When I was young, the issue of Christ’s miracles was a big problem to Christians. Scientific determinism had infiltrated the public mind so thoroughly that the Bible’s miraculous claims were one of the greatest stumblingblocks in apologetics. Even within Evangelical churches rationalising the miracles as social or psychological events was common.
I find it fascinating how much that has changed over forty years. Of course, atheists have become more vocal and rationalistic, but within the general community, there is much more of an attitude that, should the historical claims about Christ be true, then his miracles make sense. Yet it’s hard to pin down the reasons for this subtle shift in worldview, probably because I have been part of it. It’s an example of the kind of sea-change in society that is associated with, and may even help explain, the popularity of one kind of idea over another, even in the matter of scientific theories.
I’ve mentioned this in the two previous posts in connection with the general sense of “progress” both in Victorian society and Victorian Darwinism, as opposed to the “directionlessness” of post-war society and evolutionary science. But my introductory example above is exemplified by how many of the theistic evolutionists of our day, despite having a very “hands-off” view of evolution, nevertheless are quite ready to affirm Christ’s miracles, incarnation and resurrection, even though their arguments against divine action in nature would often seem to apply equally well to religion.
Though it is hard, living within a society’s worldview, to view it as analytically as one would that of a previous age, it seems to me that many of the assumptions and attitudes described in the last post are changing, if not back towards the older Victorian pattern, then away from the rather nihilistic pattern of the twentieth century.
I’ve mentioned the general softening of attitudes towards the supernatural in society. This is associated with a less gung-ho enthusiasm for the certainties of science, if not an outright antagonism. It is unthinkable that widespread climate change skepticism, or opposition to vaccination would have arisen in, say, the 1930s. There is a growing zeitgeist that science cannot ever explain everything, to which the New Atheists and their scientific supporters might be seen as a late reaction, as Pentecostalism was to Victorian rationalism.
How that influences, or is influenced by, academic developments may only be discernible to later ages, but I want to mention a few things that appear related to it, at least, and which are affecting the life sciences.
One place to start is with the vast increase in what has to be explained by evolution. I like the quote by David Berlinski, asked to describe the currently-known complexity of the cell if, at the start of the Modern Synthesis, it was seen as a Buick. His instant reply was, “Oh, a galaxy.” And that was before the publication of what we are now hearing about the degree of functionality of non-coding DNA and its three-dimensional function. At the same time, our knowledge of how these impossibly sophisticated organisms relate to their environment and each other in impossibly sophisticated ways has increased massively too.
Not surprisingly, this has raised an unprecedented degree of questioning of the ability of Neodarwinism’s simplistic mechanisms to account for what we see in life. That might come from those like the Altenberg 16 who want simply to incorporate a greater range of mechanisms into an updated synthesis or, at the other end, the complete questioning of essential parts of evolutionary theory from scientists within Intelligent Design, which has stirred up invective and controversy, but also new research.
ID’s deeper influence is sometimes masked by the superficial controversy. But the truth is that a succession of important thinkers have taken elements of its critique on board. For example amongst philosophers Anthony Flew, Alvin Plantinga and Thomas Nagel have all acknowledged the strength of some ID arguments, even though sometimes rejecting the overall thesis.
But though ID is one element of the critique of Neodarwinism, this takes many other forms amongst scientists. In some cases, such as those like Lynn Margulis or James Shapiro, the science itself bursts the ruling paradigm’s perimeter fences. Simon Conway Morris has documented convergent evolution, but believes it requires some non-Darwinian principle to account for it, which he speculates (if I understand him aright) to lie ultimately in cosmic fine-tuning. In Shapiro’s notable case, the challenge is to the fundamental ND principle of directionlessness. Shapiro finds a significant degree of internal teleology in organisms, which restores (by a circuitous route) something of the teleology inherent in Darwin’s original theory. If I may over-simplify:
Darwin said variation was going everywhere, and that selection channeled it into the best way.
Neodarwinism said variation was going nowhere, and that selection only stopped it destroying itself altogether.
Shapiro says variation is directed towards some survival goal, and that selection picks the most viable option.
Note that, theologically, Shapiro’s scheme, like Darwin’s but unlike Neodarwinism, allows the possibility of evolution as an efficient cause of creation under God, depending on the exact nature of the cell’s internal teleology. That is significant, but begs the question of how that teleology got there in the first place.
Other scientists have simply recognised that Neodarwinism, even in its latest forms, is carrying too much weight. The fine-tuning part of Simon Conway Morris’s thinking is like that, as is the extreme-fine-tuning of Michael Denton. But it must be doubtful how specifically any degree of initial fine-tuning could define outcomes: the more it does, the more it is deterministic and, in theological terms, Deistic.
Other theorists depend on emergence phenomena, which would make specific outcomes truly evolutionary in the original sense of the word – ie that the world we see unfolds from what is inherent within it, like a paper flower in water. Such theories would make the whole universe, including evolution and possibly even human consciousness, an efficient cause of what is. This would be theologically unproblematic (though incomplete and Deistic in the human realm), but since there is no good evidence for it, it is merely handwaving.
The same goes for suggestions like Eugene Koonin’s Multiverse explanation of DNA-synthesis – it is a desperate fictional attempt to make chance a creative force by making it infinite, an explanation that explains no more than chance itself does.
The net result of all this is to suggest that evolution may be more finely directed than Neodarwinism has supposed. It falls short of providing, as Darwin’s original theory did, an adequately teleological means for creation, but it moves significantly in that direction. One can see, so far, little admission of this “sharpening” of evolution’s precision amongst TEs. They have invested too much in theologies that designate specific outcomes as evidence of God’s “coercion” or “interference” or, more generally, a denial of creation’s nebulously-conceived “freedom”. But in point of fact these new trends put significant pressure on such theologies: they significantly constrain such “freedom” as compared to the Modern Synthesis. Maybe that is why many TEs tend to be so slow to acknowledge them.
Meanwhile the inadequacy of materialism already noted in the public arena has been acknowledged in the academy. In philosophy, particularly, in the study of mind and the study of existence, and also in the study of knowledge itself, non-material explanations have become respectable again, and materialism itself found to be problematic. This is maybe not unconnected to the deliberations about whether quantum science demands that “mind” be considered in an ontological category of its own apart from matter and energy.
In theology, the divine action project similarly sought to carve out territory beyond naturalism. In at least some case, TEs like R J Russell were seeking to rehabilitate the respectability of divine action within science. In some instances this was to accommodate the category of “Miracle” (see Alvin Plantinga’s series on BioLogos), but in Russell’s case a wider category of “special providence” was in view.The reason for considering this important in an evolutionary context was not so much God’s ability to assist needy Christians or govern human affairs, but the fact that evolutionary theory failed to make sufficient provision for a Biblical view of God’s oversight of creation. In other words it is a reaction against the heterodox views of God of the “Phase 2” TEs, whose theology was formed by the indeterminate nature of their biological science.
It remains to be seen what effect all these new developments will have on theistic evolution. If the previous two phases are a guide, we are likely to see an increasing understanding that science points to life showing signs of teleological organisation towards highly determined goals, but fails to provide adequate mechanisms to explain them. The realisation that there is no longer any scientific reason to debar divine action, combined with these tell-tale signs in the science, may lead to a kind of TE that encompasses direct divine action within evolution.
Currently that seems to me more likely than the nearest alternative, ie that entirely adequate natural teleological mechanisms will be found, with explanations for their arrival, that make a “first cause + efficient cause” explanation viable, as it seemed to be in Darwin’s day.
What I do not believe is that the currently prevalent model of theistic evolution, which I have dubbed “Phase 2”, will last for long in the current climate of science and philosophy and, indeed, of theology.