Sunday, 14 February 2010

A Brief Foray into Natural Theology: The Mind of God in Creation

Historically the study of natural theology involved looking to nature for revelation and proof of God. The most famous example being William Paley’s watchmaker analogy and such arguments go back to such luminaries as Anselm and Aquinas. The biggest blow to these arguments came from the advent of the theory of evolution, as divine proof could no longer be convincingly sought in biology. Natural theology, however, is not dead, but persists in two forms. One form maintains the claim that nature contains evidence and proof of God’s existence, even to the point of using refuted design arguments, usually restated. Those that hold this view tend to identify with creationism or intelligent design.

The other form of natural theology is relatively recent and requires little to no denial of scientific discovery. This newer natural theology does not present proof (though arguably presents evidence) and is more content with presenting theism as the best account and explanation for the natural phenomena in question. It is seen as complementing science as opposed to replacing it as with the previous forms of natural theology.

I have certainly been vocal about my distaste for the older type of natural theology, though for the newer form I am less dismissive but do take issue with it. The distinction between providing proof and providing a consistent theistic explanation is not expressed enough and often seems not to exist, with anthropic principle being a prime example of theistic evolutionists providing evidence rather than consistency. Here I shall look into the phenomena identified in the ‘new’ natural theology and will suggest yet another alteration: natural theology should be occupied with what natural processes can tell us about God and how natural phenomena are consistent with our understanding of God. Internal consistency of a theistic worldview should be the primary focus; suggesting theism is the better explanation should come second.

We live in a universe where mathematics works; the entire universe has a deep mathematical structure to it. Both the descriptions of macro-scale processes and micro-processes (identified by cosmology and quantum mechanics respectively) are described in elegant mathematical terms; they are shot through with rational beauty. Both religious and secular scientists have a habit of referring to this as understanding the Mind of God; to the natural theologian this is no mere metaphor. It goes without saying that this is consistent with theistic belief, “God is a mathematician” is a common statement amongst science-minded theists. It seems likely that this descriptive elegance is a definite factor of nature and not simply imposed by our mind and its fondness for patterns. Theism certainly seems to be a valid explanation, but presenting it as the best runs the risk of making it a God of the gaps explanation as we do not know whether a different form of mathematics could exist, we likely cannot imagine it. It therefore remains a strong example of consistency for theism; the ordered universe reflecting the God of order.

Accompanying this is the self-awareness of the universe. Not only is there mathematical elegance and beauty permeating the very fabric of the universe, but there is also an emergent property of the universe which is able to recognise this deep structure; the universe is self-aware. The human mind through scientific enquiry has shown to be able to engage with events beyond what survival would necessitate, exploring both the macro and micro aspects of reality. To turn around and state that this is not achievable by evolutionary processes is to invoke either a God of the gaps argument or an argument from ignorance. However, it becomes a beautiful fact of our existence when one acknowledges that it is what would be expected in the creation of a God who desires much for His creation.

The concept of mathematical beauty is often commingled with the most common argument of natural theology – the Anthropic Principle. This is the concept that the universe is fine tuned in such a way that it is conducive to the production of life, alter any of its fundamental properties and it simply could not sustain it. The argument tends to be along the lines that there are only three possible explanations for why our universe holds these properties; God created it; it is simply good fortune; there are multiple universes. Many theists discard chance as improbable and multiverses as wishful thinking (though some scientists are finding ways to test this). Although this can be seen as a fact about our universe and not a gap, it is one for which we do not know enough to properly judge. Theism is rightfully a potential explanation and a strong one at that, but nothing more. The fact that this universe can give rise to life is simply consistent with belief in a creator whose intentions involve living beings.

The history of the universe displays a repeating process of order from chaos and increasing complexity. Whether it is the disequilibrium of matter and anti-matter; the spreading of elements from the death of stars; or the steady rate of death as the evolutionary engine turns; the universe displays a retrospective progression (however anthropocentric) of increased organisation. A teleological answer is not necessary here, as progress is emphasised as a retrospective view (it is arguably an intrinsic quality – a point I am not discussing for the time being). Instead the concept of order out of chaos is found in the very first pages of the Bible, especially when it is taken into account that the waters (also Leviathan and the ‘deep’) were highly symbolic of chaos, which God sets in order. The processes of death and decay, such as elements scattered by supernovae enabling life and the prevalence of death in evolution, are sometimes referred to as ‘cruciform’ in that they resemble a pattern shown by Christ on the cross, the redemption of death into new life.

The biological process of evolution is one of lawfulness and flexibility resulting in fertility. Lawfulness is characterised most obviously by natural laws such as gravity, but also natural selection in evolution and the constraints which reduce the number of potential outcomes. Flexibility in nature comes from the range of possibilities and in evolution is provided by the happenstance of genetic mutation, it is not inherently random and chaotic. Without the lawfulness of nature there would only be chaos; life could not form in such a world. Without the flexibility of nature the universe would be restricted and sterile. Lawfulness in nature is consistent with the concept of God having a plan and purpose for creation, whilst flexibility is consistent with a view of God who does not force the outcome but instead allows for freedom in His creation. The result is a fertile universe, one of great expanse within which life’s diversity is ever-expanding.

The previous two examples were entirely views of consistency and could not be construed as evidence or proof. The ‘Moral Law’ and the prevalence of altruism is an example of argumentation which often goes beyond consistency and into the realm of claiming evidence for theism. In the form of the Moral Law argument it is argued that moral attitudes are universal and that altruism goes against evolutionary explanations. It is seen as the manifestation of God’s likeness in mankind, a signpost to God’s existence and nature. I hesitantly agree with it being a clue to God’s nature, but not towards His existence. Selfless behaviour has evolutionary explanations, though extreme altruism is still largely a mystery. This is not a place where God should be forced into a gap in understanding, but instead it should be acknowledged that God’s creation has a moral compass which can be perceived as pointing in His direction. This does not mean that it is evidence of God, but that the emergence of morality through evolutionary processes is to be expected in the creation of the Christian God. Theism may or may not be the best explanation for a moral universe, the conclusion to this is subjective.

Tying in with the earlier concept of mathematical beauty and our ability to understand it is the well known argument from beauty. In this way the existence of beauty is perceived as an objective quality which we see subjectively. Human minds do not see beauty as a human construct, but instead they discover something that is inherently there. It is argued that the level of beauty we see is beyond that which could be expected from evolutionary processes. Other similar arguments involve music, which appears to transcend its nature as vibrations in the air; and love, which is seen as going beyond what evolution can offer and arriving at discovery of eternal truth. The risks of these arguments are their subjectivity; their perilous insertion of God into a gap; and they stray closely to invoking Platonic forms. It should now be obvious that the existence of beauty, music and love in human experience is what should be expected in God’s creation, whether they are a by-product of evolution or endowed by God. Subjective arguments should not be offered as proof, but should be acknowledged as consistent with belief in the Divine.

In an odd twist I will combine an argument against faith with an argument for it in order to gain greater insight into God’s will. The argument posed against faith is one aimed to undermine religion by giving to it naturalistic explanations for why it evolved and why it is so prevalent. In its simplest form it could be stated as either religion being created to control or to explain complex natural phenomena; religion is nothing more than a tool and an outdated theory. In more complex form evolutionary explanations for the bonding of a group (not mutually exclusive to the others) are usually offered. The theistic argument for God, put simply, is that we desire things which exist such as water and food, and that humans have a desire to know God. Clearly the theistic argument could be swallowed whole by the non-theistic one, with the desire to know God merely being the desire for greater knowledge; God was simply the best explanation to an unscientific world. But what are we to make of this if God is presupposed (stepping slightly outside the realm of natural theology)? The desire to know truth becomes the desire to know God, as He is Truth. The emergence of religion becomes yet another expected property of God’s creation; He intended for us to join together in an attempt to understand what is greater than us, to truly begin to know.

Many of the views listed so far have come close to explaining things in place of evolution, even though evolution itself can give some insight. Natural selection, especially by critics, is often seen as highly competitive and destructive, ‘red in tooth and claw’. This view is rather skewed as much research has been done into the prevalence of cooperation in evolution. Not only does it emerge from the evolutionary process, but it actually advances it in ways which mere competition could not. Mathematical biologist Martin Nowak even proposes that “natural cooperation” is a main factor of evolution alongside genetic mutation and natural selection. This has a much stronger correlation with Christian views than the skewed version of evolution.

A recent trend among evolution accepting Christians is to cite the work of Simon Conway Morris, a prominent evolutionary palaeobiologist. Conway Morris’ work challenges the view that the history of life is contingent, that to ‘replay the tape’ would throw up a very different evolutionary outcome. Using a plethora of examples of evolutionary convergence along with constraints limiting the outcomes, he makes a strong case for the near inevitability of humans in an evolutionary rerun. This seems to be the re-emergence of teleology in biology as an argument for God. Such a view is clearly pleasing to Christians and would sit comfortably in a theistic worldview, but is it even necessary? A contingent history may seem less likely to throw up anything remotely like humans, but implies more freedom and fruitfulness in creation. His views are still debatable, so it is risky to put our money on that outcome. Whichever turns out to be more prevalent, be it contingency or convergence, should be embraced as a valuable insight. If convergence prevails, then the newer form of natural theology may have another scientific insight for which theism can be claimed as a strong explanation, but we should not favour it out of hope.

The final place I shall turn is the multi-layered character of experience. Our day to day lives contain a mixture of both objective and subjective experiences, though even scientific discoveries have room for subjectivity. Music is again a prime example in that objectively it consists of vibrations of the air, yet can move and stir us emotionally. This is how we encounter reality and it arguably does not do it justice to write it off as materialistic epiphenomena. Value is found at multiple levels and again is considered to be a property discovered, not a construct of human minds. If taken as a metaphysical position it becomes testament to a God of worth; if proffered as a God of the gaps argument it is doomed to failure, being neither convincing nor informative. God is instead offered as an explanation for this multi-layered character, though some of the premises must be agreed upon first.

My use of natural theology here may be too different from normal natural theology to warrant the name. In some ways I have clearly turned aspects into theology of nature (starting from belief in God to understand nature instead of starting with nature and arriving at God). This is likely testament to my dislike of natural theology as it descends too easily into the fallacious God of the gaps arguments. However, perhaps God is the best explanation for an ordered, self-aware universe permeated with mathematical elegance; one which grows through processes of chance, necessity and cooperation; resulting in fruitfulness and experienced in a multi-layered fashion by emergent beings with a moral compass; able to appreciate beauty, able to appreciate music, able to love.

1 comment:

The Palaeobabbler said...

I posted this on a couple of discussion boards and it was almost completely ignored. I did get one response, which seemed to suggest that I have not made my points clear. However, one fruitful thing has come from it as the person in question gave their own definition of natural theology, which I feel bridges the gap somewhat between the new natural theology and the exceptionally watered down version I have presented here.

His statement was "i'm understanding it as the endeavour to evaluate the rationality of theistic belief in connection to his understanding of nature."

In this way one would examine both the consistency of a theology of nature and the claims made in natural theology. Is theism consistent with nature's revelation and does it make better sense of these facts?