Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Significance of Evolution, The Attack From the Far Left

Today’s Post

If, as we concluded in the last post, the concept of evolution seems to be such an effective weapon in attacking religion, how can it be seen as a cornerstone for, as Teilhard put it, “a clearer disclosure of God in the world”?  How can such a secular concept as evolution, used to support the belief that God is no longer needed as a source of creation, be turned into a means for understanding God?

As we saw in the last post, evolution from Teilhard’s perspective embraces understanding the whole of the universe, not just living things. It incorporates the full spectrum of cosmic time, from the big bang to the present.  With such enlargement of the picture, we can begin to see how viewing evolution from this vantage point permits us to understand the concepts of matter, energy, life, consciousness and persons from a unified perspective.

Before we follow Teilhard in this cosmic journey, it is important to understand why evolution is such a source of conflict between the two great modes of thought represented by religion and science.

The Emergence of Nonbelief

We only have to go back a few hundred years or so to find a Western world still acknowledging, for the most part, a world whose development was considered to be adequately described in the book of Genesis.  Even though most educated persons were beginning to see the story as a metaphor, the idea of a God in charge of everything was still accepted by most.  Even the very structure of government, in many cases, still bore the imprint of the Holy Roman Empire and its Catholic doctrine.

The Christian idea of God as the supreme lawgiver and source of reality was also one of the cornerstones of the empirical methods that we now call ‘Science’.  As opposed to many of the Eastern modes of thought, in which reality is considered as ‘subjective’, and in which man is so completely enmeshed and thus unable to see existence ‘objectively’, western science applied the ancient Greek approach of empiricism.  The Eastern thinker did not see the workings of nature as underpinned by a universal force, which was also personal in nature. Instead he was “left to contemplate the ever changing dance of life and time” relieved of any intuition that the workings of nature might reflect the actions of a single, universal creator.

As western society started to painfully morph from the form of ‘empire’ into that of city-states, and then to countries, the basis of belief also began to fracture, spinning off theological doctrines which departed significantly from the (mostly) unifying Catholic concepts of the early medieval age.   This in turn supported the development of regional societies unified by ethnicity and radically different beliefs.  As it became more acceptable (and often more safe) to express different opinions on the basis for existence, different ideas were now often publically in contention.

One of these ‘different ideas’ was that which began to question aspects of the Christian bible.  With the rise of the middle class, the increase in numbers of those neither at the top (royalty) of society nor at the bottom, owing loyalty neither to the established monarchy nor to the state religions, came the increased freedom to think independently and question positions long held by both establishments.

Out of such questioning came the concept of seeing traditional Christian teachings in the light of the human enterprise.  This point of view was well articulated by the ‘Deists’ of the eighteenth century, many of which were responsible for the composition of the Constitution of the United States.  In a nutshell, Deism accepted the general idea of God and the teachings of Jesus, but denied such concepts as miracles and the divinity of Jesus.  This approach to understanding reality reflected a belief in the logic of the universe, the value of human reason in pursuing it, and a natural law as reflected in the logic of the constitution.

Although most Deists were not considered ‘atheists’,  an exploration of their writings, for instance Thomas Jefferson, reveals an antithesis to organized religion.  Today’s atheists consider Deists to be the first public nonbelievers.  This ambiguity was to be stretched even further a few decades later with Darwin’s publication of “On the Origin of the Species”.

The idea of things ‘evolving’ from one form to another is not a new concept.  Ancient Greek philosophers such as Anaximander postulated the development of life from non-life and the evolution of man from animal. Charles Darwin simply brought something new to the old philosophy: the plausible mechanism of “natural selection”. Darwin’s natural selection acts to preserve and accumulate minor advantageous genetic mutations, thus it is seen as a mechanism of replication and survival.  While Darwin still considered himself to be a ‘believer’ in the general sense, his theory of ‘Natural Selection’ nonetheless offered a mechanism for the appearance of species of living things that has been interpreted by many as displacing the action of God in creation.

As Dr. Kenneth Miller, Professor in the department of Molecular Biology at Brown University, observes, “With Darwin…Evolution displaced the Creator from His central position as the primary explanation for every aspect of the living world.  In so doing, Darwin lent intellectual aid and comfort to anti-religionists everywhere.”  Richard Dawkins, Professor of Science at Oxford and widely published atheist, goes one step further: “Although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

As a result, it has slowly become more acceptable in society to deny belief and to avow the position of atheism.

Nonbelief Vs Religion

If the arrival of the concept of natural selection offered a point of entry for atheism into the stream of human discourse previously heavy influenced by theism, the rise of science in general was seen to strengthen it.  Every new finding of the rapidly maturing methods and tools of science seemed to push the idea of God further and further from the center of reality.  As Dr. Miller notes, “First Galileo and Copernicus displaced man as the center of the universe.  Then Darwinism set aside God as the author of creation.  And finally the rise of biochemistry and molecular biology removed any doubt as to whether or not the properties of living things, humanity included, could be explained in terms of the physics and chemistry of ordinary matter.  The word is out- we are mere molecules.”

The increasing numbers of those who no longer found it necessary for a ‘God’ to be at the basis of reality began to actively attack religion as an artifact of the childhood of humanity, a childish belief which it was now necessary to discard.  Their primary weapon of choice was the concept of evolution.

To make matters worse, as Miller reports from his chair at Brown University, there is today a ‘fabric of disbelief’ in many academic institutions.  As he reports, “The conventions of academic life, almost universally, revolve around the assumption that religious belief is something that people grow out of as they become educated”.  While they practice the virtues of free inquiry and expression, “their core beliefs do not allow them to accept religion as the intellectual equal of a well-informed atheism….claiming that evolutionary biology is capable of making a powerful and profound statement on the ultimate meaning of things.”  This mindset reflects the Pew poll that shows a strong correspondence between the emergence of an educated middle class and a trend towards less religious affiliation.

The more militant of the “well-informed atheists” go much further.  For example, geneticist Richard Lewontin minces no words in his attack on religious belief:

“The problem is to get them (the public) to reject irrational and supernatural explanation of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the lonely begetter of truth.  We take the side of Science…because we have a prior commitment…to materialism.  It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations.  Morever, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Another ‘scientific’ point of view also belittles traditional religious belief.  Stephen Jay Gould, noted evolutionary biologist, argues in his book, “Wonderful Life”, “If the evolutionary tape were played again, human life would not be expected.  In fact, even if it were replayed a million times or more, man would not be expected…Man is a wildly improbably evolutionary event…a detail, not a purpose…a cosmic accident.”  To Gould, this is good news, even “exhilarating”, since the absence of purpose in life “releases us from responsibility to purpose…offering us maximum freedom to thrive, or to fail, in our chosen way.”

Dr. Kurt Wise, one of Gould’s students (and later noted creationist) summarized Gould’s antagonistic approach, “If ever evolutionary theory has been elaborated to the point of incompatibility with a Christian world view, it is by the pen of Steven Jay Gould in this book.”

The stakes get higher.  As Miller notes, “Lewontin, the evolutionist, is shooting for a social order in which right-thinking people (like him) will hold the absolute reins of cultural and intellectual power.  His sentiments confirm the worst fears of creationists- that evolution isn’t really about science, but is instead an ideology of belief, power and social control.” Bruce Chapman, former chief of the United States Census Bureau and president of the “Discovery Institute” (a group promoting Intelligent Design) fears a moral dissolution caused by the ‘leakage’ of Darwinism and materialism into the ‘soft sciences’ (sociology and psychology).  In their view, the beliefs of Stephen Jay Gould and geneticist Richard Lewontin might be fine as a basis for behavior of the intellectual elite, but if ordinary people were to toss aside their moral and ethical principles in the “absence of purpose in life”, the fabric of civilization would quickly unravel.

Chapman offers the example of Clarence Darrow getting the sentence of accused murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb reduced due to “evolutionary circumstances”, effectively claiming that deterministic forces made them less than fully responsible for their crimes.  He quotes from Darrow’s closing argument, which claimed that they were really helpless agents of their genes, “Nature is strong and pitiless. She works in her own mysterious way, and we are her victims.  We have not much to do with ourselves.  Nature takes this job in hand and we play our parts.”

It is not just that evolution’s version of history threatens the traditional expressions of religion, such as scriptural integrity, but the prospect that evolution might succeed in convincing humanity of the fundamental meaninglessness of life.  In such a humanity without meaning, purpose or absolutes, what would be the reason for existence?

As Dr. Miller notes, “The depth and emotional strength of objections to evolution sometimes baffle biologists who are used to thinking of their work as objective and value-free.  The backlash to evolution is a natural reaction to the ways in which evolution’s most eloquent advocates have handled Darwin’s great idea, distilling from the raw materials of biology an acid of hostility to anything and everything spiritual.”

The battle lines are drawn.

The next post will summarize the reaction from the far right in their “backlash to evolution”, in the forms of creationism and “intelligent design”.

The Teilhardian Shift, Part 2

Today’s Post

Last time we began to summarize Teilhard’s view of evolution, with focus primarily on the stage addressed by physics: material things gathering complexity over time.  Today we continue his view with the focus now on living things up to the level of conscious humans.  We’ll also begin to summarize some implications of his thinking.

On the Evolution of Life

Science does not have a ready explanation for the appearance of life on Earth.  Some see life as “imported” from elsewhere in the solar system (or perhaps in surrounding space) but this only begs the question of its appearance elsewhere.  Others see life as accidental, occurring under conditions that will never again be replicated.  The advent of living entities seems to represent an absolute and unbridgeable discontinuity between cosmic and biologic entities, much as the appearance of reflective (human) consciousness still holds much mystery for science.

Teilhard’s Different View

Noting that entity complexity rises with time and the influence of fields of energy, Teilhard expects to find the ladder of complexity continuing through highly complex molecules evolving on Earth.  These highly complex molecules effectively constitute “pre-life”.  He uses viruses, with their simple RNA and composition of millions of atoms as an example of such molecules.  In many ways, viruses, which are non-cellular (hence non-living), exhibit “behavior” similar to cell-based entities, and could be candidates for the last step of “pre-life” prior to the sharp step of increased complexity represented by the cell.

In Teilhard’s view, the advent of such an entity of higher complexity is to be expected.  If matter has been accumulating complexity for billions of years, where could this process be most likely to lead?  Like the appearance of complex atoms resulting from the explosion of stars, the discontinuous step change resulting in the living cell is not without precedence or to be unexpected.

Teilhard sees this increase of complexity passing through the atomic, to the molecular, to the cellular, opening at each stage new potentialities for growth and manifesting itself in new and profound ways.  Simple atoms become complex atoms which become large types of molecules which become seemingly limitless types of cells.  And at each step, the resulting entity is not only more complex, but even more capable of complex interactions than that of the last step.  And at each step, the new entities are susceptible to new forces which usher them into new, higher states.

Of course, this process is neither linear nor continuous.  At the molecular level, there are many branches of evolution prior to the cell in which increased complexity occurs without the eventual evolution to a higher level.  Such a substance can be seen in the crystal, which has “found” a way to grow, but is quickly limited by its structure.  At the cellular level, many more branches can be seen; each branch does not fold back into other branches but remains distinct, leading to the “tree of life” so familiar to us all.

Teilhard in a Nutshell

Teilhard therefore sees evolution as proceeding through the major stages of reality: pre-life, life and conscious life.  His view of evolution encompasses the entire scale of the universe, as opposed to being limited to the scale of the middle stage so well explained by Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection.  He further delineates the common thread of evolution at all three stages: an ‘axis’ along which evolution proceeds.  This axis manifests itself in the increase of complexity.

Having identified the main thread of evolution as ‘increased complexity’, Teilhard identifies the key branch as the one eventually leading to the most complex substance known.  This is the human brain, located in the entity of the (so far) highest complexity, which is the human person.  Teilhard’s point is that consciousness is the latest manifestation of the phenomenon of complexity.  Put the other way around, the evolution of complexity is the single thread which leads from the big bang to the appearance of human consciousness and unites the three stages  of cosmological history.

Teilhard’s vision neatly resolves the missing pieces of Darwinistic evolutionary theories:

  • It identifies the increase of complexity as the thread for understanding the evolution of inorganic matter throughout the universe.
  • It shows how this thread can be seen to continue through living things. Yes, Darwin’s Natural Selection, but now understood in service to the rise of complexity.
  • It incorporates the human person into the warp and woof of cosmological evolution as the next step of complexity.

 

The Thread of Evolution Through the Human Person

When I was very young, I remember being fascinating with the “gunny sack”.  I distinctly recall watching my Dad open them by pulling on the right string, which immediately loosened all the knots, and opening the sack as if by magic.  Try as I might, I could never find the right string to pull on until my Dad would patiently show me.  I can’t open a sack of fertilizer or bird seed today without first fumbling for the string, and then watching with pleasure when a pull on the right one opens the sack so miraculously.

Teilhard sees development of complexity through the tangle of cosmic evolution as the thread which not only opens a fresh perspective on evolution of ‘pre life’, but also on biological and human evolution.  In keeping with his new perspective which views all entities developing through the increase of complexity, the entity of the human person and his relationships can be seen in a new and clearer light.  The view of evolution as a process in which entities have relationships which lead to the creation of more complex entities from stage to stage sees this process eventually leading to the appearance of entities of persons united by the energies of love.

He observes that evolution speeds up as complexity develops.  Billions of years are spent at the level of gravity, atomic and electronic fields, millions of years at the planetary/biological level, and thousands of years at the level of personal cognitive and social development.

At the human level, evolutionary changes no longer require anatomical and neurological development to increase complexity.  In the human, complexity increases as relationships develop personal growth and:

  • humans begin to understand the potential of human development and play these potentialities out in their relationships
  • this activation of potential in turn spurs the development of the person, increasing his potential for relationship

 

There is a tendency to see the process of evolution as coming to a halt in the present day; that we have “arrived”.  The process of evolution seems to have stopped, and it is difficult to see the chance of any further substantial changes.

It’s much more probable that the process of evolution which got us here isn’t going to stop, but will instead continue.  This shouldn’t be a surprise: if you draw a line between two points, past and present, the slope of the line in the future isn’t going to change unless something drastically changes in the underlying process.  Therefore we can expect the process of evolution to continue through the human person and the energies which unite us.  If we see the evolutionary process of entities and energy leading from more simple things to more complex things, which have more capacity for interconnection, then we can extrapolate this to ever more complex human persons and more comprehensive response to the energies of love.

Some Implications of the Teilhardian Shift

As Teilhard and several other thinkers of the time understood, this new perspective of evolution was bound to stimulate new and modified interpretations of conventional and long-held beliefs, both in the areas of science religion.

Science was forced to view the cosmos itself as evolving, which led to the concepts such as the big bang, the expansion of the universe, the abyss of time, matter as just a manifestation of energy and the human as one of many entities which have evolved from a common ancestor.  In the area of religion, the traditional and conventional similes, metaphors, and myths which developed over many years began to come into question.  The very theory of biological evolution seemed to challenge the common belief that God created man directly and hence was a vanguard for atheism.  Why would we need God if we’ve got Darwin’s Natural Selection to explain where things come from?

So, the viewpoint which emerges in the Teilhardian Shift offers some fresh perspectives on subjects such as:

  • Science and Religion: separate realities, or two different facets of a single reality?
  • The nature of biological evolution: a secular, godless process, or somehow consistent with core religious beliefs?
  • The meaning of life: is life without meaning, or is meaning to be found in a clearer understanding of human development?
  • Spirituality: something supernatural and hence beyond the pale of “phenomenon”, or a phenomenon of cosmic evolution?
  • The human person: how does the human person fit into the universe and what does it mean to be “fully human”?

The issue of God: does God exist and in what way envisioned to encompass both scientific understanding and religious belief?

The Next Post

Since the concept of evolution is at once significant to the understanding of science and also seemingly antithetical to the precepts of religion, I’d like to spend the next post in elaborating on it a little more.  Why did Teilhard see this concept as so central to his beliefs?  How could so many writers make such vigorous use of it to bash religion?  (Pick up any book by Richard Dawkins and read any five pages for an example of how seemingly skillful a tactic this is.)