Still hanging in the air…

…unanswered questions on BioLogos style evolutionary creation.

Dennis Venema published the penultimate part of his series Evolution and the Christian on BioLogos a week ago (the final episode was an appeal for speaking out the truth in love – well, I’m all for that).

I asked three questions arising from his presentation of the links between creation and material origins, and the image of God in man, whose answers would, I felt, clarify and increase the coherence of what BioLogos seems to propose. Unfortunately, thus far (and characteristically of most BioLogos writers) he hasn’t replied, making the “speaking truth in love” motif rather academic, as it implies speaking rather than silence. I’ll post here a modified discussion of the points that I raised there, so at least Hump readers will be able to evaluate them. Italicised quotes from Dennis are followed by my comments.

“As we saw, stochastic processes are often highly predictable, and can be used to achieve a pre-specified outcome even if a precise route is not predetermined.”

That is to say, I suppose, “Determined but epistemically random individual events are statistically predictable. Such occur in evolution.” This  hardly earth-shaking theologically. I suppose he must be talking of statistical predictability, since “stochastic”, from the German for “guess”, means precisely “unpredictable”. But statistical predictability means that the individual events follow laws too, and so are ultimately determined, even when they are not knowable to us.

The point here is the uncontroversial claim that neither human observers nor organisms are privy to the reasons for the individual events concerned – that is to say, we are talking about epistemological randomness. An analogy (after Arthur Eddington) is that our ability to walk on a solid surface is the result of the purely statistical solidity of matter – enough moving particles hit our feet to resist gravity. Yet we walk purposefully, and nothing excludes God’s being responsible directly for the maintenance of the statistics.

I suggested in my question on BioLogos that, strictly, the only “randomness” essential to Neodarwinism (or even vaguely ascertainable through science) is “randomness with respect to fitness”, which is entirely about epistemological randomness – organisms, it is said, have no “knowledge” of whether changes are beneficial.

In fact, work like James Shapiro’s, and the whole newly re-emerging field of Neo-Lamarckian changes, disputes that even this “randomness” is more than relative. To say that an organism does not know infallibly that its changes will be beneficial is a far cry from saying they’re random: not all lion kills succeed, but the lion is definitely trying to hunt.

Be that as it may, epistemological randomness holds no challenges whatsoever for orthodox Christianity. Problems arises only if one infers that such events are stochastic to God, not merely unpredictable to men or organisms – that is, ontological randomness. That has serious implications for God’s sovereignty and his role in creation.

Unfortunately, none of the discussion on BioLogos addresses these important distinctions at all. “Randomess” without definition is both an empty concept and theologically highly risky. It suggests that chaos can create (in Hebrew, that bara is a product of tohu wabohu).

“For us, when we discuss the idea of God creating something, we reflexively think about creation from nothing – the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. For us, creation is sudden, supernatural, and dramatic – it refers to the instantaneous production of previously non-existent matter. Accordingly, we intuitively expect that the original audience of Genesis also thought in these terms.”

Here, Venema seeks to get theological. At first pass, this paragraph would seem to address only crude Creationism, and have nothing to do with his observations on chance at all. On second pass too, in fact. He immediately loses the plot by invoking English uses of the word “creation” rather than biblical or theological:

“What’s interesting about this issue is that the range of meaning for the word created (and its cognates), even in English, is much broader than strictly producing matter from nothing. Consider the following sentences:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
Van Gogh is an artist widely recognized for his creative genius.
As Christians, we are called to be stewards of God’s creation.
The government created a committee to deal with the budget crisis.”

What matters, though, is surely the biblical usage. English vocabulary is simply irrelevant to the issue. In Hebrew, the word bara (create) is not broader – just different. Notably it is never applied to any but God himself, which actually makes its meaning far more restricted than in English. Venema goes on to cite John Walton’s writings on “the functional creation”:

“Genesis 1 is not a narrative of material origins, but rather a narrative with a distinctly ancient, near-eastern focus – one that is concerned with how God ordered his handiwork into a cohesive, functional system for the benefit of humanity.”

This, of course, is true, and he rightly points out that this turns attention away from mandatorily instantaneous, ex nihilo creation, and does not exclude some evolutionary process. “Functional” creation, as Walton is at pains to point out, cannot conflict with a material account, because it isn’t a material account.

Nevertheless, it is still an account of the material world, only viewed functionally. Take a look at this phrase again: “…how God ordered his handiwork into a cohesive, functional system for the benefit of humanity.” That might be understood as God’s simply making sure there was some working system in place. If so, it’s a long way from Genesis, whose purpose is to show that all the functional order we see in the material creation was put there by God (literally, to replace tohu wabohu, what was “formless and void”).

There simply is no order or function apart from that which God creates. So think of a biological “function” – it is axiomatically the creation of God. Now maybe that’s what Dennis means, but as so often on BioLogos, it’s not clear – if it were, there would be little controversy.

The phrase “ordered his handiwork into a cohesive, functional system for the benefit of humanity” is, in Aristotelian terms, putting the emphasis on form and teleology (aka function and purpose), rather than on material and efficient causation.

For a start, it presupposes humanity to be a fulfilled primary purpose underlying the rest. The question for science, then, is whether the stochastic processes of accepted evolutionary theory entail the arrival of humanity. If not (and there seems little evidence for it, least of all in Dennis’s writing, which emphasises the fortuitous in human evolution) then some non-Darwinian account of humanity needs to be given in addition: special creation, perhaps, and if not that, what?

This is a question of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (see this recent post by Ed Feser): as it stands, Dennis seems to present human origins as a “brute fact” – God is said to use only evolution, but evolution has no innate predisposition to result in man. The theology and the science, in the end, simply occupy different universes.

Furthermore, the emphasis not only of Genesis, but of natural creation elsewhere in Scripture, is on the specificity of the functional order God sets up. He does not simply create some heavenly bodies – he creates sun and moon “for signs to mark seasons, days and years.” Walton details the interpretation of this in terms of the reliability of the calendar for agriculture and for correct ritual, but the point is that in order to determine the functions, God must necessarily determine the exact material forms. Form follows function, after all.

Likewise, athough the Genesis categories of vegetation, birds, fish and animals are general summaries, they too are viewed functionally: plants are divided as food between man and animals, and animals themselves are divided into wild and livestock. The very phrase “after their kinds”, freed from any YEC context, at least implies that when God finished creating “the heavens and the earth in all their vast array”, that array consisted of the specific kinds formed for their beneficial functions.

I mentioned in my Wallace post that he saw the different kinds of wood, coffee and rubber – even beer – as examples of the specific provision of God. But Scripture has its own very particular examples. In Psalm 104, apart from grass in relation to cattle as livestock (would cycads and sauropods have done as well?), the writer includes in the functional order for mankind plants that man can grow for food (note the division again between human and animal provision), wine to gladden our hearts (so grapes and yeast were planned), oil to make our face shine (so olives – or at least oils other than turpentine or linseed), and bread (the rather special qualities of grain-bearing grasses). Even Wallace’s timber-types are included here as “the cedars of Lebanon [the Lord] planted” – remember the central role cedar played in building the Temple and Solomon’s palace: it is strong, rot-resistant and fragrant. Incidentally it makes great sound-boards on guitars, too. Was evolution bound to produce such a wood?

And so as that psalm unfolds, it describes all the creatures as being “made by God”, and fed by his care: this gives a context to the related idea of “creation” that links not only structure with function, but with God’s immanence as well.

Dennis’s last paragraph is about the image of God in man, about which he is rather unclear except for the theologically unobjectionable bottom line that it imples:

“And here we do have a theological answer that Genesis readily attests to: humans are made in the image of God, and we were so made because God intended it. While as moderns we might want to know the answers to our scientific questions of what, when, and how, perhaps the best answer is the one God has already supplied: whose image we are made in: his own. And as we see in the person of Jesus, bearing the image is to be truly human – and being truly human is a reflection of our heavenly Father to his lost and hurting world.”

At last, then, it seems that BioLogos is clearly affirming that we were made the way we are because God intended it so. I’m happy with that affirmation – but I’m not sure how it connects, except by optimistic faith, with the kind of evolutionary mechanism that Dennis has been explicating over several years. Why would stochastic mutations and natural selection, acting on the first life, and interrupted by equally stochastic geological and cosmic catastrophes, end up in Homo sapiens? What biologist claims it would if run again?

Could mutations and selection possibly account for his mind and spirit (and if not, what does account for them)? Does God’s “intention” include our wisdom teeth, spine, appendix and the other things regarded by Franciso Ayala (writing on BioLogos against Stephen Meyer) and many others as faulty by-products of evolution? If not, we were only partly intended to be as we are.

More significantly in view of some of the theology prevailing in TE discussion, maybe the world is “lost and hurting” not because mankind unaccountably fell from his high calling and true “imageness”, but because of the errors inherent in the evolutionary function God created. Yet the functional creation of Genesis was, when complete, “very good” in God’s eyes.

Alternatively, does God’s mere “intention” render the nature of the actual mechanisms arbitrary? That would hardly help the original scientific quest to “think God’s thoughts after him.” It would just be magic – not even miracle. “God can do anything! He even used an old coffee-grinder to make the Universe!”

So, in summary, I find some of the old questions to be only very slightly clearer from Dennis Venema’s post, and the rest still unaddressed. It’s funny how even Alfred Wallace had less trouble making a coherent case for what he believed.


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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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