Monday, April 16, 2007

More on Faith in the Age of Darwin

Father Richard posted a very insightful comment in response to my post about the David Brooks column on Darwin and Faith. Since the comment was so insightful, and the number of you who read comments is small, I decided to put the comment on the blog itself:


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. . ."

I think that Father Richard is correct. As I had earlier noted, quantum mechanics states that we live in a world of probabilities and not in a deterministic world. And I find it very interesting that much of the most ardent scientific atheists are, like Richard Dawkins, biologists; perhaps this is because physicists gave up on determinism decades ago. And as Father Richard points out, even biologists are beginning to understand that life results from a complex interaction of our DNA, the environment, and (it now appears) the randomness of RNA.

In short, biology and physics support a probabilistic universe that leaves plenty of room for free will and faith.

By the way, be sure to read Father Richard's sermon on doubting Thomas.

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