Is nature perfect?


Thanks to the internet, anyone can sit at their computer and read the texts of, or even listen to, sermons from far flung churches that one has never attended. I listened to an interesting and thought provoking sermon by an Episcopalian priest in San Francisco, which I enjoyed; but I did give pause when I heard him issue this quote from Thomas Merton: "In nature," according to Merton, "everything is doing the will of God perfectly at every moment."

According to this view, everything both animate and inanimate in the natural world--from dogs to trees to stars--are the perfect expression of divine will. This means, for example, that every action an animal takes manifests divine will; but it also implies, to me anyway, that even the form that nature takes is the perfect expression of divinely willed creation. Birds have wings and fish have fins, in other words, because it is perfect that it should be so.

As profound and inspiring as this view is, I disagree with it.

If nature truly reflects God's will perfectly, a question immediately comes to my mind--are we, as human beings, not also part of nature? After all, we obey the same physical laws as dogs and trees do. We hunger, we thirst, and we break if we fall. We die as every living thing does. We share the same basic genetic framework that all living creatures do. We evolved on this earth as descendents of the first living forms billions of years ago, and we participate in the planet's ecology. We are, in other words, integrated fully into the natural world. To claim that we humans are not included in Thomas Merton's statement about nature, I would argue, is to suggest that we stand apart from nature, that we are not part of nature. And yet we are indeed part of this natural world in multiple ways--in every way, really. And if we humans are integral part of nature, then Merton's statement implies that we must also be carrying out the will of God perfectly at every moment. And I don't think that many who believe in God would accept that. And that is one way in which I think Merton's statement breaks down. How can we say that the rest of nature perfectly expresses divine will while we, who are also part of nature, do not?

The answer that some would offer would be to say that humans are different from the rest of nature because we have free will and the rest of nature does not. To me, though, this offers a problematic and arbitrary solution, because it creates a distinction between categories of "nature"--that which obeys divine will and that which does not. In addition, humans are an integral part of nature, and we interact with the rest of nature continuously. When hurricanes strike, when wild animals kill or maim people, or when any other calamity of "act of God" takes place that results in human suffering or death, are we to believe that these events represent the perfect expression of divine will? Does God will shark bites?

This gets into the question of theodicy, of course. If we ask ourselves if God wills everything that happens, even those that seem to be quite evil in the short view, we are left with the idea that Leibnitz came up with, that we live in the "best of all possible worlds"--that God, through his infinite wisdom, knows that all the evil that appears in our complex world nevertheless has a greater overall purpose, that God in his wisdom knows to be the best. Even if something seems bad, according to this view, God actually knows that overall everything that happens has a greater purpose and is for the best.

One problem with the "best of all worlds" theory is that it doesn't do the individual victims of evil much good to know that somehow their suffering will have some greater abstract benefit for the universe. And when one applies this theory to human evil, one would have a very hard time arguing that something as horrible as the Nazi Holocaust could ever be justified as an expression of divine will.

There is another way out of this dilemma, however. Instead of claiming that anything in the universe represents the perfect expression of Divine will, one could instead assume that free will is an inherent characteristic of everything that exists in the universe. If every event that takes place in all of creation is, if only in some small sense, a kind of act of free will, then that means that, first of all, humans and nature both share both this same free will as part of their basic natures. It means that neither "nature" nor human beings are necessarily the perfect expression of the divine will. This is the view of process theology.

Under this view, God calls out to each moment in time (Whitehead called this an "occasion of experience") , offering the best possible action in response to the events that preceded it. Nature, to an unknown degree, has complied with God's will over the course of the evolution of the universe, when it chose to do so. But God didn't control the outcomes of any of the individual events in the continuing process of creation. God and the universe are, in essence, co-creators.

That doesn't mean that inanimate objects are conscious. Obviously, humans have a consciousness and rocks do not, so in that sense we are obviously different in how our free will manifests itself. It does mean, however, that free will, even at the most rudimentary and primitive level, is essential to every level of the universe. Nature is not a perfect expression of divine will, but instead a free co-creator with God. God guided the evolution of the universe, in all of its glory--the Big Bang, the creation of the universe, the evolution of life on earth, and the arrival of homo sapiens--but did not control it. The difference between acting as a guide and a controller is that in the former case, the nature doesn't always carry out divine will--in other words, it imperfectly expresses God's will. Thus our human capacity to not carry out God's will is built into the very fabric of the universe. Free will is everywhere, and God doesn't always get her own way 100% of the time.

Yesterday's New York Times ran an article that commented on the Nobel Prize that was awarded to Smooth and Mather for their work on researching the Big Bang. The article pointed out that the universe has actually become more complicated for scientists to explain and understand then it was back when those two physicists did the pioneering research that earned the Nobel Prize. It turns out that there is some sort of dark energy that is causing the universe to expand at a faster rate than it ought to be; but what is interesting about this is that there seems to be a lot less of this dark energy than physicists think there ought to be if any exists at all. The thing is, if there really were as much of this dark energy as they think there should be, the universe would never have produced the conditions that would have allowed the universe to evolve life.

So this confirms that the universe is, in an odd sort of way, exactly consistent with the conditions and physical laws necessary for life, despite the improbability that it should be so. Are we, seemingly insignificant and small creatures on a tiny little planet within a vast universe, the result of a universe whose laws were produced with God's encouragement and guidance just so that we would result? Or is it the case, as seems to be the position taken by the author of the New York Times article, that every moment in time creates a new set of parallel universes where each possible event has occurred, and we just happen to be living in one in which the Big Bang produced the conditions ripe for life, while billions of other parallel universes exist without life? While the former allows for the possibility that God lured the universe to evolve in a certain way, the latter says that there are infinite universes and at every decision point, every possible decision is being made in some parallel universe somewhere.

While there has been some controversy lately on whether string theory is valid science, it is interesting to note that the Times article also points out the following implication of string theory:

By one reckoning, the number of conceivable universes, each with a different dose of dark energy, is so vast that it is "measured not in the millions or billions but in googols or googolplexes." Why we find ourselves in, say, universe number 110,310,077,252 would again be a tautology: if we weren't we wouldn't be here to ask.
But again, this seems to take for granted that there are parallel universes. What if there is just one--the one we know and live in? The answer as to why we exist in a particular conceivable universe among a dazzling array of possibilities could lead one to suggest that perhaps there was a divine purpose that led the universe to evolve in the way it did. Of course, relying on scientific understanding to make a theological statement is very dangerous territory, and what we think to be a scientific truth today may turn out to be a disproved falsehood tomorrow. But it does make one wonder. On the one hand, perhaps the universe is able to produce human beings on this planet because of a divine influence from the beginning--one that was not completely accepted at each stage of the way, but still accepted enough that the very physical laws were able to result in our evolution. On the other hand, was this same free will that is inherent to the universe, which prevented divine influence from being absolutely obeyed in every instance, the source of our own incomplete manifestation of Divine will?