Monthly Archives: August 2016

Reinterpreting God- Part 3, God and the Phenomenon of Person

Today’s Post

Last week we addressed the uniquely Western concept of ‘the person’, and asked the question: “Given the perspective of Teilhard and science in general, how can the phenomenon of ‘person’ as understood in the West be brought into resonance with our working definition of God?”:

“God is the sum total of all the forces by which the universe unfolds in such a way that all the entities that emerge in its evolution (from quarks to the human person) each have the potential to become more complex when unified with other entities.”

Is God a ‘person’?

This week we will address this question.

The Process of ‘Personization’

In Teilhard’s understanding of evolution, the ‘person’ is a product of evolution which emerges as an effect of increasing complexity over long periods of time.   If we are to understand God in terms of the definition proposed above, where does the characteristic of ‘person’ come in?

To Teilhard, the phenomenon of ‘complexification’ (increasing complexity over time) is essential to the cosmic upwelling that we refer to as ‘evolution’.  Once the agent of complexity is added to the scientific canon of forces as found in the Standard Model of Physics and Biology’s theory of Natural Selection not only does evolution as we know it become possible but this increase in complexity can be seen to lead to the advent of ‘personness’ as found in the human.

As any educated atheist would point out, isn’t this teleology?  In teleology, one reasons from an endpoint (the existence of humans) to the startpoint.  In teleology, for example, creation exists for the purpose of making humans.  Teleology therefore seeks to rationalize history in terms of what has emerged.  Teleology is frequently used by fundamental Christianity, which sees God as intending man as the goal of his creation.  This accusation was discussed in the post of April 15, 2015 “Looking at Evolution, Part 7: Natural Selection in the Human Person”. 

This post noted the statement by Stephen Jay Gould, noted atheistic anthropologist, who asserted that “rewinding the tape of evolution” would not necessarily result in the emergence of the human.  He believed that the many accidents which have occurred in history, such as asteroid impacts which, by effectively wiping out entire species, cleared the way for the rise of mammals.  He suggests that other, different, accidents would have had different outcomes, which would not have necessarily led to the emergence of humans.

We saw how Gould’s statement nonetheless reflects his belief that evolution would still have proceeded through any combination of such disasters, and would therefore have continued to produce new and advanced species, just not necessarily mammals.  It does not take into account that such continuation of life would have also have required a continuing rise of complexity in order to proceed.  Therefore, conditions permitting, evolution would still have had the potential to produce an entity of sufficient complexity to have been aware of its consciousness.

A different play of the tape of evolution which does not produce a human person is only part of the picture.  Recognizing that the creature which would have inevitably emerged could have been one endowed with some sort of ‘neurology’ which permitted consciousness is the other part.  This potential for ‘rising complexity’ to eventually lead to consciousness is a phenomenon of the universe itself.  While entities recognizable as ‘human persons’ may not be evolving elsewhere in the universe, the probability of the appearance of entities aware of their awareness is not insignificant.

Teilhard, therefore, sees the agent of complexity at work everywhere in the cosmos, and given the appropriate conditions, will raise its constituent matter to higher levels of awareness:

 “From this point of view man is nothing but the point of emergence in nature, at which this deep cosmic evolution culminates and declares itself.  From this point onwards man ceases to be a spark fallen by chance on earth and coming from another place.  He is the flame of a general fermentation of the universe which breaks out suddenly on the earth.” (Italics mine)

Evolution, therefore, requires complexification, which results in personization.

So if God is to be understood as the ‘sum total of all forces’ (as proposed in our working definition), and the essential force is understood as that of ‘complexification’, then, among all the other forces (gravity, electromagnetism, chemistry), God can be seen in the force of ‘personization’.

The Process of ‘Personization’

So, from this perspective we can see that the human person emerges from evolution not in a single discontinuous step, but instead from a slow accretion of characteristics layered one upon another over a long period of time.  Cells evolve from single-cell to multiple-cell, adding sensory and mobility characteristics which communicate with increasingly complex centers of activity via increasingly complex neural circuits.  There is not a single step in this long line of development that does not proceed from a less-complex precursor.

There are two seeming discontinuities in this process.  The first is seen in the appearance of the cell itself.  At one instance in the evolution of our world, it is swimming in a primordial soup of very complex molecules.  At the next, many of these molecules are functional parts of an enclosed and centered entity, the cell.  As Teilhard notes:

“For the world to advance in duration is to progress in psychical concentration.  The continuity of evolution is expressed in a movement of this kind.  But in the course of this same continuity, discontinuities can and indeed must occur.  For no psychical entity can, to our knowledge, grow indefinitely; always at a given moment it meets one of those critical points at which it changes state.”

The advent of the cell is such a ‘change of state’ in which increasing complexity results in something totally different from its predecessor, but still composed of the same basic elements.

The ‘person’ is the second example of such ‘change of state’.  Materialists argue that the differences between humans and their non-human ancestors are too small to be of significance, denying any uniqueness to the human person.  This is true at the levels of morphology and supported by the evidence of DNA. It is just as true that human persons, through their unique ‘awareness of their consciousness’, are clearly separate from the higher mammals.  They represent the same significant type of ‘change of state’ as seen in the advent of the cell.

Therefore, while human persons are clearly a ‘product of evolution’, their level of complexity has increased from ‘consciousness’ to ‘awareness of consciousness’.

The Next Post

This, of course, does not answer the question “Is God a person?”, much less address the issue of a human-God relationship.

Next week we will address this side of the question of personness, and explore how the concept of God as an agent of ‘personization’ can be extended to that of a force of evolution with which we can have a relationship.