Which bits of creation are free

It’s come to my notice that Bill Dembski’s new book, cited in the last post is apparently not available in the US until 28th September. That makes my quasi-review probably the first on the web, which is an unintentional Hump scoop. Accordingly I have decided to re-read it and pick out some of the most interesting topics for individual posts – maybe it’ll whet your appetite for the original. But first…

…a codicil to my old theme of the incoherence of calling creation “free” because of the chance contingency apparent within it. This has raised its head again in the latest BioLogos column from Dennis Venema, and then rapidly ducked into invisibility as soon as Eddie, Chip and I called him out on it. It’s a depressingly familiar occurrence, and demonstrates to me (after four years of challenging it in public) that it’s simply a hopeless position to hold if nobody can defend it. I win by default, though I’d prefer to win by arguments.

But Dembski’s book has prompted me to a nuancing of my position. At one point he quotes G K Chesterton commenting about that very theme of God allowing creation freedom – but it’s immediately clear that by “creation” Chesterton has in mind exclusively human (and angelic) free will. My point entirely. But what’s interesting is that Dembski quotes it in the context of teleology in nature generally, having established that teleology means the setting and achievement of goals.

Humans clearly do that in a relatively wide sphere, especially including the moral, and that is why we are said to be in the likeness of God. Being rational, we can set goals according to our God-given nature and hence our abilities, and that constitutes our freedom. Yet as many biblical examples show (on the Venema thread I cited the wicked man made by God for the day of evil, the Babylonians used to judge Judah and the prophetic necessity of Judas’s betrayal) that freedom is never independent of God, but subsumed by his providence and his own sovereign goal-setting.

But goal-setting is a feature, in a more limited way, of other creatures. It’s what Aristotle called the “appetitive soul”. A caged lion may show every sign of desiring to be uncaged, take any opportunity of achieving that desire and demonstrate satisfaction at having done so. Michael Polanyi (if I remember my source rightly) points to the evident satisfaction of animals in solving problems: indeed the solving of problems (for example the famous ability of ravens to outsmart children in getting to water) is a teleological issue. It’s impossible, of course, to comment on the subjective experience of a raven putting pebbles in a pitcher (or a Nagelian bat outwitting a particularly juicy insect, perhaps). It’s even harder to know just how goal-setting applies to lower animals – the worm answering the mating call or the slime-mouild solving a maze. But in principle one can say that animals are exhibiting goal-setting, and therefore some kind of “freedom” – so long as one understands that to be subsumed by God’s active providence, as the Bible shows even human freedom to be.

Likewise, it’s becoming increasingly evident that some form of inherent teleology applies within evolution, beyond the teleology built into basic material processes, which last is the absolute minimum necessity if you want to claim “theistic evolution” or even more “evolutionary creation”. There do seem to be levels at which organisms make decisions based on, but not determined by, environmental challenges, for example about which genes to activate and which to suppress in epigenetics. Depending on your definition of “intelligence” that is intelligent design, not adequately explicable under materialism, whether or not it is believed to be derived from a divine original. Dembski, for example, points out that “intelligence”, like “Logos”, is derived from the Indo-European root denoting choosing from alternatives: to him ID can point to natural teleology just as much as to the human, alien or divine.

If that is true, I suppose that protozoans choosing their genetic expression are neither more nor less free than they are in deciding to pursue food – but it’s freedom at a minimal level. A dog or human doing the same thing could be said to be exhibiting the same degree of freedom, though of a lower order from their activity on the mental scale.

All this, remember, like human choices, is through concurrence or some other means subordinate to God’s will. Perhaps there’s a sense in which Protoceratops exercises some teleological role in the supposed transition to Triceratops, but it’s God whose “mediate providence” (Suarez’s useful term) designs both species and their intermediates, and it’s Christ who ultimately gives them their forms, for he made all things in heaven and earth (did he not?).

But to conclude, this does not mean that creation is free by dint of being creation, being separate from or independent of God, being a child allowed to be itself and so on. It means rather that there is proportionate freedom within creation according to the individual gifting of life that God has given to individual organisms. It does not make nature, or even organisms, “co-creators” with God – he reserves that role to himself, and will not give his glory to another.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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