International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics

by Nancey Murphy , George F. R. Ellis

Introductory Essay by Philip Clayton

On the Moral Nature of the Universe quickly became a classic “framework” book in religion and science. It sets out the concepts of levels of dependence and emergence within the universe and places them within a grand theological narrative of the emergence of value, grounded ultimately in God.

The argument begins by defending the concept of emergent order. New levels of organization emerge over cosmic history, and the new entities exercise top-down causation on the levels below them. Of course, this causation is always mediated through physical structures. But what does the causing are not just microphysical entities; emergent realities – birds and bankers and big ideas – also have causal effects.

The authors sketch out physical cosmology today but resist a purely physicalist model, appealing to the cosmic anthropic principle and resisting all cosmologies that are based on science alone.

The book’s central chapters attempt to construct a hierarchy of all the sciences. The specificity of the proposal that they diagram (see p. 86) highlights both the book’s interest and, some would say, its greatest vulnerability. Like most scholars, the authors construe physics – chemistry – biology as an ascending hierarchy. After biology, though, their one hierarchy branches into two. The less value-laden side ascends beyond biology to ecology, geology, astrophysics and, finally, to cosmology, the study of the physical universe as a whole. The second, more value-laden hierarchy ascends up a different set of fields: psychology, then the social and applied sciences (where they consider jurisprudence, political science, economics, and sociology/ anthropology ), then “motivational study”, and culminates with ethics.

Chapter 5 sketches an argument for the centrality of ethics within the social sciences outlining a meta-ethic highly reliant on the work of Alasdair MacIntyre. Unlike secular ethicists, however, the authors ultimately ground ethics in theology, which they view as “the metaphysical basis of ethics” [108]. The authors interpret ethics as a research program utilizing a concept taken from Imre Lakatos. They define the “hard core” of their ethical research program as self-renunciation; their central ethical claim is that “self-renunciation for the sake of the other is humankind’s highest good” [118].

In the resulting proposal, theology provides the telos for all talk of values in the universe. The authors interpret their ethic of renunciation as the core of a social philosophy (a “social ethic”) to apply across human interactions. In chapter 7 they then propose a complete “reconfiguration” of the social sciences in light of their theology-based ethic and their model of social change.

The book concludes with a robustly theological grounding for the entire project. Theologically, the authors advocate a “kenotic” conception of God, heavily reliant on the Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder. Chapter 9 fleshes out their proposal into a detailed theological cosmology, a kenotic reading of biology, and a “noncoercive” interpretation of divine action.

The authors endorse three levels of epistemological evaluation: fine scale, medium scale, and large scale. On the medium scale, they identify which research programs in theology are “progressive” and claim the objective superiority of the theologies of Wolfhart Pannenberg and Arthur Peacocke over the naturalisms of Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. On the large scale, they attempt to answer the challenge of theodicy, a project on which both authors continued to work in the context of the Vatican/CTNS divine action project (much of which work is contained elsewhere in the ISSR Library).