well, isn’t that the whole thing about life is you come in with these wonderful questions, you work on them yourselves, and then you pass them on to your students and your children. Again, I go back to education. I don’t, I mean, I see education not as giving my students answers, it’s giving them the tools to, you know, to ask the new questions and to tackle the answers for themselves. So, of course, but of course, it’s just a wonderful thing, I mean, the science that Jim does is always throwing up new challenges, and new things that we discover about, let’s say, I mean, I don’t immediately see the relevance, for instance, of the fact that we now know that we’re, what, 5% Neanderthal genes, but I’m sure down the road…

MS. TIPPETT: Well, I think it’s fascinating because that might be where red hair came from.


MS. TIPPETT: I think it’s really significant. But I just have to say, you know, what you just said about being born, and having questions, and passing them on, I mean this is probably provocative because we’re closing rather than starting, but in a way, it’s the kind of image that you gave in the beginning of how do you image the nature of God, given what we know of human reality. And given what you know of science. Like, how you could come up with a concept of God that would work with your science.

DR. BRADLEY Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah, in fact, I’m going to go in the direction you just said about a minute ago about mystery and wonder. Um, you know, one of the things that’s happened with me in the study of randomness, uh, is that one of the definitions of randomness is something that’s irreducibly infinite. There’s no way to bring it down to a finite description. And if I look at that as being part of the nature of God, then suddenly this opens up a whole world of mystery and wonder. And it says that, uh, the world is never going to be, uh, we’re never going to find a theory of everything.

MS. TIPPETT: Explicable.

DR. BRADLEY It’s never going to be completely explicable. And I was talking about this at a conference recently, and a person in the audience said, you know, he said, I was brought up in a religious tradition that always emphasized God’s covenant faithfulness. And now, you’ve opened up a whole different way of looking at God to me. Um, in terms of unfathomable mystery. And I thought, wow, that’s been worthwhile. I mean, if just thinking about random numbers does that really makes it all worthwhile.

DR. RUSE: But Jim, isn’t your position terribly sterile in the sense that…


MS. TIPPETT: Wait. Wait. We’re finishing. We’re not starting up again.


DR. RUSE: In the sense that you think that it’s all going to come to an end, and then God’s going to give you all the answers, and then you’re going to spend the rest of eternity singing hymns.

MS. TIPPETT: Is that what you think?


DR. RUSE: I mean, isn’t this…

MS. TIPPETT: Is that what you think?

DR. BRADLEY Here’s one place where we really disagree.



DR. BRADLEY No. I would say God is unfathomably infinite. Doesn’t matter how much you understand and how well you understand it, there’s still an infinite amount of wonder out there we haven’t begun to touch yet.

MS. TIPPETT: Okay. I think we’re going to stop there.


MS. TIPPETT: Um, I want to thank the two of you for coming all this way for this, and thanks everyone for being here at On Being on Loring Park. Yeah. We’re done.


[Music: “401 Circuit” by I am Robot and Proud]

MS. TIPPETT: Jim Bradley is professor emeritus of mathematics at Calvin College. He’s currently helping lead a multi-year project called Randomness and Divine Providence.

Michael Ruse is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University. His books include The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw and Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science.

[Music: “401 Circuit” by I am Robot and Proud]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again or share this show with Jim Bradley and Michael Ruse through our website onbeing.org. We’re also adding this show to our Civil Conversations Project — a resource for healing fractured civic spaces. It includes audio, video, transcripts and now two “conversation starters” on the morality of economic life. Find that link and learn more at onbeing.org.

Finally, don’t forget that we now have a free On Being app. iPhone and iPad users, go to the iTunes store; Android users, download the mobile app in the Google Play store. Please send us your feedback and your wish list as we develop the next version.

On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Chris Jones, and Julie Rawe.Special thanks this week to Cailey Cron, Andy Kline, Phyllis Alsdurf of Bethel University, and Dean Seal of Augsburg College.

Books & Music


Subscribe to On Being with Krista Tippett