Paths from Science towards God 5: A World in Process 1

Science provides us with a compelling history of life on Earth as well as its origins, by piecing together clues from paleontology, genetics, and other biological sciences, and glueing them all together through Darwin’s theory of natural selection. On the other hand, modern physics and cosmology take us on a 13.7 billion year journey into the past, revealing the origins of the entire universe and its subsequent evolution through time.

The two stories join up to give us the contemporary epic of evolution – a perspective of a universe in process from an original fluctuating quantum field, or ‘quark soup’, to the astonishing complexity of the universe, as observed by the Hubble telescope, and to the fecund complexity of life on Earth. This vista compels us, more than ever before, to regard God as continuously creating, as the eternal Creator, for God continues to give existence to processes that are inherently creative and producing new life forms. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

The conclusion is that the entire process, from the origins of the universe, to the origins of life on Earth, to the origins of human beings, can be explained from an entirely naturalistic viewpoint. We are part of nature, part of this evolving cosmos, and according to Arthur Peacocke, we must incorporate this scientific perspective into our theologies if we are to truly relate to the Creator of this evolving universe. But what significant impact does such a view of the world have on our theology? Again, what kind of theological questions does it raise?

On purpose, chance and law

Did God implement any purpose in biological evolution? Did God have Homo sapiens in mind from the very beginning? I believe God intended for self-consciousness to arise, but not necessarily in the form of Homo Sapiens – as in a primate form. For all intentions and purposes, it could even have been dinosaurian, if they never went extinct. So is the evolution of intelligence and self-consciousness inevitable? Or did we hit the cosmic jackpot? Evolutionary paleontologists like Simon Conway Morris point to evolutionary convergence – that there are some traits (like the eye) that have evolved independently in different groups of organisms, so the evolution of the eye is probably inevitable. Is self-consciousness one of them? We will never know, until we discover more intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe.

Some theistic evolutionists see God as directing evolution – pulling or pushing it in a particular direction – but I agree with Arthur Peacocke that this is unnecessary. Instead, we can say that God created a fertile universe imbued with potentialities, including the potentiality for the development of self-conscious, rational beings.

Biological evolution is ‘an interplay between chance, at the molecular level of DNA, and law or necessity, at the statistical level of the population of organisms’. Random mutations of genes tend to be more harmful than beneficial, but the process of natural selection acts as a filter of beneficial mutations. Both chance and law have a role to play. And Arthur Peacocke believes that this is what one would expect ‘if the universe were so constituted that all the potential forms of organization of matter (both living and non-living) which it contains might be thoroughly explored’.

It has become increasingly apparent that chance operating within a law-like framework is the basis of the inherent creativity of the natural order – its ability to generate new forms, patterns and organizations of matter and energy. If all were governed by rigid law, a repetitive and uncreative order would prevail; if chance alone ruled, no forms, patterns or organizations would persist long enough for them to have any identity or real existence and the universe could never be a cosmos and susceptible to rational inquiry. It is the combination of the two that makes possible and ordered universe capable of developing within itself new modes of existence. ~ Arthur Peacocke, Paths from Science towards God

Creationists often pit God against chance. But in this new view, we can say that ‘God is the ultimate ground and source of both law and chance’. We can also look at God as the ‘Improvisor of unsurpassed ingenuity’.

Though I’ve tended to focus on biological evolution here, Peacocke does devote a fair amount of time to the topic of the evolution of the Universe – raising the issue of the anthropic principle, which I have discussed elsewhere. I will thus not say much about it here. But one point I find rather interesting is his view on the possibility of a multiverse with an infinite number of universes with different physical laws and properties, that is linked to the biological evolutionary process involving law and chance. According to him, if one can accept that biological evolution is an interplay of chance and law, ‘why cannot one similarly conceive of God also operating through random exploration of all possible kinds of universe within the framework of whatever meta-laws governs the range of possibilities? God would then be allowing chance to bring into existence a universe capable of generating and sustaining life.’

to be continued…

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