Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Human Origins and Divine Providence

I wish to take a moment and discuss a common misconception in the debate about human origins. It concerns the concept of the random. As is so often said in this debate, both by the defenders of the Darwinian account of human origins ('D' for short) and by its detractors, the Darwinian account posits a certain kind of randomness in its account of the origin of species, both human and non-human. But what kind of randomness does it posit? (When we speak of the random, we sometimes mean one thing and sometimes mean another.) At times we say that a thing is random because it lacks a cause of any kind. Quantum mechanics, at least in its canonical interpretation - the so-called 'Copenhagen interpretation' - locates such randomness in the subatomic realm. For instance, on the Copenhagen interpretation when a radioactive nucleus decays, no cause was operative sufficient to make it decay then and not before or after. The fact that it decayed just when it did is, on the Copenhagen interpretation, random.

The kind of randomness posited by D is not of this sort. Rather it is the same in kind as, for example, the randomness of the path of a tornado. We say that the path of tornado is random not in the sense that it lacks a cause of any kind but rather in the sense that its path is non-purposive. What does this mean? It means this: the tornado's path is not a product of choice but rather comes about by the operation of 'blind' forces. One in the path of a tornado should not think that she has been singled out for retribution. Nor should she think that the tornado was sent her way by some malevolent agent. Rather the tornado's path, though perfectly predictable if one had but enough finely detailed information about it and the weather in its vicinity, was not the product of choice. On the contrary, its path and indeed its formation were the product of forces that operated with no knowledge of what they would bring about. These forces were in this sense 'blind' and 'non-purposive'.

The same point can be made another way. Even after a complete meteorological explanation of the formation and movement of the tornado is given, one might be tempted to ask why the tornado hit one's home and not some other. This is the question of what the damage caused by the tornado means. The answer is that it means nothing. It is meaningless.

Now, what place does this notion of the random, viz. the random as non-purposive, have in D? Many seem to hold that D assumes a kind of absolute non-purposive randomness. This is a mistake. D, insofar as it science and not metaphysics, assumes merely a relative non-purposive randomness. Let me explain. The mechanisms by which D explains genetic mutation do not act so as to bring about certain biological forms. Rather they in themselves act with no regard to what they will bring about. They are for this reason 'blind' and non-purposive. Take for example an instance of genetic mutation caused by the radioactive decay of a bit of natural uranium. The uranium does not make itself decay at the moment and in the manner that it does so that it might cause the mutation and so give rise to biological novelty. Rather the uranium decays in accordance with the law that governs such events, laws which act in perfect disregard of what they will or will not bring about.

So, then, the physical causes of mutation in themselves act blindly and non-purposively. But this does not imply that there exists no force outside the physical that chose to make a world in which such intrinsically non-purposive forces act so as to create biological novelty. This is our distinction between absolute non-purposive randomness and relative non-purposive randomness. Merely relative non-purposive randomness is the sort found in the causal mechanisms at work in the physical world. It is the non-purposive randomness intrinsic to the physical world. But this sort of non-purposive randomness is perfectly consistent with a creator God who chooses this world over all others precisely because the non-purposive randomness it exhibits will give rise to the kind of biological diversity we see about us.

To sum up: D assumes only a relative non-purposive randomness and thus is silent about the possibility of a creator God who acted so as to bring about a world of the sort in which we live. God can exist and exercise a perfect providence over all things and yet D be true.

The Darwinian theory of evolution and theism ('T' for short) are simply not of a type. They are, as it were, at different levels. The former concerns merely the physical world and implies nothing of interest about the latter. The latter concerns a world beyond the physical and is perfectly consistent with the claim that, if one restricts oneself to the operation of physical causes, one will find there no purposiveness in the generation of biological novelty.

Don't confuse what I've said with a view that goes by the name of 'Theistic Evolution'. I've not endorsed theism; nor have I rejected it. I have simply said that it is perfectly consistent with Darwinian evolutionary theory.

I'll end with a few words about a certain objection to this. Some say, if T and D are consistent and as a matter of fact both true, God must have directed the processes of evolution so that He might achieve His desired result. This overlooks a certain possible model of creation. On this model, God surveys the entire set of all possible worlds and among them chooses that which He thinks it best to make. When He makes that world, He knows all that will happen within it. But after He has made it, He lets the basic physical mechanisms within it work in accordance with the laws that govern them. In time, these mechanisms give rise to life. On this model, God does not meddle in the world so as to direct evolution at a goal He wishes to achieve. Rather the world will of itself achieve that goal, and for that reason it was chosen. God need not meddle to choose.

Don't confuse the view I've endorsed with a deistic conception of God. The God I have described need not be hands off. On the contrary, He might be quite active in the world. But His activity is not necessary to achieve those biological forms that He wished to exist.


Anonymous said...

I am eagerly awaiting the continuation of your series, "Why I Am Not A Christian."



Franklin Mason said...

Part three is now up.

Tell me what you think!