Thursday, August 11, 2005

Divine Evolution

Frederick Turner is on a mission, and he thinks he’s reached a point of transformation in his ongoing debate. I’m not sure the folks most heatedly in conversation with him agree, but I find his approach a refreshing one to consider.

In his continuing series of articles on Evolution, Turner has now hypothesized a synthetic framework (as in “synthesized,” rather than “ersatz”) for reconciling Evolution and Intelligence Design in Divine Evolution, up at Tech Central Station.

In addition to mentioning his colleagues at Tech Central Station, Lee Harris, James Pinkerton, and Nick Schulz, Turner mentions an ongoing dialogue at Natural History magazine.

Turner catalogs some areas in which some Intelligent Design proponents are willing to more or less accept some (theoretical) aspects of Evolution, as well as other, broader conceptions found in current astrophysical research. He cites as examples "Old-earth" Intelligent Design proponents, who “accept that the universe may have started 13 billion years ago with a Big Bang, that the Earth is at least 4 billion years old, and that "microevolution", the diversification of species into strains and breeds, can occur through selection.” Or those who are willing to accept that “different species and genera can diverge from a common ancestor,” although with the caveat that major transformations would require act of the Divine, “literally a miracle.”

Turner is hopeful that these developments in the debate may signal the readiness for a conversation, “a fruitful inquiry that includes good biological science but does not exclude the insights of other disciplines.”

Turner sees a major problem for those of us who believe in a Divine Creation, but who nevertheless aren’t ready to discount (out of hand) the findings of science:
If evolution, as 99% at least of all scientists who have studied biology agree, is quite capable of producing all the life forms of the world without outside intervention in the process, what need is there for God?
Quite. Now as a born again Christian, I have come to know first hand the reality and trustworthiness of the Word of God in the matters leading up to, prompting and confirming my conversion, and with my witness since salvation, with the many wonderful ways God reminds me of His ever-presence, and proximity. But I am a modern man, I have studied (some) science, I am prepared to concede much in evidence in the modern world that would appear to contradict both traditions and certain interpretations of Biblical text. But I strive for consistency and reconciliation, as I believe Turner does, because that is my faith, and it informs my reflections, as it must.

Turner introduces several premises upon which God can be logically intuited without contradiction, and then discusses problems with these conceptions from both the creationist and materialist perspectives. The first is what Turner states cosmologists call the "goldilocks" problem. This term captures the concept that many essential conditions for the creation of the Universe – of those observable by science – had to be “just so” (not too hot, not too cold), or “we would not be here to observe it.”

Turner discounts William Paley’s analogy for divine design based on finding a watch. Scientists now think a staggering complexity can be randomly evolved “given time, variation, selection, the marvelous versatility of the genome and proteome, and the interaction of genome with environment in embryonic and fetal development.

Turner suggests a better analogy, given the state of today’s science, one that is more compelling in suggesting design:
But if the true analogy of the watch is not the eye or the flagellum, but the initial parameters of the universe itself, all packed into the atom-sized singularity of the first moment of the Big Bang, perfectly and uniquely fitted to produce orchids and finches and sperm whales and human beings after 13 billion years, one begins to wonder. Doesn't that look a heck of a lot like design? Some cosmological physicists, in an attempt to avoid the question, now postulate an enormous number of different universes being produced at random by the big bang, nearly all of which wouldn't be fitted to produce life and mind, and the fact that we are aboard this one, which is so fitted, is not so strange. But this explanation violates the philosophical principle of Occam's razor, which is that one shouldn't make one's explanation wildly more complicated and inexplicable than what one is trying to explain. Why should the big bang be perfectly fitted to produce trillions of universes, one of which was bound to produce life? If there were trillions of big bangs, just one of which could produce universes, one of which could produce life, the same problem arises. Turtles all the way down. An uncreated creator is simpler at least, and it is not intellectual suicide to postulate one.

This is the problem for anti-design thinkers: though evolution, once it is set in motion, mightn't require further design, design certainly looks like the least implausible explanation for the beginning of the process itself.
But Turner doesn’t let the Creationist off the hook either:
What would we say about a creator who started a universe with the evident intention of producing life and intelligence, but who needed to step in every few billion years, or every few seconds, to fix the process, rewrite the program, give the actors new lines, touch up the brushstrokes of the painting, seize the conductor's baton and introduce a new melody?
Well, say the theists -- doesn't that leave us with a god who, having as the Bible says taken a holiday on the seventh day, no longer concerns himself with his creation? This, they say, is the deist position, with its uncomfortable implication that our god is a deus absconditus, an absconding god, an otiose deity, no longer interested in the world enough to bother giving us moral guidance or comfort in our mortal pain.

Turner raises yet another interesting twist in his debate, ushering in the Founders as character references for the synthesis he proposes.

The universe they envisaged, of "nature and of nature's God", as it says in our Declaration of Independence, is distinguished by its overriding quality of freedom. It's a hands-off universe, in which things do what they want, what is in their nature to want, rather than one that is micromanaged by a an external deity who forces things to happen the way he wants, concealing his manipulations as he goes, like a devious boss in an office.

There is a part of this that speaks truth to the Believer. If God controls our decisions of faith and preordains them, then are we really the agent of our own salvation? We are free to choose, and free to reject. God may know which choice we will make, but the choice is still ours.

Turner rejects the notion that such conceptions mean that God is remote and uncaring. Rather, he suggests it may be that God is all around us, all the time. That is certainly consistent with my reading of the Bible and the evidences of my Christian walk. Turner asks the question that is at the heart of his suggested synthesis:
What if God is always intimately here, at hand, in the very workings of nature itself, in the sun and moon, the ox and the ass, the human body, as Saint Francis believed? God would certainly be remote and detached if he were outside nature, and did not mess with the process of evolutionary history once begun. But if God is within nature, and the free creative evolutionary process is his very intention working itself marvelously out -- as Emerson thought -- then he would be very close indeed, maybe even uncomfortably so.
I have often thought that God created the universe in a pattern reflected in Genesis, but perhaps consistent also with what modern science attempts to pin down as biological mechanisms. What if evolution itself is an attempt to describe the manner in which God created life, in all its astonishing abundance and incredible variety?

And Turner suggests a trace of the finger of God elsewhere in contemporary models of biology:
Here is a way in which a "God of Nature" might be seen as intimately involved with our lives. We now know that nonlinear dynamical systems -- essentially, systems whose elements all cause and control each other's actions, and in which a single line of cause and effect is impossible to untangle -- have "strange attractors". Strange attractors are graphically demonstrable forms that govern the evolution of the dynamical system, but do it in a way that is not predictable. Some attractors, like the Lorenz attractor, govern lots of very different dynamical systems, from dripping faucets to the rotation of star clusters. Living organisms are highly complex dynamical systems, combining in their operation many hierarchical levels of different attractors, with a grand super-attractor that is unique to each species. That attractor can be seen at work in embryonic and fetal development and maturation, where the proteins specified by the genes self-assemble into the adult organism. A much swifter form of self-assembly, but of the same kind, takes place in the brain when the nonlinear dynamical system of the neurons, connected by continually-adjusting synaptic gates, comes up with an idea or a memory.
And in Turner’s synthesis, these same strange attractors can be consistently construed as acts of God in causing His will to be reflected in His works:
This conception might be called natural providence, and it has some appealing features from a theological point of view. Whereas classical linear cause and effect "pushes" events into happening, enforces them, attractors "pull" or invite them to happen; what happens next is only one of a number of possible outcomes for the system at that moment -- in effect, choice is built into the physical world. This view of things suggests that if there are divine intentions working themselves out, they are incarnate within nature itself. It brings the will of God into the most intimate recesses of our bodies. And yet it does not constrain belief in God -- a hugely important criterion in the Bible, at least, since we must be free to choose to believe. For we can always dismiss the whole process as merely a natural phenomenon.
As Turner concludes, he notes that his proposition in no way invalidates or conflicts with a conception of a Divine Being, and
…Is not at odds with any revelation we might have about them. What it does do is recover the immanent, or incarnate, aspects of the divine that were lost when Enlightenment theologians decided to kick God out of the physical universe.

"I am the true vine," said Jesus, "and you are the branches." The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that grows and branches into a tree; it's like a sower whose seeds have differential rates of reproduction; it's like the yeast that leavens the whole lump. These images are entirely consistent with the theory of evolution.
Illumination from Joe Katzman

Joe Katzman, responded to the Turner piece with a post at Winds of Change.
Spiritual progress can be made very complicated, but at its core it's very simple: "be and become more like G-d."
While Joe comes from a different faith tradition than I, what he shares about cultivating a direct relationship with God, and that we must assume responsibility for advancing spiritually, are entirely consistent with the imperatives of my faith as a Christian.

Joe asserts that love and responsibility are a pair of wings we need to fly:
For G-d is not just ultimate love. G-d is also ultimate responsibility. Responsibility requires knowledge, even experience. You know how your parents' decisions start to look smarter as you get older?

So connection with love, removal of ego, humility, clear perception, giving... these are all aspects of the divine.

Understanding, responsibility, learning about creation and what it means to be a creator - these, too, are aspects of the divine.

We are learning that we need both wings to fly.
Joe makes an excellent point on the critical importance of valuing and pursuing spiritual growth and observance. What takes its place if we don’t?
If we renounce the spiritual side or pledge worship to our fellow man, we get hell on earth. The 20th century was one long, eloquent demonstration. As one Jewish scholar put it "The Holocaust may make faith in G-d difficult, but it makes faith in man impossible."
Which, I think, brings us back to the limitations of a purely Scientific Man, who cannot accept the conception of an Intelligent Designer. Faith in God may be difficult, but Faith in Man (alone) is indeed impossible.


Blogger Joe Katzman said...

Let me throw you a curve.

An omniscient G-d knows all possibilities, by definition. As such, G-d has always seen what will be.

A being at G-d's level is probaby also skilled enough to create in ways that foster "strange attractors" (think of them as built in biases that constrain possibilities in a running equation - we know they exist and can demonstrate them visually from certain mathematical equations).

When we look around, the things G-d asks us to do may not work out for every single individual, but the long term record of following them vs. not will create noticeably better outcomes. Hmmm.

Which means G-d can have perfect knowledge, and even a plan that works itself out, and you can still have free will and the need for meaningful moral choice as part of faith (it would be a meaningless moral choice if it always led to reward, after all).

In the end, it's up to us re: what part we wish to play in G-d's creation. That's a spiritual truth that sits above and beyond the mechanics of the system, (part of which involves evolution, as best science can understand).

11:41 PM  
Blogger dadmanly said...


How kind of you to stop by! You do present an interesting challenge.

My reading of the Old Testament would certainly support your hypothesis. God doesn't guarantee us, His created, as individuals, anything. Law was all about outcomes, across the population and generally. God may have covenanted with Abraham (the friend of God), but since Moses, He made His promises to Israel and Judah (as best I make out).

God in His being must be perfect and infallible (I rely on scripture more than logic), but that doesn't compel Him to visit the same punishments on those who sin (transgress).

I like the idea of "built in biases." With my community of believe, we have often discussed that God's Law was all about describing for His children basic facts about its operation, and consequences for various (not good) behaviors.

He won't force us to follow His will that we be the best we can be or He would desire; He wants us to seek that.

What part will we play? He leaves that up to us.

I very much appreciate your insights. (I excerpted so as to not clip your entire post, not that I didn't agree with yoru point about a shared responsibility as a co-creator.)

12:00 AM  

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