This piece would possibly be classed as a thought experiment, except that, as I mentioned in a recent post, the kind of theistic evolution that was around in the nineteenth century came to be re-defined as “non-scientific” by the new naturalistic criteria. So since you can’t do thought experiments in non-science, this will have to be a fantasy. It just might happen to account for some features of the real world too, though.
thought experiment fantasy that I’ll tell by using an analogy. Analogies are always limited, I know, but this one will be considerably more apposite than talk of snowflakes or chess games in relation to theistic evolution, I promise. It’s also based on a real situation, with only the facts changed, as they say, to protect the innocent.
We’ve lived in our house for nearly a decade and (for purely literary reasons) are totally ignorant of its history. There is, however, within the purchase documentation a site plan showing the house as it was around 50 years ago. We can easily see that it has doubled in size since then, but have no idea how or when.
An 1840 tithe map shows a different cottage on another part of the site, but it’s a long extinct fossil which might, or might not, yield a few foundations to digging. As it is, all we can invoke to explain its absence is the universal principle of entropy – houses always tend to fall down over time rather than self-assemble from stones.
Still, again for the purposes of the tale, I’ve kept a meticulous record of all the changes in our house since we bought it, in the hope of explaining how it got to double in size, change shape and become what it is today, which is not in 1968 style at all.
Virtually all the changes I have recorded in the house, I find, match the general theme of entropy that did for its predecessor. There is an annoying tendency for things to break or wear out. The vast majority of these changes are mildly deleterious, but not enough to need any remedial work (since, again for literary reasons, there’s no money to spend on unnecessary matters). So there are bits of plaster knocked off corners by grandchildren on tricycles, some cracking in ceilings probably from heavy mice in the loft (for all I know), and about a 1 cm slump in part of the conservatory owing to poor foundations (but how did that conservatory get there in the first place?). Some changes have been easily reversed (for example, by replacing dead light-bulbs), and in some cases these changes are detectable because the brand of bulb is different, or the paint in a room is a different shade, and so on – but the changes are of more or less neutral significance.
Occasionally more detrimental changes have occurred, like the day the roof began to leak, and some pricey work had to be done to replace tiles – but obviously they were not too detrimental, or there’d be no house left.
Oddly enough, some of the wear and tear, although strictly speaking deleterious, has actually served to benefit us. For example, the broken smoke alarm no longer screams at us when we fry bacon and eggs – a great boon to guests. And although the old kitchen range smokes a bit, the extractor fan that won’t switch off any more keeps us from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The only thing we don’t ever seem to see is any truly novel beneficial change that would explain the doubling in footprint, the double glazing, the cavity-wall insulation, the upgrade kitchen units and so on. But we’ve not lived here that long, after all, so they must all have gradually happened in the past, before we moved.
What we can do, from my careful record-keeping, is to calculate an approximate rate at which stuff happens – for it’s an odd fact that things break at a more or less regular rate, rather than all at once – which helps budgeting no end. The constructive changes are much rarer (in the sense of “never recorded”), but given that they clearly have occurred, it’s only a question of seeing whether they could plausibly have done so in the known time between the drawing of our old site plan and the year we moved in, based on my calculated “change rate”. I’ve done a rough tally of what improvements must have been occurred since 1968, and lo and behold! With a following wind, the number of changes is not too far adrift from my measured “mutation rate”.
The same kind of changes I see happening now, therefore, can simply be projected back to show that, indeed, my house has been gradually morphing from its 1960s “farm labourer’s cottage” status to the present “decent modern family home”, by the same apparently random processes that explain the broken floor tiles or the blown double-glazing panels. The biggest change to account for is that great increase in the overall size of the place, but that would be explained by a “floor-plan doubling event” which, in itself, constitutes just a single change, though there must have been subsequent changes that adapted the doubled kitchen into a utility room, the family bathroom into an en suite and – best of all – the duplicate of the original lounge into the study and music room you see around me. I suppose the double glazing is also easily explained along this “duplication” line.
There’s just one fly in the ointment, which is that our neighbour keeps insisting that a run-down old farm cottage was rebuilt by a keen previous occupant called Jonty, in one major project over just a couple of years or so. The story goes that it was a labour of love (and also a labour of all his builder and plumber mates) to design a forever-home for his new family. It would be quite a credible story, too, if it didn’t fly in the face of the scientific principle of uniformity – which tells us reliably that the kind of accidental causes I see gradually operating now are the causes that have always been operating in the place.
Granted there is nothing in the records that shows a gradual transition: just the old site plan (much like that on old Ordinance Survey maps), and the modern house we bought, with its various small changes since. Granted that none of the changes I’ve actually recorded would seem capable of adding a central heating system or a modern electrical system – and they would even seem, if projected, likely to lead in the end to real problems, like the collapse of the wooden terracing outside our back door last month, which will have to be fixed.
If such an alternative account as my neighbour gives were true, then actually two separate processes would be going on: one which was creative, and seen only by its results, and one – including all the items in my list of changes over the time of our ownership – essentially representing the inevitable breakdown of order seen in a material world subject to entropy, or as the Bible calls it, “corruption.” It would be like saying that, in biological evolution, species arise by some creative process, and then begin to deteriorate inexorably by the kinds of copying error defeating the correction mechnisms, errors that we call “mutations”.
Yet there are a good number of sound reasons – not least among them my scientific insistence on repeatable, natural efficient causation – to treat my neighbour’s recollection of events with the same skepticism with which one would treat, say, the idea that periods of God’s creation of new taxa by rapid beneficial changes would look similar, from the viewpoint of the present, to a steady gradual rate of random mutations that, unlike the observed norm today, led to new functions and structures.
For such reasons, I cannot allow this “Jonty” a foot in the door.