By Jonathan B. Edelmann
This phenomenal world or material world in which we are placed is complete in itself because the twenty-four elements of which this material universe is a temporary manifestation, according to Sankhya philosophy, are completely adjusted to produce complete resources which are necessary for the maintenance and subsistence of this universe. There is nothing extraneous, nor is there anything needed. (A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada)
An understanding of God’s relationship with the world is essential for an informed response to contemporary scientific worldviews. Although there is copious literature dealing with this subject by Christian theologians, very little has been done from a Hindu perspective, with its different metaphysics.
We will look at how Christian thinkers have dealt with the subject of non-physical influence and intervention in the world, and then what Hinduism has to offer the discussion. I hope to show that the theistic Sankhya of the Bhagavata Purana (Srimad-Bhagavatam) offers a rich metaphysics and conception of the self to enhance two divergent Christian theologies of nature.
According to the Bhagavata Purana there is no reason to believe that God intervenes in the mechanics of nature or has not created a closed system, wherein objects and events are produced by causes within nature alone. Moreover, with the introduction of the Bhagavata Purana’s metaphysics, the Western ‘natural/supernatural’ distinction must break down.
What has become of the scientific method
Upon reading a typical university-level biology or physics textbook, one striking feature is that one will not find reference to non-physical phenomena, such as mind, intelligence, consciousness, God, overriding purposes, or final causes. One function of science is to describe phenomena; the physical eye does not see non-physical phenomena, so science is silent regarding them. But science does more than just describe, it also attempts to explain what is seen in terms of natural laws, forces, and chance mechanisms — what we ordinarily call ‘theories’. ‘Naturalism’ means that scientific theories are constrained to natural laws, mechanisms, forces, and other physical events; they do not speak of miracles, divine interventions, the influence of minds, intelligences, God, or gods. Nature is assumed to be a self-sufficient, closed system that operates, transforms itself, and produces objects and events by the principles contained within itself. It is assumed that the laws and forces within nature can account for observed phenomena.
‘Methodological naturalism’ is the method employed by scientists in what is now known as ‘science’. As scientists study nature, they assume it is an unbroken chain of natural cause and effect; that all phenomena are explicable by natural laws and forces produced within nature. Naturalism as a method has become a slippery concept. In fact, it is often wrongly equated and conflated with a metaphysical position.2 Those who conflate say that because science studies nature as if there are no non-physical influences and therefore has formulated theories that make no reference to them, then science must be saying there are no such things or that they are simply irrelevant to our knowledge of the world. Neo-Darwinism in particular can give the impression that God is absent in natural history; that if evolution is true, then only natural selection and random gene mutations are the causes of biodiversity. The emphasis on ‘only’ seems to indicate that God simply does not exist, or that God set up the original laws and chance mechanisms, but is now absent so that nature carries on without Him. Thus deism is as consistent with naturalism as atheism is.
However, naturalism can remain a methodology and resist a deistic or atheistic metaphysics.
One may say that God is ultimately the cause of all phenomena, working in and through secondary causes to create them, just as a computer programmer may create a programme to construct images rather than creating them directly. In other words, it can be said that God creates by natural processes; He seeks His ends, in terms of cosmic creation and sustenance, by working in and through nature. This is a view of God as the foundation of all existence and diversity, but not acting directly in the mechanics of nature.
Alternatively, naturalistic theories can be seen as just one way of looking and talking about the world. They do not falsify theistic ways of talking about the world because they are part of a different language game. There are different levels of reality, and science only picks out one of them. A scientific language game serves one function, whereas a religious or spiritual language game serves another function. They are essentially different worlds of discourse and so cannot conflict with one another. However, methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism are not entirely different positions either. When non-physical entities are not needed to explain anything (and naturalistic scientific theories are purportedly full explanations), then that calls into question the need to believe in them. God and consciousness become unneeded hypotheses that make no difference to our understanding of the world.
Methodological naturalism is about the practice of scientific enquiry into the natural world. George. G. Simpson says that he rejects supernatural events not because of a metaphysical preference, but on ‘necessary heuristic grounds’. (Simpson 1967) The argument, in a nutshell, is that science cannot be productive without rejecting non-physical causation. Conversely, it can only be productive if it assumes (for methodological purposes) that every event and object has a material cause. Why is this? Because science places importance on tests: a proposition must be shown either true or false by an experiment, demonstration, or observation. A necessary condition of a test is that the event in question be repeatable, or at least an event derivable from it must be testable. If we did not assume gravity as an unbroken law, then there would be no way to generate predictions about planetary movement (predictions that would act as ‘tests’ of the law’s truth). Pennock writes that ‘Controlled, repeatable experimentation … would not be possible without the methodological assumption that supernatural entities do not intervene to negate lawful natural regularities’. (Pennock, p. 89) Supernatural events negate experimentation because they are supposed as inconsistent (unlawful).
Thus, methodological naturalism is necessary for the empirical standard of science. If the goal of science is to acquire a theoretical understanding of nature, then to say that ‘God was pleased to do it like that’ (although that may be true) is not going to progress our theoretical understanding: ‘if God did it directly, there will be nothing further to find out’. (Pennock, p. 356) For these reasons, scientists often say that non-natural causation, if allowed in science, would end up as a ‘science stopper’.
A magical God
Plantinga, a noted analytic philosopher and committed Calvinist, argues that Christians need a science that ‘isn’t restricted by methodological naturalism’. (Pennock, p. 139) He characterises contemporary science thus: ‘God is a supernatural being, hypotheses referring to him therefore deal with something besides the natural; hence such hypotheses cannot be part of science’. (Pennock, p. 344) This is problematic, for it seems that a scientist is allowed to retain scientific integrity by saying ‘God did X’, hence ‘referring’ to God, as long as a cogent natural explanation is also given or as long as he is not making a scientific claim. A theist can always consider that God is directly working in and through natural chance and necessity processes; but that need not preclude a natural explanation too. The definition of science (as naturalistic) is not an arbitrary a priori definition bolstered by a naturalistically inclined community as Plantinga has been criticised for suggesting, nor is it claimed to be an a posteriori proposition; it’s an explication of ‘what scientists do’ because of the heuristic reasons mentioned above.
Methodological naturalism, as the very term suggests, is a functional definition of how science best operates, scientists argue. A scientist becomes suspect (as a scientist, not as a person) when, without giving a cogent natural explanation, he says ‘God did X’. Because Plantinga wants to let this possibility into science, he is also making a theological claim: that God does occasionally break the causal chain, and that there are no natural explanations for some events. Plantinga sees naturalism as an ‘arbitrary’ theological position because it restricts God’s action to secondary causes; the Christian doctrine leaves open the possibility of divine intervention and special creation.
Regarding the heuristic justification for methodological naturalism, Plantinga argues that divine intervention could be both a ‘science stopper’ and true. It is absurd to see some thing that is true as stopping science. Although as a ‘general rule’ direct causation ‘does not make for good science’, it does not follow that theists should assume, for instance, that the universe ‘is just there’ God must have done some things directly. He writes that ‘[if] after a great deal of study, we cannot see how he created some phenomenon P (life, for example) indirectly; thus probably he has created it directly’. (Pennock, p. 361) Some people are likely to raise their eyebrows at this: ‘But when does one conclude God created P directly? Isn’t the history of science littered with cases of “divine intervention”, which were later shown to be the result of perfectly natural causes?’ Plantinga does not deal with this point.
A fundamental assumption in Plantinga’s thinking is that the world is contingent: God could have decided to not make it at all, or could have done it differently. Hence the need for a posteriori and not a priori analysis to see how He did it. That means allowing for God’s direct action. At times methodological naturalism is useful, but at other times it may not be; perhaps Christians should pursue their own Augustinian science, utilising ‘all the Christian knows’.
A cosmic musician
Rev. Dr Arthur Peacocke, winner of the 2001 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, is a trained scientist and that training carries through in his approach to theology. He endorses ‘theistic naturalism’ as a philosophical understanding of nature. For him this means that God does not intervene in the world’s natural laws; that we can rarely have enough evidence to believe in miracles; that there is no soul or spiritual entity separate from matter aside from God; that the details of the observed world do not require recourse to an explanation outside of nature and they are not predetermined by God; and that God does not directly alter nature in response to prayer. (Peacocke 1993, pp. 191–213) For Peacocke, God gave matter the necessary conditions to evolve into life we are space dust come alive. The world developed and continues to develop according to the free play of chance within the structure of laws. Just as a fugue takes one musical theme and layers it over itself in a polyrhythmic fashion, similarly God unfolds the universe in an improvised and developmental fashion. Science is the tracing of the notes played by the universe. But Peacocke does not think that God pushes or pulls the universe in any particular direction, rather, through time and the right conditions, human life (and all else) develops because matter has the inherent capacity to do that. (Peacocke 2001, p. 75–80)
Peacocke is not sceptical of contemporary science; he embraces it with gusto. He goes so far as to assert that any ‘exploration towards God’ can only be based upon the scientific study of nature and humanity. The method of this study ought not be the ‘subjective’, ‘less accessible’, and ‘more contentious’ mysticism, but the ‘widely accepted’ and ‘justified basis’ of natural science. (Peacocke 2001, p. 16) Nevertheless, from scientific discoveries such as the fundamental laws of physics and neo-Darwinian evolution, the best inference is an ultimate ground of being or ‘Ultimate Reality’.
There are a few things in nature that fascinate Peacocke, and he uses them to model God’s relationship with the world. For instance, ‘dissipative systems’ are meant to illustrate his theory of ‘whole-part influence’ (other times he calls it ‘top-down’). Apparently, when a fluid is heated, the molecules cease to bounce around randomly: they ‘self-organise’ themselves. The nature of the system as a whole (the fluid and the device it is being heated in) causes the parts to act in a particular way (i.e., orderly when heated). This too happens in gene switching: ‘The parts [genes] would not behave as observed if they were not parts of that particular system [the body].’ (Peacocke 2001, p. 52) He points out that science is becoming more aware that life is a web of interconnected systems, each mutually affecting and being affected by the other. He wants to consider this an ontological claim, as opposed to a provisional, scientific claim. (Peacocke 2001, p. 55) This introduces his theory of the ‘flow of information’ in hierarchical systems. For instance, the environment imprints information on DNA in organisms via natural selection. The world is full of such instances: systems of one level transmit information and thus constrain, direct and guide systems of a lower level. He says that the idea of ‘information’ is not dependent upon the matter and energy that is often its medium (at least in our experience). If so, then information is contingent; but this seems at odds with self-organising complexity, in which information arises directly out of the properties of matter (a topic we take up later).
Peacocke notes that some theologians, such as Polkinghorne, propose that God acts within the unpredictabilities in the quantum world ‘in a way that, in practice, we could never detect’. (Peacocke 2001, p. 103) Thus God can act in the world, but because His action is in the shadows of our knowledge, we may never notice it. But isn’t this just the old divine intervention in a modern guise? The staunch naturalist Peacocke says ‘yes’ and proposes another way of looking at God’s relationship with the world.
For Peacocke, God is the world and more than the world — this view is called ‘panentheism’. God is therefore immanent in the world by creating, sustaining, and guiding the world in and through secondary natural causes alone. Because God is the world (and more than it), there are no ontological gaps between Him and the world. (Peacocke 2001, p. 58)
With that background knowledge, let us develop his thesis of God’s interaction with the world. The world is a ‘system-of-systems’, that is, it consists of the interconnectedness of all subsystems, such as the quantum, biological, and cosmological. It is somewhat analogous to the human body: both have interconnected systems within systems. God does not interact with the subsystems, but with the ‘world-as-a-whole’. In dissipative systems the nature and conditions of the whole system affect the individual units. Similarly, God sets constraints and ‘boundary conditions’ upon the individual units by establishing the nature and conditions of the universe as a whole. Put differently, just as the environment places constraints upon, and determines the characteristics of, organisms in it, so God institutes the state of the world and thereby affects the things in the world. Put differently yet again, just as a songwriter may determine the mood, tempo, and key of a song, but then within those constraints improvise and create a song, similarly God sets the conditions of the universe and improvises within those constraints. Peacocke writes:
By affecting its overall state, God could be envisaged as being able to exercise influence upon events in the myriad sublevels of existence of which it is made without abrogating the laws and regularities that specifically apply to them. Moreover, God would be doing this without intervening within the supposed gaps provided by the in-principle, inherent unpredictabilities. (Peacocke 2001, p. 109)
God therefore implements his will not by interventions, but by influencing the ‘world-system’ as a whole. ‘Any interaction of God with the world-system would be initially with it as a whole’, and from that initial interaction His will would ‘trickle-down’ to the lower levels of complexity. (Peacocke 2001, p. 110) This form of interaction is a ‘flow of information’ from God to the world as a whole. Peacocke also believes in bottom-up causality, wherein the units also affect higher levels of the whole system.
But is the import of theistic naturalism that, as Peacocke suggests, God is not needed to explain the details of the world? And is the antithesis of theistic naturalism divine intervention?
Of lovers and gods: The Sankhya model of theistic naturalism
We have looked at competing views from Plantinga and Peacocke regarding God’s relationship with the world. We will now look at Sankhya, an ancient Indian natural philosophy, which is, I will argue, a form of qualified theistic naturalism. I believe it illuminates the thesis that there can be a theistic naturalism.
There are theistic and atheistic versions of Sankhya; we shall focus on a theistic rendition, from the Bhagavata Purana, because we are, after all, attempting to see if theism can be friendly with naturalism. We will look at how theistic Sankhya has developed an extensive set of analogies and philosophical concepts to elucidate God’s relationship with the world.
Sankhya literally means ‘to count or enumerate’. The general purpose of all Sankhya philosophy is to give one knowledge of reality, which in turn frees one from error, which then frees one from suffering. It is also said to prepare one for meditation.
As with most Indian philosophical systems, dates and original authorship are difficult to discern; the traditions themselves often posit radically different origins than those proposed by Western scholars studying them. In the Bhagavata Purana, Sankhya is said to originate from Kapila, an avatara (incarnation) of Visnu. Kapila is the son of Kardama (Bhagavata Purana 3.24.29)3 and Kardama is a son of Brahma (Bhagavata Purana 3.12.27).
Kapila’s teachings on Sankhya to his widowed mother, and Krsna’s summary of Sankhya to Uddhava, the famous statesman of Mathura, are presented as the ‘word of God’. Hence the tradition views Sankhya not as a speculative philosophy but as divine teaching. Krsna makes explicit reference to previous Sankhya philosophies, (Bhagavata Purana 1.22.4–6 and 11.24.1–2) supposedly species of Kapila’s original Sankhya.
Purusa and prakrti
The meaning of purusa varies according to text and context. In the Bhagavata Purana, purusa either means the enjoyer of the material world (the individual soul, present in each living thing) or God. God is described in terms of three separate categories: brahman (impersonal, lucid energy); paramatma (the aspect of God in our heart, located in the world); and bhagavan (the Supreme Person), transcendental to matter and possessor of the omni-qualities. These categories are different aspects of one non-dual spiritual substance. (Bhagavata Purana 1.2.11)
The substance of the material world is called prakrti; it is ontologically different from Purusa. Prakrti is more than just the phenomenological world, it is also the characteristic quality of the material world itself and the substance of which everything material is made. Although our universe is temporary, prakrti is eternal; it existed before the world and will continue to be the material cause of future worlds. In and through the process of creation, subsistence, and annihilation, the total amount of energy in the world remains the same. Prakrti is spoken of in terms of five ‘gross’ elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space) and three ‘subtle’ elements (mind, intelligence, and false ego); we shall introduce other elements of prakrti later. In Sankhya, the effect necessarily exists in its cause, and an effect is ‘like’ its cause; that is, the effect in some way resembles and is constrained by the properties of the cause. (Bhagavata Purana 11.24.17) Prakrti is the material cause of all phenomena, thus it contains all properties and constituents of all phenomena.
The distinction between God and the conscious living being (jiva) is one of quantity, not quality. We are made of the same spiritual energy as God, but less of it as evidenced by our subjection to time and the constraints of our physical environment. Moreover, the jiva is considered ontologically distinct from prakrti; therefore it is different from body, mind, and intellect.4 Therefore, our true identity has nothing to do with our present mental and physical condition, which is entirely rooted in prakrti. Prakrti may also be called ksetra, which denotes a space or situation where the jiva can act; and the jiva is called ksetra-jna or the perceiver of that field, although it is not part of it. The ontological distinction between the self and matter, yet the recognition of their gnarled and convoluted intertwining, differs radically from Christian theology and contemporary philosophy.
Creation and causality
As mentioned previously, a key issue in naturalism is God’s relationship with the world. There are a number of analogies in Sankhya and Vedic philosophies that elucidate this relationship; I will develop two in this section. Visvanatha Cakravarti, a renowned Vaisnava teacher, says that just as a king presides over his subjects and delegates responsibilities to his ministers, God similarly creates, maintains, and destroys this world through His material energies without getting personally involved in the mechanics of the universe.5 The second major analogy, found throughout the Vedas, is that of God relating with the world just as a husband relates to his wife and child.
At the beginning of time, before the universe exists, prakrti is in an unmanifest state, called pradhana. Pradhana is an eternal and subtle substance that contains all of the latent potentials and characteristics of the phenomenological world; it is prakrti in a state of samya or equilibrium and rest. (Bhagavata Purana 3.26.10–13) It contains the blueprints of the physical forms that will be later manifest by an evolutionary process, as well as the ability to perceive and the objects of perception. A contribution specific in the Bhagavata Purana is that the pradhana is Brahman (pure spirit) with the gunas (qualities of nature) added. The gunas are qualitative and moral forces or modes. All objects are imbued with a combination of the three gunas: sattva or goodness and existence; rajas or passion and activity; and tamas or ignorance and inertia. The concept of gunas is, I believe, unique to Indian philosophy. Within the pradhana the gunas are balanced such that no interactions occur between them. In our own experience, prakrti is in an unbalanced state and the transformation of it is due to the mixing of the gunas with each other.
Creation takes place when the gunas are disturbed or excited by the addition of time by the Purusa. (Bhagavata Purana 3.26.17) Time is spoken of as the glance or thinking of God about the world. As such, time is not part of prakrti or pradhana, but comes from the Purusa, who is outside matter. It is because of time or the thought of God that the latent potentials within the pradhana begin to unfold, just as a spider releases its silk upon deciding to build a web. (Bhagavata Purana 11.24.16) Time brings the unmanifested and motionless pradhana into manifestation and motion; thus, without time’s continued influence there would be no universe. Along with such descriptions, the Bhagavata Purana depicts the Purusa as placing His virya (potency) in prakrti, ‘She’ then proceeds to ‘deliver’ the universe. The rest of the story is a complex description of subtle elements unfolding into more gross elements, but all of the qualities of the final result are contained in the original cause. ‘Nothing comes from nothing’ is an axiom of Sankhya. The development is naturalistic in the sense that the gunas, time, and matter contain the necessary and sufficient properties to develop the phenomenological world by themselves; just as when a husband impregnates his wife, the combination of semen and egg contain the biological capacities to form a baby. In this analogy, the husband is the purusa, the wife prakrti, and the universe is their offspring.
It is explained that, once the fundamental aspects of the universe have been actualised, God creates a secondary creator: Brahma, the celebrated ‘creator’ god. God Himself does not directly or personally create what we know to be the world; He gives the responsibility and power to a jiva soul. But Brahma is only empowered; his potency is derived from a source greater than him.
Once the Purusa has unleashed the pradhana by disrupting the gunas, Brahma receives the power from God to substantiate planets, stars, and living organisms. Brahma describes himself as ‘manifest[ing] the created potentials’ and as ‘let[ting] forth the emanation’. (Bhagavata Purana 2.5.11 and 20) Commentators on the tradition have described him as the ‘direct creator of the manifest universe and everything within the universe’. (Bhagavata Purana 2.5.3) Thus it seems that Brahma is left with the work of assembling the universe, as one might bake a cake once the ingredients and recipe have been given.
The analogy used in the commentarial tradition is that of seeds. The seeds (potentials) are partially developed from the pradhana, and then handed over to gods and humans to nourish and bring to fruition. There are some obvious relationships with the notion of ‘co-creation’ as developed by some Christian theologians. The Sankhya tradition also distinguishes between creating and discovering: Brahma does not create the world, he discovers the process of unfolding the universe, just as one might discover the process of manifesting a tree from a seed; this is very different than creating the seed and tree. The forms (in a Platonic sense) of objects have already been brought out of the pradhana by the time Brahma arrives on the scene, but only in a very subtle or conceptual sense. The nature of Brahma’s work, therefore, is to slowly utilise those concepts to manufacture the constituents of our universe.
The overall point is that Brahma is given the power to manifest the world by God so that God’s direct help and intervention is not required. But devas such as Brahma are just as much a product of prakrti as humans, plants and animals. That is why the phenomenological world is considered to be governed by the gunas and not by the devas - the devas too are under control of the gunas. (Bhagavata Purana 1.1.1) The devas’ abilities and powers are constrained by the properties of prakrti. They are not ‘supernatural’ agents like the Purusa is. However, because the devas possess greater power than a human possibly can, their interaction with our phenomenological world may appear as ‘supernatural’. Therefore, this model problematises the simple natural/supernatural distinction of some theologians.
In terms of a human being’s experience of the world, that too is naturalistic in character. A consistent theme in Sankhya is that the perceived cause and effect, and the transformations of nature, are caused by the interactions of the gunas, which are constituents of prakrti alone. The jiva is bound, covered, and conditioned to perceive the world in terms of natural cause and effect by a complex matrix of cognitive structures. This gives one the illusion that it is ‘as if the world were materially produced’. (Bhagavata Purana 2.5.19)
There are parallels to be drawn between Peacocke’s notion of ‘world-as-a-whole influence’ and the Sankhya belief that the fundamental aspects and latent potentials that become the world all exist within the pradhana.
In both Sankhya and top-down causality, God sets or designs the initial conditions of the unmanifest world and then these play out or manifest over time. Sankhya puts more emphasis on the unfolding of predetermined potentials, whereas Peacocke, being influenced by Darwinian evolution, puts more emphasis on the free interplay of chance and necessity, which results in accidental forms. Sankhya says that the most general form of the universe, as well as the general forms of organisms, are eternal and to a certain extent necessary, whereas Peacocke erases a strict teleological evolution by saying that the way forms turn out is not predetermined by God (that is what I mean by accidental). But the basic principle of God endowing abstracted conditions of the world with specified characteristics and not intervening as they unfold is the same. The Sankhya model, however, is highly theoretical and the relationship between the gunas and laws of nature needs to be filled out; it may need a stronger empirical basis to become a viable theology of nature.
Qualifying methodological naturalism
We have shown that there are theistic ways of thinking about the world in a naturalistic light by discussing God’s relationship with the mechanisms of Nature, but nothing of God’s relationship with us has been discussed. It is on the level of the self that I wish to qualify theistic naturalism.
In Sankhya, the thing we call ‘life’ in all living things is not part of prakrti; it possesses free will and is controlled by the gunas, but it is able to become free of their influence. (Bhagavata Purana 3.27.23) God reciprocates with its desire, prayers, intentions, and action in a way unconstrained by the gunas, laws of nature, or material forces. Moreover, the concept of the avatara or ‘incarnation’ is prevalent in many Indian philosophies, and certainly in the Bhagavata Purana. The point here is that God ‘crosses over’ from a realm beyond prakrti to help the living entities for the sake of rasa, or spiritual relationship with those devoted to God.
For management of the universe, God created a closed system and its development is left to gods, humans, and the gunas. But in terms of rasa, spiritual relationship, naturalism may not apply in all cases. God does intervene in Nature’s workings, but not for reasons as mundane as cosmic management — God has better things to do!
If God reciprocates with our free will and so forth, then does God’s action interrupt what would be the normal ebb and flow of nature’s mechanisms? That is a question left unanswered here; we have only wished to show that in terms of nature’s mechanisms, methodological naturalism can be justified as a legitimate approach with a theistic conception of the universe. In speaking of how the actions of free, non-physical agents affect the world, methodological naturalism becomes more suspect.
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1 A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Bhagavad-gita As It Is. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (1996), p. 7.
2 See Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, and Phillip Johnson, Darwin on Trial.
3 All Bhagavata Purana translations taken from: Shastri 1997.
4 It is of course odd to say that there are two things, mind and intellect, and even stranger to say the self is not either of them. There is philosophical justification for this, but it goes beyond the scope of this paper.
5 Narayana Bhaktivedanta Swami. Srimad Bhagavad-gita. New Delhi: Gaudiya Vedanta Samiti (2000), pp. 513–4.