I’d like to pick up on a remark made by our friend Darek Barefoot on a recent thread:
God may be working outside the pattern of lawlike regularities in countless irregular nudges of the genetic code, but given how many of these nudges there seem to have been it becomes difficult to distinguish them from lawlike regularities.
There’s actually quite a lot worthy of discussion there. For example, on an occasionalist metaphysics God’s nudges, like the lawlike regularities, and everything else for that matter, would constitute all that happened anyway. Lawlikeness would be entirely dependent on God’s desire to act consistently, and irregularities on his choice to vary things.
In concurrentism too lawlike events would also be God’s actions, in that he would be the first mover of them, though their regularity would be a true feature of the natures with which they were endowed. Only in “mere conservationism” (and materialism, of course) would predicable events be in any sense autonomous of God’s ongoing activity – they would (in conservationism) instead be the result of his forward provision, more or less detailed.
For most Christian philosophers and theologians of the past, then, the division into “natural” and “supernatural”, or into “law”, “chance” and “absolute fluke”, is actually one of human convenience – God has never asked us to distinguish them, but rather to attribute all things to him. He doesn’t owe us watertight science.
But the issue with evolution isn’t that at all: it’s that the process hasn’t been reduced to lawlike events at all. If one is talking about “nudging”, one is concerned with the nudging of apparently stochastic mutations, fortuitous factors in the environment and – in many cases – the infinitesimal probabilities said by Pauli to be indistinguishable from miracle. As I said in that previous post, if anything the presence of organised complexity with such low contingency is actually more characteristic of intelligent “nudging” than it is either of lawlike processes or statistical contingency.
The lack of a mathematical footing to evolution was what prompted mathematician Gregory Chaitin to initiate the research programme of metabiology, its aim summarised by the title of his 2012 book Making Biology Mathematical. He is one of those using evolutionary algorithms to study evolution, and to cut a very complex story short (for the sake of reaching broad conclusions) he found it necessary to build into his algorithms the concept of a Halting Oracle. This is also called a “Turing Oracle”, not so much because Turing invented it, but because he proved it was impossible:
We shall not go any further into the nature of this oracle apart from saying that it cannot be a machine.
It’s a mathematical tool only, for the analysis of what cannot be computed, either mechanically or biologically. Chaitin describes its role in his model:
You’re allowed to ask God or someone to give you the answer to some question where you can’t compute the answer, and the oracle will immediately give you the answer, and you go on ahead.
The input of “magic” information like this is justified to make the model work (it will not do so without even when modelling intelligent design!), but one thing is not disputible either by critics, supporters or Chaitin himself: it makes the model non-Darwinian. If anything, Chaitin’s work models variation rather than Darwinian evolution – and it requires intelligent input, as he openly affirms.
Indeed, in passing it must be said that all evolutionary algorithms import information via oracles of one kind or another – in some, for example, a “Hamming Oracle” is used, simply illustrated by Richard Dawkins’ “METHINKSITISAWEASEL” programme: if your changed letter matches the target phrase (the hidden information) it’s retained.
Now what Chaitin says about the limitations of his “toy” model is interesting. If one made it more like the real world by modelling what is actually believed to happen there, it would become progressively less computable. So you can (probably even in theory) have a mathematical model that isn’t truly Darwinian, or a more-or-less Darwinian model that isn’t mathematical. Neither will put evolution on a law-like footing.
Meanwhile, the state of play is that you can only make any model work by supplying information along the way – appearing to confirm Gödel’s logical conclusion from decades back that nowt comes from nowt, and Pauli’s that teleology cannot be kept out.
We have, then, a rather curious set of circumstances:
- Practically, actual Darwinian processes have not been reduced to law – especially mathematical law – and it may be impossible to do so.
- Darwinian processes, unless new types of laws of emergence appear (despite the first difficulty), depend largely on gaining organised complexity by non-lawlike processes of very low probability, which logicians like Gödel (and philosophers like Étienne Gilson) believe to be intrinsically impossible, and which in any case are formally indistinguishable from miracle.
- Validation of the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection, above the microscale, as the sole or predominant means of speciation, remain unobserved and contestible after 150 years. Disconfirmatory evidence, additional and alternative mechanisms all weaken its plausibility.
- The central case that evolution is a lawlike process without the need for the input of information has not come remotely near definitive demonstration.
- …And don’t even mention the origin of life. Chaitin: “Now let me mention, by the way, that this model has life in it from the beginning. This model does not talk about the origin of life, because I already have a universal programming language here at the beginning.”
It seems to me that a theory which is intuitively eminently plausible and comprehensible becomes less prone to confirmation the more closely it is subjected to scrutiny. One does not have to be unduly skeptical (or even particularly religious), and still less stupid, to treat it as one would any other internally consistent but non-rigorous theory.
But, to put it in a more theologically-orientated way, the assertion that evolution is an entirely natural process (whether that means materialistically natural or natural in the “divine frontloading” sense) rests mainly on faith in its plausibility rather than either logical necessity or empirical demonstration. It doesn’t even begin to be a scientific claim.
To the Christian, I must re-affirm, the difference is only one of “How God did it.” Lawlike evolution is no less teleological and divine than law-like procreation. Special creation is no more intrinsically unlikely for life than for the cosmos. And some combination of the two is unproblematic – if one believes that John the Baptist or Jeremiah the prohet were born naturally but yet according to God’s election.
However, the theist who tries to make God the author of an ateolological process loses both his cake and the satisfaction of eating it, and becomes logically incoherent along the way.
I agree with Darek that the evidence of teleology in the creation itself makes the actual process of secondary importance. It only matters to me because … well, because truth matters. But also because the kind of creation we inhabit inevitably tells us something about the kind of God we have.
If he’s the God of Deism in nature, he’s likely to be the God of Deism in religion, too. If he were entirely capricious, neither the world nor the faith would be good places to be. If he’s the Logos of the Father … that’s where things get interesting, up close and personal.