Religion, Evolution, and God's Nature


A rather long article in Sunday's Chicago Tribune by Jeremy Manier discusses the relationship between evolution and faith from many angles. The article begins by telling the story of Howard Van Till, a physicist from Calvin College in Michigan who wrote a book in 1986 "in which he argued that the stories of the Bible and science's account of evolution could both be true." What he got for his trouble was persecution from the dogmatic faithful at his religious college:

For years after the book's release in 1986, Van Till reported to a monthly interrogation where he struggled to reassure college officials that his scientific teachings fit within their creed.
Eventually, Van Till realized that it was necessary to re-evaluate his faith:
He rejected the idea of God as a supernatural being who took care to design every galaxy and blade of grass. The God he sought couldn't have designed everything at the outset, because the universe that science reveals is always unfolding, always changing. He began to think of God as a silent presence within nature, the source of the nameless awe he felt when studying the genesis of solar systems and the life of our endlessly fertile planet.

"If your faith requires supernaturalism, or a God who wields overpowering control over nature, then yes, evolution will challenge that," says Van Till, who took early retirement from Calvin College in 1999."The key is to correct your portrait of God," he says.
Jeremy Manier described this as an "audacious suggestion", but in fact, what Van Till was advocating sounds to me quite similar to process theology. Manier, unfortunately, makes no explicit reference in his article to process theology, which in fact has offered important contributions to this debate, and I think this is a glaring omission.

Manier cites John Haught, a professor of theology whose ideas also seem to resemble in many ways those of process theology:
[Haught] says religious traditions have never absorbed the scope of the scientific story that emerged in the 20th Century through the refinement of evolutionary theory. That story can overturn believers' assumptions, but he believes it also leads to a richer form of faith.

For Haught, evolution means that the chore of creation is going on all around us, all the time. Most important, the process does not follow a preordained path, because God loved the world enough to set it free.
I am unfamiliar with Haught's work, but his book "God After Darwin" sounds interesting and worth checking out; it appears to me that at a minimum he shares at least some of the ideas of process theologians, although perhaps he disagrees with them on certain points. It is, of course, central to process theology that God's participatory creative activity is constantly with us, while at the same time the outcomes of evolutionary processes are never pre-determined. Manier correctly notes that those attempts at forging a doctrine of "theistic evolution", not to mention the scientifically untenable notion of Intelligent Design, involve God using authoritarian power to micromanage the process of biological development--and this poses a host of problems:
The image of God as a micro-managing autocrat leads to some awkward paradoxes. For example, supporters of intelligent design often point to the flagellum, the complex molecular motor that allows bacteria to move, as an example of something that evolution could not have produced. Yet if God designed even the tiny flagellum, why stop there? Intelligent design implies that the creator's blueprint knows no limits. And if God designed every last element of life, that makes him minutely responsible for nature's cruelty and failures as well as its beauty.

"It gives you a God who cared enough to make the motors for bacteria, but wouldn't stop the motors of the planes on 9/11," Van Till says.
These problems are solved by conceiving of God, much as process theology does, as something other than an authoritarian micromanager. The article describes Haught's views this way:
"Love persuades, it doesn't force," Haught says. "God doesn't compel the world to be a certain way, and that's because of how love works. God lets things be, and lets the weeds grow up with the wheat."...

"Creation itself is not divine pyrotechnics but the consequence of infinite mystery contracting itself, making itself small, so something other than God can come into the world," Haught says.
I especially like the statement that "creation is not divine pyrotechnics". I view creation as not a one-time event, and Divine creativity is not a magic show; rather, it is a continuous and co-participatory activity with uncertain outcomes. However, when Haught describes God as "letting things be" and as an infinite mystery "contracting itself", he seems to be suggesting that God voluntarily withholds autocratic power and thus chooses to stand by when things happen. I am not really comfortable with this expression of the concept; instead, I view Divine power as inherently a persuasive and creative lure--autocracy is not "voluntarily" renounced because autocracy is not built into God's character in the first place. As I see it, it is important to note that God is never just standing by and "letting" things happen, but is always urging creation forward in particular ways, and always cares about the outcomes of events. That being said, I think that both Haught and Van Till seem to have many interesting things to say.


Rob said...

Manier correctly notes that those attempts at forging a doctrine of "theistic evolution", not to mention the scientifically untenable notion of Intelligent Design, involve God using authoritarian power to micromanage the process of biological development.

I think it is a mistake to compare religious philosophy of Theistic Evolution to the philosophical non-starter of ID Creationism. It is a simplistic and erroneous comparison. I think that Gary Dorrien’s historical study of the evolution of Liberal Christianity (The Making of American Liberal Theology), which includes Process Theology, refutes such simplistic characterizations of theism vs. non-theism. And then when one puts his study into the larger context of the history of comparative religion, such a statement becomes even more short-sighted. There are most certainly sophisticated philosophical propositions that accommodate both theism and the evolutionary idea of a evolving creation in which evolutionary creatures are co-creators and co-participants in an evolutionary panorama of vast evolving cosmos, that take into consideration the idea Godhead (the Real, etc.) is both transcendent and immanent, personal and impersonal (supra-personal is more appropriate), and even beyond finite mortal comprehension, but not finite mortal experience. And certainly and most definitely such philosophical theistic models do not propose a God that “micromanages” the biological process.

I highly recommend the following if you are interested in the current state of theoretical biology with regards to the developmental process:

Reid, Robert G. B. Biological Emergences: Evolution by Natural Experiment. Cambridge: MIT Press; 2007; The Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology.

Here is a thought:

“Emptiness does have its virtue, for it may become experientially filled.”

Rob said...


Reid is far better reading than Dowd, and there is real meat there too ;-)

Mystical Seeker said...

Rob, you are right that I incorrectly lumped Intelligent Design with "theistic evolution" in summarizing Manier's article.

Rob said...

Hey, that is not to say there are some simplistic versions of "theistic evolution" out there though ;-)

John Hick in his ground breaking and classical work Evil and the God of Love lays out a model of Theodicy -- which is after all one of the main objections to the idea/ideal of God as a personal being (albeit infinite personality) -- depicting the perfection of personality as an evolutionary co-creative process which he calls the 'Vale of Soul-Making.' (Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. Revised ed. New York: Harper & Row Publishers; 1977; c1966 p. 253.)

Hick reveals the long deep tradition that has been all but forgotten in Western Christianity. It has some (but not all) values and inights in common with Shin Buddhism. But that is another and long story ;-)

I have raised my two daughters within the Shin Buddhist tradition, as Jesusonians following the teaching of Jesus as portrayed in The Urantia Book, and the teachings of Shin Buddhism as taught by Honen Shonin and Shinran Shonin and Rennyo. We have lived in Japan for a number of years (my wife is Japanese) and spent many years within the temple culture.

I guess we are Jesusonian Buddhists or Buddhist-Jesusonians ;-)

Rob said...

Oh, I guess that makes me a bonifide heretic ;-)

Mystical Seeker said...

I think that Shin Buddhism is a very fine religion to raise one's children in, and I also think that it definitely has some resonance with followers of Jesus. Shin Buddhism is a religion of grace and gratitude, which I think a lot of Jesus-followers can relate to.

Mystical Seeker said...

Hey, that is not to say there are some simplistic versions of "theistic evolution" out there though

I could be wrong, but I imagine that some versions of theistic evolution imagine that God more or less planned (somehow) the path of evolutionary development and that it all followed this path strictly. That is where you get into the whole idea of God as the micro-manager.

Rob said...

I could be wrong, but I imagine that some versions of theistic evolution imagine that God more or less planned (somehow) the path of evolutionary development and that it all followed this path strictly. That is where you get into the whole idea of God as the micro-manager.

This statement raises some interesting issues and questions. I would like to break it down into several discrete questions first. What does it mean to say that “God more or less planned (somehow) the path of evolutionary development”? Or to say that “evolutionary development followed certain paths”? The question of how “strict” evolution follows certain paths needs to be dealt with separately too. Of course, these terms “planned,” “paths,” and how they relate to evolution are really questions of whether or not evolution is progressive and/or purposive.

One can remove God from all the questions above, as they have a long history in the science of biology and evolutionary theory. In Darwin’s day and age it was the science of embryology and orthogenesis that attempted to unravel the mysteries of organismal development. Some of these scientists were materialists, so God or religious belief was hardly part of their motivation in developing their theories. Many Deists and Theists also were embryologists and contributed to this early science too. Through observations and experimental embryology they argued that there was some kind of internal law or mechanism that guided or directed evolutionary development not only of the individual organism, but also evolution writ large, giving it directional biases or developmental pathways. In fact, many of the arguments against Darwin’s theory of natural selection being the causal mechanism for novelty (i.e., progress or change in form) came from the embryologists, who insisted that their experiments revealed some deeper pattern other than simple random mutations. They acknowledged random mutations lead to existing features fluctuating around some norm, but argued this tended to maintain the norm (stasis) rather than lead to transformation in morphology. They argued there was some deeper internal mechanism responsible for those major transformations in form that lead to evolutionary “progress” (and they did not view this a “strict” progress, for they envisioned retrogressive evolution via their observations of atavisms).

To make a long story short, with the re-discovery of Mendelian genetics joined to Darwin’s observation of random variation of existing phenotypic traits, and then in the 1930s the creation of the mathematical model of population genetics (i.e., the statistical mathematical model that models the random distribution of phenotypic traits and their variation due to natural selection), a directly observable process, the Darwinians were able to develop a fruitful research program that came to dominate the scientific community at the total exclusion of the ideas and theories of the early embryologists who could not open the black box of developmental genetics. Remember, Darwin’s theory and the subsequent theory of population genetics were all developed prior to the discovery of the actually molecular basis of DNA. This joining of Darwin’s and Mendel’s theories with the mathematical models of the population geneticists lead to what is today called Neo-Darwinian theory or the Modern Synthesis. In truth, it was a restriction in that it completely left out the insights of the developmental embryologists who had also discovered some scientific insights, but lacked the technological tools to open the black box of variation.

The embryologists had argued that when one observed organismal development and evolution at large, there were similar patters of development in unrelated phyla. This, they agued, was due to similar internal patterns of genetic variation, which they called homology. Some were also Neo-Lamarckians, and agued that somehow the environment played a direct role on this patterned genetic variation, allowing the organism to adapt and respond to its environment on an individual level (albeit, unconsciously on the physiological/hormonal/genetic level). With the rise of the dogma of Neo-Darwinism, they were scoffed at, ridiculed, and made fun of openly within the scientific community. The key issues were is variation discontinuous or gradual, is change sudden or slow, is it internal or external, or both? Neo-Darwinian theory won the day, and the gradualist paradigm, that evolution was do the slow continuous variation of random point mutations which accumulated over time (an fact that could be observed in the laboratory in the variation of existing features) was extrapolated (read assumed) as the cause of major transformations in morphology, not just existing features, and therefore the mechanistic cause of evolutionary change.

Of course, if it is true that major (i.e., creative novelties) transformations in form are caused only by random point mutations than natural selection would in theory be all powerful and able to, at least so the Neo-Darwinians argued, over a long enough period of time craft any kind of organism adaptable to any kind of environment. In other words, there were no internally constrained pathways or channels of evolutionary development. As they thought of each, each and every point mutation was open to the unrelenting scrutiny of natural selection, keeping those which were useful, discarding those which were not. Of course, even Neo-Darwinian theory has come a long way from this naïve understanding of natural selection, but the main ideas still hold today.

Well, today the black box of variation has been opened and the insights of the early embryologists are being proved correct; there most certainly are mechanisms of patterned/directed/facilitated variation which lead to non-random morphological variation and the environment most certain does have a directly heritable relationship with genetic variation (epigenetics) that has evolutionary consequences. As it turns out, if the tape of evolution was rerun, there is a high likelihood it may well turn out creatures like ourselves ( in the broad general understanding of our species characteristics) more or less depending on the environment in which we evolved. They are now arguing (and with very hard empirical evidence to back their claims) that evolutionary developmental pathways are conserved, constrained, and biased, and these biases were in the earliest genomes they have so far decoded. All of this new information is emerging from the fields of Evolutionary Developmental Biology and Epigenetics, new fields of evolutionary biology opened up because of technological revelations born in the age of the Human Genome Project.

And all of these findings raise profound philosophical questions about just how much evolution is biased down certain pathways (i.e., progressive), and even purposeful.

Mystical Seeker said...

Rob, I know you are not a fan of Michael Dowd, but he did make a similar point about certain patterns in nature repeating themselves in evolutionary processes. Maybe it is true that smaller levels of organization tend to organize themselves more or less the same way into higher levels of organization. Why is that? Is it because God "dictates" every detail of a specific path? Or is it because smaller forms of evolution have certain "habits" built into their nature? Or is it because God lures evolution towards taking certain directions?

Rob said...

Hi Mystical,

Dowd's efforts to popularize evolutionary ideas as compatible with religious beliefs is something I would support. His use of process theology is to be expected, and there is much in process theology that I like and agree with.

But I am more philosophically critical of some of the unspoken assumptions that underpin Dowd's and other such popularizers of this new reapproachment between science and religion. In my view, some of the assumptions are philosophically naive and highly questionable in light of modern science.

Take the often unspoken assumption that mind emerged from matter. This is a highly questionable philosophical claim debated by scientists, but it is often presented as an a priori assumption, thereby begging the question of the nature and origin of mind and consciousness.

There is a qualitative difference between volitional and non-volitional levels of reality, and to say that mind emerged from matter explains nothing. It is to commit the fallacy of Misplacd Concreteness to confuse a description of observed reality (which very well could be factually in error) with factual descriptions of causal mechanisms underlying reality. It is pure scientism to claim that we scientifically (factually) know life is an expected, emergent property of complex chemical reaction networks, when in reality this is purely an a priori philosophical position held in one of two flavors: methodological naturalism or metaphysical naturalism.

If the universe were merely a mechanism and mind were unapart from matter, we would never have two differing interpretations of any observed phenomenon. The concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness are not inherent in either physics or chemistry. A machine cannot know, much less know truth, hunger for righteousness, and cherish goodness.

Consider the following:

Does consciousness matter?

We cannot rule out the possibility that carefully avoiding the concept of consciousness in quantum cosmology may lead to an artificial narrowing of our outlook. Let us remember an example from the history of science that may be rather instructive in this respect. Prior to the invention of the general theory of relativity, space, time, and matter seemed to be three fundamentally different entities. Space was thought to be a kind of three-dimensional coordinate grid which, when supplemented by clocks, could be used to describe the motion of matter. Spacetime possessed no intrinsic degrees of freedom; it played a secondary role as a tool for the description of the truly substantial material world. The general theory of relativity brought with it a decisive change in this point of view. Spacetime and matter were found to be interdependent, and there was no longer any question which one of the two is more fundamental. Spacetime was also found to have its own inherent degrees of freedom…. This is completely opposite to the previous idea that spacetime is only a tool for the description of matter.

The standard assumption is that consciousness, just like spacetime before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. But let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my “green” exists, and my “sweet” exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory. Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perception. This model of a material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are nothing but a useful tool for the description of matter. This assumption is almost as natural (and maybe as false) as our previous assumption that space is only a mathematical tool for the description of matter. We are substituting reality of our feelings by the successful working theory of an independently existing material world. And the theory is so successful that we almost never think about its possible limitations.

(Linde, Andrei, Author. Inflation, quantum cosmology, and the anthropic priniciple. In Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity. (John D. Barrow, Paul C. W. Davies, and Charles L. Harper, Jr., eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2004: 450-451.)

The answer, therefore, which the seventeenth century gave to the ancient question ... "What is the world made of?" was that the world is a succession of instantaneous configurations of matter -- or material, if you wish to include stuff more subtle than ordinary matter.... Thus the configurations determined there own changes, so that the circle of scientific thought was completely closed. This is the famous mechanistic theory of nature, which has reigned supreme ever since the seventeenth century. It is the orthodox creed of physical science.... There is an error; but it is merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete. It is an example of what I will call the 'Fallacy of Misplaced Concretness.' This fallacy is the occasion of great confusion in philosophy. (Whitehead 1967: 50-51)

(....) This conception of the universe is surely framed in terms of high abstractions, and the paradox only arises because we have mistaken our abstractions for concrete realities.... The seventeenth century had finally produced a scheme of scientific thought framed by mathematics, for the use of mathematics. The great characteristic of the mathematical mind is its capacity for dealing with abstractions; and for eliciting from them clear-cut demonstrative trains of reasoning, entirely satisfactory so long as it is those abstractions which you want to think about. The enormous success of the scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter with its simple location in space and time, on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact. (Whitehead 1967: 54-55)

Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined. It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. These are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on an equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century. (Whitehead 1967: 55)

(Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World.: The Free Press; 1925; c1967 pp. 50-55.)