I recently tweeted something that raised quite a few eyebrows among scientifically minded folks, both atheists and Christians.
The tweet implied that I believe that evolution cannot explain all human characteristics, and that a divine intervention in the form of a miracle must have been involved in the creation of a creature that can write symphonies and invent the internet. I gave the impression that I was relying on magic, and disputing mainstream scientific evidence.
What I believe is that evolution is one of the tools that God uses in creation. But it isn’t the only such tool. This is abundantly clear in the origin of life, where it is simply impossible to invoke our understanding of the evolutionary process to produce the first life forms. People who say that “life evolved” tend to think of evolution as equivalent to natural selection, but the fact is that biological (Darwinian) evolution requires some very special biochemical mechanisms (extremely accurate genotype replication and extremely accurate translation of genotype to phenotype) in order to function. These mechanisms could not have evolved by those same mechanisms.
Does this mean that I presuppose some magical, supernatural, or non-materialistic source for the emergent transitions that lead to origins, such as that of life or human consciousness? It might appear so from my tweet, which like too many of my tweets was not properly worded. Twitter is an entirely inappropriate format for the expression of deep philosophical ideas, as most (smarter) people have already discovered, and I am slowly beginning to learn.
First, let’s remember that some of what we now think of as purely scientific statements of natural reality would have previously been thought of as supernatural nonsense. This includes all of quantum theory and some aspects of relativity (time slowing down, space bending etc.). Second, while God is a supernatural entity, all of His creation (which includes all origins) is part of nature, and God is not a magician, but the creator of a lawful universe.
Most importantly, we must remember that while where we are today in terms of our understanding of reality is far beyond where we were yesterday, it’s also far behind where we’ll be tomorrow. That’s obvious from our technological progress and is also true (perhaps at a slightly slower pace) for our scientific understanding of nature.
So when I say that the natural processes that have been proposed cannot explain all the characteristics of humanity and there must be another source, what I really mean to say is that evolution as we know it is not sufficient to account for human exceptionalism. The other source is not God as opposed to naturalism, because I believe God is the single source for everything in nature. What I meant is that the other source is some as yet unknown, alternative tool that God uses to create.
What is that tool? We don’t know, but I believe it’s related to the phenomenon of emergence, where systems or collections of components suddenly become something entirely new, another (epistemic, though not ontological) level of reality. Does God wave a magical wand, or speak an incantation whenever one kind of reality undergoes this mysterious process and a new form of reality emerges? No, just as God does not need to magically create the mutations that are part of the evolutionary mechanism. But until we have the same depth of understanding of what emergence is and how it works that we have for evolution, we can only think of it as “another source.”
Does all of this mean that I am a Deist, or that I think that God never intervenes in the world of nature, but has front-loaded creation with all the tools needed to produce what we now see? No, because as a Christian, I know that God not only is present in our lives, but that He appeared in human form for the express purpose of intervention in the world of human beings. And the creation we know did not spring into existence all at once, but in temporal stages, as alluded to in Genesis.
I might also be wrong about the emergence (as opposed to the evolution) of humanity. Perhaps, as some recent evidence indicates, the process was as slow and gradual as any other evolutionary change, with the appearance of new features like sophisticated language; artistic creativity; intellectual depth capable of inventing mathematics, logic, and technological solutions; awareness of ourselves and the world; romantic love; sophisticated sense of humor; complex music; compassion and altruism; and quite a few other considerably interesting new traits.
But so far, this evidence does not convince me, because neither I nor anyone else can even articulate what human consciousness really is, and so to explain it in terms of evolutionary mechanisms seems impossible.
The good news (which isn’t really news, since it’s been true forever and will be true far into the future) is that we still have a lot to learn, and I am of the firm belief that as we go forward to tackle these really difficult questions related to the nature of emergence, and as we try to gain a better insight of our own natures, we will find more tools of God’s creation and learn ever more about the nature of God, the creator of all.
Wow! I don’t know what your tweet said, but you put this into words so well i have to read and re-read in hopes of remembering and being able to repeat it when challenged. Thank you!
Thanks, Sheila. I decided not to include the original tweet, since I didnt want to give it any more publicity. I will probably delete if from Twitter also.
I don’t know what you wrote, as I don’t even have a Twitter account. But I get the hostility that can boil up when others hear an expression that conflicts with a grounding world view. Sabine Hossenfelder has had to roll through withering storms of criticism (and an end to any chance of tenure) arising from her merely observing that some physicists have unyieldingly committed themselves to apparent dead-ends. And this is despite her own status as a brilliant and respected mathematician and physicist speaking from an entirely empiricist-scientific perspective. Maintaining objectivity can be a tough prospect, even when the answers to those hard problems (like emergence or the experience of “blue”) still elude us.
Well-wishes and good cheer to you!
Interesting.I wouldn’t use the same terminology as you, because I don’t think of humans, or life, or anything being created intentionally by a deity. Therefore, It doesn’t seem appropriate, for me, to use the word “tool” to describe natural selection, or emergence, or any other process that has made us what we are today. I might use the word “cause” or “mechanism” instead, the latter with no implication that it was a deliberately created machine, just that the result of the process is that certain other things happen.
I agree with you that we don’t understand emergence well, and have a lot still to learn about it. That being the case, I feel that is premature to claim that the things you mention as being uniquely human are not just natural developments of features that can be found in embryo, as it were, in other animals, particularly ones that lead social lives and therefore are evolutionarily advantaged by increased communication skills and the sharing and preservation in later generations of acquired knowledge and codes of behaviour. We know from the study of history that the pace of technological change gets faster all the time ( except when a society or government deliberately constrains or bans such change, or completely collapses due to war or some natural disaster). I think that this increasing pace is also evident in the evolution of complexity, and of intelligence and culture. For much the greatest portion of the total span of life on earth, it consisted of nothing more complex than single celled organisms. Multicellular organisms spent the greater part of their total life span so far before beginning to evolve Chordata, and Chordata the greater part of their existence before fish evolved. Again land vertebrates were comparatively late on the scene, the first mammals a lot later still, and so on.