HighGravity Religion and Science: wk 3 Emergence, Eco-everything, and Evil
by Jonnie Russell
September 26, 2013
This week we dove into the world of biology, perhaps the most contentious field of Religion and Science interaction. I’m thinking some of my recaps have been a bit much (length-wise), so I’m going to try to be brief here, and lean into the reaction-and-question part a bit more.
Philip began our discussion with a look at the aspects and functions that ancient cosmogonies played. They are our oldest stories–grand narratives that sought to give shape to a view of life and the world. It is in this context that we presume the biblical creation narrative should be read, as an attempt to flesh out a way to see life and creation. Tripp, highlighted how Augustine (though he’s done his fair amount of damage) got this right, focusing on the figurative force rather than the literal elements of the narrative.
Emergence. This is the frame and terminology in which Philip couches the manifold evolutionary process that unfolds in creation. From proteins to small group primates and beyond, the phenomenon of emergence pervades our reality. Simply defined, emergence can be understood as complexity unfolding. It is a process whereby things that evolve remain dependent on and are influenced by the earlier evolutionary history, but are simultaneously more than the entities/forces they depend on. In this way, they have a genuine newness and novelty that is not fully reducible to or explained in terms of their substrates (i.e. smaller or more simple bits–or more fundamental forces). Philip’s whirlwind 17 minute cosmic story showed the “tremendous emergent structures” we now have. Life, for example, is a radical emergence of certain chemical systems.
A critique often leveled at emergence helps specify a crucial component for a genuine [strong position of] emergence. Put simply, it’s the claim that the emergent qualities have not top-down or unique causal powers. A real explanation of what's happening will be explained by the more fundamental parts. [Thus,] nothing new is explanatory going on in life, for example, just more complex combinations of stuff that is causally determined by genetics, etc. So, the definitive need for emergence is genuine top-down causal impact.
The genetic determinism of the “new synthesis” in biological studies in the 1930′s and 40′s proposed to have found the explanatory link between Darwinism’s processes of random variation and selective retention and transitions between generations with the discovery of the gene. It was the gene, via the structure of DNA, that served to pass the randomly selected (successful) genes on and therefore motor the evolutionary development of reality along. This, at bottom was conceived as a reductive process that causally began and ended with ‘selfish’ individual genes (Dawkins’ famous terminology from the 70′s).
But… this project was flawed because it failed to appropriately think the environment within which the organism exists. In reality, organisms are part of complex environments that they co-create with other organisms around them, and in turn are created by the environment itself. Ecosystem commingling, systems theory, and a profound reciprocal interconnectivity (remember this term from week one?) are the processes that determine reality…at every level.
Therefore, reality betrays a co-constitution at every level. We are co-creators of each other and our broader world. As Philip notes, this is ripe ground upon which to think the God/world relation in a participatory and co-creative nature wherein it is not simply God and his human creatures co-creating, but all of the created order in that intertwined way creating and interconnected as a ecosystem– a macro-creational ecosystem that mirrors small-scale ecosystems we explore in the evolutionary process. In other words, whatever God is doing, we are full-fledged participators in (or frustrators of?) the making of the world, and not only us, but all created reality bears a responsibility for our world.
- Tripp raised a great (and very difficult) question about the problem of evil in the context of the evolutionary process. Why the unimaginable amount of waste, suffering, and massive extinctions? Why this shape of the evolutionary process which seems to contains such egregious evil? Philip alluded to a kind of theodicy response (he might shy away from that term) which essentially says that God wanted the kind of world and relation to it that included this co-creational element, which presumably necessitates accepting the existence of random suffering and epochal extinctions over the universes billion year development. In other words, the suffering and evil we have is an inherent product of having the God/world relation we do.
Now, Philip might want to nuance this or reject that logic as implicit in his argument, but I find it difficult to swallow. It sounds similar to the more classical free will defense theodicy, which argues that evil is the byproduct of the freedom required to have the loving familial kinds of relationships with us (very anthropocentric in its classical construction) God wants to have. The trouble with this logic is that it just pushes the question back a step in the sense that we are told that in Philip’s case, this co-creational, intermingled world has a necessary byproduct of evil that could not be otherwise. So, that reality, that truth, is more fundamental–the arche-truth of the cosmos–than God and the God/world relation? The puzzle is similar to the tired old "divine command vs. divine reason" arguments about morality: is something right because God commands (it issues from God’s will), or does God choose it because it’s right (issuing from some reason God too seems subject to). I’ve always leaned towards divine reason (if forced into the binary), but it creates a puzzling logic of some arche-reality of fundamental logic more binding, more in control, more universally present, than God. Help me here Philip. I’d love to hear your thoughts or a tweak to the way I’m characterizing your response.
-Perhaps this logic assumes a crude form of creation ex nihilo in the sense that I’m imagining God as prior to an order which will be brought into being, but what’s prior to that, even prior to God, is the universal truth that x begets y: a ecosystemic, co-creational world, necessitates incalculable waste and suffering. What might a non-creational ex nihilo account that you might want to chase down do for your reasoning here?
- On a less interrogating note, I am fascinated by the eco-theological emphasis in this discussion, particularly the way it ennobles the rest of the created order with a creational power and genuine relation to God. Ellen Davis recently was at Fuller to give one of their annual lectures and she touched on very similar themes in the Old Testament. Her fundamental idea was that there is a covenant triangle between God, Israel/humanity, and the land/rest of creation. Now of course, the distinction might be a bit too strong between humans and the rest of creation, but she points to a profound way in which the land, particular the agricultural world of Israel is profoundly included in the covenantal language in parts of the Old Testament (Joel, some Psalms, Hosea, and other places). The three points of the triangle hang together in the sense that God has covenanted, created bonds and is committed to, the whole of the world. God is even said to suffer along with the land, something that echos Sallie McFague’s recent focus on land as a kind of “least of these” in our time. In Terrance Fretheim’s language, creation beyond the human form is given a kind of “interiority”, we might say genuine subjectivity akin to our own.
These ideas seem to cohere very well with your ecosystemic thought where responsibility is dispersed to all of us in a genuine sense. I’m not sure if we will get there in this class, but I’d love to hear you flesh out how you think through this kind of responsibility. Do you consider it a kind of interiority/subjectivity? Is panpsychism or panexperientialism–the idea that the mental or experiential aspects we have, in some sense, go all the way down through lesser forms of complexity in matter–the way to go here?
Index to past discussions -