Purpose in Evolution: All or Nothing?
The argument today, at least in the popular culture, seems to favor a take-it-or leave-it choice: either the universe proceeds from an Intelligent Designer or results from blind chance.
The argument for the blind chance position holds that the process of evolution bears no resemblance to what would be the work of an Intelligent Designer. This argument takes the form of the classical atheist argument based on the problem of evil.
If there were a good and almighty and all wise God as Creator, the universe would be a very nice place; but the universe is not a very nice place. The second premise bears a lot of weight. The world does not look like the product of a good Creator.
While things are messy and violent on earth, the ancients, even up to the time of Immanuel Kant in the eighteenth century thought that at least the heavens reflected a rational order. We know now that, in the heavens, whole galaxies are colliding into each other and on earth the development of life is “red in tooth and claw.”
The materialist's response
One response to the denial of a clean product from a good Creator with a clear purpose is to reject the notion of good, creation, and purpose, and posit a world that emerges by blind chance. Many if not most of the materialists hold this position as their main premise. They appeal to the notion that in the vastness of time and space an infinite number of universes evolve. Ours happens to have beings with life, consciousness, and a degree of intelligence. This idea seems to have worked its way into the popular culture where characters on TV and in movies casually mention alternative universes.
Does logic force us to accept the notion that only blind chance could have produced our world?
What do you think?
I intend to offer an interpretation that diverges radically from the materialist views that effectively deny the significance of consciousness. This post concludes with a sketch of the position that will be elaborated and applied in the remaining posts. Any attempt to explain reality, whether attempted by a philosopher, a theologian, or a physicist, must involve at least a little hubris. Honesty requires Platonic humility, which means that we call our ideas “a likely story,” or in the words of Charles Sanders Peirce, “A guess at the riddle.”
As a minimum requirement, a worldview must be possible, meaning that it exhibits both logical consistency and compatibility with known facts. The writer must then show that the view presented is probably true and at least as feasible, or more so, than other alternatives.
We begin with the recognition of brute facts, which constitute chaos and apparently no sign of any kind of consciousness, order, or benevolence.
This statement applies to the period following the “big bang,” to the development of stars and planet, and to the evolution of life on earth from the first protozoa to the “origin of species,” and even to the history of the human race. The fundamental particles seem to be inert unconscious, impenetrable, and determined by the conflicting blind forces of both necessity and chance.
They do not display completely random behavior, but follow a regularity that scientists discern as laws of physics. Yet, their behavior also displays some randomness and uncertainty. Moving from fundamental particles to biology, the forces of chance and necessity are still at work. The whole premise of evolution rests on the notion that random mutations occur but then become genetically fixed. This description does not go beyond the reality of brute facts although the elements become entangled in patterns that give rise to consciousness and the ability to find patterns and study them scientifically.
But we human beings, at this stage of our evolution have the ability to discern something different from brute facts. We experience beauty:
Do you think beauty is real or just "in the eye of the beholder"?
We see beauty in each other, in nature, in music and art, in our own creative ideas, and in scientific theories. We see enough order and what we call by the name of goodness to make many believe that a Creator-God is at work.
This form of consciousness constitutes my title phrase, “the problem of good.” Just as atheists deem the “problem of evil” as proof of God’s non-existence, those who believe in a spiritual reality may see “the problem of good” as a challenge to materialism.
Of course, the materialists will pass all of this off as illusion, or at best, a quirk of a particular set of random mutations in our brain. The dogma of materialism holds that whatever we cannot understand at this stage of our evolution, meaning anything that does not fit the method and content of science, does not exist. With a relatively high level of intelligence, scientists can describe objectively the movement of elementary particles and energy. The assumption of popular materialism holds that the consciousness by which we know physical nature must be a product of nature as we know it.
Must we choose between materialism an creationism?
In posing the problem of consciousness and matter, the danger of a simplistic all-or-nothing dualism looms.
A person might think that we must choose between materialism and a kind of creationism. But the complexity and depth of reality should cause us to reject both religious and scientific fundamentalism. A person can reject a literal interpretation of the Bible, in fact reject the whole Bible, without being a materialist. Likewise a person can reject materialism without being biblical fundamentalist.
An alternative vision sees the universe as a process of moving from absolute chaos to a cosmos that expresses: order, beauty, harmony, consciousness, freedom, joy, and, love.
The materialists might consistently maintain that these qualities are subjective and fleeting. But the materialist view is not the only rational alternative. We can rationally maintain that these qualities are prior to our known world and that they are powerful, creative, and productive. Whatever is the source of these qualities---call it God or don’t---we may rationally maintain that evolution consists of these powers overcoming the chaos, necessity, and inertness of the elemental brute facts.
To the extent that this vision is true, the qualities such as consciousness, freedom, love, and creativity, which we experience to a degree in our own lives, have their seeds in the very formation of the universe.
Can we posit a chaos of blind, inert, purposeless, and brutal realities tending toward further chaos and division, and also a Creator Spirit working in the whole development of the universe including human evolution on earth to bring about purpose, intelligence, freedom and cooperation? To affirm both does not mean a dualism of two layers, one material and the other spiritual. Rather the world itself reflects the interaction of the two opposing forces. In the posts to follow, I will elaborate on this interpretation and argue that it stands out as the most rational view that we can hold
Faith and Reason
The idea of teleology brings up the specter of God, which the materialists find abhorrent. They do so because they associate God with faith, and faith with blind trust and apostasy to reason. Dawkins, after defining faith as “blind trust” writes:
" The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry…Blind faith can justify anything. If a man believes in a different god, or even if he uses different rituals for worshiping the same god, blind faith can decree that he should die--on the cross, at the stake, skewered on a Crusader’s sword, shot in a Beirut street, or blown up in a bar in Belfast. Memes have their own ruthless way of propagating themselves. This is true of patriotic and political as well as religious blind faith."
Must faaith be blind as Dawkins describes it?
Dawkins convicts faith, as the apostasy to reason, and as the generator of much of the violence and evil in human history.
The notion that faith excludes reason runs contrary to the traditional notion of Natural Law that requires that we strive to “know the truth about God.” Natural law requires believers to think rationally about God, a task which thinkers such as Dawkins believe constitutes a self-contradiction.
Can a twenty-first century person accept the method and content of science and still affirm a non-materialist view of reality?
This question is a paraphrase of the question that Josiah Royce (1855 -1916) asked in 1913:”In what sense, if any, can the modern man consistently be, in creed, a Christian?” Our intention here is to go beyond Christianity, as Royce also did, to include any non-materialist view. Royce’s answer to this question will be the subject of a later post, but for now we can begin to answer the question of whether we can be scientific without being materialistic by looking closely at evolution.
Evolution seems to be a trial and error attempt toward a teleological unity. Is this seeming teleology a reality or an illusion? How can we think of the process beginning? Pure nothingness is incomprehensible. Of course, we can think of “nothing” between particles or beyond the expanding universe. But in these cases we think of “nothing” juxtaposed to something. But what if nothing at all - neither God nor nature - existed? We can say the words but can have no comprehension of such hypothetical situations of nothingness.
Do you agree that we cannot think of pure nothingness?
Fortunately, we can think of a material world, composed of elementary particles, whether it is created or non-created. Finding language that describes reality below human consciousness poses problem as daunting as describing reality above the level of our consciousness. We can come closest by means of analogies, metaphors, and stories about the things that we can understand.
We can imagine the world beginning in a chaos of brute facts. Does this sentence describe reality right before or right after the big bang? Such a concept of brute facts would be nightmarish and perhaps would constitute the terror and horror of some forms of psychosis. But what if there is a redeeming agape-love at work amid the chaos of brute facts? How long would it take to create a world with intelligent life? Is that what is happening as we speak? If so, how far along are we?
Evolution is a movement away from the chaos of brute facts toward a conscious universal community. We can at last come to the seeds of a contemporary Natural Law theory. In the thirteenth century St. Thomas defined eternal law as “the order by which all things are directed to their end.” We can interpret this statement in a way infinitely richer than he could since he was limited to a pre-Copernican world-view. We can see the “order” to which all things are directed as the teleological harmony to which the brute elemental facts are being called. An understanding of the “order” must include Darwinian evolution but need not be limited to the materialist interpretations of some contemporary Darwinists.
The principle that genetically brought about the replications of molecules becomes conscious in us. The struggle against the separateness of brute facts is the reason that we are here. The same struggle gives us a purpose and direction in which we can progress. The four main precepts of traditional natural law are as pertinent as ever:
1. Preserve yourself,
2. Preserve your species,
3. Know the truth about ultimate reality, and
4. Create social justice.
The first three of these are easily understood. Self-preservation means that we strive to maintain and enhance our individual physical and psychological integrity. Preservation of our species means that we follow Dawkins’s “selfish genes” to perpetuate the human race. Materialists and teleologists agree that we should strive to know the ultimate nature of reality, although they disagree extremely on what this means. As for social justice, the materialist might see it as one meme among countless others; a teleologist more likely sees social justice as the goal of evolution.
Social justice can be described as an arrangement of practices that would allow for both freedom and unity. Evolution is working to overcome separateness and integrating all into community. Natural Law enjoins us to take part in that enterprise of creating such a community. But social justice cannot survive in a unity based on tyranny or conformity. Rather, justice would further the evolutionary process by allowing as much freedom as possible to each. Anything that would hinder any person from evolving to his or her full potential, whether the hindrance is oppression, deliberate exclusion, marginalization, or neglect, would stand out as injustice
The conscious movement toward a just community would constitute the culmination of the whole process of evolution from the absolute chaos of brute facts. If the freedom and unity were universal it would constitute what Josiah Royce called the “Great Community” or the “Beloved Community.” Our purpose here is not to describe a Utopia but to imagine what we could be at our best. What is the ontological status of such an idea? To some extent it already exists. You and I have a degree of freedom and a degree of unity. Many of us can actualize our potential and do not suffer oppression, exclusion and marginalization. Tragically, far too many people suffer these life choking evils, and are cut off from any sense of community. And even for those who are better off, the freedom and communal connectedness falls short of what we think it ought to be.