The rate- (or purpose-) limiting step of Creation

I was struck by a succinct observation by poster StephenB on an Uncommon Descent thread about theistic evolution:

For guided evolution, the design precedes the process. For Darwinian evolution, the process precedes the design (appearance of).

He was responding to someone who had argued that teleological goals may be served by using ateleological processes (eg yearly floods on the Nile being anticipated for agriculture, pearl formation in oysters being exploited). StephenB pointed out that in both those cases, the process existed before the purpose, which cannot be the case in creation, for God precedes all processes. I might have added that pearl formation is an adaptation that serves a prior purpose for the oyster, and that the Bible sees the flooding of the Nile as God’s deliberate prior provision for Egyptians, but we’ll leave those aside.

Later, StephenB expands his meaning:

Either the evolutionary process precedes and shapes the design (Darwinism, Neo-Darwinism) or the design precedes and shapes the evolutionary process (ID, Teleological Theism). It must be one or the other. It cannot be both.

This, to me, is the core of the issue that still rumbles below the surface of the usual theistic evolution discussions and muddies the waters (earth tremors under the Nile, maybe?). The official BioLogos description of Evolutionary Creation runs along the lines that “God uses evolution to create.” And to a Christian, unless you’re a YEC, that is unexceptionable if, and only if, “design precedes and shapes the evolutionary process”.

Historically, and as far as the atheist is concerned, the whole appeal of Darwinian and Neodarwinian evolution has been specifically its open-endedness. Goals develop purely from events. It’s not just that it doesn’t need God, but that it’s so elegantly self-powered that for God to do anything more than keep things in existence spoils it as a process, like moving the hands of a supposedly reliable watch (except that this watch changes the hour to match the perceived need, not the actual time).

Theistic evolution generally seems sensitive to that complaint, for it’s not kosher to talk about guided evolution, that being part of the dreaded Intelligent Design concept which, for the most part, it rejects. The result is some idea that God had purposes (how precise is seldom clear) in his original creation, but being God is able to use an atelological process to bring them about.

This leads to the rather bizarre sequence of ideas that follows:

  • Living things give every appearance of being designed (as per Paley and the natural theologians) BUT
  • That appearance is an illusion, evolution being able to design without a designer (as per Dawkins and the naturalist materialists) BUT
  • That lack of design conceals the ultimate purpose of God the Creator.

An analogy to this might be a book (or even a blog post). You read this, and finding it makes sense (more or less!) you assume that it’s the product of my designing mind.

But no! You are corrected by a scientist, or maybe a theologian, who tells you that, on the contrary, everything about the book or blog post is the product of ateological forces. The book is easiest to reduce in this way – you can account for the physical artifact entirely by the laws of physics and chemistry, and the manufacturing process involves a whole sequence of machines that have no intelligence, and no idea whatsoever of what the book is about. It is an autonomous mechanistic process.

But then, running into me in the pub you realise that I originally conceived the document with the express intention that people like you should understand it, and you conclude that I managed, in my wisdom, to use a purely ateleogical, and even partly random, physical process as the sandwich-filling between my conception and your understanding. I managed to achieve purpose through non-purpose.

Well that is absolute nonsense, of course. The whole mechanics of setting down my book, or this blog, into a transferable medium which could reach you and impart understanding was designed by me, or others, for that very purpose. It is all part of one process of communication, and to pretend that the physical book is in any way separable from that single process of creation is crazy talk.

If the middle part of the sandwich, the physical process, were separate in the cases of either book-writing or creation, then as a matter of logic rather than of God’s power or wisdom, it would act analogously to the rate-limiting step of a chemical reaction. No matter how quick and well-planned a reaction is, if in the middle there’s a slow or inadequate process, it is that which will determine how quickly, if at all, the reaction proceeeds.

In other words, the Creator can achieve no more than the process itself will allow. If there is a loss of my purpose when I send my work to the publisher (let’s call it loss of information, for that’s all it is) then you will never benefit from my deathless prose (because it will have died). An autonomous editor feeds my text into an evolutionary algorithm, perhaps, and produces a nice Shakespeare play – but not my creation.

If evolution is truly as open-ended as it claims to be (which is its scientific USP, after all), then no purpose of God whatsoever will survive it – the information of the Creator’s will can only be be lost. It makes no difference if he is transendent, immanent or as kenotic as cookies, unless the purpose of his will informs the process he created and closes off its other possibilities.

The only way for that to be any different is to believe, or find evidence that, the process of evolution is not as open-ended (ie unguided) as it is claimed to be – or conceivably that it is only a small part of a system governed by some more important process. It may be constrained to some lawlike outcomes by the laws of physics, laws of form or some emergent magic, whether in the variations of life or the effects of the environment. It may be providentially tweaked by quantum events or anything else God has up his sleeve. The complexities of gene networks may operate by some complex but directionally constrained rules.

But none of that matters to the core issue: anything that enables one to say that “God creates through evolution” requires absolutely that the “through” must be real – it actually requires there to be information originating in God’s mind that is retained and transmitted through the process. That is entailed whether that process is entirely “natural” or involves miracles, or something in between. There can be no ateleological filling to the teleological sandwich, or God is not creating anything, any more than there can be an open-ended purposeless stage between my authorial intent and your reading of it.

The argument that needs to be seriously addressed by ECs, then, is whether teleological evolution can still, legitimately, be termed “Darwinian”. Most scientists would regard retaining the term within a teleological conception of evolutoon as operating under false pretences – and theistic evolutionists should, of all evolutionists, eschew false pretences. But they should also eschew intellectual fudges. The honest thing to do is to say, “We do not believe evolution is, at root, Darwinian and open-ended, but theistic and teleological.” It must be one or the other. It cannot be both.

Unless you can come up with a coherent refutation of the original point: For guided evolution, the design precedes the process. For Darwinian evolution, the process precedes the design.

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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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7 Responses to The rate- (or purpose-) limiting step of Creation

  1. Cath Olic says:


    Perhaps this is a sidebar to the point of your post, but I’ll raise what I think is an important aspect of living things which is often overlooked or outright ignored.
    I’ll call it “INSTRUCTION.”

    Too often in describing the origin or workings of living things, evolutionists will use the word “complexity”, or if they’re really feeling generous, “information”.
    But in the “plumbing” of living things, so many things, such as DNA, require far more than complexity and information.
    At bottom, INSTRUCTIONS are involved. Unlike mere complexity and information, instructions require, in short, parties, goals, and tools. “Instructing” is actually quite complex, but it is goal-driven complexity.

    You hint at this, perhaps inadvertently, in saying “The whole mechanics of setting down my book, or this blog, into a transferable medium which could reach you and *impart understanding* was designed by me, or others, for that very purpose. It is all part of one process of *communication*…”

    But you drift back to the more common treatment with
    “If there is a loss of my purpose when I send my work to the publisher (let’s call it *loss of information*, *for that’s all it is*) then you will never benefit from my deathless prose…”

    “… requires there to be *information* originating in God’s mind that is retained and transmitted through the process.”

    I think the mystery of living things involves far more than “information” or even “complexity”. It involves the goal-driven complexity of “instructions”.
    And I think you would agree.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Cath Olic, and a Happy New year.

      Yes, I agree with you that the distinction matters. I plead that the “instruction” element was in my mind, because within my mindset “information” with repect to nature is closely related to “logos” as the will and creative activity of God in Christ. In other words, the “form” in “information”(another important concept in my mindset) is broader than “what things look like”.

      That, I suppose, may be what you have in mind, in that the “biological” concept of information as DNA etc is often limited to “instructions for building an organism”, which in itself is likely to be only a limited part of the biological picture. But also creation involves the “nomos”, the “law” of a thing, that defines also its “character” (the fierce levaithan, the foolish ostrich in Job), how it acts, how it relates to other beings in the world and – crucially in the biblical concept of creation – how it is directed by the providence of God to his ends.

      I take as an example of the last the blessings and curses by which God governed the covenant with Israel (Lev 26 and parallels in Deut and Josh). For obedience he promises that wild beasts will steer clear of the land, but for disobedience he says they will cause trouble. Likewise for the other elements of creation. His creation of all includes both how they will characteristically behave, and also how they will behave as his servants in governance of the world.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    A codicil to the original post.

    Does it make any difference to my argument, about an atelological “gap” in a teleological causal chain, if we say that God does not create in time, but in eternity?

    Thomas Aquinas, in whose time the idea of an eternal universe was “mainstream”, even if not not biblical, showed that even were that so, the Creation’s existence would still be dependent on God. God would be “ontologically prior”, even if the universe had always existed.

    That draws our attention to the fact that, since God’s act of creation itself is eternal, there is no particular reason to suppose that we should see any more, or less, sign of his work at the beginning of time than at any other. To say, for example, that God fine tuned the Big Bang and then (because of his great planning, or the “perpetual motion” favoured by Leibniz) allowed everything to work out under its own steam, leads to the question of why he would favour one particular time over another, as if he were a clockmaker supplying customers. We would, instead, expect to see creation working out in the world at all times.

    That, in fact, is the biblical picture – though an initial “set-up” of the world is described, a beginning of time, yet he is intimately involved in his world at every moment – even the word “create” is used of his work in a secondary sense (eg he creates Israel).

    But to the extent that God uses secondary causes at all, or any effect “in time”, it still needs to be sufficient, which means in this case it needs to be capable of conveying God’s purposes (information, or instruction in Cath Olic’s preferred term) to the effect.

    So if there is an evolutionary process operating under some natural law structure, it’s not sufficient that God is in heaven willing that mankind should happen: the process must be designed to achieve that goal, or else he must guide it in some way in real time (through concurrence, through intervention – conceptually it doesn’t matter which). The point is that if God (as Christ the Logos) reveals himself in the world in creation, there must be an adequate medium for the connection between his mind and his resulting purpose, whether that be through fine-tuned natural law or miracle, or anything in between.

    Often there seems, in TE circles, to be a kind of magical fudge on this issue: “If God simply wills that a cloud of hydrogen will evolve into man, without any miraculous intervention or teleological process, it will happen and there’s nothing more to discuss” (except that it happened naturally by chance, maybe??).

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Hi Jon,

      I was struck by the phrase “..through laws” and I began to imagine how any super being would ‘operate the world’ through laws that science proposes. I think that our common approach is artificial – we can think of laws of aerodynamics would deal with flight, laws of chemical reactions with synthesis of compounds, and so on. But when I try and imagine “how God would create and sustain/guide”, I am at a loss, since that would require a completeness to my statement – by this, I mean even Nature does not artificially respond to one or two laws at a time, but it is all in a dynamic state, and scientists arrive at statements related to particular events. The closest we can come to a natural understanding is the physicists’ search for one or two ultimate equations that summarise all laws etc of science.

      I like the phrase, “…the creation is subject to its creator’s will at all times and places, but for humanity, in which case God has granted an additional dimension where we may choose between what we understand is good and evil.” In this context, revelation of God is essential for human beings to attain a good understanding.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Hi GD

        You’ve hit the nail, of course – physical “laws” are at most simple abstractions of how the regularities of nature usually occur. They can’t even in principle, it seems to me, account for the contingency of “interesting” things.

        The human analogy, I suppose, would be something like driving laws. Assuming for the moment that everybody kept to them, you’d soon be able to work many of them them out from observing traffic – but it would tell you nothing about who was going where or why, which is the really interesting stuff.

        That shows that my thowaway line about “fine-tuned natural law” really won’t wash, and I repent in dust and ashes. Whilst there may be natural laws underlying evolution, they can’t possibly explain what is created. Like Monod, one can add “chance” to law, but that can’t produce anything anyway, so one is back to admitting teleology – and if one were to use the word “law” for that, it would be more like some detailed schedule for regulating every kind of foodstuff, rather than “x=mc^2”.

        In that sense I do believe that each creature has its own God-given law (which isn’t at all simple), which is why what’s right for a lion isn’t right for a bactrium, or for me.

        I think the distinction in your last para. is important. I’ve just completed a biblical survey of material about the natural creation, and concluded that the uniform witness is, as you say, that “…the creation is subject to its creator’s will at all times and places”, and indeed exists moment by moment to serve his purposes. Why do people say the Bible teaches it’s in rebellion, I wonder?

        I’d consider refining your bit about man, though – we too were created with a natural propensity both to know and do God’s specific will for us, but in view of our exalted status we had, as you say, the ability to choose to go against it and assume our own kind of wisdom. Not good, in the event.

        • Avatar photo GD says:

          The bit about man has taken far more time from me than details on the creation or scientific study thereof – like probably all Christians (and a few others me thinks) I end up with, “What is man that God considers him at all….?” Can we determine, or even understand our “natural propensities?” As a statement of faith, I see God creating in a personal sense in His dealing with humanity – but that is another discussion.

          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            Ah – I was viewing things, as I tend to do, through the lens of Creation.

            You’re right that we have to move on to the lens of redemption, and that’s where revelation becomes a whole new ball-game.

            Yet both in Creation and Redemption, the “natural propensities” are the image and likeness of Christ, himself ther true image of the Father.

            So come the fullness of the new creation, it would seem we will be fully aware of, and comfortable with, what God first made us to be, non posse peccare. Slightly humbling in the sense that we’ll then be at last on a level with the rest of creation, which never had a problem with being what it was made to be!

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