Continuing . . .
Below are the points seem to cause some confusion and may need the most work in framing a detailed reconciliation. Here I sketch of where I think these pivot points lie. I’ll start where I feel there is little tension between science and our religion and that the hermeneutics of each seems not to pose any major difficulties in providing narratives that are comfortable lying side by side.
These are things about which science as little relevant to add
* The Fall (although some tension might be exerted by claims to the Fall’s effects on Creation)
* The Atonement
Things which religion has little relevant to add to Science
* Anthropic Principles
* Natural Theology
Possible pivot points exerting some tension
* Embodiment of God
* Material nature of the spirit world
Pivot Points that may need reconciliation to bring about a compatible stance between science and LDS thought
* Creation as a physical event (including teleology)
* Design in the Universe
* Problem of evil
* No death before the fall
* Adam and Eve as historical figures
Of Course all these can be quibbled with and repositions may be adjusted according to your inclination. But these are mine.
I would like now to look at three of these pivot points and explore some tentative ways I think we can explore a fully Darwin compatible version of LDS Theology. Briefly I would like to consider the design question in light of teleology, consciousness, and embodiment.
Pivot Point I: Creation: Design and Teleology
When we talk of God as creator, we mean something about the physical universe presumably. However, within Mormonism there is a slight problem here that needs to be clarified a bit. There seems to be a tension between the idea of God creating the laws of the universe and the very Mormon idea that God is subject to certain laws that exist prior (whatever that might mean) to God. This plays out in wild dancing about the notion of what it means to exist from eternity to eternity, like: that God is progressing; that ‘God once was as we are now;’ the idea that God could do something that would end his tenure as God; the notion that God used certain laws to bring about His ends; etc. This is being debated and discussed in this very forum and the discussions and disagreements in this area of theological exploration are healthy and continuing. I want to acknowledge this point of uncertainty but not be drawn into it much. My simple claim is that ‘God Created the Universe’ means that in some sense he brought about the physical universe we see around us. Whether he created the laws that structure it, or used existing laws and materials to frame it, doesn’t matter much to my current project.
We also believe that God has certain ends in mind for the temporal evolution of His creation–that he has purposes, goals, and aims for Creation. One of the assumptions made in classic Natural Theology, such as made by William Paley and similar derivative theologies is that we should be able to see what these goals, aims and ends are.
This is an assumption that we need to challenge. That we should be able to read off God’s purposes, goals and aims from the physical world seems wrong headed. Let me repeat that. Natural theology suggests that we should be able to read off God’s purposes, goals and aims from the physical world and that these purposes should be apparent in the way that the processes of the physical world unfold. I think this assumption is flawed. To see why, and just to make sure we are on the same page let me give a quick description of evolution by natural selection.
One of the most common criticisms of embracing evolution in our doctrine is that evolution is random. This is why things like Intelligent Design keep trying to claim that God must dip his finger into the pool and stir things up. They are too lacking in imagination to see any solution other than mechanical manipulation to account for God’s action in the world. Before we look at how a seemingly random process can achieve God’s purposes, we need to understand evolution’s randomness a little more clearly, unpack natural selection a bit, and then untangle purpose and teleology. Often those last two ideas are conflated and used interchangeably, which is a point of confusion on seeing that evolution and theology can be reconciled.
Evolution by natural is an a priori principle. As given, it requires no empirical content and is not just a law in a given universe. Philosopher Daniel Dennett calls it a sorting algorithm, but it always holds under the following conditions:
(1) Variation in traits
(2) Selection on trait differences
(3) Trait attributes are to some extent inherited by ‘offspring’ from ‘parents’
This works whether these are chemicals, digital computer programs, or beans in a jar—anything. This a priori description of evolution by natural selection is not really in dispute (try it at home with playing cards if you like). It is obviously just a sorting algorithm that sorts things based on some selection criteria, usually determined by some environment where the traits vary on how well they reproduce in that environment. However, a particular claim to evolution by natural selection is a claim that the sort of system that you are working with is one that these conditions hold. Life on Earth seems just the sort of thing where these conditions are met. The claims that some group is a Darwinian population, is the claim that it meets these criteria. In application, however, it can be complex and messy as philosopher of biology Peter Godfrey-Smith writes, “Darwinian populations are collections of things that vary, reproduce at different rates, and inherit some of this variation. The basic features of these collections are startlingly routine–births, lives, and deaths, with variation and inheritance. But Darwin saw that this set-up, this arrangement of ordinary features, is an extraordinarily important element of the world. Darwin’s description was empirical and concrete. The last century’s work has included a series of moves towards abstraction, attempting to say what is essential about the Darwinian machine–which features are not dependent on the contingent particularities of life on earth.”
Variation on earth, the first requirement for evolution by natural selection, arises through a random process in which mutations in the lowest level of information marking occur at random. These random mutations are expressed in a particular environment and survive differentially based on how they do in that particular environment. So at the level of local environment there is a kind of matching between those things that do better than their neighbors in passing on offspring. However, it is only in that local environment that any sort of direction can be observed. There is no goal or aim to which evolutionary change is moving. Only local adaptation in the given the context of mutational changes. This is much more complex than I have time to outline, but in broad brush you should be able to see how randomness plays out with life on earth. These are empirical observations.
How could God’s purposes be obtained using such a random process? We will ignore unscientific solutions such as ID as My purpose is to explore a scientifically informed theology. John Haught proposes that God works at a ‘deeper’ level than the physical reality to which science has access. God is the ground of existence not the prime mover of one of the causes of the universe. Like Augustine, he takes to task those who try and insert God as having to act as a cause in the world:
“Trying to figure out exactly how God influences the natural world, and especially life’s evolution, too easily ends up in shallow theological speculation. Inserting divine action into a series of natural causes not only sounds silly to scientifically educated people; it also in effect reduces God to being part of nature rather than nature’s abyss and ground. Thinking of God, for example, as acting in the observationally hidden domain of quantum events or in random genetic mutations ends up shrinking God’s creativity down to the size of a natural cause: .. Instead of seeking a crisp point of intersection between God on the one hand and a cause-and-effect series of natural events on the other, I believe the notion of nature’s depth allows theology to focus instead on the more serious question of “What is really going on in nature?” If nature has an inexhaustible depth, we can respond to this question by differentiating reading levels, such as those of science and theology, without having to resort to fruitless speculation about how divine influence somehow “hooks itself’ into natural processes.” [Haught, John F. Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God, and the Drama of Life, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, pp. 96-97]
John Haught is a process theologian, and by deeper he is arguing that God as the ground of being, can influence the universe to aims that do not really strictly on physical processes. However, a process approach is not the only way to look at disentangling purpose from teleology and randomness also does not need to threaten aims of God or purpose. A simple example from genetic theory can illustrate this. Mathematically we can describe a purely random process of genetic mutation and its movement through time. Picture a mutation in one of the base-pairs in a DNA. If you follow this mutation’s presence in a population through time you get something like this:
In this picture, each line represents a different population and the proportion on individuals that have the mutant allele through time. This picture assume we are picking up the time when the mutation as reached a level of 50% of the population has the allele.
This random function can be written by this equation :
Notice that u(p,t) this is not generating random numbers using some random generator but is a priori random by assumption. Or to put it more simply: it is truly random. What I want to point out is that even though this is a strictly random process the mean time that the alleles will reach fixation (either it becomes part of every member of the population or it is had by none) can be estimated with near certainty with known error in the estimate. If you were to look at this process in time you could conclude only that you are looking at a completely random process. Yet aspects of it, including the time until it reaches a given state are completely known.
This sort of thinking shows that certain aims could be embedded in the universe that would never look anything but random, but toward which there are certain inevitabilities. Biologist, Conway Morris, points out that humans may be inevitable given enough time and space (of which the universe apparently has no lack). We see this often in the evolutionary history of life on earth. For example, life in water has evolved three times in the history of our planet and all three times similarities of shape and function appear. In fish, marine mammals such as dolphins, and in ichthyosaurs, the same basic body shape converged to evolve a well designed aquatic animal. All three evolutionary experiments had to solve the problem of moving through water effectively and efficiently. Evolution solves local engineering problems. We see several of these convergences: placental and marsupial saber-tooth predators. Tasmanian wolves and dogs etc. The point here is that a universe of a certain type will yield evolutionary products of a certain type. There is no need to shepherd the process toward given ends. The ends are already embedded in that type of universe, just as the random function of genetic drift above, mean times to certain ends can be known with some degree of certainty.
To be continued . . .