One reason I have for being suspicious of current evolutionary theory is a generic one. The theory was conceived and pursued with materialist assumptions. If those assumptions are wrong, then it’s inconceivable that the details of the theory would remain unchanged. No outsider could say where such changes were needed – it’s a job for the specialists in each field. It’s like the conversion of an unbeliever to Christianity: the change is bound to affect beliefs and practices in relation to work, to relationships and to use of resources. If not, nothing really happened. Assumptions, in other words, always affect outcomes.
I’ve been trying to get my head round the philosophy behind theistic evolution, courtesy of an overview of “critical realism” by R J Russell sent to me by Gregory (many thanks!). Not being a philosopher, even the terminology is challenging to me. But a few observations seem particularly relevant to Christians interested in science.
Without describing in detail “critical realism” (coined by process philosopher Ian Barbour), one can say it is essentially monistic (though not reductionist), in the sense that science and religion are seen as part of one spectrum. The paradigm it has come to represent is “religious naturalism,” which gives a fair idea of its viewpoint.
Since the 1960s, Russell tells us, it has become the consensus view in theology and science. That rather raises the question of who is within this consensus. The biological consensus, as I have suggested, is biased towards materialism, leading to the well-known suggestions that maybe the truth is being crowded out by the pressure of the majority.
Theology and Science is a much smaller – a very much smaller – field. Its principal practitioners come from a range of Christian denominations and none, and cover positions including panentheism, panexperientialism (process philosophy), open theism, feminist theology and other streams not necessarily arising from Christianity. In other words its general ethos appears to be philosophically theistic rather than confessionally Christian. Even when Christ is presented as central, he appears to be more the Christ of the philosophers than the Christ of the Bible. That may well also be true in academic theology generally, but it is of significance in determining the kind of presuppositions it accepts and in the conclusions it draws.
So Russell states that:
Most writers in theology and science seek to avoid two extreme positions: monism in the form of either reductive materialism or absolute idealism, and dualism in the form of vitalism (life is a separate, nonmaterial entity, principle or agency) or Cartesianism (mind and body are independent realities).
Why? What constitutes “extremes” is a matter of opinion. Cartesian dualism, for example, has a respectable pedigree and is espoused in the field by Sir John Eccles, as Aristotelian dualism is held by Richard Swinburne. So one could say that the consensus in this small field is because critical realism happens to appeal to most of those within it. As to the conclusions, the range of theoretical models including variations of emergence, panexperientialism and dipolar monism, reveal further choices rather than clearer discoveries. I can pick one and argue for it on BioLogos, but why would that make it right, and why would it matter?
One aspect of the monistic spectrum of science and religion is that knowledge is seen as a hierarchy from the most basic (physics), rising progressively through the increasingly complex sciences of chemistry and biology to the human sciences and finally to theology – which one could therefore, perhaps, see as the queen of sciences. So:
Peacocke tends to place theology at the top of the hierarchy. As the all-inclusive study of God, humanity and the world it cannot be isolated from, but instead it should seek to integrate, all that we know from the rest of hierarchy.
But that encouragingly religious idea is not the whole argument:
Moreover, by putting theology at the top, it will be maximally constrained by the rest of human knowledge. Moreover, by placing theology at the top of the hierarchy, it is maximally constrained by, and responsible to, the discoveries and conclusions of the other disciplines.
Or, as Russell writes:
Science informs philosophy – philosophy informs theology.
Now in a sense that’s obviously true. Theology as the highest human activity must stand on the shoulders of the lower. But when I was a doctor, there used to be a similar hierarchy in terminal care. This was represented as a pyramid, with pain control at its base, essentials like nutrition upon that, psychosocial well-being upon that, and spiritual well-being at the apex. Its utility was obvious – you don’t tell a dehydrated patient screaming in pain that God loves them and wants them to repent. But my own experience told me that, sometimes, God would turn the pyramid upside down and bring direct spiritual peace and insight to someone in whom every other support had broken down.
The Christian Scriptures (up for discussion at the top of the monistic hierarchy, once informed by science and philosophy) actually teach a clear dualism between God and creation, even though that creation is his work. This is presented in all kinds of ways – spirit and flesh, heaven and the world, revelation and human wisdom, man made from dust but breathed into by God, and so on. One can see this as a top-down hierarchy meeting the bottom-up one somewhere in the middle – most manifestly in the incarnation, but also in the God-given nature of Scripture, and lower down the scale in the human sciences when mind is taken to be more than an emergent property of matter.
In the field of science and theology, and therefore in the understanding of theistic evolution, a failure to take into account that top-down, revelatory, aspect is always going to place one, finally, at the mercy of any materialistic suppositions in the lower levels of the hierarchy. Theology should be informing philosophy and science too, and God’s revelation should be the principal contributor to theology, if it is not going to be merely the wisdom of this world, hollow and deceptive philosophy.
Unless, of course, one makes the choice to follow the academic consensus and build ones tower up to heaven from earth.