Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Thinking about God in a Darwinian cosmos

(Hat-tip for the cartoon: The Panda's Thumb)

The cartoon doesn't have too much to do with what follows, but I find it funny . . . and, it DOES have to do with the search for understanding and some of the perils of such a search.

I have mentioned in the past that the institution of higher learning that employs me has a philosophy club with once-a-month informal discussions of texts and philosophical questions. This summer, the club will be discussing Daniel C. Dennett's 1994 book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, and I began reading it yesterday. The recent years of back-and-forthing in Kansas' State Board of Education over the teaching of evolutionary theory and/or "Intelligent Design" in high schools is the chief reason we're reading it; but, as a person who does not doubt the reality of God--or, for that matter, the validity of evolutionary theory--I am reading it with especially keen interest in seeing what will happen to my understanding of (as distinct from faith in) God and the nature of His relationship to a material cosmos that operates in accordance with the mechanisms Darwin and generations of scientists have described and amassed evidence in support of.

A lengthy post follows below the fold.

Dennett is a great stylist; 80 pages in, he has so far shown himself to be breezy yet patient in his explanations of the principles of natural selection (12 pages alone on how algorithims work and how evolutionary processes are best understood in those terms). He's eminently logical and, thus, very persuasive. Because he is, it becomes clear very early why he's titled his book as he has: Darwin's idea is dangerous precisely because, now that the preponderance of evidence is on its side, it cannot help but cause us to reassess in fundamental ways all sorts of taken-for-granted assumptions (and that includes the secularists among us, not just the believers).

But for those of us who insist on the reality of both God and the physical world, I can already see, we have our work cut out for us: it is simply nuts to ignore or distort the truth of what Darwin offered as theory, and even nutsier (as I myself confess to doing before starting Dennett's book) to blithely pretend that, for lack of a better way to put it, God is in his Heaven and Darwin is "down here" and never the twain shall meet. That course is certainly the easier, much-less-frightening one, but it is both intellectually and theologically dishonest. Faith, after all, is neither the insistence on that divide nor the insistence that all the world conform to (one's particular version of) God's will; faith is that tool the believer has to help him/her navigate through a world that is at best indifferent to his/her beliefs.

W. H. Auden, smart guy and poet that he was, seemed to have the right sense of this. The always-excellent group blog 3 Quarks Daily recently linked to a review in The Weekly Standard of Auden and Christianity by Arthur Kirsch. The following is from Wilfrid M. McClay's review:
The notion that religious faith and serious thought are mutually exclusive categories always struck Auden as risible and unintelligible. But he would have bristled at an effort to separate out his religious beliefs and restate them as systematic propositions, or examine them independently or thematically, rather than see them as players in his rich and various inner symbolic drama. Such an undertaking would probably have struck him as unspeakably vulgar and, moreover, an invasion of his privacy, putting his devotional life on display and forcing him unwillingly to be judged by the public standard of a "religious" man, a role for which he felt singularly ill-equipped.

To be able to separate out one's faith from one's life would be tantamount to saying that faith is a guise, a persona, and thus not faith at all but, to borrow a phrase, the trappings and suits of religiosity. Such a faith would be superficial at best, hypocrisy at worst.

I'd like to offer, briefly and (very) sketchily, something that came to mind on the morning walk regarding the role of God in a Darwinian universe. Dennett has already spent some time discussing the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or entropy (the tendency of all matter toward inertia), and how the numerous variations within and among species can be understood as living things' resistance to entropy (which in this context can be understood as "death"). I suspect he will have more to say about entropy later that will probably cause me to have to modify the following, but this morning I found myself thinking, "Why may not God be thought of as resistance to entropy, as a resounding No to death?" That is not just the message of the empty tomb but, indeed, of Christianity itself (and, for that matter, Judaism and Islam): that real, genuine Life is found in acknowledgment of God's sovereignty and obedience to His will. Indeed, every living thing, even--especially--in Darwinian terms, proclaims that resistance. Evolution is not a denial of God's power but an inescapable affirmation of it.

This is very attractive to me just now, but I'm suspicious of it. It's been my experience that, the more attractive the idea the earlier on, the more suspect it is. Indeed, as I sit here now, I see some questions that need answering: Why would God create a cosmos in which entropy is even an issue, especially since God is the creator of the inanimate universe as well? This is analogous to problem-of-evil territory and, as I learned to my shame a while back, I just don't know enough about that, either. But the correct solution is not to deny it's a question or throw up one's hands and say, Oh well, but to earnestly wrestle with it.

I have more reading and thinking ahead of me. I'll get back to you.

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fearful_syzygy said...

I confess I'm not really up on this whole debate, but I don't really see the problem with a universe tending towards entropy in creationist terms. The whole point of God, surely, is that He is outside time and the world He created. Besides, how is entropy incommensurable with standard Christian eschatology? It seems like this insistence that the universe slowly going to pot goes against the eternity of the soul is missing the point in a fundamental way. Or have I completely misconstrued the debate, with which, as I say, I'm not entirely au fait?

Andrew Simone said...

Firstly, it depends on which Christian eschatology you affirm (there are a number of perspectives).

One of the particular issue at hand is a "static view" of man as the image of God, that is to say the image of God as nature. Nature, or essence, as a static entity seems to be incommensurable with Darwinian evolutionary theory.

The question, for the Christian, becomes what is the biblical view of imago dei? Is it static? Dynamic? How so?

The other question is eschatology. One might say that the world going to pot is commensurate but this is only if this world is considered "bad." And that the faithful will be "scooped up" at the end times to be with Jesus.

Then there would be commensurability --in some sense.

However, if one is to say that creation is good as Gensis does and that the end times bring restoration and, in fact, we will not be "scooped up" but remian (much the Noah), then this would complicate things much more.

For what it is worth, I think the latter eschaton is the perferable (read: biblical).

All told, it is very difficult question. Good luck, wrestling with it.

fearful_syzygy said...

Thanks for the explanation. It's fairly obvious why evolution doesn't quite gel with creationism (the imago dei problem), but I'm still not exactly sure what the problem with entropy is. I mean, whichever eschaton you happen to agree with, the world is nevertheless tending inexorably towards it, no? So what's stopping God from, like, resetting the world in a non-entropic model after the day of judgement? Sorry for the poor wording, I'm not trying to be flippant.

R. Sherman said...

I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

To me, the problem arises in the initial separation of the spiritual from the physical as if there are separate in perhaps incompatible "truths."

I believe there is a God which created the Universe. The universe has laws, i.e. gravity, which exist. We can discover what those laws are. Seeking them doesn't take us farther from God but closer.

The problem I see on both sides of the Origin debate is that neither side is willing to acknowlege the problems with its position based on the evidence. Of course, the reason for that is that each is too emotionally invested in its position, whether it be that there is no Creator or that the world was created 6000 years ago.

It's hard to have a game when neither side can agree to a playing field.

My position is "Let's look for the truth and see where we wind up." My faith tells me, we'll find God there.


Belle Lettre said...

An excellent post--very interesting and insightful. I am Buddhist, and so it is always interesting to me to learn how people of a different faith work out the tensions between competing beliefs.