TCS Daily


Divine Evolution

By Frederick Turner - August 10, 2005 12:00 AM

Oscar Wilde remarked that to be happy it is not enough to be a success; our friends must fail. Religious views -- whether theistic or atheistic -- are, alas, the same: for our view to be right, all the others must be wrong.

But as the evolution/design debate develops, more serious and thoughtful voices have joined in -- people whose thinking does not seem to be limited by partisan or ideological preconceptions, and who are not making the issue, as others have, a proxy for a fight about theology or atheism. Such voices include TCS's Lee Harris, James Pinkerton, and Nick Schulz, and the participants in the interesting dialogue at Natural History magazine. "Old-earth" Intelligent Design proponents 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. Some even accept that different species and genera can diverge from a common ancestor (though they insist that at least the major transitions -- from nonliving matter to life, from life to consciousness -- required some kind of special intervention, literally a miracle). A common vocabulary is emerging. The ground may now be prepared for a transformation of the debate from a partisan wrangle into a true conversation, a fruitful inquiry that includes good biological science but does not exclude the insights of other disciplines.

One important question remains relatively unexplored. Indeed, the value of the debate may be precisely the raising of such questions. The question is this: if, in the opinion of many of the wisest thinkers on the issue, there is no contradiction between the idea of a creative divinity and the theory of evolution, how can this be so? If evolution, as 99% at least of all scientists who have studied biology agree, is quite capable of producing all the lifeforms of the world without outside intervention in the process, what need is there for God?

The awkward issue here is what some cosmologists call the "goldilocks" problem. The initial parameters of the universe -- the speed of light, Planck's constant, the number of families of quarks, the electron volt constant, Avogadro's number, the gravitational constant, the rate of curvature of the universe, the strength of the weak and strong nuclear forces, etc, etc -- had to be "just right" for the universe to have produced life and minds. If, like the porridge or the beds of the three bears, the universe is too hot or too cold, too big or too small, we would not be here to observe it.

William Paley argued for divine design on the analogy that if you found a pocket watch on the heath, you would assume that it had been made by someone, rather than that it self-assembled. It now turns out that even complex structures such as the eye and the flagellum and the protein machines of our bodies can all be produced by self-assembly, given time, variation, selection, the marvelous versatility of the genome and proteome, and the interaction of genome with environment in embryonic and fetal development.

Paley was wrong in his analogy, because there was a process that could explain the complexity and functionality. 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 the theological problem for the Intelligent Design advocate is just as awkward. 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? Wouldn't we say that such a creator was an incompetent artist, that if he knew what he was doing he wouldn't be botching it up all the time and having to come in to shore up the building or fire a midcourse correction burn?

A perfect creator would surely have no need to step in once the process was going. He would not be a "god of the gaps", where we bring God in just when we can't explain some connection in the history of the universe, on the assumption that this was where God had to fix some imperfection in the process. A perfect creator would not be hostage to the possibility that one by one the gaps would be filled by good clear science. He would not need to be successively robbed of the credit for making the warmth and light of the sun, the thunder and lightning, the motions of the planets, and the wonders of digestion and muscular contraction and psychological motivation as they are explained by science, because he could take the even greater credit for having created the natural process that produced all of them.

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.

It is interesting, however, to note that many of the greatest framers of our Constitution were deists. 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. The good, they thought, would emerge by itself if we got the legal and economic rules right, and would not need to be enforced by the decrees of a king. Evolution, with its emergent species, looks a lot like a free market, with its emergent true prices. Paradoxically the theory of evolution is far more consistent with the open-market, free-enterprise, limited-government ideals of the American Right (which sometimes opposes evolution) than with the anti-market, politically correct, big-government ideals of the American Left (which has in desperation taken up evolution's cause despite the fact that evolution is fatal to the leftist's desire to micromanage).

And what if the "nature and nature's god" position -- that God does not need to step in from some external place outside the universe to ensure his will is done -- does not imply a remote and uncaring god at all? 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.

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.

The self-assembly is not constrained to take a single path, but can take many branching alternatives while still being constrained by a general goal. Such systems are the home of the butterfly effect, where measurably the same situation can give rise to many different paths of development. Strange attractors, when graphically represented, are invariably beautiful to the human eye, with their fractal depth and inexhaustible variation upon a theme. Many have seen pictures of the whorls and paisleys of the Mandelbrot Set. Such attractors are impossible to ever fully plot out, and so are infinite in their own way.

In a sense the attractors preexist the dynamical systems they govern. Even before there were globular star-clusters and dripping faucets, the fractal form of the star orbits and drip-sequences was already inherent in nature. Even before there were plesiosaurs and dolphins and seals and penguins, the strange attractors of airbreathing marine fauna were already inherent in nature. Even before we thought these thoughts, the incredibly complex and unique dance of neuronal firings and chemical reactions that embody them was already waiting in nature's wings. If we insist, as the physicists do, that our universe began with certain fundamental constants -- the speed of light, Planck's constant, etc -- it must also have begun with the whole suite of strange attractors of species and even thoughts, past, present and future.

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.

This way of looking at the issue is not pantheism, by the way. (See here). It says nothing -- and surely should say nothing, by definition -- about the transcendent aspects of the divine, 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.

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3 Comments

A Cosmos of many Parallel Universe is not necessarily non-theist and overcomplicated
(from my blog: God’s Many Dices (I) - The Science of Parallel Universes http://tinyurl.com/y52t8j

http://omnologos.wordpress.com/2006/10/23/god%e2%80%99s-many-dices-i-the-science-of-parallel-universes/ )

(b) Would a Cosmos made of all those Parallel Universes be just too complex to comprehend?

Tegmark replies that more often than not there is far less complexity in defining a set with a general overarching rule, rather than a particular item of that set with a precise description: "complexity increases when we restrict our attention to one particular element in an ensemble"

Consider in fact a description of the Cosmos, "All-There-Is" as the Level IV Multiverse: there are many sets of physical laws and mathematics, each at work in its own Level II Multiverse, all expressed following a large variety of different initial conditions in a large number of Hubble Volumes (Level I Multiverse)

That's 38 words

A description of our own Hubble Volume, with all its physical constants having particular values, and all the galaxies and stars and human beings placed in a particular position, etc etc would be definitely much, much longer than 38 words

And a Cosmos made up of a single Hubble Volume is complicated indeed

"The simplest and arguably the most elegant theory involves Parallel Universes by default" - writes Tegmark. "To deny the existence of those universes, one needs to complicate the theory by adding experimentally unsupported processes and ad hoc postulates" (like finite space)

And finally, "Our judgement therefore comes down to which we find more wasteful and inelegant: many worlds or many words" (my emphasis)

Yeah: but even multiverses of multiverses don't fix the turtles all the way down problem
At every level of the game, you need a principle of selection for the game to proceed - not progress, mind you, but simply to recur. Reverting to a multiverse of multiverses of multiverses, &c. ad infinitum, is no different than reversion to a less than ultimate creator. Russell asked, "Who created God?" A fatuous, and perfectly self-conscious, misapprehension of the meaning of the word, "God." Unless the Ultimate is itself unmoved, eternal, and necessary, and defines a principle of selection for all the possible games in all the possible universes - i.e., is what Plato called the Form of the Good - then there is no ultimate at all. In that case, there can be no basis for a determination of what constitutes orderliness, or disorderliness. In that case, science, and for that matter quotidian animal behavior, become impossible; for all the apparent "order" of the universe can no longer be understood as anything but happenstantial.

Mr. Turner: kudos to all your work; particularly loved Shakespeare's 21st Century Economics. Will read Natural Religion asap. In the meantime, let me recommend to you a work of a fellow Texan, Charles Hartshorne. His Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes will clear up a lot of the difficulties you mention, in reconciling creaturely freedom with Divine Power. A short, clear, precise book.

No turtles
I have not proposed an infinite succession of multiverse of multiverses. The model is far simpler and just depends on equating all-that-is-possible with all-that-exists

Quite a flat Cosmos with 3 "levels" that are just logical groupings

Not sure why an ultimately moral quest for orderliness would be relevant. In the model I describe, there is no such a thing as "morality" in Nature.

Order just "happens" because it is possible

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