Deep Resonances between Science and Theology, Part 4
Today's entry was written by Michael L. Peterson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what BioLogos believes here.
This is the fourth in a six part series adapted from a chapter in the upcoming book The Continuing Relevance of Wesleyan Theology: Essays in Honor of Laurence W. Wood, edited by Nathan Crawford (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2011). In part three of this six part series, Peterson first looked at the term perichoresis used by the Cappadocian Fathers to refer to the mutual indwelling of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Trinity. This paints a highly dynamic view of the inner life of God. Humans are called to share in this Life of God, and in turn, in the lives of each other. This discussion leads into part four of this series where the larger themes of science will be discussed.
A Sketch of the Scientific Picture of Reality
We now move to a characterization of some of the major themes that define the shape of contemporary science.
Fragmentary Accounts Converging on a More Complete Picture. The various scientific disciplines in aggregate constitute an extensive account of the way things are in the natural realm. Each scientific discipline investigates various domains peculiar to it: physics, for example, includes subatomic physics, condensed matter physics, continuum mechanics, and so on. Within each domain, we have gained considerable understanding of the processes involved and have made much progress; nevertheless, not all connections among domains are yet completely understood. We are still uncertain, for instance, about how to resolve perplexities over how classical physics and quantum physics relate. Moreover, even though we have made significant connections across major fields of science, we are still working at the project of making more connections. In fact, some relatively new sciences position themselves at the intersection of established disciplines in order to make connections not available within any one of them.For instance, neuroscience seeks to relate molecular biology, genetics, chemistry, and psychology in the study of human cognitive, behavioral, and emotional functions. While all of the sciences have made enormous strides, and the connections we have already made fill in quite a picture of the way things are, much remains to be discovered. So, we take the partial and progressive nature of science simply to reflect human finitude and to motivate further progress.
Interplay of Chance and Necessity. As Jacques Monod convincingly argued, both chance and necessity form the warp and woof of the universe; indeed, they are required for continual dynamic development.1 From a scientific perspective, the origin of life begins in the chance aggregation of simple molecules into complexes capable of self-replication; they are able to reproduce themselves through the regularity of their chemical interaction with the environment, as they acquire simple molecules as a kind of “food.” So, chance, on the one hand, brings about novelty and catalyzes change within complex systems. Necessity, on the other hand, reflects the laws inherent in the universe and allows preservation and selection. The role of physical necessity, then, is not the total determination of events but the provision of a stable context in which particularity occurs—i.e., this happens rather than that. The basic polarity of necessity and chance within material reality itself sets up both the predictability and the unpredictability that we encounter in the sciences, an openness within structure. We must remember that, on strictly scientific grounds, there is no need to follow Monod in interpreting chance as “blind” and thus inconsistent with significance and meaning— this would commit the fallacy of confusing chance within a possible world with chance among possible worlds. Frankly, total causal determination is just as much a threat to meaning, but in an opposite way.
Process of Evolving and Emerging Complexity. The scientific narrative begins with the initial singularity, when the universe was just a tiny, expanding point of energy, and moves through early cosmic history when the universe became grainy and lumpy with stars and galaxies, and leads to the current cosmos, which is populated by rich and diverse structures, including scientists and theologians who debate what it all means. The processes that brought about this amazingly fruitful transformation are deeply evolutionary in character, at both the cosmic and biological levels,and these processes result from the fertile interplay of chance and necessity. Absolute necessity would characterize a world too rigid to permit anything really new to emerge, whereas pure chance would make the world too haphazard to allow anything really new to persist. In biology, we know that a degree of chance genetic mutation is required for there to be new forms of life, but without a degree of stable genetic transfer between generations, no new species could be established on which natural selection could operate. In general terms, then, the sciences find themselves in a regime where the symbiotic relation of order and contingency produces wholly new forms of complexity: life from inanimate matter; consciousness from life; human self-consciousness from consciousness.2 These radically new forms were unforeseeable based on initial conditions together with the relevant laws. “The evolutionary picture,” writes historian of science Owen Gingerich, “is one of a zigzag, opportunistic process.”3
Fine-tuned Anthropic Potentiality. Much of the debate over the evolutionary contour of the sciences focuses on the chance part of the equation, but the exact nature of the necessity involved should not be considered any less significant. Science now recognizes that lawful regularity had to take a very specific, precisely quantifiable form if it were to be possible for carbon-based life to evolve anywhere in the universe. Regardless of when life first appeared in the cosmos, it has been pregnant with this possibility from the Big Bang onward. Since the early universe contained only hydrogen and helium, carbon-12, with its capacity to generate long chain molecules, had to be generated. But there is only one place in the whole universe where carbon-12 atoms can be made: the interior nuclear furnaces of the stars. It is not a sentimental metaphor but rather literal truth that we are people of stardust! Astronomer Fred Hoyle arrived at the remarkable insight that a statistically improbable enhancement effect at just the right energy level—enabling the triple-alpha process—allowed stellar carbon production. Only slight differences in the physics of the situation would have made the production of carbon completely impossible.4 Ironically, Hoyle’s discovery of stellar nucleosynthesis made it difficult for him to maintain his life-long commitment to atheism, and so he posited a “super-intellect” behind the laws of nature without giving it the status of deity.5 Hoyle’s discovery, however, is only one of many that point to the delicate balance of forces in the universe which make life possible.6
Anthropic Potentiality Continued. In biology, we find a similar thesis about the anthropic potential of the universe offered to counter a position held by the late Steven Jay Gould of Harvard. In A Wonderful Life, Gould claims that if we were to rewind the tape of evolutionary development on planet Earth and then run it forward again, the outcome would be entirely different, most certainly without humans and perhaps without any form of intelligence at all. Myriad contingencies in the development of life, Gould contends, make the probability of human intelligence vanishingly small.7 On the contrary, Simon Conway Morris, noted Cambridge paleobiologist, argues that, while the particularities (of five fingers on each hand, thirty-two teeth, etc.) are unlikely on a re-play of evolutionary history, the emergence of more general biological properties is highly likely indeed because there are only a limited number of ways in which eyes can work, brains can work, etc. Across different species, the recurrent tendency of biological organization to arrive at the same “solution” to a particular “need” gives rise to the concepts of “evolutionary convergence” and “evolutionary trajectory,” making human intelligence a “virtual inevitability.” Morris writes:
If contingent happenstance dogs every step of evolution then assuredly the emergence of humans is a cosmic accident . . . . Yet convergence tells us two things: that evolutionary trends are real, and that adaptation is not some occasional cog in the organic machine, but is central to the explanation of how we came to be here.8
Morris further argues that the Earth, our local solar system, and the Milky Way Galaxy, which we inhabit, are uniquely constituted to be abodes for organic evolution, greatly unlike other systems in the universe—making our situation an odd collaboration of innumerable conditions that are remarkably well arranged for life. So, what about intelligent or at least sentient life elsewhere in the universe? Overly ambitious values plugged into the Drake Equation9 —such as those offered by Carl Sagan a few decades ago—have yielded a probability far above one for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe! Honest recognition, however, of the complex conditions required for life suggests both that Sagan’s 1985 book Contact (made into the 1997 Jodie Foster film by that title) as well as researchers at the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute) are overly optimistic about the chances being high for extraterrestrial life, let alone intelligent life; we humans occupy a peculiarly favorable context in the whole of physical reality.
Peterson will discuss several other major themes of contemporary science and begin to move towards a vision of harmony between science and faith in the next post.
1. Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).
2. Interestingly, these events are exactly the sort of major junctures in evolutionary history which Antony Flew credits with prodding his intellectual journey away from the position of atheism to a kind of deistic position which accepts in intelligence beyond the universe. He astutely steers between the unacceptable extremes of scientific reductionism and materialism, on the one hand, and the position of the Intelligent Design movement, on the other. See Flew, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: HarperOne, 2007).
3. Owen Gingerich, God’s Universe (Cambridge and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 33.
4. Although the process of stellar nuclear reactions is fairly straightforward, involving two atomic nuclei, which are in motion at tremendous speeds, collide, fuse, and form a heavier element. However, the clear exception is carbon because the intermediate phases from helium to carbon involve highly unstable nuclei. The probability of the necessary three helium nuclei coming together at the same instant is so small that it prompted Hoyle to notice a rare energy effect to boost the reaction and thus lead to the great abundance of carbon required for life in the universe.
5. Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics 20 (1982): 16. Also see Hoyle’s Intelligent Universe (London: Michael Joseph Limited, 1983).
6. In light of this anthropic fertility, some thinkers have developed versions of the Anthropic Principle, offered Anthropic Arguments for God, etc.; but these are not to be confused with the quite specific arguments of the Intelligent Design movement which propose design as an alternative to natural selection. For two examples of reasoning about anthropic potentiality, see: John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986); Neil Manson, God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science (London: Routledge, 2003). Regardless of the final appraisal of anthropic considerations, they surely show that science contributes at some level to our thinking about God.
7. Steven Jay Gould, A Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York: Norton, 1989), p. 50.
8. Simon Conway Morris, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. xv; see also p. xi-xii.
9. The Drake equation states that: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L. Where N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy in which communication might be possible; and R* is the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy, fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets, ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets, fl is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point, fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life, fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space, and L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
Michael L. Peterson is professor of philosophy at Asbury University. He is also managing editor of Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His books include Reason and Religious Belief (Oxford); God and Evil (Westview); With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education (Notre Dame); and Evil and the Christian God (Baker). He has produced multiple edited volumes and journal articles.