Sunday, April 15, 2007

Faith in the Age of Darwin

David Brooks has an odd column(subscription required) in the Sunday New York Times that makes a persuasive case that there is a new deterministic world view of human nature and history that pervades our culture:


And it occurred to me that while we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.


Scarcely a month goes by when Time or Newsweek doesn’t have a cover article on how our genes shape everything from our exercise habits to our moods. Science sections are filled with articles on how brain structure influences things like lust and learning. Neuroscientists debate the existence of God on the best-seller lists, while evolutionary theory reshapes psychology, dieting and literary criticism. Confident and exhilarated, evolutionary theorists believe they have a universal framework to explain human behavior.

. . .

According to this view, human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along genetic code. We are driven primarily by a desire to perpetuate ourselves and our species.
The logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival.


Human beings, in our current understanding, are jerry-built creatures, in which new, sophisticated faculties are piled on top of primitive earlier ones. Our genes were formed during the vast stretches when people were hunters and gatherers, and we are now only semi-adapted to the age of nuclear weapons and fast food.

Furthermore, reason is not separate from emotion and the soul cannot be detached from the electrical and chemical pulses of the body. There isn’t even a single seat of authority in the brain. The mind emerges (somehow) from a complex light show of neural firings without a center or executive. We are tools of mental processes we are not even aware of.

Read it all (subscription required).

I think that Brooks has captured, in very clear terms, the prevalent world view in our culture. And I also think that Brooks offers a challenge to those of us who profess to accept both Christ and Darwin: do we really leave much room for the Divine? As Brooks concludes::

The cosmologies of the societies represented in the Rockefeller Museum looked up toward the transcendent. Their descendants still fight over sacred spots like the Holy of Holies a short walk away. But the evolutionary society is built low to the ground. God may exist and may have set the process in motion, but he’s not active. Evolution doesn’t really lead to anything outside itself. Individuals are predisposed not by innate sinfulness or virtue, but by the epigenetic rules encoded in their cells.

So how do those of us who accept Darwin and modern science answer Brooks' challenge? Have we really reduced God to a passive role? Are we forced to believe in a God that merely set the rules, started the process and then stepped aside?

Absolutely not. First and foremost, I believe in the resurrection as a real historical event. It is hard to think of a more profound action by God in history. And I believe that through out history, God has called on real human beings to act as his agents of change in the world. Whether it is slavery, apartheid, Jim Crow laws or other forms of Justice, there are many stories of devout Christians who took decisive action based on what they themselves described as a call from God. And in many smaller ways, others of us are Christians because we feel the real presence of God in our own laws.



1 comment:

R said...

Chuck,

Thanks for posting on this editorial, and referencing it in response to my sermon today!

Just to expand your points in some other directions:

It strikes me that Brooks' argument only stands with a popularization of Darwinism -- that it is somehow "deterministic" even in the most complex of behaviors. He neglects that, much like quantum mechanics, evolutionary processes are heavily environmentally impacted in an almost incalculable number of ways, and can never be determined themselves with precision, simply because no evolutionary process happens in isolation.

His biological explanation of brain activity is overly simplified as well -- a "complex light show of neural firing," which does not adequately describe contemporary neuroscience, that studies areas of brain acting in synchronized, organized (albeit highly complex) communication, creating an inner dialogue. As a pianist, I can say with experience that with freedom of work, these patterns can be changed in ways that evolution could not truly adequately describe -- except only in the broadest sense like this: adaptability/elasticity in the human mind helped with our survival. That's a macro-explanation, but hardly deterministic in any thoroughgoing sense. Still lots of room for me to decide which piano work I will study, or that I began to study piano to begin with, rather than, say, the clarinet!

In short, the "space for God" is only eliminated if processes in the universe (i.e. evolution or particle physics) work in isolation as in the laboratory. But, of course, genetics, thoughts, human socialization, and even the probability wave function of a photon all operate in a reality of context -- one that is highly complex, utterly relational, and simply beyond the realm of science to comprehend (Heisenberg settled that Enlightenment determinism pretty soundly -- though it persists, but only in popular thought! And even in its original conception, determinism of the Enlightenment demanded we know the quality of ever particular constituent of the universe in a given moment -- which was never a practical possibility to begin with!).

We can't measure freedom of choice, but it strikes me theologically that it is precisely relationship that gives rise to the possibility of freedom, and our theological roots as Christians rely on just that: relationship. Salvation history is posited upon it. That relationship and freedom are in tension is also true. There is no "pure" freedom. There is no "pure" determinism. That, to me, is true post-modernity. Souped-up determinism like Brooks appears to posit here is simply hyper-modernity.

Put another way, the great threat to Christianity in our age is not evolutionary theory, quantum mechanics, or even science -- but in the popularizing myths that phenomenon (or even people) can be boiled down to deterministic constructs devoid of context -- individuated to the point of being outside of or unaffected by relationship. Some would argue that's demonic. I would argue it's a somewhat clever (but very ancient notion) of fatalism put together using modern Western world view(s). Interesting that Jesus confronted forms of this in his own time. It can excuse a lack of moral responsibility or lead to existential despair. It can also perpetuate oppression, fascism, or a whole hosts of dehumanizing institutions.

We are, of course, not merely genetic (any geneticist would tell us so -- no matter what the movies say, having the complete human genome in hand does not enable us to "make" a human being). Nor are we merely products of evolution. A glance at only 10,000 years of recorded history (a mere blip in terms of genetic evolutionary history) and our activity has radically altered the destiny of the human family -- if not the planet itself -- should settle that question pretty easily. We are not merely the sum of a given number of constituent atoms or chemical processes.

Science explains through some (and often a great) degree of reductionism -- but that severely limits its ability to ascertain theological truth -- that is the truth of reality in any ultimate sense. I would go one step further and say it eliminates moral and theological truth from empirical scientific inquiry entirely. Many thorough-going scientists would agree with me on that point, I believe. (And that is not to say scientists can't be moral or theological -- but science in its purist sense doesn't teach them how!)

Components working in isolation is simply not how the universe works, and it is in the vast cosmic dance where the mystery and profound truths of life and God (as most simply defined here as Ultimate Reality) begin.

The Resurrection, however it occurred, in whatever form that radically transformed the lives of the disciples, was inherently relational and focused on ultimate realities that lie beyond grand unified theories or even evolutionary theory. At the end of the day these are only theories. And theories explain everything they can, but they never become Truth itself. God is still God. Love is still love. Theory can hold a candle to neither, except perhaps to dimly illuminate the "how," but never the "why. . ."