Hump retrospective 7: the natural evolution of mankind

…with consciousness, spirit and eternal life

Sy Garte, in his excellent new book The Works of His Hands, mentions three intractable problems in science (because there seems no way they can arise through “materialistic natural causes”); and all three are origins questions.

The origin of the universe, with its universal natural laws, is problematic for science because scientific laws cannot, even in principle, explain their own origin. This has become a major question since Big Bang theory ruled out a universe with no beginning. My decade of origins study has seen a few unsuccessful attempts to overcome this: the Multiverse theories place origins as much outside science as belief in God does, with less evidence. The attempt to define “nothing” in terms of “quantum vacuum” has made the proponents of that idea seem philosophically naive. Meanwhile, it seems that any past-infinte universe or multiverse has been shown to be mathematically impossible: a past infinity would never have reached the present, just as much as adding day to day from the present will never reach the infinite future.

The problem of the origin of life is dealt with in Sy’s book, and though written by a convinced “extended Neodarwinian” his arguments are much the same as those of ID’s Stephen Meyer. The biggest philosophical (not simply practical) problem is how a mindless process could ever come up with the system of translation necessary for life, let alone any proto-life before translation from nucleic acids to amino acids existed.

The third is the origin of human consciousness, and it is this I want to deal with. To Sy Garte, these three issues are likely to be places where perhaps only God’s creative hand, far above any providential control of nature, seems likely.

The big problem with consciousness is acknowledged by virtually all philosophers, but (in my experience) is glossed over by many scientistic types simply because they do not appreciate the issue (substituting a blind faith in materialism’s ability to explain anything, however immaterial).

One way of framing this is from the philosophy of science angle. The approach of science is to seek to remove human bias from phenomena and explain them entirely objectively. But if the matter in hand is “how can there be an ‘I’?” it’s like trying to record light with a microphone: as soon as you remove the subjective from your investigation, you lose the subject you’re studying.

Alternatively you could look at it from the evolutionary point of view: how is it possible, even in principle, for an ateleological, mindless process to produce minds orientated towards teleological final causes?

Philosopher Thomas Nagel dealt with the mystery of subjectivity is a seminal article called “What is it like to be a bat?” In the end, there is no way of reducing “I” to “it.” Materialism might, conceivably, come to explain brain function, but not why that is experienced as an immaterial “me.”

Eliminative materialism deals with consciousness by explaining it away as an illusion. Not only does that leave a host of intractable paradoxes (like you writing a book to persuade me that both of us are illusory), but it leaves the unanswerable question of who, exactly, is being fooled by the illusion: cameras don’t experience optical illusions.

If you really want to do without God, you tend to end up with some other non-materialistic metaphysics, such as pan-psychism, in which all matter has components of mind. That still leaves the question of why humans have so much mind, and everything else so little.

And so it seems impossible for even the most ardent Evolutionary Creationist to believe, rationally, that mankind arose entirely through evolution. The daily experience of mind seems to demand divine input, which takes Genesis, whether in the chapter 1 or the chapter 2 account, back out of the metaphorical and into the literal: God created us, or the conscious part of us, apart from material processes.

That’s bad news if you’re one of those semi-deists who think its coercive or unscientific for God to act demonstrably within the material world: “I think – therefore God is.” Even one exception falsifies the theology.

I don’t think this conclusion that there is more to man that materialism can explain leads to a clear metaphysical anthropology, whether Cartesian or hylemorphic dualism, or the body-mind-spirit “trinity” of some Christian thought. Without going into it here, the Bible itself seems unwilling to answer such questions for us too categorically.

But a conscious mind given us by God – in theological terms given by the the Son, the Logos, himself – immediately makes it clear why we naturally gravitate towards God., and why we ought to gravitate towards Jesus. It is no more mysterious that we should, from childhood (unless it is drilled out of us by a godless environment), intuit that there is a God than that we rapidly develop a theory of mind that tells us (unless we become disordered) that other people are selves like us, and not mere objects. Both arise logically from the divine origin of human minds.

Finally, mind and spiritual awareness are, in some way, closely related to the concept of eternal life. As Ecclesiastes says, “He has put eternity in the hearts of men.” The Thomist would argue that, since the rational mind is immaterial, it is intrinsically eternal. I’m not sure this follows, and still less that minds would necessarily know they are eternal, or even long to be so.

We may think that our eventual extinction is unthinkable, but it isn’t – millions of people go through life fully persuaded that “you live, you die, and that’s it.” Some may feel fear or dread about it, but others see it as a natural part of the world, as indeed it would be, if we were only a natural part of the perishable world.

Biblically, the whole question of eternal life comes from nature even less than does our consciousness. It comes to us in the Garden of Eden, through a special tree, the tree of life, to which our first ancestors had access, but which we have lost through sin. The very possibility of eternal life seems to stem from Adam.

And it is through that episode that death becomes the great enemy in Scripture: it is not because we are intelligent animals that death is a dreadful enemy, but because God made us to be spiritual beings, to whom death is not only unnatural, but infinitely shameful as the penalty for despising our Creator and covenant-Lord.

And so my answer to the question that was first seriously raised in Darwin’s Descent of Man – whether humanity is anything more than a highly evolved product of nature – is that man’s descent, in so far as it consists of the physical constitution of man, and perhaps that which evolved through a process one could consider “natural,” is a very small part of our story. Whether we are thinking of our eternal calling, our abiding awareness of God, or just the day-to-day business of being able to say “I”, we are dealing with wonders far greater than anything else to be found in the world. Our very existence points to worlds beyond this one.

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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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5 Responses to Hump retrospective 7: the natural evolution of mankind

  1. Gilgamesh says:

    Hello Dr. Garvey

    For the past few years, I have carefully examined the flood narrative in order to pinpoint it as a historical event. I believe that your conceptions about the flood as a small alluvial plain inundation are misguided. The language of Genesis certainly allows for a regional flood, but not a small one.

    I was reading in your book “The Generations of Heaven and Earth” that you believe the silt deposits found at Shurrupak and Ur can be attributed to the flood of Noah. The problem with this is that this flood did not destroy any cities completely or cover anything in 45ft of water. It was certainly catastrophic, but not catastrophic enough.

    I think a much larger deluge in the Proto-Sumerian period fits better with the narrative, and Dr. Mohammed el Bastawesy wrote a paper on a candidate for this. I haven’t had anyone give me much input on these points and suggestions, so if you have any thoughts, comments, or rebuttals, I would love to hear them.

    Best Wishes,

    • Gilgamesh says:

      I meant to put this comment on the previous Hump retrospective.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        I meant to put this comment on the previous Hump retrospective.

        It’ll do as well here. And welcome to the Hump.

        My preference for the Shuruppak flood is based on the fact that the Mesopotamian sources seem, at least, to be referring to it in their parallel literature. It seems to me that the extent of the flood, in the context of what its “theological purpose” is in the text, is sufficient.

        It’s, of course, possible that they’ve conflated that flood with an earlier one, but that seems to me unlikely, given how relatively close the first literary accounts are to the events – a few centuries.

        If another positive candidate came up in the archaeology or the literature, I’d be quite happy, since my aim in GHE was to show that plausible historical connections can be made with the Genesis text, rather than to assert in detail which event led to which text.

        You’ll also have read in GHE how I’ve left room for differenbt scenarios, for example a large inundation in the Lake Van area rather than in lower Mesopotamia. But my arguments there are still to be considered: (a) that it does appear that the biblical and Sumerian accounts are variations on the same event and (b) that there are limits to the oral transmission of ancient stories which, for example, make memories of the Black Sea inundation seem implausible to me.

        The big divide, of course, is between a destructive regional flood (with “region” being an imprecise term at best) and a “global flood,” which has the whole of science against it, and also (in my view) the cosmological viewpoint of the ancients.

        • Gilgamesh says:

          If the flood at Shurrupak can indeed be identified with the Deluge of Noah, then why was a boat necessary for such a minor flood? Archaeology shows that the silt deposits at Ur etc. can not be identified with the ones at Shurrupak, and the only other major city that might have experienced the same event is Kish. I would also like to know how you address the fact that Noah landed in the mountains northward when the Shurrupak flood could clearly not reach that far.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    The thing that struck me researching the (relatively brief) section on the Flood in GHE was just how complicated and inaccessible the physical evidence is, and how little of it we know. I draw attention to some of the issues in the book.

    Take Ur, for example. The complete sediment record to bedrock was done on a restricted area, during a period when destructive archaeology on that scale was not prohibitively expensive or politically impossible. To know accurately the extent of any particular flood would involve extensive in-depth surveys, cross correlated to try and reassemble the history of a highly complex system.

    The lower Euphrates has had annual inundations forever, some of them very large, but by the same token it has had annual erosion of previous sediments. And It has also had major changes of sea level, burying or eroding old sediments to confuse the picture. Then there are wild cards like the asteroid crater in the marshes (formerly the sea), which indicates a unique astronomical tsunami event in the period of recorded history, yet with no apparent record in the literature OR the sediments.

    The paucity of data is exemplified by the 2015 work I cite by Morner (one of the world’s leading experts on sea-level). His conclusions about the coastline changes, when you read the paper, are actually based on not many data points, for a limited range of sites, and that is an indicator of how hard it is to get complete data.

    And that matters a lot. To give a comparable example, for nearly a century it was assumed that little occupation of the Jordan Valley near Jericho was pre-iron age, based on surface surveys. But in the last decade or so, archaeologists following what was, in effect, a hunch, have discovered several major bronze age sites indicating an entire culture, which was completely unknown because the data was insufficient.

    So in conclusion, my tentative identification of the Shuruppak Flood with the Noachic event is based on the fact that the ANE literature seems to make that association, and the archaeology and geology are simply not complete enough. Bear in mind that, if the Shuruppak evidence fails to indicate a sufficient Flood, there is no evidence whatsoever for a larger, regional, but temporary inundation in an earlier time that corresponds to the cultural indicators in the texts. We’re still in the realm of trusting the plausibility of the accounts, not proving them.

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