This essay is a companion piece to Kathryn Applegate’s recent post, entitled Understanding Randomness. Together these blogs address important questions about the emergence of complexity through God-ordained natural processes.
Recently my church’s Men’s Fellowship viewed "The Truth Project", a video series produced by Focus on the Family. These 12 hour-long lessons aim to develop a Christian worldview for all aspects of our lives. In the opening lessons I was favorably impressed by the clear distinction made between the physical and spiritual realms and by insightful discussions of various issues that have troubled philosophers since ancient times. All this was done in a way most people could understand.
However, as the topic moved to science, the message seemed to be that the scientific enterprise aims to dethrone God from His rightful position as Creator. While several sections were quite admirable—like the amazing graphics illustrating the enormous complexity of biochemical systems—the audience was left with the impression that life is so complex that science can never understand it, and the only option is to see it as the result of God’s miraculous intervention. One was forced to choose between science and God.
During our group’s discussion, I tried to present a view of God working through the natural laws He had created, but it was clear that most of our group preferred to discard science. Then one person spoke up and said, “I don’t know much about biology, but I have seen similar complex behavior in some of the computer programs I work with.” His comment was one of those “aha” moments for me as several ideas fell into place.
This comment reminded me of Melanie Mitchell’s stimulating book, Complexity: A Guided Tour. Mitchell is a computer scientist who works with the complexity group at the Santa Fe Institute. In the book, she discusses numerous examples like ant colonies, the immune system, and the genetic code, and she draws parallels with computer programs. In each of these systems, the individual units (ants, molecules, genes, etc) respond only to their immediate neighbors and environment, yet the entire system (colony or organism) acts together as a coordinated whole. In many cases we do not know how the coordinated behavior develops, yet we see similar behavior in very different systems. In order to understand living systems, Mitchell and others have turned to computer programs that behave in similar ways. This work has led to new ways of studying systems composed of large numbers of simple objects.
Scientists have become skilled at dealing with individual objects, what I call the lower level. But when we look at large collections of objects on a higher level, new properties emerge that (although they do not violate the laws for the individual objects) cannot be understood using the lower level exclusively. As Aristotle has said, “The whole is more than the sum of the parts.” When independent objects within the system begin to interact, an entirely new level of reality seems to arise with behaviors we never would have expected. We call these behaviors “emergent properties.” A reductionist view of life-forms (considering only the lower level) is not capable of fully describing or accounting for emergent complexities.
This was the dilemma that we saw in “The Truth Project” lessons on science. The presenters could not see how life could be explained by the basic laws of physics, chemistry and genetics (the lower level). They then concluded that science cannot explain life, so it must have been miraculously created by God. But they turn a blind eye on emergent complexity, not that they are ignorant of it, but because they do not want science to explain away their favored "miraculously created" conclusion.
It is important to note that this higher-level behavior does not violate the lower level. Emergent complexity does not violate the basic laws of science as we know them; it just opens up possibilities that we might never have imagined. But once we see this higher level of behavior, we often can go back to the lower level and see how it is possible that it could emerge. The standard example is the interpretation of the temperature of a gas as being a measure of the average kinetic energy of the molecules. A better understanding of the relationship between levels of description will be a major step in improving our understanding of the physical and biological processes necessary for life.
If I were to stop here, one could object that I have taken God out of the process, as even this higher level does not obviously involve God. But there are many basic questions that cannot be addressed by either reductionism or a systems-level understanding: Where did matter come from? Why do laws of nature exist in the first place? Why do these laws continue to work? What is the real purpose of life? What do "good" and "evil" mean? What happens to us after we die? These are non-scientific questions that science can never answer. Science can only describe how matter behaves, and its explanations must be stated in terms of the observed properties of matter.
A moment ago I said that a higher-level description does not necessarily discredit lower-level descriptions. But neither does the success of lower-level descriptions eliminate the need for higher-level descriptions. Materialists make this error when they claim that scientific explanations make God irrelevant. Their scientific reductionism misses the point. We need all the levels of description to fully understand the world around us.
“The Truth Project” adequately documents the error of scientific reductionism, but commits a similar error by limiting our understanding of the origin of life-forms to divine intervention. It is not an either/or choice. We need to give credence to all levels including those higher levels that emerge naturally from lower levels.
I believe there is an “Even-Higher” level that answers the ultimate questions in terms of God. And, like our previous higher level, this Even-Higher level does not necessarily violate the laws of the lower levels. The lower levels are still valid but do not easily lead us to a clear picture of the Even-Higher level. However, God, in other ways, has revealed Himself to humankind, and through this revelation we begin to gain knowledge of that which is ultimate in the universe.
The Intelligent Design supporters who helped to produce “The Truth Project” want to show that the failure of the lower level to explain life shows that God violated the basic laws to produce the observed complexity of life. They spend much of their effort looking for things that lower-level science appears unable to explain, believing that God has planted evidence in His creation which will prove His existence. I believe this search for gaps in the scientific economy is fruitless and may even be a damaging exercise. They will not, I believe, find real gaps in the laws of nature that God created, but only gaps in our understanding of those laws.
Let me be clear: I believe God is the Creator of the material universe. He is not just an emergent property, as pantheism and some versions of process theology would claim. And God is not limited to working through the laws He created. I believe He can and does at times work in ways that are not understandable in terms of natural laws. But to quickly conclude (as “The Truth Project” and the Intelligent Design Movement do) that life is too complex for science to explain without invoking supernatural intervention does not do justice to the intelligence God gave us. We do not need to choose between scientific description of the natural world and God’s activity. God is upholding the natural laws and God is ever-present in God’s universe. We need not look for a hidden God who can only be found in the deep calculations of the mysterious. God is omni-present. As the Psalmist says so eloquently:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.1
How does one “calculate” that which is ever-present and never absent? The universe, including the universe of life, is a series of ever-emerging complexities that reach higher and higher levels through time and space. Ultimately though, they all lead to Him—to Him who is before all things, and to Him in whom all things are held together.2
The purpose of this essay has been to call attention to some issues that have been around for a long time but are often forgotten. I have been reminded that a literature review would be helpful:
- Many of us had our introduction to looking at things at various levels from Donald Mackay’s discussion of “nothing-buttery” in such books as The Clockwork Image.
- Howard Van Till, in his The Fourth Day, reminded us that choosing our level of description is not simply an “either/or” choice.
- I gained new insight into this problem from Mark Noll’s essay “Evangelicals, Creation, and Scripture: An Overview” posted in the Scholarly Essays section of the BioLogos website, especially his discussion of Ockham's "razor".
- Nancey Murphy gives a philosophical discussion of a hierarchical structure of science and theology in several of her books (Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning and On the Moral Nature of the Universe [with George Ellis]).
- For other discussions of emergence from a scientific and theological perspective, see books by Philip Clayton on emergence.
- For those who desire a brief philosophical treatment, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on "Emergent Properties" which also has a useful bibliography.
Research into hierarchical descriptions and the related areas of complexity, emergence, self-organization, and chaos have received a great boost from the development of high-speed computers. Below are some resources that speak to this research:
- For a quick introduction see the Wikipedia article on "Emergence" and two short video segments from Nova: “Emergence” parts 1 and 2. For some significant computer simulations see “John Conway Talks about the Game of Life” parts 1 and 2.
- A very good general introduction to the basic concepts and terminology is James Gleick’s Chaos: Making a New Science.
- Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine’s Order out of Chaos is at a slightly higher level.
- Stuart Kauffman has made major contributions as laid out in his tome The Origins of Order: Self-organization and Selection in Evolution. Kaufman’s popular At home in the Universe is more readable. (I believe his pantheistic leanings can be ignored.)
- For a Christian application of these ideas to immunology, I recommend Craig Story’s article, "The God of Christianity and the G.O.D. of Immunology: Chance, Complexity, and God’s Action in Nature" in the December 2009 issue of Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 61, no. 4 (2009): 221-232, which eventually will be posted for general readers, but is currently available only to members of the ASA.
- Psalm 139:7,8
- Colossians 1:17