Tag Archives: evolution

Should Believers Worry that Extra-terrestrial Life Really Exists?

As you may know from recent news releases, astronomers are excited to find 7 new earth-size planets orbiting around a star 40 light years from us. Of course 40 light years puts them way beyond our reach. It would take a space ship constructed with our current space technology 800,000 earth years to reach it. The main motivation for space exploration has always been our curiosity about ourselves, our origin, nature and destiny. So, we search for extra-terrestrial life or at least planets that could support life. Some people of faith are a bit skeptical or anxious about that possibility. So, I want to calm your fears.

What would it mean if space explorers found proof of extra-terrestrial life? Many people of an atheist bent would conclude that discovery of life elsewhere would disprove divine creation and prove that life here happened by chance. I suppose the argument would have to run like this: since we have another example of the evolution of life in the universe, we know that life on earth is not so unique and improbable that it requires a miracle to explain it. Instead, life tends to arise wherever in the universe conditions are right. And those conditions are not limited to earth. Hence we must assume that life arose on this planet by chance when the conditions made it possible.

Is this the only, or even the best, way to draw out the implications of such a discovery? I think the opposite is true. As long as earth life is the only instance of life we know, we could plausibly think of it as a freak accident unrelated to any purpose. Physical law made it possible, but chance made it actual. In truth, if we found life elsewhere it would make less plausible the idea that life on earth was a chance event. If we discovered that the universe was teaming with life, it would completely destroy the idea that life on earth came about by sheer chance. Why? Because it would demonstrate (at minimum) that the universe has a built in tendency to produce life, ultimately intelligent life. The occurrence of life could never again be attributed to pure chance. We would know it to be matter of law! The law of life would be as much a part of the universe as the law of gravity or any of the other fundamental forces. At its origin, the universe would have been programmed to produce life, to produce us. Producing intelligence is the universe’s goal. And when you and I think and dream and pray, we are enjoying the activity the universe has been aiming at from its origin! Our experience of our own minds is the most powerful telescope or microscope conceivable. It is a window into the beginning and end of all things.

But how could intelligence be the law and goal of the universe unless Intelligence was also present at the origin of the universe? As long as we think of the initial laws of our universe as mere regularities in a material universe—a rather unimaginative viewpoint—we did not have to raise the question of divine creation. But when intelligence comes to be considered an inbuilt aim–as the discovery of instances of ETL would force us to conclude–this explanation will no longer work.  Intelligence is not a mere regularity but a real thing indicating the presence of a mind. If the goal of producing intelligent beings is part of the initial conditions of the universe, the only explanation of this fact I can imagine is that a super intelligence programmed it that way.

Hence far from believers have something to fear from the discovery of extra-terrestrial life, we should rejoice at its discovery and say to our atheist friends, “See, we told you this universe was created by Life for life, by Intelligence for intelligence.” It is the atheist who should hope that we are alone.

Does Evolution of the Species Defeat Christian Belief?

In this 45th essay in our series on “Is Christianity True?” I want to address the most popular “scientific” objection to Christianity. It is based on an inference from the theory of biological evolution.  I am not a biologist, so I cannot and will not speak to the scientific soundness of contemporary theories of biological evolution. I am sure that my hesitation may provoke some readers to become suspicious of my motives or my “hidden” beliefs. But let me explain. In academic circles there are certain accepted marks of intellectual integrity and moral rectitude. I call them “politically correct confessions of faith.” And even if you have no expertise in an area—perhaps you are even appallingly ignorant!—you are supposed to defend vociferously the accepted consensus of the experts and denounce equally vociferously non-conformists. Failure to do so may result in “excommunication.”

Many of those confessions of faith deal with topics of gender, race and class. But they also include opinions about climate change, Big Bang cosmology, and biological evolution. If you say the wrong thing on these topics, you will be dismissed even by people who know nothing about science simply because you contradict the politically correct statement of faith. Hence I intend to speak only about what I know. I care very little for the politically correct creed. I care about the proper use of reason in seeking truth. And I know the difference between persuasion and coercion. And I know the difference between an ideology–a theory created to serve a pragmatic end–and a proposal motivated by a desire for truth and grounded in evidence.

Allow me to make another distinction. Objections to Christian belief that make use of evolutionary biology come in two distinct types. The first type objects to God’s action in the world in a way similar to those who use Big Bang cosmology object. Opponents of this type argue that successfully accounting for a natural event by prior natural events makes divine action unnecessary. In other words discovering the natural causes of events fully describes and accounts for them. It assumes that if God were to act in the world in creation and providence, God’s action would have to replace natural causes and create gaps in the network of natural causes. As science fills in those gaps, belief in God’s action and even God’s existence becomes less and less plausible. My response to this type of objection from evolutionary biology is exactly the same as my response to the Big Bang objections. Allow me to quote that response with the term “evolutionary biology” in brackets:

“There is absolutely nothing in the Big Bang [evolutionary biology] theory that explains away or rules out the action of God in calling the universe into existence, giving it the form it has, guiding it to the place it is, or leading it on to the destination God has in mind. The Big Bang [evolutionary biology] cannot explain or rule out the reality of the qualities we experience or the mind we possess or the freedom we exercise. It cannot explain or rule out meaning, truth, beauty or moral law. It cannot tell you who you are or why you are here. If you have other grounds on which to believe in the reality of God, our minds, the intelligibility of nature, the moral law, human freedom and creativity, and the meaning of cosmic history, the Big Bang [evolutionary biology] theory of cosmological [biological] development poses no rational threat at all to those beliefs. It’s simply a non sequitur, irrelevant, beside the point. As a cosmological [biological] theory, it’s elegant. As an objection to Christian belief, it’s lame.”

A second type of objection to belief deriving from evolutionary biology focuses not on God or God’s action but on the Bible. Some objectors to Christian belief realize that the argument from empirical science’s explanations of natural events to atheism is less than convincing; or at least they would like to employ additional arguments to make their case stronger. The Bible seems to describe the origin and development of the physical cosmos and of all the species of biological world in ways irreconcilable with modern cosmology and evolutionary biology. Much of traditional theology (not all!) and many contemporary Christians take the creation narratives of Bible (Genesis 1-2) as divinely revealed history whose intention is at least partly to describe quite literally what happened at the beginning of creation. A person wishing to use the conclusions of evolutionary biology to undermine Christian belief would reason something like this:

“Christians base the truth of the Christian faith on the complete trustworthiness of the Bible. That is to say, they believe what the Bible teaches because it teaches it, and they believe they should believe what the Bible teaches because the church told them to do so. And they believe in the church because the Bible told them to do so–a vicious circle! The Bible teaches that the universe began a few thousand years ago and was created in one instant or in seven days. All the species of the biological world were created separately. But scientists now know that the present cosmos has existed for 15 to 20 billion years and has undergone vast evolutionary changes. We also know that life has existed on earth for many millions of years, that millions of species lived, thrived and are now extinct, and that human beings are relatively latecomers to the biological world. Hence, contrary to the assertions of Christians for hundreds of years, the Bible is not scientifically or historically accurate in cosmological or biological matters. And if what it says about science is not reliable, traditional claims for the authority of the Bible, and therefore for all Christian beliefs, fall to the ground.”

As you can see, the objection from evolution turns on two issues: (1) does the Genesis really intend to describe “quite literally what happened at the beginning of creation” and (2) is the entire Christian faith founded on belief in the authority of the Bible? Interestingly, some believers agree with the first half of atheist objections, that is, the Bible teaches as literal history a view of origins incompatible with Big Bang cosmology and evolutionary biology; and, because they agree that acceptance of basic Christian beliefs is based on prior acceptance of the authority of the Bible, they agree that if the adherents of these sciences are correct, the entire Christian faith is defeated. Given these agreements, these believers have only one way out: to deny Big Bang cosmology and evolutionary biology. But how can you achieve this if you have no expertise in physics or biology? Other Christian believers do not believe that the first two chapters of Genesis were written to describe literally what happened at the beginning of creation. Instead, they were written as statements of faith in God as the Creator and Ruler of the world, constructed in dramatic form, which was the style of the day. Hence scientific objections to the biblical creation drama are completely misplaced.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am not a biologist (or a physicist!). Is climate change real? Is contemporary evolutionary theory sound science? Is Big Bang cosmology sound science? These are questions for scientists to debate. I have devoted my life’s energy to thinking about Christian faith and theology and about how we may make reasonable judgments about Christianity’s truth and responsible decisions to take up the Christian way of life. In my view, the way into Christian faith from unbelief does not begin with accepting the authority of the Bible. It does not involve forming an opinion about evolution or the Big Bang or climate change! It begins with coming to believe that God exists and accepting the testimony of Paul, Peter and other original Christians to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only after these two reasonable judgments does the Bible have any claim to authority. Only then does the debate over the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 have any relevance. It is an intramural debate about how believers should best appropriate the message of these great texts. I addressed the issue of the Bible in January 2015 (“This I Know For the Bible Tells Me So”) and in February 2015 (“What About The Bible? An Autobiographical Reflection”). You can find these essays in the archives under those dates. I highly recommend you read them in connection to this post.

Next time: We will examine the next set of objections to Christian faith: the moral objections. Contemporary critics of Christianity find certain of its moral teachings objectionable. On what basis do they make this judgment? What should our answer be?

An Impersonal God?

Last week we pursued the question of whether it makes sense to think of the mind that gives the world its intelligible order as impersonal. Can we reasonably think of that mind as a primitive urge, a logical necessity, or the goal of evolution? We ended that post by observing the counterintuitive nature of belief in an impersonal god. How can we believe that the universal mind that gives the world its intelligible order and that produced human beings does not itself possess the qualities that make human beings personal: self-consciousness, reason, freedom, and the ability to relate to other persons?

Today I want to make a bit more explicit our intuitive belief that the mind that produced the world is much greater and better than we are. Let’s remember our earlier argument for the irreducibility of the intelligible aspect of nature and for a universal mind that is the explanation for that intelligibility. We argued from our own experience of ourselves as free causes and originators of information that mind is a better explanation for the intelligible order in nature than chance is. The decision for a universal mind was prompted by our intuition that information always originates from the free act of an intelligent agent. And free acts always involve self-awareness and are always enacted to achieve ends. Hence the assertion that the universal mind is impersonal contradicts the original reason for rejecting materialism and accepting the irreducible reality of mind. To deny that the power that forms the world into an intelligible order is free, reasonable, self-aware, and able to relate to others is to retreat from our first decision point and to fall back into materialism and chance.

To think of the universal mind as impersonal is to confuse mind with ideas or concepts. Indeed, ideas and concepts are not intelligent and free. They are objects the mind creates and thinks. My previous argument for the irreducible nature of the intelligibility in the world did not contend that the intelligible order is itself personal. It contended, rather, that the universal, intelligible order is the product an active, universal mind. And the mind responsible for creating the intelligible order of the universe must be free, reasonable, and self-aware to a degree far beyond human beings. If that “mind” were impersonal, it could not produce anything; instead, it would itself need to be produced. And we would simply be mistaken in using the word “mind” to designate the impersonal order that evolved by chance.

To think of god as impersonal sees God as in some way embedded in or limited by matter, perhaps, in analogy to the way we are embodied. Our bodies carry on many of their organic functions independent of our will or even our awareness. Many of our feelings and urges arise in us involuntarily. But again, refer to my original argument for the universal mind. The universal mind must be responsible for the entire intelligible order or the argument fails. But asserting that the universal mind is embodied in matter denies that that mind is responsible for all the intelligible order; for it could not be responsible for itself, its own embodiment, or the laws that govern that relationship. We would have to face again the prospect of materialism and chance as the explanation for everything, that is, underneath the intelligible aspects of nature rests a non-intelligible cause working by blind processes to produce all natural phenomena.

The intuitive assumption that drives our argument is an ancient one clearly articulated by Aristotle and used in theology by Thomas Aquinas: actuality is prior in being to potentiality. It is intuitive because we experience it in ourselves and in our observations of the world: Only actual, living minds produce information. A cause imposes its (actual) likeness on the effect to make it actual. Order produces order. True chaos never changes. The intuition that actuality is prior to potentiality makes it impossible to believe that the amazing intelligible order in the universe arose from absolute disorder by chance. The mind that orders the world must itself be purely actual, possessing maximum order.

The most reasonable conclusion available to us at this point—given our assumption that a universal mind is the cause of the totality of the intelligible order of nature—is that God is pure, active mind completely independent of matter. But if God is pure, active mind, God must be maximally free, self-aware, rational, and able to relate; that is, personal to the highest degree.

Is God or Humanity The Supreme Being?

Today we leave behind the first decision point on the path to Christian faith. Having made a reasonable and responsible decision to affirm the irreducible reality of mind and attribute the intelligible order of the physical world to an active and universal mind, we now need to consider the nature of that mind. In the most general sense, the issue can be stated as follows: “Is the mind that is evident in the intelligible order of the world impersonal or personal?” More specifically, is the mental aspect of reality an unconscious, primitive urge that drives evolution toward higher and higher order culminating in self-conscious human beings? Or, in another impersonal option, is the universal mind a kind of logical necessity, impersonal in itself, that develops automatically into a world that contains finite, self-conscious minds like ours? Or, in a third option on the impersonal side of the second decision point, does the universal mind possess a primitive consciousness—not yet self-conscious, personal, and free—that itself evolves into god. In this theory, God was not always as great as God is now and did not create the world in a sovereign and free decision; instead, God grows and becomes greater in a world process that includes God and matter evolving together according to impersonal laws not subject to God’s choice.

Or, to consider the personal alternative in the second decision point, is God always and forever personal? Obviously the term “personal” is derived from our experience in ourselves and other human beings of those qualities that distinguish us from nonliving things and life on a lower level. In contrast to other things, we possess self-consciousness, knowledge, freedom, and capacity for interpersonal relationships. Only if God possesses these qualities may we think of God as powerful, loving, merciful, communicative, responsive, and purposive. Only a personal God can create the world and accompany it to God’s intended destination. Only a personal God can hear our prayers, know our names, exercise providence in our lives, and guarantee that we will reach our God-given destination. Only a personal God can root our personal identity in an eternal reality and ground our worth in divine love.

But which alternative conception of God makes the most sense, an impersonal god or a personal God? I have conversed with people who deny being atheists, claim to believe in God, but insist that they cannot believe in “a personal God.” My first reaction to such a qualification is a bit flippant: isn’t the notion of an impersonal god a contradiction? Why would you call an impersonal process “God”? Isn’t this a rather confusing use of the word God? Why not say that you do not believe in God at all? Sometimes, I get the impression that people who claim not to believe in a personal God are not expressing the conclusion of a serious thought project; rather, they are expressing their feelings of discomfort with the idea of God. But let’s assume that those who think of god as impersonal believe something like one of the three alternatives I described above: God is an urge, a logical necessity, or the goal of evolution.

Consider the following implications of the assertion that god is impersonal. To think of god as impersonal in one of these three senses is to insinuate that the god that produced us exists on a lower level of being than we do. Human beings, not god, occupy the highest level of being the world has yet attained. The implications of such a claim are rather eye opening. If god is impersonal, we know more than god does. We understand ourselves better than god understands “his” being. Indeed, we understand god better than god does. We are freer than god. We possess every noble, powerful, and desirable quality to a higher degree than god does. God doesn’t even know that “he” exists. Let me put it bluntly. We deserve the title “god” much more than an impersonal process does, however ancient, primitive, and productive that process may be. And, the deification of human self-consciousness may be the secret within the idea of an impersonal god. Humanity is the highest manifestation to date of the world process, and “God” is our imaginary image of the end stage of the world process.

The choice between a personal and an impersonal god, we can now see, is a choice between believing that there exists something infinitely greater and better than us or believing that we are the greatest and best existing beings. My intuition is that human beings possess an inner tendency to believe that there must exist something much greater and better than us, since that “Something” produced beings as amazing as us. How disappointing it would be to discover that we are the Supreme Being, that this is as good as it gets!