Friday, May 27, 2011

Secondary Causation and the God of Creation

After some time away, you've noticed that I couldn't help but jump back into my seemingly futile quest to get at the truth of the (perceived) Evolution-Intelligent Design debate. (See my previous post.) I've believed for a few years now that if both sides would really listen to each other, the two ideas aren't irreconcilable. Both rely on philosophical assumptions that cannot be empirically tested or proven (namely, whether or not a theistic presence superintends the world). Both lack much in the way of direct observation and rely on inferences instead--which is scientific, mind you. (Otherwise Einstein, Dalton, Kelvin, Schroedinger, Planck, et al. didn't do "science.") Evolution--by which I mean the idea that all living species are descended from earlier, shared ancestral species and have been modified through natural selection--typically functions by relying on positive evidence at hand. ID generally reverses this, saying that when evolution breaks down and there's lack of evidence for it, the only possibe alternative is conscious design. (This is a non-sequitur, a false conclusion.) Thinkers in both camps rely on gross caricatures of each other, and both arrive at hasty hyperboles: "Nothing in biology makes sense apart from evolution!" "If evolution is true, then all life is meaningless!" It sort of makes me sick and tired of it all. (Of course if you've been a faithful reader of this blog, then you were probably thinking the same thing of my incessant posts on Calvinism and baptism!) But alas, I'm a biology teacher by trade, so I can't avoid it.

While I'm hardly an expert in paleontology, genetics, or molecular biology, I find a few strands of evidence almost irrefutably tip the scales in favor of evolution: vestiges of common ancestors that show up in leftover traits, atavisms, and pseudogenes. (I'll let you take the time to look these up, if you wish. Jerry Coyne's admittedly biased book Why Evolution Is True is a good place to start.) But I don't think ID and evolution are totally irreconcilable. Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Stuart Pullen have done much thoughtful research about the mathematical probablities involved in constructing useful molecular knowledge and complex systems which would seem to have no adaptive vantage apart from near-instantaneus development. This would seem to favor ID.* But given theism, it should be no shock or surprise simply to say that everything that has ever occurred in the universe's history has been by God's design and involvement. Christian theists don't need to argue or look for special evidences of "intelligent design" because the Bible repeatedly affirms God's providential hand in every single event in history, even those which may appear to us as "random" or purposeless.

Wayne Grudem provides a helpful definition of this providence in his Systematic Theology:

God is continually involved with all created things in such a way that he (1) keeps them existing and maintaining the properties with which he created them; (2) cooperates with created things in every action, directing their distinctive properties to cause them to act as they do; and (3) directs them to fulfill his purposes. (p. 315)

Let's examine each of these briefly (I'm largely following Grudem here):

(1) God upholds and maintains all that he created. We see this in Scripture in Jesus' active sustaining of the universe (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3), in God's preservation of the cosmos (Neh. 9:6; 2 Pet. 3:7, 10-12), in Paul's speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17:28), and in death as a result of God withdrawing his Spirit (Job 34:14-15; Ps. 104:29). Similarly, the properties of the world continue as they do in an act of God's grace upon sinners so that we can live in a reliable, predictable world (e.g., Gen. 8:22; Jer. 31: 35-36; 33:20-26). Consequently, whatever is happening in the natural world today can be assumed to have always been happening. Atoms will always behave as atoms do; erosion keeps eroding; matter always warps space-time; entropy of closed systems always increases; etc.

(2) God cooperates with created things and directs their endowed properties so that they act as they do. Scripture says that God brings about all weather phenomena on Earth and even the movements of heavenly bodies (Job 37:6-13; 38:22-30; Ps. 104:4; 135:7; 148:8; Jer. 31:35; Matt. 5:45). When animals eat, they are said to be fed by God (Job 38:39-41; Ps. 104:27-29; Matt. 6:26). Flowering is caused by God (Matt. 6:28-30). All of these may have "natural" or "scientific" explanations based on properties of matter and energy apart from any reference to God. But Scripture affirms that these properties were endowed by God and are directed by him, so that whatever happens in nature is an "act of God." (I hope insurance companies aren't reading this.) In a similar vein, even "random" events are attributed to God. "The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD" (Prov. 16:33).

(3) God works purposefully in providence. Ephesians 1:11-12 says that God "works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will . . . for the praise of his glory." God's will is that ultimately through the church and through the subjection of all things to his Son Jesus Christ, the Father will be glorified (Eph. 3:10; Phil. 2:10-11).

So perhaps we can summarize the biblical data with Calvin's famous maxim: "The will of God is the necessity of all things." In other words, if anything has happened, it has happened because God wanted it to happen at that time, in that way, for the sake of his wise goals. It didn't happen by itself; it was dependent upon God. It didn't happen haphazardly, randomly, or accidentally (though it may appear so to us); it was purposeful. The unveiling of that purpose might await, however, the final judgment and renewal of all things. It is not necessarily for us to know now (Deut. 29:29).

This view of God's sovereignty is a much higher view, in my opinion, than to say that God only acts or shows up in the "miraculous." In this latter schema, if something is truly an act of God, then it cannot have any human or natural explanation. Rather than exalting God's power, I think this view actually reduces God from being actively, caringly, and judgingly involved with every moment of everything to a semi-deistic God who only intervenes in his world here or there, like the Greco-Roman pantheon. The biblical view of God's action, however, can be seen in passages such as Acts 2:23: "This man [Jesus] was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge;"--though to the common observer he was handed over by Judas Iscariot and the Sanhedrin--"and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to a cross." Wicked men put Jesus to death, but yet it was also "by God's set purpose" and by Jesus' own will (John 10:17-18). Likewise, later in Acts we read that when the people conspired against Jesus, by their own volitional actions they "did what [God's] power and will had decided beforehand should happen" (4:28). God's planned action (primary causes) works through the agency of his creatures, through the abilities and properties with which they were endowed (secondary causes).

So what does this have to do with evolution? Everything. It means that we don't have to run from evolution when much evidence seems to confirm it (though some phenomena are still incongruent with it). We can instead view evolution and other natural phenomena as a window into the grand design of God. Yes, evolution is God's unfolding design in action. Behe, Dembski, et al., might be right: evolution in many ways may be mathematically impossible. But "all things are possible with God" (Mark 10:27). And even if it's found that such mathematical leaps aren't indeed necessary, then we can still rest in the knowledge that just as rains and seasons and nightfall are both naturally-caused and God-caused, so too is life on planet Earth. Accordingly, then, in opposition to evolutionary atheists, evolution does not mean that life is meaningless. Rather, life is incredibly meaningful. We have each been put in our time and place, with the world around us as it is, specifically as the stage for our humanity to be worked out, along with our own participation in the salvation and redemption of the world as we know it.

*As I see it, there is one flaw with these approaches toward calculting the probability of a given gene (and its resultant protein) being assembled. ID folks assume that if there is no known beneficial purpose for protein, then that entire gene could not have been preserved within the genome. Therefore if the protein exists, its gene--all hundreds or thousands of its DNA nucleotides--must have arisen all at once. But that's not necessarily true, and the likelihood of proteins arising stepwise by modifications of preexisting amino acid sequences greatly enhances their probability.

May 21 and the God of the Gaps

May 21, 2011, has come and gone. Which means that Jesus didn't return bodily yet (though he is ever present by his Spirit). I feel bad for the people who staked their hopes, even their faith, in such a misguided interpretation of the Bible. Even Jesus himself said no one will know the date of the End--not even himself (Mark 10:32-37)! I hope these people, however many among them are sincere Christians, have not lost their confidence in Christ and in the Bible simply because their interpretation didn't pan out.

On the other hand, we know there are a lot of people mocking them. Every time someone makes a Doomsday prediction that fails to come true, they're left with egg on their face--a false prophet, if you will. Unfortunately, many will wield a faulty ad hominem argument against everything else they have to say: "They were wrong about X, so they must be misguided about everything."

This is one of the critical dangers of wholeheartedly embracing Intelligent Design. The problem with ID is that it doesn't use positive evidence, but rather relies on looking for holes or gaps in Evolutionary explanations. If a biological phenomenon is judged impossible by means of natural selective pressures favoring certain genetic traits, then it must have been due to a designer! An example of this is "irreducibly complex" features such as the blood clotting cascade, whose parts are so complicated and interdependent that it could not have arisen progressively over time. It must have therefore originated all at once, in an immediate, supernatural creative act.

While it's true that God is the providential Creator and Designer of all life, what happens when those "holes" get filled by further data and new explanations? As the body of scientific knowledge grows and viable explanations expand to fill the gaps so prized by ID, what will happen to claims for theism and for God's action in his world? I'm afraid that, at least in some respects, ID is only as strong as our present ignorance. (It's possible, however, that future gains might actually steer us away from Evolution toward ID, or perhaps toward another explanation altogether.) When legitimate, "natural" explanations arise for phenomena once deemed irreducibly complex or mathematically impossible, then the credible witness of Christianity in the sciences shrinks. We do need to study the Scriptures and stand upon our convictions, for whenever we betray our conscience, it is sin (Rom. 14:23). But we need to also know when to flex and when to give, in order to give God his place as the only Wise and Sovereign, and to give the Gospel more room to be heard in others' lives.