Adventures in the Spirit: Part Two

Part Two of Philip Clayton’s book Adventures in the Spirit focuses on a (perhaps the) key concept for Clayton and many others seeking to relate religion and science, traditional theological concepts such as God and the soul on the one hand and data from physics and biology on the other: Emergence.

Chapter 4 begins by noting that, while it has been common for theologians down the ages to use science to reconceive God, but in fact allowing science to dictate what we do and do not (or can and cannot) say about God is in fact a mistake. It is important to take the scientific perspectives and data completely seriously, but that does not mean treating science as though its results lead without further reflection or consideration to certain theological conclusions (p.64).

Much modern science has proceeded by “reducing” phenomena to its consituent parts, and this has been an extremely successful method in many respects. But there is a growing acknowledgment that there are emergent phenomena, i.e. aspects of complex entities and organisms that are not simply explicable in terms of the behaviors or properties of its building blocks. In other words, the whole is often more than the sum of its parts. While this is often defined as a “third way” between materialism and dualism (particularly in the case of human minds, for instance, as being more than brain chemistry but not therefore to be explained by introducing another “spiritual substance” into the equation), Clayton also emphasizes that emergence needs to be understood as an evolutionary phenomenon, as new properties emerge over the course of cosmic, and eventually biological, evolution (p.65). The broader concept of emergence is not itself a scientific theory, but rather an observation about shared features of those points of transition between various levels of reality – for instance, from physics to chemistry, from chemistry to biology, from biology to psychology and anthropology and so on (p.66).

There is a “strong” version of emergence theory, which Clayton himself defends, and which argues that natural history produces new “things” and not merely new properties, and that these new levels of existence can exercise downward causation as causes in their own right (p.73). To give an example, human minds can be regarded as influencing the chemistry of the brain and the behavior of the body, and not merely as resulting from brain and body components.

Chapter 5 begins with the shift from the ancient view of entities as static, with the problem of mind approached “from the top down”, to the rise of evolutionary understandings. In a treatment that goes into much more detail than I will attempt to do justice to here, Clayton explains how modern natural science has brought us to the conclusion that the great “philosophers from Plato to Descartes (and many of the religious traditions!) were wrong: there is no absolute dividing line between mind and matter” (p.80). Reductive physicalists, however, are no better, since they simply deal with human cognition and qualia by failing to acknowledge their existence. Emergence does better justice to what we find in nature, allowing that new mental capacities, like new physical ones, can arise as peaks out of (and as a result of) the evolutionary process (pp.80-81). The remainder of the chapter argues that science need not be reductionistic and needs to find ways to study emergent properties scientifically, rather than deny their distinctiveness by assuming that they are fully accounted for simply as the sum of their parts.

In chapter 6, Clayton seeks to construct an apologetic argument that takes scientific naturalism seriously (pp.88-89). One level of emergent reality is that studied by anthropology, and in a statement that echoes themes explored in the final part of the book, Clayton writes: “The construction of meaning is ubiquitous; it plays a role in all that humans do and think…Religion is the attempt to conceive the universe as being humanly significant” (p.92).

In asking how to think theologically and metphysically about science and human existence, Clayton mentions as one option what he calls radically emergent theism. As an example he mentions Samuel Alexander’s 1918-1919 Gifford Lectures, published (and in our time available in the public domain) as Space, Time, and Deity. Clayton summarizes Alexander’s view as follows: “What humans call “God” is just the emergent property of spirituality in the universe. And “God” is simply the universe becoming aware of itself” (p.95). Since this might seem an extremely appealing option for an emergentist and a panentheist, it seems appropriate to consider the reasons why Clayton rejects this option.

Let me begin by clarifying that Alexander’s own view is that the universe is “not yet God” but is evolving into something that has such a quality. And so Clayton is right that Alexander’s viewpoint is not theism in any traditional sense (p.95). It is also a fair point that “Alexander’s sort of immediate connection between emergent patterns in nature and metaphysics is too direct” (p.95). In essence, such a view says that it is “emergence/evolution all the way up” rather than it being “turtles all the way down”, and thus has little explanatory power. I would like, however, to highlight some positive aspects of this sort of approach, as well as pointing out how it is possible to formulate a “radically emergent theism” that avoids one of the key pitfalls or points of criticism with respect to Alexander’s articulation thereof.

First, to the extent that theology represents a human attempt to construct meaning that takes seriously our contemporary scientific knowledge, using evolution and emergence as a theological metaphor seems highly appropriate, provided we recognize that God is probably no more truly like an evolving organism than like a watchmaker, or a father, or any other metaphor that has been used by human beings. Moreover, having rejected dualism with respect to the spiritual/mental aspect of human existence, it proves somewhat awkward to account for why a fundamental dualism of substance is posited in the case of God, while maintaining in so many other aspects the analogy between God/universe and the human mind/body. Furthermore, an approach that treats what we call God as the soul of (a classic metaphor) and an emergent phenomenon of the universe seems to fit well with Clayton’s argument against reductionism, and allows us to explain how God can be present and yet not detected by human science: the reason is not because there is nothing that corresponds to the features traditionally attributed to souls and/or minds, but because these are not things that can be detected alongside the matter and chemistry of human beings, but are emergent from the relationship thereof. This metaphor allows one to argue that, in a sense, God is as real as you or I – and faces some of the same sorts of skepticism from reductionists.

Nor need one necessarily think of the universe as “evolving into God”, or find this metaphor too far removed from theism (or at least from Christian panentheism). One option is to regard our universe as simply a tiny component of the divine being, one of many universes, which can come into and blink out of existence as cells in a human body do, without this undermining the ongoing existence of the human person in question. Indeed, as many process theologians have maintained, it may be that God is eternal and has always been embodied in (or emergent from) some universe/multiverse. If this fails to answer the question of where such an emergent deity first came from, that problem is no more answered by classical theism than by this sort of emergent panentheism. And of course, another alternative is to regard our universe as formed, as it were, in the womb of God (using the imagery popularized in recent times by Jürgen Moltmann, that of the Kabbalistic concept of zimzum or tzimtzum), so that our universe may indeed be evolving, but may be within the matrix of a larger divine reality. But at any rate, there are versions of a “radically emergent theism” that seem to have many of the advantages Clayton looks for in theological models, while not necessarily having the fatal problems he believes they do. And so although Clayton states that “One should resist any straight-line extrapolation from scientific emergence to a metaphysical theory of deity as the sum of all emergent spiritual properties” (p.97), it is unclear that we ought not to at least pursue that line of reasoning as far as it can go, and supplement rather than supplant it with resources from traditional theism.

Other important emphases in this chapter include that God ought not to be conceived as less than personal, and that while making room for religious faith there must also be an appropriate tentativeness and humility about our knowledge and our formulations (pp.98-99).

In chapter 7 there are further considerations of radically emergent theism, and an attempt to articulate a “moderately emergent theism” that does not follow the insight from emergence quite so far. After exploring in brief a number of classic theological topics (such as creation, Christology, pneumatology and eschatology) – topics to some of which he will return in later chapters – Clayton notes that the notion that we owe our existence to something radically different from ourselves is there whether we attribute our origin ultimately to random chance and material forces or to a divine eternal will (p.115). And this is one of the most delightful aspects of Clayton’s theological work in this section: his acknowledgment that the theological enterprise does not eliminate the element of mystery from our existence, and the humble acknowledgment that some questions will remain unanswered (at least for the time being) from our standpoint within the midst of the history of humanity, our planet and our universe.

In Part Three, Clayton will explore panentheism. Stay tuned…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08353226539928605633 Tripp

    That was a great summary of his argument. Glad you are doing it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05891694584204669258 Philip Clayton

    James,You’ve done a brilliant job of summarizing Part 2 of my ADVENTURES IN THE SPIRIT. Someone who reads your blog will realize (a) emergent science is not the threat to faith that reductionist science was; (b) there are resources in this new language of emergence that can be immensely helpful to Christians as we try to voice our faith in our current context; and (c) the mystery of God is not undercut by the new sciences of emergence; it’s actually deepened.I also like your adventurous spirit as you try to take emergent theism as far as it can be taken. I wanted to express that same spirit of adventure in writing the book.But you didn’t quite express my main reservation about RADICALLY emergent theism (RET). RET says that God did not create this universe; in an important sense, God didn’t exist when the universe began; and God could not survive the demise of this universe. I can’t make THAT view jive with the biblical accounts. Apart from that, I also find RET less rich as an account of ultimate reality.Like your other readers, I’m looking forward to reading Part 3!– Philip Clayton

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    It is always thrilling when the author of a book or article takes the time to interact with a review or discussion on this blog. Thank you for taking the time to do so!I suppose that I would agree with your cautionary remarks about radically emergent theism, while also thinking that one can hold to a “slightly more radical” emergent theism than you yourself articulated, all the while still doing justice to the Biblical tradition. Many Biblical scholars have in fact questioned whether the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is to be found in Scripture, and so there may be less need to cling to it for that particular reason. But given that the origin of God is ultimately a mystery “answered” by saying that “God simply is”, if God simply is and as such is always and has always been “embodied” in some fashion, then one has simply made the existence of universes (or the divine body) part of the mystery of why anything exists at all – and I’d value further discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of doing so. But at any rate, I find it much easier to make sense of abandoning a substantial dualism in accounting for the nature of human beings if I am willing to do the same in the case of the divine. But that may simply be me allowing myself to be carried too far by a helpful analogy – it wouldn’t be the first time! :) I’ve just posted the next installment in this series, and look forward to your further comments and interaction, if you have the time and interest.