Jerry L. Sherman
I. Darwinism Breaking Down
It has been assumed by many people for quite a long time that Darwinian natural selection can account for the origin and variety of life on Earth. More recently this assumption has been profoundly challenged, and religious objections to Darwinism have been joined by strictly scientific objections. Put simply, it may be impossible that life formed under the principles of natural selection. Michael Behe argues this convincingly in Darwin's Black Box, one of many voices showing the famous theory is losing its scientific plausibility. Richard Johnson argues in Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance that it is supported only as a dogma of the prevailing worldview, naturalism. It is an a priori judgment, a faith, powered by necessity, because it is naturalism's creation story, the only way naturalism can account for our being here.
This breakdown in confidence suggests that natural scientists do not know how the world came to be what it is. Theists greet this cheerfully, because it throws us back upon the traditional position that God created the world. We might then be inclined to say that we theists do know how life originated and developed: God did it. But do we then really know how it happened? This is the question I will pursue in this paper. I will explore what it means to say how something happened and consider whether we theists really want to say that we know how, as we respond to naturalism's crisis. I will offer that inasmuch as we still want to answer the "how" question we necessarily borrow from and participate in naturalism. As a result, the crisis that has come upon the scientific view of origins is a crisis for theists as well. It is not we theists winning over those naturalists as much as it is we human beings being drawn up short at the realization of our rational inadequacy. Theists can lead in doing that, but not if we think it does not apply to us.
This paper is directed toward two sets of people that I am related to spiritually and intellectually. In the first are the "young earth" creationists or biblical literalists in the evolution-creation debate. These are most of the people I go to church with and a good part of my family. To these people I want to make a two-pronged textual point about Genesis. First, it may support a kind of evolutionary account of the origin of life and of humanity. Secondly, to say what Genesis means "literally" is not as simple as we might have hoped, and literalism does not give us a clear picture of how life began.
The other group is Christian philosophers and scientists probing the origins issue, whether from a young-earth point of view or one allowing a longer time-span. These people hope to employ theism in their science, because purely naturalistic science seems to face a dead end. Some of these believe in a theistic form of evolution, but many do not. For instance, Richard Johnson's "theistic realism" holds that the theory has failed, and that we need a Creator in our account of origins. Michael Behe argues that the living cell is clearly a designed entity, one that could not have come about by Darwinian selection. To these people I want to suggest that theism in itself does not give us an alternative causal account of our origin. We can praise God for what he did, but divine agency does not fill a gap in an otherwise successful causal account. If we hastily think that it does, we may miss a higher calling, a chance to participate in an intellectual crisis that may have profound results.
My points about these two groups may seem far apart, at times, but they connect in several ways. First, the treatment of the literalist view will deal with scripture, which is important to all Christians in their thoughts about about origins. Second, literalism gets us looking at a word picture in Genesis that will illustrate my point about the Christian philosophers and scientists. Finally, I will argue that these groups are more alike than different, because both are tempted by an illusion of having explained how life began.
A word about myself before I begin: I spent over twenty years as a theistic evolutionist, even though most of the believers I had fellowship with thought I was mistaken or deceived. I tried to rid myself of the theory, as if it were a deception needing spiritual warfare, but it never went away. Over time I became more relaxed about it, but then the new wave of literal creationism became vocal in the church. I resisted it in some respects, and I still do, insofar as it suggests that other points of view are not only scientifically mistaken but spiritually at risk, and that obedient Christians will be young-earthers. I personally find the young-earth thesis implausible and suspect that the science behind it is driven by an unnecessary religious burden. But at the same time other scientific challenges to Darwin have risen up with an amazing force, and the weaknesses of the theory have become overpowering. My theistic evolutionist idea that God works through evolutionary processes has had a rude encounter with the apparent fact that there is no plausible evolutionary mechanism. Now I can honestly say only that we seem not to have a working theory. But I think this is a very fruitful place to be, an intriguing predicament that can lead to profound intellectual developments.
II. There is no "literal" reading of HOW God created
My claim, stated plainly, is this: when we say God created life, or that there had to be a pre-existing intelligence, a designer, we do not thereby say how life came to be. The literal account does not answer this question. And "design" does not function as a missing link in an otherwise successful causal account. Correspondingly, to whatever extent we can say how it happened, we necessarily have a theory of origins that is scientific (in a broad sense) and has an investment in naturalism. In an odd way, this will be true even of Biblical literalism.
This may seem an empty claim. If we say God did something through a miracle, of course we do not know how it was done. But have we explored the implications of this obvious fact? I will be doing that in most of what follows. First I will look at the Biblical literalist position and try to show that the text itself is open to a gradualist interpretation, and, more importantly, that the text has no clear literal meaning. Then I will turn to the creationist philosophers and scientists who are wrestling with the relationship between design and scientific laws.
In Genesis 2.7 we are told that "the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (R.S.V.). God formed man of dust. That is, humanity was created out of a simpler substance that already existed on the earth. This has long struck me as scriptural support for some kind of theistic evolution. Adam did not appear with a "poof!" but was formed out of existing material. How it happened and how quickly are open to debate, and I'll look at these questions shortly, but the verse certainly allows for gradual formation of human life from simpler life forms and materials.
This idea appears throughout the creation story: the waters and the earth "bring forth" the life forms that are created. On the third day of creation--leaving aside what is meant by "day" in this context--vegetation occurs on the dry land. God says, "Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth" (1.11). God speaks, but he does not simply speak the plants into existence, as he does with light and the heavens. Instead, he decrees that the earth will bring forth vegetation. So life comes out of the earth that is already in existence. In the same way, on the fifth day of creation, marine life appears when God says, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures" (1.20). The birds appear, too, though the text does not say where they came from. Finally, on the sixth day of creation, God said, "Let the earth bring forthliving creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds" (1.24). So three times we hear of God deciding that the earth or the sea will bring forth plants, marine life and the land animals. This "bringing forth" strikes me as consonant with the evolution account, because it locates the creative process partly in the material that is being formed. It does not leave God out, but it has him doing it through some process that occurs in nature.1
In the Genesis account, the creation of man also occurs on the sixth day. His creation stands apart from that of the animals, for he is in God's image and created for dominion over other forms of life. Yet it does happen on the same day. This suggest to me that we have here both a natural account, in which humanity is grouped biologically with the animals, and an account of special creation, which makes humanity unique. Thus this reading does not support Darwinism in seeing us as just another animal. But the way the creation process is described, including the order in which life forms appear, appears to me to be a pre-scientific statement of what a theistic evolutionist believes.
Creationism makes a point of the fact that the plants yield seed "each according to its kind" and God created the sea life and land animals "according to their kinds" (1.12,21,25). The Bible does not suggest that the many kinds came from a single kind. Darwinian speciation is not there. Still, Darwinism does not deny that species produce their own kind; it just adds the idea that species change and diverge over long periods of time. So I do not find that the "according to their kinds" statement separates the Genesis account entirely from evolutionary theory.2
Whatever the merits of my claim that the text supports a gradual development of life, I want to say more pointedly what it does not give us: a clear literal meaning. Taking the account literally gives us a mental picture of how things began, but careful inspection shows that this mental picture is blurred. Seen clearly, it does not connect with the created natural world as we know it. Let's look more carefully at Genesis 2.7. ÿ"[Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.ÿ"] How are we to understand this?
The literalist emphasizes that God just made us, putting us here independently of any natural process. That would be fine, if in scripture God said, "Let there be man." But he did not. He formed man out of dust. So how did he do that?
A literal account needs to show God using the existing material to make us. We might picture God bending over and pulling up some dust and causing it to form itself into a human being. But how does he "cause" it to take this form? God does not have a body. If God is present in some physical sense, it is because he chose to use a body to do something, as when he takes the form of an angel wrestling with Jacob. But even if God comes physically to earth and pulls up some of the soil to make it into a man, what can he do with this dust, physically? What fingers does he have, physically, that can form cells and proteins and DNA from soil? Nothing we can conceive of physically could do this. His "being there" does not do any good physically, because if his fingers are physical they cannot do what needs to be done.
We are left, I believe, with a picture of God on earth, picking up some dust, and then magically, if you will, or, better put, supernaturally causing the dirt to form itself into body cells and DNA and the human form. That could be what happened. But if he did it supernaturally, then he would not really have had to pick up any dust or even be there on earth, physically. So what we really have is a mental picture of the dust taking on the form of a man, with God overseeing the process.
My point can be made by a contrast to the story of Jacob wrestling with God. how did God wrestle with Jacob? By taking on a physical form--arms and legs and a torso and a head--that could wrestle with a man. But there is no physical form, no fingers, that can assemble DNA molecules, or, if there are such "fingers," they would look to us like a natural process that we do not understand or a miracle. We would only see dust taking on the form of a man.
We might say the dust "forms itself" into a man, but that gives too much credit to the dust. My expression, "taking on the form of a man" is neutral on who gets the credit, while the biblical statement, "God formed man from the dust of the ground," gives God the credit. It is important that God gets the credit, and I think that is the significance of his being there, forming the dust and breathing life into the man. But God's being there does not enter into the physical picture. If we try to picture what literally happened, all we can really see is the dust becoming a man. And if we leave aside how long this took, we might see simple material becoming human over time, as a theistic evolutionist believes.
I said above that my thesis, that to say "God did it" gives no answer to the question of how it happened, will seem empty. Of course we do not know how it happened, if it is a miracle. But this means that there is no privileged "literal" interpretation for a statement like "God formed man of the dust of the earth" or "God caused the earth to put forth vegetation." We do not know exactly what these words mean in relation to the physical things of earth we are trying to explain. To understand them "literally" is to impose on them a certain interpretation in which a physical God does a physical thing with the matter. But not only is God not like that, also the matter at hand could not be produced in such a way. Literalism wants to say, "But he just stood there and did them!" Yet his being there "literally," whatever that means, cannot explain the detailed events of creation. He could have literal fingers, but if they could do what was done, they would not be fingers in our usual sense. Literalism offers an explanation of how it happened, but if we look closely at what it offers we have to back off and say simply that God did it; he willed it, and he gets the glory. The "how" of the matter is still completely open. And if this is so, then a gradual creation out of natural materials through natural law is one of the alternatives. Scripture has not ruled it out.
There is, of course, a big difference between the theistic evolutionist and the biblical literalist with respect to the time involved in creation. If scripture or natural evidence requires us to believe this happened suddenly, in one day, then Genesis 2.7 shows us dust suddenly rising up into the form of a man, or perhaps God picking up dust and willing it into the form of a man. It shows us a miracle, because we have no natural concepts at all to deal with such a sudden creation.
III. Design theory also cannot say HOW it happened
In this treatment of the literalist view of origins, I could so far have been writing from my long-held theistic evolutionist point of view. Then I could have offered that the literal view is not just implausible but also incoherent, and that theistic evolution can at least aspire to a coherent account that explains the origin of life while also giving God the glory. Well, I guess that is still true, and theistic evolutionary theory can still aspire to that. But whereas before I would ask only for sufficient time, believing that the natural concepts do exist to explain the origin of life, I now feel the origin of life is as inexplicable as dust rising into the form of man in a single day. Given even billions of years, we lack the natural concepts for an explanation. This is the effect of recent criticisms of Darwinism, especially Michael Behe's.
I have only recently digested this, and I am surprised to see how similar the situation is in two opposed camps. Neither group knows how creation happened. But just as the literalist is tempted to think that he does know, because a word picture seems to be answering the "how" question, the creationist philosopher or scientist is also tempted to think that by adding "design" to the equation he has explained the event. In the rest of this paper I need to deal with the troubled relationship between scientific explanations and the concept of "design," and with what is happening when a person, whether theist or naturalist, seeks to understand how an event happens.
I will restate my thesis. Adding the concept of "design" or "pre-existing intelligence" to an explanation does not tell us how we got here, and to the extent that we can say how we got here, we necessarily do so through naturalism.
I will say again that the thesis, especially its first part, may seem empty. of course if we say that God did it then we do not know how it was done. Michael Behe allows this when he says we resist the finding that design is necessary because we hate to face the impotence of our science (235). On the other hand, Behe may be partly missing the implications of this idea, because he speaks of the necessity of design as a great scientific finding, one which ought to be celebrated but is not (233). It is true that scientific research, not the lack of it, brings us to the necessity of a designer. But this scientific research has the odd effect of disarming science; we have learned that there is something we may never be able to learn. Nietzsche spoke of science "reaching its limits" (Birth of Tragedy 15) and this may be such a place. If so, then this is profound turning point. But its effect is diminished if we think of it as another scientific discovery, rather than as the discovery of science's impotence.
If we think of "design" as an element in a causal account, we end up in a position much like literalism. In order to say how God created life literalism must imagine his "fingers" doing things that regular fingers cannot do, or think of "fingers" that are something else entirely and of which we have no knowledge. We might say they are the unspecified laws of nature, or just that they are miracle workers. In neither case do we know how it happened. But if scientific Christian philosophers say that "design" or "pre-existing intelligence" is the scientifically indicated missing link in explaining the origin of life, well, again, exactly what do we mean by that? Design is not an event that causes other events.
Theists resisting naturalism have often said recently that "design" is eliminated a priori by naturalism. Perhaps. But this is not just a dogmatism; it is an intuition that any explanation of how something happened must describe events in lawful relation to other events, and design is not one of those events; it is a judgment about the overall quality of events, not a particular event.
When we point to design, we might mean that the world was wonderfully planned by God, to whom we give thanks. That does not tell us how, but it is worship. We may mean that divinely instituted natural laws can in principle explain life's origin, as the theistic evolutionist faithfully believes, but this is just what is now so severely challenged. So if we point to "design," but not as a value judgment and act of worship, and not as a general faith in the scientific explicability of life, then to what are we pointing?
"Design" and "pre-existing intelligence" mean about the same in most contexts, but one could use the latter phrase to mean a cell with DNA that miraculously appeared. That is one way to answer the "how?" question. It is at least a "finger" for God, a point of entry into the causal process. Of course it just moves the question back a step. The miraculous cell is part of nature, but its cause is not, so we could still ask how it came to be, and the only recourse is to a miracle. And this is just one of many places in the account where the miracle may be necessary. This approach is unsatisfying for other reasons I'll be developing later. Apart from this kind of intervention, talk of design does little to complete a scientific explanation. To say there is a Designer still leaves us wondering about the process by which the deed was done.
If the design hypothesis does give us an efficient cause for the origin of life, perhaps because there is a natural event like the cell with DNA that gets things started, then God is in two places, as the Creator and Sustainer of all the natural forces that will support and develop life, and as the giver of the DNA itself. In terms of the word picture from Genesis 2.7, he is forming the dust into a man as the designer-overseer of the natural process of formation, but he is also in the picture as a causal element in that design, adding something our natural account cannot include. He forms up the dust as overseer and then reaches down into the dust and adds one specific event, or a few of them. It is an awkward position. Maybe this is necessarily where we have arrived, and God created life by injecting chemical intelligence into prebiotic matter. Perhaps he did miraculous things at other points, boosting other irreducibly complex systems to the point where they could carry on their development. But you will sense that I find this very ad hoc and disunified, to the point where I feel we have simply not said how it happened. We need to rethink how God's creative role and our understanding of nature fit together.
I agree with Darwinism's detractors that there had to be a "pre-existing intelligence." I am convinced. But "pre-existing intelligence" suggests to me a Platonic or Christian-Platonic source of order, a transcendent source in which life participates. Like "design," it is not an event prior in time, a causal antecedent. In invoking it we do not produce a scientific explanation. It does not tell us how it happened, in the sense that it does not tell us how to make it happen ourselves. It gives us no point of entry into the causal loop. To say that something is beautiful because it participates in Beauty is not to tell anyone how to make a beautiful thing. It is an explanation, but not of the scientific sort, and not an answer to the "how?" question as it is normally understood.
In a paper called "Explanation and Value-Free Thought," (http://www.dla.utexas.edu/depts/philosophy/faculty/koons/ntse/papers/Sherman.html) I explored the Socratic kind of explanation that is based on participation; it "explains" in a religious sense but does not tell us how to bring about the event being explained. This is in contrast to modern thinking, such as that of Francis Bacon, who was explicit in saying that to understand something is to know how to make it happen.
If the origins problem is showing our scientific limits, it may be bringing us back to the Socratic kind of explanation, and to an emphasis on worship, rather than technology. If such a change is happening, then theists need to be thinking about the relative importance of worship and scientific explanations in their intellectual lives. We can move into that discussion as I develop the second aspect of my thesis.
IV. Saying HOW it happened necessarily invokes Naturalism
The second part of my thesis will seem a bold claim, though it is a corollary of the first. If we can say how life originated, then we have a scientific theory and we are participating in naturalism. (We might want to call this naturalism in a "narrow sense," as distinguished by Howard Van Till in the First Things debate.) Even if we answer this question pre-scientifically, as in biblical literalism, we employ the causal analysis of common sense, which is a precursor to natural science, and thus we think "naturalistically." Theists with a scientific bent deal more openly in naturalism, because the very terms of scientific explanation are naturalistic. "Design" is clearly not a naturalistic concept, but neither does "design" tell us how something happened.
I am claiming that the "how?" question is inextricably bound up in the scientific world view, in scientific materialism or naturalism.
This idea has its background in thinking about fallen reason and the nihilism issuing from the fall. (See my dissertation, Fallen Reason and Value-Free Thought: A Christian-Platonist Account of Nietzschean Thought and Nihilism, The University of New Mexico, 1996.) Fallen human reason seeks empowerment, and causal explanations serve this god, because in principle they let us enter the causal loop. They give us technology. But these causal explanations are also "value-free," because the world they deal with can be contained in the purely descriptive scientific mode of thought. This is a nihilism built into the scientific world view. Causal explanations are necessarily naturalistic, in this nihilistic sense, because they understand reality as matter to be manipulated for human purposes, as the raw material of technology. They reduce reality to the constructs of scientific explanation, which are based on efficient causes and on the potential entry of humanity into the causal process.
An alternative to the nihilism of scientific thought is the Platonic concept of participation: a thing is good because it participates in the Good, and our world is wonderfully designed because it participates in the intelligence of the Designer. But this kind of thinking leads us to worship; it does not empower us with technology. Theistic scientists need to be aware of the tension between the motive to control and the motive to worship. It is not that we cannot do both, but that we cannot make sense of these issues if we are unaware of the conflict.
Naturalists live purely in the world of value-free explanations, and they face little conflict on this score. But when theists practice science they basically answer "how?" questions using the same naturalistic paradigm as non-theists. At the same time, when they believe in a creator and in "design" they transcend the nihilism of naturalism. But in these peeks outside the curtain we theists are not answering "how?" questions. Rather, we are making a value statement--it is good what God has done--and we are worshipping. Possibly we will do more of this as we see the breakdown of causal analysis, the limit of our power, and are led back to worship. But we need to be careful about claiming that we are at the same time doing science.
Naturalism is often thought of as a "closed system" of cause and effect without purpose or design or personal involvement of God. Scientific Christians are not naturalistic in this sense, because they believe in more than the closed system. Nevertheless, explanations of how things happen operate mostly within that closed naturalistic system. When we go outside it we are speaking of miracles, or we are seeing the goodness of God in a designed world (which I think is the real meaning of transcendence, in this context). My point here is that we cannot have our cake and eat it too; we cannot reincorporate the miracle into the system by saying that we have a scientific account. Secular scientists won't think it is scientific, and not because they arbitrarily exclude the miraculous, but because "scientific" means saying how, and the explanations of theists do not tell us how.
This expanded thesis claims more than I can explicitly prove. I have a strong intuition that saying how something happens is speaking naturalistically. This would explain the resistance of naturalists to design theory as well as the persistence of "theistic naturalists" in wanting a unified causal account of natural events. (I accept the term "theistic naturalist" for myself, because I think anyone doing science necessarily employs naturalism.) If saying "how" always involves naturalism, this explains the "fact" of evolution: because life exists in nature it must have begun by the principles of natural science, and evolution is the account of that, even if it has gaps. But I am afraid I may plug away at this thesis too long and appear only to beg the question. It will be more helpful to speak psychologically and politically about our choices in responding to the crisis of naturalism that origins research has brought about.
V. The temptation to sidestep the metaphysical crisis
I'm arguing that scientific theists might be missing the real effect of the breakdown of Darwinism due to an inappropriate maneuver. Let me show what I think it is through exaggerating it. Suppose a theistic scientist calls a press conference and announces that he has a great new theory that will revolutionize the sciences, especially biology. He has a new theoretical ingredient: "Design!" Add "Design" to your equations, and everything will work! "Design" is a flexible, self-adapting fudge factor that can deal with every discrepancy. The scientist is about to begin franchising "Design" so that other scientists can get the benefit of this new theoretical factor.
In subtle ways, does this happen? If so, there are two problems to deal with. The first is idolatry and the pride that engenders it. The scientist think he has captured in a neat little system of his the missing ingredient for good science, and his confidence is the same as that of any other scientist who has discovered any essential ingredient to a good explanation. But "Design" is not such an ingredient. It is in fact a value judgment (The world has been put together in a good way!) and an act of worship (We bow before the God who has done this for us!) But the theistic scientist wants to take this larger-than-life reality called "Design" and contain it in his system, making use of it. So this is idolatry, employing a human construct that is an image of God, but using it instead of trusting him. We have incorporated into our controlling scientific mentality the power of God himself, except that as soon as we box "Him" he slips away and we find ourselves holding a man-made thing. We cannot reduce God to an element in a scientific explanation.
I do not mean that theistic scientists do not worship God as they think of "Design." I only suggest that we are tempted to turn him to an object for our intellectual use. We are stuck between two sets of motives, one to worship God and one to gain control of life, and we have to walk carefully. It seems our science is discovering its limits through its need for transcendent design, and it would be a telling irony if we felt empowered by this discovery. The angels might be snickering.
The second problem is the ad-hoc quality of the "design" hypothesis. I greatly respect Phillip Johnson's work, but his metaphysics and that of Michael Behe do not satisfy me. I find myself thinking that this is still "God-of-the-gaps" thinking, which is ad hoc. We say there is a natural account, but since it has gaps, we add that God has somehow filled that gap. But the rational person in me distrusts the switch from scientific to theistic thinking. It does not give me a unified world view. (Again, Howard Van Till has developed this better than I.) If God put into nature the laws that produce life, then that is design; do we then need a separate causal element called "design"? I submit that that the lack of unity results from mixed motives: we want to give God the credit for creation (with the design hypothesis) and practice controlling science (by incorporating "design" into our theory).
Yet I do not deny that something has to happen. My years as a contented theistic evolutionist are over, it appears, because I've lost the faith that natural science has the needed principles in its toolbox. We need to deal with this major breakdown of scientific explanation. Turning toward "design" is surely the right direction to be heading. But I feel I need to put scientific thinking, its limits, and how God relates to those limits into a coherent picture. If I can know the world naturalistically, I should be able to know all of it in the same way, or have some account of the limits of the natural view. Otherwise, I feel that my world view is dualistic by default, that is, patched together.
The old theistic evolutionist in me tends to think that since any account of how it happened will be about nature, and because it did happen, then nature must have a way to account for it. In saying this I actually adopt the same faith that leads to what creationists contemptuously call "the fact of evolution." Naturalists call it fact because it did happen. Life exists. And any account of how it happened will, in this view, necessarily be naturalistic. I have argued as much in this paper. But for most naturalists the "crisis of naturalism" or "breakdown of Darwinism" is a laughable idea. They simply assume that natural science has the tools to do the job, as I did for many years. Thus no metaphysical crisis appears. The interesting part begins when a theistic naturalist, one committed to a unified scientific account and not satisfied with ad hoc solutions, faces the poverty of the theory. This is when major metaphysical change could be at hand.
As a theistic naturalist facing the poverty of naturalism, I am hoping that theistic realists will not take a shortcut to avoid this crisis. These people may see naturalism, which is considered a "closed system," failing only because it cannot include design; they may not see the naturalism we live with in our common sense and scientific pursuits as having any problem. Because we theists do not hold to a "closed system" we can cheerfully combine natural law and the occasional miracle, the overall lawfulness that science understands and the extra boost that God must supply. The lack of unity might cause some uneasiness, but as long as the dualistic world view is acceptable--because we believe in transcendence and are not monists--then it is a comfortable position. But I am arguing that we risk missing what is truly revolutionary and profound about this crisis. Our position is too easily won, and we act as if we were not humans and did not share in the fallenness of our race. I'm suggesting, instead, that naturalism's problem is still our problem.
It is our problem because it appears that our God created us through a process that is impossible. This is where a theistic naturalist or theistic evolutionist ends up, having heard of Darwinism's failures. I do not see an explanation in literalism or in design theory. Neither of those comfortable positions is available to me, because I think both have to be kept a little blurry to be believed. As a theistic evolutionist, I am accustomed to thinking that a unified causal account is at least possible in principle. I think I know the laws of this world, and yet according to those laws none of this could have happened. We are impossible!
It is not just that we may never know how it happened. That is the refuge of the naturalist and the theistic evolutionist, in which unknown scientific laws are assumed adequate to the task. The problem is that what must have happened could not have happened! The laws our God made decree that life could not have begun by natural steps. This is the result of high-level research by scientific creationists and people with an open mind. Naturalists are simply in denial about it. And yet we theists may be in denial, too, if we do not recognize that our literal account and design theory do not explain life. It appears that the laws we so cheerfully call God-given and the intellectual apparatus for which we thank God fail entirely in accounting for what is right before our eyes. This is the crisis of naturalism that I think even we theists are supposed to suffer through.
Before I plot out a few directions we might move in, let me mention something that produces a lot of cognitive dissonance for me. I believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that this was a miracle. God chose to cause a female egg to become a zygote and a fetus and a man. I have always said, If God can do any miracle--and there are millions of testimonies that he can--then he could do any miracle, including that little one. But if that is so, then he could surely cause life to emerge in nature, and I should be no more concerned to explain that than I am to explain the miraculous virgin birth. Nevertheless, the scientific Christian philosopher and metaphysician in me needs to wrestle with how God's creative design and the natural law we partly understand are related.
VI. Metaphysical Directions.
I have argued that neither biblical literalism nor theistic realism is really saying how creation happened. Both have the form of a causal explanation but include in it elements that cannot do the job. Neither a literally conceived God nor the notion of design can complete a causal account. Any workable causal account must use the language of common sense and science that deals with physical events in causal relationship to physical things in this world. Naturalists know this well, but they assume that the laws of science are adequate for the task and ignore the challenges to Darwinism. A theistic naturalist can be more open to the failures of Darwinism, and he does not see any way out. If I have succeeded in these assertions I have closed all the doors, crowding us all into a difficult but promising space: we see that life is impossible. We could not have gotten here in the way that we must have gotten here.
Probably neither the Biblical literalist nor the secular naturalist will care about this problem I claim to have created. The literalist does not try to rigorously connect his story with the natural world, and the naturalist does not face the failure of Darwinian theory. But the scientific Christian philosopher, whether theistic realist or theistic naturalist, has to deal with the fact that God has given us a natural understanding of the creation that includes most of what we see, and yet that natural understanding falls flat before the problem of origins. We could not have gotten here through natural principles.
Perhaps, then, we just need better science. But it seems the best science that has got us into this tight spot. I suggest that we need a metaphysical change; we need a major revision of how we understand the natural world. This is the profound change that we might miss if we carelessly think we have everything explained. Since we theists are free to acknowledge the breakdown of Darwinism, we are in a position to lead in this metaphysical change. But what direction could it take?
I will begin with two closely related suggestions that have worked for me as a theistic naturalist while I still thought a scientific explanation of life had in principle been found. The first is that we should think of "design" as a value judgment about the cosmos. It is good, it has order, it is designed. This is how one reconciles the naturalism in science with belief in a creator God. Even if everything can be explained by the principles of science, God still gets credit for the order and design by which the world came to be. As a theistic evolutionist I have not worried about leaving God out of nature, because he is the Goodness of nature. This is Platonic, of course, but it does not make God any less personal. He is the Person who is responsible for the good plan that is in the creation.
To make design a value judgment may seem to make it less real, but that is a prejudice of scientific materialism (naturalism), which in this century has mostly put values into a subordinate, subjective position. But I am a Christian-Platonist; for me, the Goodness that is God is the source of all reality. Values are more real than facts. So to make "design" a value judgment does not make it less significant. Our judgment of design is our seeing God in his creation, as Romans 1.20 says we will, if our minds are not darkened.
The second suggestion is that this goodness of design is the transcendence we theists hold to. That is, we are not monists, and we do not want a closed system of naturalism with no Creator outside the system. God as the source of the goodness or designedness of the creation is "outside" it. He is both immanent and transcendent, which is Platonic and also satisfies Biblical theology. The things of creation are made out of his goodness, so he is in the world as its goodness and outside it as the perfect expression of that Goodness.
It is very ironic that we may destroy transcendence in the very act of trying to hold to it. If we conceive of God as a causal antecedent to creation, as one who precedes it temporally and brings it about as an event causes an event, we are trying to see him outside creation. But we are picturing him in the terms which which we picture creation, and we are making him an event, so we inadvertently reincorporate him into the creation. God as first cause is meant to be transcendent, but as part of a causal sequence he is a thing in the created world.
Literalism is tempted this way. If I may caricaturize the problem, literalism is tempted to see God as a man with a beard standing on a cloud. He and his actions are events in nature. In subtle ways, literalism will always reproduce this picture, as when we picture God creating humanity out of dust. He has to be a thing in the creation, a creature with very special fingers, to cause the dust to become alive. Design theorists, too, face the problem of trying to get God into the creation--as an event that fills the gaps in the natural account--while also conceiving him as transcendent. It seems safer to me to see God as the goodness of this creation, both in it--as the goodness of good things, but not as a particular event--and beyond it.
These thoughts show that theistic naturalism is not a threat to theism. It is theologically correct, more so than the other approaches. And if it could produce a complete account of the formation of the natural world, filling every gap, it would still not replace God nor minimize his importance.
The acceptability of theistic naturalism is one thing, but the main question now is about its adequacy. The program of scientific explanation, whether conducted by non-believers or believers, has broken down. There appear to be gaps that cannot be filled, even in principle. Thus I move from hopeful theistic naturalist to disillusioned theistic naturalist. I step into the position that I have argued we are all in, in truth: unable to say how we got here. What metaphysical changes may be at hand now? The problem is severe. If it were not, it would not force a fundamental change of world view. Because it is so severe, I do not see a light at the end of the tunnel. I see only a tunnel to be explored.
Our existence seems to be impossible. But since we are here, there must be something wrong with the metaphysical system under which the origin of life is judged to be impossible. I believe the problem is the nihilism that is in naturalism. Fallen human beings have sought power through reason, but this is fallen reason; it produces a scientific world view that gives power but also darkens our minds. That darkened mind set is naturalism or scientific materialism, which describes the world in value-free terms and cannot accommodate design or purpose or plan. Purposes can only exist in minds, and naturalism cannot see a transcendent mind, only the human minds that rise mysteriously from mindless nature.
This world has order and lawfulness, but its other big ingredient is accident or chance. I've always thought that "chance" must be a mistaken notion, existing epistemically and for us, but not in the real world and not for God. But scientific thought has only its few laws operating in a mindless void known as chance. Somehow life has to begin by chance with the help of a few laws. This now looks impossible.
This scientific world has efficient cause but no final cause. Events happen because other events require them according to the laws that are known. The efficient cause "pushes," so to speak, but it cannot "pull," as final cause does. Natural selection is Darwin's revolutionary way of accounting for what appears to be the guidance of final causation strictly through the operation of chance and efficient causation. But this process is now considered inadequate. We desperately need a kind of cause which "pulls," which guides, drawing matter toward its purposive forms. But science does not have this concept in its toolbox.
These deficiencies in the scientific world view are nihilism. Where does it come from? Why should we say that the universe is chancy and mindless? We see it as God's creation and as orderly, but in the practice of science we cannot include the very notions by which God apparently makes it and sustains it. We cannot account for what we see, because it looks like nature was intelligently guided into certain forms, and all we can see is efficient cause, which needs to be channeled by mindless selection. So we supplement our mindless scientific world with the creative activity of God, but then two world views are pushed together unnaturally. Why can we not include in our science the intelligent and purposeful guidance that apparently has been present all along?
I believe the Nietzschean and Heideggerian critique of modern thought is essential here, but I broaden it into a Christian treatment of fallen reason. The world is mindless because it is a construct of the reason that would control it. It is manipulable matter, the raw material of technology. The world appears this way from within "technological consciousness" or "technicity," die Technik, in Heidegger's words. As a "construct," it is something that could be deconstructed. That is, we could become aware of the motives that underlie this world view; we could catch ourselves doing this. Then we might "see through it," in a sense. That is, we might become aware of the lens that has been distorting our vision, so we no longer need to see the world through that lens.
Such a change involves becoming aware of a dual motive always present in science: the religious need to affirm the goodness of the world as we perceive its order, and the need to gain control. I can picture the technological motive being peeled off from the religious, recognized for the separate thing it is. There is evidence the world is going that way, because post-modern thinking is not enamored with technology as modern thought was. When we cease to trust it, our world view ceases to be wrapped around it. That does not mean we would not practice technology, only that we see it clearly as the tool it is, instead of unwittingly seeing everything through it. They say a man with a hammer sees everything as needing to be nailed. But he could use this tool without letting it determine his world view.
A change like this might require that we abandon the goal of saying how life began. Since we do not need to create life, we do not need to envision the process. We need not isolate the causal factors as if we were going to enter the causal process ourselves. As part of praising God for his well-designed creation, we could have faith that everything fits together well enough, even though it remains beyond us. This would not mean that the origin of life is in a separate category from other events in nature, only that it is a very difficult problem.
Is this satisfying, where I sit right now with this problem? Not for me. The last paragraph bothers me, because I'm still saying we could explain it if we knew more. I am still hankering after a science that says how it happened. But if I really believe I am a fallen human being living partly in a darkened world, I should not be too surprised at my discomfort. This is the abyss that Nietzsche said we would look into, when we see that our reason cannot do what it set out to do.
We might go further and say that what technology could never do the scientific mind-set could never describe. That would at least be a defined limit, a way of understanding the impasse scientific reasoning has reached, though perhaps a contrived one.
I can dimly glimpse a thought process that might lead me out of this troubled spot. I have been asking lately a simple question, perhaps answered routinely by those well-trained in philosophy of science. Why should our lawful world be deemed unintelligent? It is plain in Behe's thinking: many things could happen in an merely lawful world, but the origin of life requires an intelligent world. He says, "If a biological structure can be explained in terms of those natural laws, then we cannot conclude it was designed" (203). But did not God design the planetary motions, which are explained in terms of natural laws? Why this distinction?
I am not denying Behe's point (and Dembski's) that we can clearly separate what is produced by an intelligent agent from what is accidental or lawful. Practically, we have this distinction, and it is important to scientific reasoning. But what about the stuff that is only lawful? Why do we give it this lower status, even though it reflects the lawfulness and order we attribute to God? There is something nihilistic about our attitude toward the part of nature that we understand. It is as if our understanding limits nature, and it can do nothing but what our laws say it can do. These are indications that we are looking at a construct of ours.
If we have the law for it, it is lawful, but if we do not it is by chance or mysterious, or it is done by the Designer. Where we have it figured out, it is lawful, and these laws make it possible for us to enter the causal loop; so laws are really just tools for us, and the lawful world is our construct by which we practice technology. And where we do not have these tools, then, if we are people of faith, we hand it back to God. But isn't there something suspicious about this? The division between "lawful" and "designed" is artificial and driven by our attempt to get control of life. Perhaps this division will be dissolved when we recognize the misguided motives and impotence of our efforts. Then the "fully gifted creation" will come alive for us and not be stripped of its intelligence and purpose.
In a more analytical approach, I suggest we think carefully about what is really happening when we use the word "how." Does "How did it happen?" really mean "How could I do it myself?" If so, then we should not be surprised that we cannot always answer the question. And we should not look within such technologically-inspired questions for a unified and satisfying world view.
The metaphysical adjustment I am glimpsing plays down the how-to aspect of science, but it could restore design and teleology and final cause to nature. I have to say, then, that it is a wonderful thing that scientific research has forced us to call upon that idea again. My disagreement with theistic realists or design theorists is only about the need for clarity, for care in expressing the relationship between design and natural law, and for not being too quick to claim a solution. And it is about the built-in necessity of naturalism among those who would say how we came to be. This is not just the god of the secular naturalist, and it is not a compromise that some theists cling to. It is an involvement that all of us, as fallen human beings, have in the scientific mind set, darkened as it is. We cannot make it the villain as if we had no part in it. We need to see within ourselves the motives that give it life, and then hope to see things differently.
1. This "bringing forth" concept is shown nicely by Howard J. Van Till in his part of the First Things debate with Phillip Johnson ("God and Evolution: An Exchange," June/July 1993). He shows that ancient writers Augustine and Basil understood creation as the outworking of a creative potential imbedded in nature by God. He feels modern creationists tend to miss this feature of the Biblical view of origins. He uses it as a contrast to the "theokinetic" view developed by those who insert a "miraculous intervention" into their causal account of life's origin (Van Till, 3).
2. Though I cannot give it the time it needs here, I see possible reconciliation of views in the relationship between Genesis 1 and 2. It seems to me that Genesis 1.1 through 2.4 gives an objective and almost scientific account of the beginnings of life on earth, including man's creation with that of the animals, while also making his creation special (1.26-28). Then Genesis 2.4b ff. expands upon that specialness and presents the creation from within human experience. Man is created on the second day, that is, early, and plants appear as a garden created for man, and the animals are created for and named by man. And woman is created out of man, for his sake. It is a more anthropocentric account. With these two points of view both in scripture we may be able to handle both the long time spans of natural history and the much shorter times suggested by the Bible itself. If "days" can be thought of as eras, then the huge time expanses of natural history are present in chapter 1, while chapter 2 tells the story from within human experience. The whole rest of the Bible is about the human experience. It may be that the subjective history of humankind, our actual experience, is not much longer than our recorded memories, perhaps 10,000 years. The ancient writers and readers would naturally think and speak from within the timetable of human experience, not from within the millions of years that natural history knows of. It is only in recent centuries of scientific thought that the millions of years would seem so important. So perhaps the young-earth people are correct, in the way that matters most, even if they are not accurate with respect to natural history.
Behe, Michael J. Darwin's Black Box. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.
Johnson, Phillip E. Darwin on Trial. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1993.
Johnson, Phillip E. Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law & Education. Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1995.
Sherman, Jerry. "Explanation and Value-Free Thought." Presented to the conference on Naturalism, Theism, and the Scientific Enterprise, Austin, 1997. http://www.dla.utexas.edu/depts/philosophy/faculty/koons/ntse/papers/Sherman.html
Van Till, Howard J. and Phillip E. Johnson. "God and Evolution: An Exchange." First Things 34 (June/July 1993):32-42. http://firstthings.com/ft9306/johnson.html. (Page numbers are from the html document.)