A Christian Big Bang Theory?

A Christian Big Bang Theory?
Story Stream
recent articles

Christians -- including many Catholics -- often betray a recalcitrant disquiet, if not outright resistance, when it comes to reconciling their religious beliefs with the theory of evolution through natural selection. The flames of this disquiet are fanned by voluble scientistic ideologues, such as Richard Dawkins, who insist that one cannot accept both the Hebrew bible and modern biology.

Why natural selection and not, say, thermodynamics? There is nothing inherently un-Christian in the idea that complex life evolved from a prior, more primitive, state.

Moreover, most educated people today -- including many believers -- accept the Big Bang Theory (first conceived by Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest), which holds that everything in the universe evolved from an initial singular state over 13 billion years ago. Some even claim this theory provides scientific evidence of Biblical creation. Poetics aside, is it any more degrading to the dignity of man to accept that he evolved from the primate than that he evolved from stardust? Primates, at any rate, can use tools.

Nor can it -- or should it -- be the idea that complex organisms arise out of random processes. Though shocking to many when first proposed, the idea that randomness is a basic constituent of reality has become, since the late 19th century, standard fare in science.

For example, the quantum theory holds that, at the most fundamental level, matter is comprised of countless un-individuated particles obeying inherently probabilistic laws. Classical concepts of causality fail utterly in making sense of this domain of reality, which, physicists tell us, is more metaphysically basic than the world of tables, chairs, cats, and cars - which we know through common sense.

If randomness were the problem, then quantum mechanics should be just as shocking to the Christian sensibility as the idea that random variations spur inter-species evolution. Quantum theory explains how physical things are the way they are; the evolutionary theory explains how biological things have come to be over time. To be sure, the concept of randomness at work in each has a specific, and distinct, meaning. But neither requires a providential order to govern such stuff -- whether gravitons or genes -- as things are made of.

In fact, these issues are distractions from the core philosophical dispute. The reason that evolution is felt to be incompatible with theistic belief is that it makes even more acute the pinch of an old theological problem: how to understand the relationship of Creator to creation, and ultimately, whether and how that relationship is to be reconciled with natural explanations.

In the 18th century, Gottfried Leibniz, scientist, philosopher, and co-discoverer of the integral and differential calculus, engaged in a famous dispute with Samuel Clarke, a prominent intellectual, Anglican clergyman, and expositor of the then-new Newtonian philosophy.

Newton demonstrated that gravity is a universal force acting on all bodies without intervening contact. Ironically, given that Newton inaugurated the era of classical mechanics, this "action at a distance" was not, in fact, mechanistic. Classical mechanistic causes occur only through corporeal contact (think colliding billiard balls). For this reason, Newton was reluctant to hypothesize about the true nature of gravitational force, though he speculated that divine intervention might be needed to make sense of it.

For Leibniz, this was unacceptable. The Newtonian theory was caught in a dilemma. Either gravitational force was mysterious, since it was not mechanistic, or it required divine intervention -- hence was miraculous -- and was thus no scientific explanation at all. A good scientific theory, Leibniz thought, does not invoke anything mysterious. A scientific theory that fails to explain what natural causes govern natural things fails as a scientific theory.

This was not an ad hoc condition. According to Leibniz, God, the most perfect being, creates the most perfect universe possible. If God were needed to intervene constantly in the natural order, then creation would be lacking -- imperfect. The most perfect universe possible is one in which natural, created, things are governed by natural, knowable, causes.

Clarke retorted that if creation were self-sufficient, then God would be superfluous, a "supra-mundane intelligence," distinct from creation. The most perfect universe possible, according to Clarke, would be one in which God did play an active role.

But, Leibniz responded, Clarke's God, who needed to tinker constantly with the natural order, was no better than a human watchmaker. The human watchmaker, at least, could make mechanisms that needed only intermittent tinkering.

Even worse, Leibniz pointed out, Clarke's view makes God a natural cause of all nature, coming dangerously close to making God a part of the natural order! The latter view resembles the heretical concept of pantheism. The Christian God, Leibniz reminded the English clergyman, is not a natural cause of things, but rather the cause of all natural things. God is supra-mundane: He is the transcendent source of being.

Today's debates about evolution inchoately retrace the steps of this metaphysical dispute, which long predates Darwin. Critics of natural selection argue, for example, that it is incoherent -- even an oxymoron -- to have both divine causation and random natural causes (viz., random genetic variations). If God truly guides creation, they argue, the laws governing creatures cannot be random. But, to mix metaphors, randomness and purpose are two sides of the same red herring.

The conflict only arises if one assumes that God must be the direct cause of evolution. If random genetic variations were somehow sufficient to account for biological complexity, it is feared, then God's intervention would be rendered superfluous, even incomprehensible. The God of Intelligent Design is either the direct cause of evolution, or He is no cause at all.

But this God therefore stands in the same relation to biological nature as Clarke's God stood to physical nature. In both cases, natural causes are thought insufficient to explain nature; they must be supplemented, if not entirely replaced, by divine causes. But to this, the Leibnizian response still holds good:

If God is oblig'd to mend the course of nature from time to time, it must be done either supernaturally or naturally. If it be done supernaturally, we must have recourse to miracles, in order to explain natural things [...] [but] everything may easily be accounted for by miracles. But if it be done naturally, then God will not be intelligentia supramundana [a supra-mundane intelligence]: he will be comprehended under the nature of things

In other words, either we give up hope for a natural explanation of biological nature -- falling back on the miraculous -- or we turn God into a natural cause, making Him a part of nature.

But why assume that a universe requiring constant direct divine intervention is more perfect than one in which natural things are governed by complex, even random -- if knowable -- natural causes? Many Christians accept the latter notion when it comes to physical nature. Why not accept it when it comes to life?

M. Anthony Mills is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles