Creation upfront putdown

My last post dealt with the lack of a well-argued theology of nature in 2018 Evolutionary Creation. One model though, at least turns up from time to time, and that is the idea that God so fine-tuned the Big Bang that everything subsequently turned out just as he willed. This is of relevance to the whole theology of creation, not just evolution, of course.

It is, in essence, the “perpetual motion” idea in Leibniz’s Deist concept of the ideal competent God, used against Newton’s concept of divine immanence, though ECs usually combine it with the orthodox belief that God “sustains the laws” in being. In practice, though, this is simply mains-powered Deism rather than the original Deists’ battery-powered version. It is still, however, justified on the basis that no competent deity would need to “tinker” or “interfere” with his creation after it was made – and if you’ve ever heard that line from a TE, he or she was probably promoting scientific determinism, whether they knew it or not.

Now, to be fair, BioLogos disclaims this view, and with some force, in their criticism of the Crossway Book on Theistic Evolution mentioned in the last two posts. Deb Haarsma quotes the latter’s definition:

God created matter and after that did not guide or intervene or act directly to cause any empirically detectable change in the natural behavior of matter until all living things had evolved by purely natural processes (Grudem, 67).

And then rejects it:

No one at BioLogos would describe God’s action that way!

Since 2012, our “What we believe” page has stated:

God typically sustains the world using faithful, consistent processes that humans describe as ‘natural laws.’ Yet we also affirm that God works outside of natural law in supernatural events, including the miracles described in Scripture. In both natural and supernatural ways, God continues to be directly involved in creation and in human history.

This statement is rather vague in its scope, however, and more significantly seems directly at odds with Francis Collins’s own description of theistic evolution in Language of God. Listing its typical attributes before rebranding them as “BioLogos” he writes (p.200):

2 Despite massive improbabilities, the properties of the universe appear to have been precisely tuned for life.

4. Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required.

Point 4 clearly removes the need for any direct divine action in evolution, and although point 3 (not quoted here) brackets off the origin of life as of “unknown cause”, a plain reading of point 2 is that the fine-tuned laws of the universe guaranteed life without special intervention too, from the fine tuning of the laws of nature.

Whoever holds, or does not hold, the “semi-deist theology of nature” I’ve described, it’s a model one encounters frequently on the comboxes of BioLogos, and elsewhere, so is worth critiquing from a scientific point of view as well as a theological one.

In a conversation at Peaceful Science the physicist Daniel Gordon, whom I quoted in my last post, quite rightly points out that theologically the view might be consistent with Christian orthodoxy – though whether it is a good match to the kind of hands-on God encountered in Scripture is another matter. Also, given the core Christian attitude towards human freedom and responsibility, a physically determinist universe poses grave theological issues of another kind in that area. Also if one insists, with every justification, on retaining human freedom of action as among our highest gifts, then it’s odd to remove God’s freedom of action from the world on principle.

Here, though, I’m most interested in whether the model works.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is still no consensus in science as to whether the universe, at the classical scale, is deterministic or not. One upon a time, physics clearly believed it was – though there’s a good chance that everyone at that time forgot that the science of physics was set up to discover deterministic, mathematical, laws, and so could scarcely be expected to discover indeterminacy.

Some, like Karl Popper and Jacques Monod, have proposed “chance” as a true cause within the universe, though it is far from clear how this relates to the laws operating at classical level, that is, what kind of thing this chance actually is. I’ve written enough on this that regular readers (or those who use the “search” button for “chance ” or “randomness”) will know that I believe it gets the cart before the horse: probabilities do not cause events, but are derived from events whose exact causes are simply unknown. In other words, chance as such is always the measure of epistemological uncertainty, and does not shake the apparent determinacy of natural laws at all.

In contrast, perhaps, quantum science is usually agreed to have done away with strict determinism at the micro-level, but it is undoubtedly one of the most deterministic parts of science at the statistical level, and many believe that, imaginary cats aside, individual quantum events do not impinge significantly on the classical world. Some, of course, disagree, suggesting that individual quantum effects might cause biological mutations with far-reaching effects.

Werner Heisenberg gives a clearer explanation than most in Physics and Philosophy, and  seems to have dealt with the quantum paradox partly in terms of Aristotelian potencies: seen in themselves quantum events are probabilistic, but like Aristotle’s primary matter they never actually appear by themselves – as in the attempt to observe them, when they become, in Heisenberg’s words, influenced by the whole of the unknown state of the rest of the world.

This expression of the Copenhagen Interpretation seems rather less mysteriously acausal than most, as well as downplaying a nystical role for mind, and I’m interested and pleased (as an aside) that Heisenberg shared my own conviction that it is the materialist philosophical mindset underlying the current pursuit of science that creates much of the paradox not only in quantum science, but in biology. Hence any new “theology of nature” is likely to require to be stated in philosophical terms not in line with current science, exactly as the new philosophy of Descartes was at odds with the language and concepts of Aristotelian science.

Such considerations of quantum physics, however, are useful in raising questions about any level of indeterminacy in the world. At one extreme – quantum events – indeterminacy appears to rule, OK? At the other – the grand cosmological scale, determinacy is assumed: nobody doubts that, scientifically speaking, the universe is headed deterministically for maximum entropy and heat death at some foreseeable point, though the Christian may believe that in view of a new creation, that will not happen de eventu.

The question is, what degree of determinism does science allow in between those extremes? Is Francis Collins right, for example, to say that once evolution started, it had all the resources to stop at all the right stations automatically?

The answer to this does depends heavily on what purposes God had in mind, and that is a theological question which, I believe, finds good answers in the Bible. I pointed out in the previous post how common openness theology was at the start of BioLogos: if God’s sole aim was that evolution should work, then there’s little reason to doubt he could design it to do so, and then he would look forward to being surprised by the outcomes, as I discussed (and ridiculed) in an early Hump piece here.

Since then, the general BioLogos consensus seems to have become that God intended mankind, as we are, rather than for any intelligent species whatever to emerge at some stage. Personally I see nothing in Scripture that says mankind was any more or less specifically intended than rabbits, radishes and radiolaria, but a specified Homo sapiens is sufficient to make the case for a highly deterministic evolutionary process to be necessitated on the “frontloading” model.

The only conceivable alternative to physical determinism, if man is destined to arise “naturally” from the Big Bang, is of a system of indeterminate events that, at the large scale, is designed so that it inevitably results in man, just as the sum of all quantum events results, inevitably, in heat death. Frankly that seems intrinsically unlikely. What we know of the evolutionary processes, and of life itself, is that it operates as a system on the edge of chaos, is highly contingent, and is therefore most unlikely to produce any given species in the long term. Or even the short term.

Simon Conway Morris has concentrated on the ubiquity of the phenomenon of convergence, but at most that appears to be a very general process. Flight might re-evolve repeatedly, but cockatoos do not. And in any case, man has only emerged once. Highly constrained directionality for evolution appears at odds with the known mechanism, and is certainly at odds with mainstream beliefs about it in biology.

Francis Collins badly fudges the issue at this point, by saying that what might seem like chance to us could be known to God from the beginning. But this is to confuse the omniscience of God with an apparently inadequate view of omnipotence: if God chooses to work through particular means, such as the laws of nature, then in so doing he limits his purposes to those achievable by the means he has chosen. I can foresee supernaturally that if I throw a stick of dynamite at my friend, I will kill him: but I can’t foresee that it will give him a smart haircut and brush his suit, because it won’t. God can only produce man inevitably by “using natural evolution alone” if man can is an inevitable outcome of the process, and it makes no difference that God is omnipotent, because the limiting step is the natural means he is said to have chosen to use.

What matters is how God achieves what he plans – such as the evolution, after 3 billion years, of you and me. Any laws that are so deterministic as to achieve that “without special supernatural intervention” will produce a world we might not wish to live in, because those deterministic laws must also govern our free will and actions.

“Compatibilist” accounts of free will actually make sense in the context of an omniscient and loving God who is active in the world. There are ways of conceiving how God might achieve his outcomes in even detailed matters, and yet allow our choices to be genuinely free. It’s a  difficult philosophical challenge, but it can be done in the total context of God’s power and wisdom. And so in theological terms, for God to intend good in advance of the bad choices made by Joseph’s brothers, or by Jesus’s killers, we can provide various explanations. But it’s not so clear how far compatibilism enables our choices to real and accountable in a physically determinist world.

Yet if our choices are real, the world cannot be fully determined by its physical laws, and its whole supposed ability to deliver on any specific purpose of God by its own powers is therefore undermined. In theory, a US President could choose to press the red button and stop all evolution in its tracks. But even animals make decisions, albeit not rational ones. My dog hesitates about whether to chase a squirrel – and, perhaps, the decision determines whether a crucial squirrel mutation is passed on to the next generation.

Such contingencies through the history of evolution would only allow God to plan outcomes like the human race if the evolution tends to dampen out contingencies and end up with predetermined outcomes. No evolutionary biologist believes that, so why should any evolutionary creationist? There appears to be no good evidence that evolution is a self-correcting, rather than a chaotic, system.

My conclusion is that the frontloading model has little real likelihood of working in the real world. Someone might argue  for a stringent form of Molinism as a solution, ie that God chooses to create the one world where indeterministic laws of nature happen to produce exactly the results he wants. But Molinism in my view has overwhelming problems of its own. In effect, under Molinism, God foreordains particular events rather than laws with inevitable outcomes, which destroys Leibniz’s argument that frontloading proves God to be particularly clever. It’s like creating the one world out of millions in which a poorly designed clock happens to keep good time, or like a scientist repeating a poor experiment until he gets an outlying result which he reports as a success – it shows the ability to cheat well, not to design well.

And Molinism also does nothing whatsoever for the free-will it was originally developed to preserve).

One possible answer to my suggestion that the universe we have could not produce specific outcomes for God is that, since God creates in eternity, he creates the whole universe in one act, though it unfolds in time. He could therefore, one might say, simply build the desired outcomes in. Consideration of God as acting in eternity is worthwhile (reminding us, for example, that it would be odd for God to restrict his activity to only the temporal begining of creation).

But it ignores that fact that the universe God creates in time is one of perceived cause and effect, which still have to follow each other rationally in time if we are to believe that such natural causes are sufficient. So the argument fails.

So in conclusion, if physical reality does not permit frontloading to work, as I think I have shown, then God must, logically, act in some way in real time in the world of evolution, as well as at the creation of the universe ex nihilo. And if in evolution, then presumably in the rest of creation, too – we will have learned something about the openness of the scientific universe to God in practice, and about his decision to make a world in which he would be active and immanent. This will not surprise us, as it is the way God is described throughout the Bible.

But it will force us to take divine action into serious account in any adequate theology of nature. Ideally it will enable us to understand the kinds of situations, and ways in which God acts, and will give guidelines as to what situations are appropriately investigated as “natural”, and which are likely to be fruitless and even hubristic. We have some precedent here in the early modern scientists’ acceptance of miracles and providential acts, as enumerated under scholasticism, and to exclude them (somehow) from its own pursuits.

So what possibilities does this allow, given the long history of theological and philosophical reflection on divine action, and how might such actions fit into the empirical world?

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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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