Thoughts from our discussion, April 23


(1)  In response to Johnson’s section, ‘The Wisdom of Philosophy’
(Ask the Beasts pages 160-169) and summarized here:

John Horsley writes,

I think that the neo-Thomism approach of Elizabeth Johnson is fine as far as it goes but I tend to agree with Polkinghorne that it seems to be missing something, and that something is what the various theologians (listed on pages 161 and 162) are addressing.

My own belief, for example, is that God does indeed “lure the world in a desired direction” towards more wholeness. Then the question is: how does God do this without “interfering” with the natural order? Several of the suggested approaches described briefly in p 161-162 seem to me promising. In fact some of them seem to overlap and might be saying much the same thing with different metaphors. For example, single action theory, top down causality and the organic model seem to me to have much in common and are not necessarily in conflict with the autonomy of the natural order. I need to think more about Elizabeth Johnson’s criticism of Polkinghorne’s causal joint theory, but I have a feeling that she may not understand the implications of quantum theory, whereas Polkinghorne definitely does, having worked with one of the founders, Paul Dirac, and written several books on the subject.

In addition I don’t see how Elizabeth Johnson could address what are called “miraculous” events, which are normally attributed to God’s special intervention (such as a healing in response to prayers that appears to be inexplicable in medical terms). It is surprising in view of her Roman Catholic faith that she does not address this. More generally, we believe that God acts in history (specifically through the acts stated in the Eucharistic prayer, the calling of Israel, the sending Jesus etc.). Did God’s specific actions only start when human history started? Aquinas certainly had to give an explanation of these things somewhere, but I’m not sure I would be able to follow it, even if I found it!

(2)  In response to Johnson’s section on ‘The Interplay of Law and Chance’
(Ask the Beasts pages 169-174) and summarized here:
John Horsley writes,

Dawkins et al. assert that because chance plays such an important role in evolution the whole process must be purposeless and is incompatible with a Creator God – i.e. they say you are compelled to come to this conclusion just from looking at the facts – no other conclusion is possible. In fact they are making the same mistake as William Paley with his argument from design (only in the opposite direction). It is how you interpret the data that is important. They interpret the data in the light of their prior commitment to materialism. We are free to interpret the data based on our prior commitment to a Creator God, as Arthur Peacock has done very ingeniously.

The idea of God using chance events (mutations or epigenetic changes) to produce novelty fits very well with the recent discoveries in Evo-Devo, as I mentioned in my presentation in February. There is a basic body plan due to a common set of “tool box” genes and new forms are produced by using chance events to tinker with the switches that switch these genes on at particular times in the development of the embryo. Following Elizabeth Johnson, these new forms could be said to actualize “propensities” that were in a sense ready to be actualized because they had been given to the natural world at the beginning of time.

The question that arises in my mind is: is the interplay of regularity and chance the only process at work in creating new organisms, or is this model too “mechanistic”? Two other possible factors occur to me:

a) quantum effects

Biologists until recently discounted any possibility of quantum effects in biological systems (too warm and too wet). However, quantum effects have now been found in several processes, including photosynthesis, the sense of smell, and the navigation of birds using the Earth’s magnetic field. Quantum biology is an exciting new field. This opens up the possibility that these effects, including quantum entanglement, for example, play a role in evolution. This is just speculation, but my feeling is that they will come to be seen as important. The present neo-Darwinian theory is based on 19th century physics. It should at least be brought into the 20th century.

b) consciousness

Animals are certainly aware and conscious, even if they don’t have the self-awareness of humans, and their consciousness will influence their behavior. As the process theologian John Cobb has pointed out: “When animals find that their present behavior does not procure the food and safety they require, some try out different behavior. To suppose that these trials are purely random strains credulity. When one animal is successful, it repeats the successful action, and others imitate it. Genetic change follows, and this priority of animal behavior over genetic change is far from rare. Indeed, it is probably more common that the reverse sequence presented us in standard evolutionary theory.

Some of this behavior is surely both intelligent and purposeful. But the mechanistic model opposes any role for intelligent purpose. Because of commitment to the mechanistic model, standard formulations of evolution simply ignore the role of animal action. “

(There could also be a sort of Jungian collective unconscious governing behavior in a species, but we might not want to go there).

(3)  In response to Johnson’s section on ‘Emergence’ (Ask the Beasts pages 174-180) and summarized here:
John Horsley writes,

Unscripted Adventure? 

Elizabeth Johnson states (p.173) that if you rewound the tape of life’s evolution back to the beginning and let it roll again the community of life would not look at all how it does now. But how different would it be? The Harvard paleontologist and author Stephen Jay Gould has claimed that it would be totally different due to the large number of random and contingent events in evolutionary history. On the other hand, Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris has vigorously challenged this, claiming on the basis of “convergent evolution” that, on the contrary, the community of life would be very similar what exists now.

Convergent evolution is the process whereby organisms that are not closely related evolve similar forms and adaptations in similar environments. For example there is a marsupial version of several different placental mammals (e.g. marsupial moles, cats, wolves, and flying squirrels); the eye has evolved independently at least seven times; birds have evolved independently twice, etc. According to Conway Morris such convergence is the rule rather than the exception so different organisms in similar environments will always tend to converge on the same “solution” to enable them to survive (although by different routes). Conway Morris writes, “The number of things that ought to work (biological solutions) is ridiculously large, whereas we find that the number of things that actually work is surprisingly small – a very small fraction of all possibilities”.

Conway Morris even proposes that in view of convergent evolution the evolution of consciousness and something very like humans was inevitable. Hence, evolution appears to have an inherent direction and purpose (something also proposed by Teilhard de Chardin). Elizabeth Johnson rejects this and believes that evolution is open ended and indeterminate (nature having an adventure). Other theologians, for example Keith Ward, agree with Conway Morris. According to Keith Ward, the purpose of evolution is “the generation of communities of free, self-aware, self-directing sentient beings” (Keith Ward, God, Chance and Necessity). So play the tape again and something like us will appear.

(4) Also in response to ‘Emergence: On Behalf of Matter and the Body’
(Ask Beasts, pages 174-180)
Barry Turner writes,

Looking at Conway Morris – a biologist who has different metaphysical assumptions – is a good way of saying that interpretation is indeed based on one’s metaphysics.  Scientists are not immune to metaphysical assumptions though many seem to claim that.

Have you read any of Thomas Berry, sometimes called a “Geo-logian”?  He co-authored a book with Brian Swimme, a mathematical physicist entitled, The Universe Story that attempts to tell the story of our universe from some broader metaphysical beginnings and locate meaning in the process.  Berry and Swimme state that if we look at the large-scale structure of the universe, it is difficult or impossible to account for it in a random or unbiased cosmos.  On the scale of molecules, to get the atoms of the universe to bounce together haphazardly to form a single molecule of a molecule of an amino acid would take more than even a hundred times the 15 billion year history of our universe.  Yet we observe that amino acids are formed not only on planet Earth but throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

Barry and Swimme argue for what they call a Cosmological Principle that asserts that the universe has natural powers that when given the proper conditions, will create galaxies, etc…. It is a principle as opposed to a fact because we assume that it operates at other places and times than our own corner of the universe.  It overcomes both the bare reality of chance as well as the intrinsic property of matter that we call entropy which always progresses to disorganization.  They write that it is characterized by differentiation (complexity), auto-poiesis, and communion at every level of reality.  They also use the metaphor of music as a way notes are organized in a symphony.  Their descriptions of these qualities is really beautiful.

This seems similar to a movie I saw last week called The Imitation Game, the story of how Alan Turing defeated the German encryption device called The Enigma.  Because there were so many million ways that the encryption codes could be done by this machine, humans could never in thousands of years decipher the codes which were changed daily.

 Turing invented a machine that could try out all the possibilities one by one much faster than humans.  But even then the time it took was much longer than any possibility of being effective.  This is the reality of relying only random efforts to read all the possibilities.  The success only came when they realized that there were certain German words that would very likely be in any message, such as “Heil Hitler.”  So it took the added information of outside intelligence (humans) to put constraints on the machines to limit it’s searches and then they had success.
It seems to me that is similar to the difficulties of the almost endless random efforts of the universe to come up with the forms we have in the time available.  Some other source of information seems to be in operation.  Theologians call that the will of God drawing the world to God’s self.  Rahner says that matter has the innate motion towards the spirit.  That is very similar to de Chardin, when he speaks of Christo-genisis.

Anyway these are my non-scientific meanderings.

Once again – what are your responses?



One thought on “Thoughts from our discussion, April 23

  1. It seems to me also, as John has said, that Johnson has left unsaid how it is that God acts in the world, at least in comparison to the other theologies that she critiques. She says that the important characteristic about the Thomistic approach of Primary/Secondary forms of causality preserve us from making God, just one more cog in the process of the natural causes of the world. So, saying that God acts in the world even through non-interventionist ways such as quantum reality, random in-determinants, and chance takes away the integrity of the natural order and also the divine order. But it seems that the effect of that leaves us in the two domain approach, science and theology are about two different realities, which seems to take us back to a dualism that was our hope to overcome at the beginning.

    I think she moves beyond this dilemma by introducing Carl Rahner’s idea that matter has a property of “self-transcendence” by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, which is a theology of “Panentheism.” So, more than just making a metaphysical/theological statement that God is in the world, which can’t be verified empirically, what Rahner is saying here is a major implication of this view. In the long process of evolution and the increasing diversification and complexity of matter, we see it moving toward Spirit. In the process of evolution something genuinely new comes into being that is not just a product of causal forces out of the past. It’s a way we can understand what Johnson calls, “Deep Incarnation.” Of course trying to verify this by empirical means is not possible. But looking back at the long story of our coming to be of the universe as it is today it seem that this would be seem to be a quite helpful way to address the mystery that evades our understandings.

    I wrote a paper some years back that refers to these subjects in many historical sources including the work of the contemporary Denis Edwards, The God of Evolution which develops a Trinitarian framework for discussing these issues. Here is an excerpt from the paper:

    Edwards has a different understanding of basic metaphysics, what has always been there. Edwards says it is “being in relation,” in contrast with simply “being as becoming.” The difference is a more definite sense of purpose or meaning as “being in relation” assumes another reality beyond itself. For Edwards the arrival of the radically new emergence of self conscious spiritual beings is beyond philosophical explanation. We must find explanation at the level of theology with the proviso that this need not contradict natural processes.49 To give a theological accounting for God’s ongoing creative role in the evolution of life he draws on the suggestion of Karl Rahner, of the “active self-transcendence” inherent in nature.

    God is interiorly present to evolving creatures, not simply enabling
    them to exist in a static way, but enabling them to transcend what
    they already are…The power of self transcendence comes from within
    the creature, but it is a power that finally comes not from the creature,
    but from the ongoing creative activity of God…human beings [are] the
    self transcendence of matter into self-consciousness before God.50

    To this idea Edwards links the theology of Basil the Great of the Spirit as the Life-Giver. The process of self-transcendence can be seen as the work of the Holy Spirit in whom the triune God is immanent in all things. Where Haught sees the source of all novelty in creation as the Power of the Future, Edwards describes it in a trinitarian framework as the Holy Spirit that goes forth to bring all creation into relationship with the divine life.

    …the Spirit is the ecstatic one, who in the divine choice to create
    goes beyond the divine communion to what is not divine, and brings
    what is not divine into relation with the divine Persons. The Spirit
    as the excess, the ecstasy of divine love, brings creation into relation-
    ship with the divine life. It is this ongoing relationship that enables
    creatures to exist and become.51

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