Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Intelligent Evolution

The decoupling of meaning from measurement, of faith from science, continues to haunt us; most recently in the claim that ‘intelligent design’ has equal academic standing with the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Both scientists and theologians wear self-imposed blinders, but at least scientists acknowledge their findings are provisional – subject to change as new information is available. This is less so for theologians who struggle to shove the square pegs of new discoveries into the round holes of ancient insights.

Both sides are arguing over rounding errors (how did vision begin); neither seems willing to address the improbability of existence itself.

Something accounts for being being. Whether we call it God, or Tao, or String Theory, or Chaos, or Quantum Flux or Randomness or Elmer’s Glue, this cosmos is held together with an elegance and subtlety so profound that it puts all other systems, scientific or theological, on an equal footing. That is to say, eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it entered the mind of time-bound beings to conceive what preceded or surrounded or underpinned or caused ‘the initial condition’ when time was naught (T=0) and all that was, is and will be was contained in a singularity of zero mass and infinite density.

We are all as Sir Isaac Newton once described himself with uncharacteristic humility: children exploring pebbles on the seashore ‘while a great ocean of truth lays all undiscovered’ before us.

The problem for those of us raised in the Biblical tradition is that we are trying to fit new discoveries of the universe and our place in it into archaic templates.

It’s not that there is no god (a placeholder word for a reality we can’t fathom). It’s that we refuse to abandon the image of a static, unmoving, implacable God even as we discover we live in a fluid, dynamic, evolving, expanding, big-bang, quantum, relativistic, uncertain, indeterminate universe.

In fact, we should be grateful for big-bang cosmology and the theory of evolution by natural selection for offering a way past some of the problems with the Biblical God.

In our traditional stories, God is continually trying to correct his earlier efforts. He gave Adam and Eve a mind and curiosity, then punished them for eating from the Tree of Knowledge. He gave humans hands with which to make and use tools, and speech to communicate and coordinate tool-use, then punished the people at Babel for using those tools to reach up to him. He made humanity in his image and likeness, then seeing his image and likeness sent the flood to wash it all away. Even sending a Redeemer is an acknowledgement by an omniscient being that the Human Project didn’t work as planned.

The intelligent design claim parallels this – it presents a God who has to keep interposing in the process to do mid-course corrections; what software designers call ‘bug fixes.’

Theists should embrace a new understanding of a more elegant god (the placeholder word for a reality we can’t fathom), not run from it. The Biblical God had to make each thing piecemeal – fish here, birds there, cattle over there. The big-bang god made everything from one thing; everywhere from one where; and everywhen from one when.

That a single explosive release of energy of whatever origin could, when cooled over time, produce bougainvillea, hummingbirds, the star-spangled nighttime sky and W. C. Fields speaks to a far more awesome cosmos than the ancients could ever have imagined. (And so they can be forgiven for not accounting for what they didn’t know. We can no longer claim ignorance as our excuse.)

Evolution posits a far more interesting and endearing god that our inherited story of devolution does. We’ve been taught we’re fallen angels who need to apologize for our existence and claw our way back, inch by painful inch, to God’s good graces – a hard and bitter story that has often produced hard and bitter societies.

Far more awe-inspiring is that we are very, very, very highly evolved starstuff, seawater and sunshine, come alive and become aware. And a god that could factor all that into a really, really, really hot ball of gas from the outset is a wonder to behold.

And furthermore, to do all that without having to make mid-course corrections, and beyond that, to make the whole she-big-bang out of little niblets of energy whose next moment is unpredictable… now that’s a god (the placeholder word for a reality we can’t fathom) worthy of our reverence. That’s a reality before which or whom we all stand equal in our awe. That is truly mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

True reverence then might consist in emulating the quanta; that is, having properties both substantial (science) and insubstantial (faith): exalting in the awareness of which we, and indeed the entire cosmos, partake; simultaneously humbled by the certain knowledge that this is still the first day of school.


Blogger Stephen A. Fuqua said...

Wayne Dyer was on PBS yet again a few days ago. I caught him saying some junk about particles not being able to create more particles. Didn't hear the rest of the context as I burst into a rare yell at the TV: "don't talk about things you don't understand Dyer!" (weak force causes particles to "disintegrate" into other particles).

Tom, your essay doesn't make me want to scream and rant — it just makes me smile. It has been a while since I've agreed with any essay so whole-heartedly. I especially enjoyed your "placeholder" bit about G/god. And not one iota of misapplied physics (I'm not a real expert, but I do have an MA in the subject =).

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