Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Mind of God (Part 2: Creator of Everything)

A while back, I took a stab at writing about the classic problem of reconciling the existence of suffering and death with an all-good and all-powerful God. This is the second part in that (obviously rather occasional) series.

The other day I ran across a post in which the author said: "I can't quite see the reasonableness of a faith that has no trouble dealing with, say, gravity as a non-divine process but has trouble with evolution."

Now, this is hardly the first time I've heard such a sentiment expressed, but it's as good an example as any of a problem that I find in much thinking (both secular and Christian) about what it means to say that God "created" the world.
In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram, is a simple enough statement, yet it is perhaps a rather hard concept for people to truly wrap their minds around. Most specifically, what we seem to have difficulty grasping is the traditional Christian understanding that God did not merely assemble or form the universe and everything in it, but that he created it ex nihilo, out of nothing.

Razib has mentioned in a number of posts the tendency of humans to state belief in abstract philosophical or theological beliefs, but when asked to provide a narrative example, to fall back on describing something rather more like a human with super powers. This tendency seems to be especially at play when it comes to the question of God's creative power.

As Christians we believe that God created everything out of nothing, and that he holds the universe in existence by his active will. The ordering and function of the universe is thus a product of the order and rationality of God's mind. This is not merely an attempt to complete the sentence "God is soooo big that..." but rather the result of long contemplation on the "ex nihilo" aspect of "creavit Deus". If there was truly nothing before God's initial act of creation, if there was no previously existent substance on which He acted, then the existence of the universe relies upon God's will and upon nothing else.

This is a kind of creation which none of us have any personal experience with, and which it is quite difficult for us to wrap our minds around. (Some would say this is because it's a figment of our imaginations, others that this is because we're limited by having an inside looking out view.) Thus, it's all too common for people (believers and otherwise) to think of the concept of God creating the universe as similar to some giant member of the United Auto Workers building a Buick.

This Buick mentality strikes me as being very much at the root of the Intelligent Design movement, which attempts to shore up belief in God by 'scientifically proving' that God must have intervened in the creation of specific biological structures and systems. Yet this division of things into those which are clearly divinely designed and those which are 'merely natural'.

If God created the world in the sense that we traditionally understand it as Christians, then gravity, evolution, and the weak nuclear force are all equally 'divine' and equally 'natural'. A snowflake, a puddle of mud, and a butterfly are all equally 'designed'. And evolution is 'theistic' not because God reaches in and tweaks something once in a while, or because God guides it, but because everything it relies upon to function, every particle and wave of matter in the universe exists because and only because God wills it to do so.

If we accept this, as we claim to by our name as Christians, then it seems odd to worry that the patterns and laws according to which life grows and changes either prove or disprove God's creative power.

UPDATE: I've been remiss in my blog-reading lately, so I'd missed this great post from Scott Carson the other day touching on the same principle of continuous creation.


Doogie said...

Right on, D.

I harken back to Chesterton, who taught me that God is much more intimately involved in his universe than a clockmaker is in his clock:


The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.

Darwin said...

Just so -- Chesterton is deep with metaphors for this whole way of thinking. I always liked the one, in Man Who Was Thursday, where he talks about the miracle of trains arriving where and when they are supposed to.

Interestingly, one of the really persistant difficulties, from what I understand, in modern physics is finding any sort of explanation as to _why_ the universe works in the orderly fashion that it does. The 'laws' of physics don't explain why gravity, magnetism, the weak and strong nuclear forces, etc work, but rather just state that they do and according to what equations. However, they are, in a sense, a sort of glorified observation. We call it the "Law of Gravity" not because we know that it shall always hold, but because based on past experience we can't imagine why it wouldn't.

This is why I can little understand the horror that some Christians seem to have at evolution: that somehow if certain processes within the created world appear to us as "natural" or "automatic" in the sense that they always work without obvious intervention this detracts from God's power, when according to our own beliefs it is only through God's power that anything exists, and that anything continues to exist and behave in an orderly or predictable fashion.

Doogie said...

Indeed. As a former Protestant, I had this literal interpretation of Genesis 1 (but not John 6; explain that, eh?) that scorned any idea of a "non-divine" genetic process. Part of that stemmed from seeing how much fraudulent science was put into the development of evolutionary theory (such as the Piltdown Man), and also seeing a chasm between most scientists and any type of faith. Two such distinct facts must melt together to form a lie, I reasoned.

But my way of thinking has evolved - pun intended - so now I wonder just who would restrict God from having evolved us into our current form?

What I can not make any sense of is how our current scientific community puts so much stock in contraception, sterilization, abortion, and non-reproductive sexual behaviour (dir *.*), while still claiming that Natural Selection will yet cause us to evolve into a higher form. Um, hello - we've drained our gene pool. It's like sawing your feet off while running a race and trying to finish on bloody stumps: you not only lose, but you're stuck mid-course, hemorrhaging to death.

Welcome to the New Dark Ages.

Darwin said...

Amen, brother. It was exactly that thinking (that Catholicism's prescriptions for how to live your life were far more in tune with biological reality than those of the secular world) that led to the rather odd name of this blog.

John Farrell said...

Excellent post, Brendan. I find it interesting, too, that atheists, such as Jason Rosenhouse and Richard Dawkins. are as trapped in their limited idea of creation as the fundies they enjoy combatting. They are in essence, the other side of the same coin, that insists it's all about creation with a small c, and design.