Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fusion: Randomness and Creation

In this sometimes series, we are exploring the "fusion" of science and theology. Many Christian sites are responding to apparent contradictions between science and faith. My purpose in this series is to step beyond these problems to ask the question, "If science and the Bible are both revealing truth, what happens when we combine them? What new insights result from the fusion of growing natural revelation and special revelation?”

Einstein once declared that God does not play dice. His statement was less about theology and more about his initial distaste for quantum physics, but it serves as a backdrop to today’s post. Does God roll the dice? Did he create a universe regulated by chance, randomness? We Christians have difficulty with this idea of chance happenings. We prefer to think of God as the “Blessed Controller of all things” (J.B. Phillips translation of 1 Timothy 5:16). But physicists and biologists alike insist that all reality, from subatomic mechanics to genetic mutations, can only be understood as a flow of random events. Are they correct? Consider with me two contrasting theological frameworks:

1) God governs all creation with a “hands-on” approach, creating and then managing and superintending every detail, carefully orchestrating events to accomplish his purposes. If he did not special create each species, he at least intervened from time to time to guide the development of “irreducibly complex” biological systems. His directive influence extends not only over cosmic and biological evolution, but also over all human activity. He sovereignly guides every detail of the believer’s life, holds sway over the course of human history, even setting governments in place. In this way, the flow of creation moves unalterably toward the culmination of his over-all plan and purpose.

2) God initiates the cosmos, but then essentially leaves his hands off. He allows evolution to take its wandering course, and rarely intervenes in the affairs of human beings. But he is not the disengaged god of the deist; he is deeply interested and invested in the flow of human history (even entering into it in the person of Jesus) and interacts personally with people of faith. However he seldom exerts his directive influence; instead he chooses to let his creation take its natural course. His purposes are accomplish not by the force of his will and manipulations, but by the natural outplay of physical and spiritual laws.

In my previous Fusion post, I turned to the concept of evolutionary convergence to suggest that God might have created humankind “in his own image” using an entirely random evolutionary process. If this hypothesis were correct, it would mean that the second framework is no mere role of the dice. Rather, it would lead to this possible scenario: God created a vast cosmos, one of sufficient size to ensure the eventual emergence of planet capable of hosting life; he infused the cosmos with just the right chemistry to ensure that life could and would emerge and evolve upon that planet; and he waited patiently for nearly 14 billion years for these eventualities to transpire. After creating a universe capable of hosting and evolving humankind, despite its entropic nature, little or no direct divine intervention would have been required.

Such a scenario gives answer to the riddles posed by Richard Dawkins and others about the oddity of Christians assigning cosmic significance to human beings when we occupy an infinitesimal corner of an immense cosmos, and have been on the scene for a mere eyeblink of cosmic time. If, in fact, it best served the purposes of the Creator to allow his creation to develop according to natural laws, the scope of time and space may have been necessary.

But more importantly, such a scenario completely changes the playing field for theodicy, or the problem of evil. Under the first theological framework above, God must, in some answer for malaria, animal pain, millions of species extinctions, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and indirectly responsible for Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, 9/11, and every other imaginable human ill. However, if God’s purposes are best served by leaving his hands off of creation, all such ills are seen in a different light, assuming that God’s choice of modus operandi was one of necessity, not of whim.

While this scenario may help to solve some problems for belief, for many it raises other problems and questions. Among them,

1) What considerations might prompt God to create and govern his universe in this way? What might compel him to leave his hands off of creation even when it is assailed by catastrophic horrors and unthinkable atrocities?

2) Does randomness presuppose Open Theology, or the idea that God does not possess perfect knowledge of the future? This question was raised by a reader in response to the earlier post on randomness.

3) Can such a view of randomness be integrated into the teachings of the Bible, which might seem to favor the hands-on God?

In upcoming posts, I will offer my perspective on these and other questions.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Briefly Noted: My Summer Reading List

Well, actually, I read some of these books before summer, and I am not likely to finish them all before winter (I wish I could read books like my friend Wayne who devours one almost a day!) I may offer full reviews of some of these books, but it occurred to me that some of my readers may be looking for a summer read recommendation, so ...

Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, by N.T. Wright (HarperCollins Publishers, February 2008)

Many Christian universally accept the resurrection of Jesus as the pivotal event in human history. Most, however, fail to understand the full significance of resurrection. Wright (the Anglican Bishop of Durham, and one of Christianity’ s leading thinkers) offers a refreshing look at resurrection, its present and future implications. Evangelical Christians often emphasize “personal salvation” at the expense of the larger matters of God’s Kingdom purposes. Wright gently reminds us that it is not all about me! Those who think that they will “go to heaven” when they die should think again; Wright suggests otherwise. Those whose premillennial mindset gives them the perceived “right” to trample upon earth’s ecology should think again; those who think the earth is destined for the eternal ash heap should think again; Wright suggests otherwise. Those awaiting the “rapture” followed by seven years of tribulation should think again; Wright suggests otherwise. My emphasis here at OutsideTheBox has been upon how we got to this present moment; Wright’s sense of where we are and where we are headed fits in beautifully with where our cosmic and biological history tells us we have been.

The Deep Structure of Biology: Is Convergence Sufficiently Ubiquitous to Give a Directional Signal, Simon Conway Morris (Editor) (Templeton Press, May 2008)

Conway Morris, Professor of Evolutionary Palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge, happens to a Christian. Whether his faith biases him toward certain outcomes in his research, or whether it properly guides him down the correct path, will, of course, depend upon one’s presuppositions. But I find his work fascinating! This anthology about evolutionary convergence asks the larger question: Does biology offer evidence of ultimate purpose? Conway Morris and the writers joining him do not accept Special Creationism or Intelligent Design. They approach evolutionary science from a naturalistic standpoint. Nevertheless, they see hidden in the course of random evolution strong hints of teleology, a purpose behind it all. Convergence suggests that evolutionary outcomes are largely predictable without the interventions or superintendence of a Creator.

Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, Simon Conway Morris (Cambridge University Press, August 2004)

This earlier Conway Morris title arrived at my house from Amazon two days ago. I have only browsed the chapter titles so far. But the subtitle provides an overview. Conway Morris presents ample evidence that, given a planet like ours, and 3.8 billion years of random evolutionary wanderings, intelligent biped hominids (that’s us!) were bound to emerge. We are the inevitable result of the unguided, random processes of evolution. This is Conway Morris’s seminal presentation of convergence and its implications for intelligent, sentient life.

There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, Antony Flew (HarperCollins Publishers,

November 2008)

The title says it all. Antony Flew is a British philosopher who long led an atheistic charge against belief, insisting that we should properly presuppose no God until we have proof of his existence. He argued that the problem of evil was not solved by theists, and therefore stood as a powerful argument against the monotheistic faiths. In 2004, he did a remarkable turnabout. His deistic beliefs are not Christian; in fact, they suggest a rational basis for belief in God outside of religious faith. I’ve wanted to read Flew’s account of his “conversion”, and look forward to doing so.

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart (Yale University Press, April 2009)

[NOTE: I have now written a full review of this book which can be found here.]

Hart (who also wrote The Doors of the Sea which I reviewed here) is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher who is currently a professor at Providence College. Those who read into the subtitle a slightly dismissive tone (“its fashionable enemies”) do so correctly. Hart sets out to dismantle the underpinnings of today’s “new atheist” authors, (Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris) showing how their works rest less upon rigorous scholarship, and more upon the ethos of our age. When you serve up just what a culture is hungering for, you can make blanket proclamations devoid of logic or evidence; ill-informed masses will nod in agreement. The mere force of such atheistic declarations, coupled with the presumed scholarship of their sources, establishes the argument. Such assertions become easy fodder for Hart’s powerful refutation. Hart is nothing short of masterful. This book also showed up on my doorstep last week, and I am currently devouring it. I will offer a full review later.

So, if you’re still looking for that title to fill out your summer reading opportunities, you might find it in one of these five books.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Fusion: Convergence in Biology

In the previous post, I wrote to Nate, “The truths revealed in the cosmos, the fossil record, and our own DNA may at first be jarring to Christian faith. But when we stop resisting these truths, and begin the work of combining them with the revealed truths in the Bible, the exciting journey toward a fuller understanding of truth begins. And I am jazzed about that journey.” I have been on this journey for several years. However, most of my OutsideTheBox posts have concentrated upon the issue of evolution. The question of our evolutionary history is a settled issue for me. To me, the theological implications of evolution are of much greater interest and import. A friend recently encouraged me to post more on the impact evolutionary cosmology and biology have upon Christian theology. This I will do in a new series of posts under the heading of “Fusion”, with an open invitation for readers to join in with comments and questions. Many Christian sites are responding to apparent contradictions between science and faith. My purpose in this Fusion series of posts is to step beyond these problems to ask the question, “If science and the Bible are both revealing truth, what happens when we combine them? What new insights result from the fusion of growing natural revelation and special revelation?”

In a recent online discussion, a Creationist explained to me the problem he has with evolutionary science: "So God did not create man in his own image? ...in a old universe with macro-evolution ... we are not special .."

In his view, anything other than the special creation of mankind would mean that we are nothing more than an evolutionary accident. And so, along with many other Christians, he opts for a Creation that is precisely engineered and micromanaged by its Creator. 

However, there are serious problems with a micromanaging God, not the least of which is vulnerability to the challenge of Epicurus (see my recent post on Epicurus and the Problem of Evil). Is there a way out of this dilemma? Is it possible that God could create a universe that evolves on its own, without his constant interventions, and still have a predictable outcome: Man, created in his own image? The answer may be found in the principle of Evolutionary Convergence.

First, a little background: Convergence, is defined by Wikepedia as “the approach toward a definite value, as time goes on.” The term has various technical and mathematical applications, and is used in many social sciences. Of interest to our discussion is the principle of convergence as it is used in evolutionary science

Convergent evolution is based upon several observed phenomena. Here are a few fascinating examples:

1) Wings, with similar aerodynamic construction, have developed independently in birds and in bats, suggesting that the wing itself is a predictable outcome, a natural adaptation waiting to be “found” by natural selection.

2) Camera-like eyes, with similar characteristics, but with significant design differences, have developed independently in mammals and cephalopods (squids and octopuses, e.g.). Interestingly, the eye of the cephalopod is of superior design. Instead of the internal wiring from the retina which results in the blind spot in our eyes, the cephalopod’s eye has external wiring, eliminating the blind spot. Still, the eye is another example of an advantageous adaptation waiting to happen!

3) Adaptive Spaces: perhaps the most compelling example of convergence in evolution is the remarkable correspondence in the fauna that developed in Australia and that which developed in the rest of the world. That is, the array of marsupial animals in Australia bear many similarities to the array of placental mammals elsewhere. It is clear that the geographical separation of these two animal groups happened very early in the evolutionary tree. And yet, within the two groups, many of the same types of animals emerged over time, suggesting that certain “adaptive spaces” or “ecological niches” were waiting to be filled, and that the random processes of natural selection were predestined to find them.

In fairness, this principle of convergence is still a matter of debate among evolutionary scientists. American evolutionary biologist Steven J. Gould famously defended the principle of contingency: he claimed that if we could turn back the clock to the beginning of evolution and start the process over, an entirely different set of living things would emerge, that every new random development is “contingent” upon those that preceded it. British paleontologist Simon Conway Morris leads the charge for the other side, making the case for convergence. He claims that our observations of phenomena suggest that if we turned back that clock and started evolution all over, a very similar set of living things would emerge. The random processes might vary, details could be different, but the ultimate outcomes might be substantially the same. The result of the process would be a set of organisms bearing remarkable similarity to that which we observe today.

I have been reading a fascinating anthology on convergence, edited by Conway Morris (and recommended to me by Isaac, a frequent OutsideTheBox commenter) which outlines the current state of convergent evolutionary science. This science suggests that the process of evolution quite naturally will find itself moving toward certain predictable outcomes, including sentience (perception, subjectivity) and intelligence.

Back to our Creationist’s objection to evolution. How does convergence impact his claim that in evolution, man is not special, that we are mere accidents, and certainly not the intended image bearers of the divine which the Bible declares us to be? Convergence suggests to me that God could create man “in his image” through unguided random natural processes; that without knowing, or needing to control, every detail of the process, the outcomes were from the very beginning quite predictable; that God used a remarkable plan to forge mankind by creating an awesome DNA language, stepping back, and watching his spectacular handiwork unfold. It suggests that it was not necessary for God to micro-manage the creative process we call evolution, or step in from time to time to tweak it, or add certain design elements into the mix. 

Since I started my quest for a deeper understanding of God and his ways, I have been looking for that principle that could wed the seemingly contradictory ideas of randomness and design. Such a principle would profoundly effect theology. The answer may lie in evolutionary convergence.

In future posts, I will seek to understand how a non-interventionist God effects theodicy (the problem of evil), and why God might have chosen such a non-interventionist approach in the first place.