Games Scientists and Theologians Play

Last week the debate between evolutionary biologists who promote adaptive explanations of belief in God/Gods and those who understand it as a by-product was introduced in a 2-in1 post. Besides the differences between the two approaches, both sides necessarily share a naturalistic approach to religion in order to make its phenomenon experimentally accessible to scientific methods. If that strategy is successful then religious beliefs about divine beings were apparently caused by natural processes rather than real divine beings or, worse for religious people, were random unnecessary by-products of other crucial biological processes. Religion is like leftover trash that can be done away with. So what is someone committed to belief in God to do? Here is the second 2-in1 post to wrap up different religious responses to the scientific data. reaction to this scientific debate over religious beliefs as adaptive or evolutionary by-products has been to go over the science very carefully. One hypothesis being offered is that scientists confuse holes in scientific explanation with religion. Thus, when biologists came up against human culture and societal cooperation and could not immediately discover evolutionary causes for the phenomena, theism was turned to for a compelling story. This strikes some as ad hoc and improperly scientific. No explicit hypothesis about the evolutionary nature of religion drove such theories. Rather, theism was thrown in because it looked like a neat fit with other scientific data. Thus, religion has not been explained away and theism has survived this explanation. Rather, scientists are just amusing themselves with their fun theories. However, it should also be noted that this line of critique, if examined on purely naturalistic terms, would favor the by-product biological theory. If those offering adaptation hypotheses have identified the wrong filler for their lack of an explanation for human cooperation, biologists researching in the by-product paradigm will have the upper hand in the future since progress in their theory refuses to rely on religion as a way of explaining biological and cultural advances. Some have noticed this open door to scientific progress against theism and have therefore suggested a reconstruction of theology rather than the defense of its current state so that it has a better chance of offering satisfying religious claims into the future.

A completely opposite approach to defending religion has been adopted by Gordon Kaufman. He cuts out the by-product critique of theology by accepting the adaptation theory in which anthropomorphic beliefs are incorrectly but understandably extended to natural phenomena. This scientific theory fits well with Kaufman’s own critique of much of Christian theology throughout history. He also understands it as an anthropocentric story in which common-sense ideas about humans were projected onto God. This God could then be focused on at the exclusion of the world and its changes. It seems the options are theological supernaturalism disconnected from but supposedly explaining the natural world or the atheistic embrace of naturalism by accepting the messiness of reality. However, there is another option. tries to give a natural interpretation of the Christian religion that is nonetheless compelling to religious believers by giving theology a different focus. He argues the source of this reconstruction is found once it is realized and accepted that humans are “biohistorical beings” who arose from these evolutionary processes (In the Beginning…Creativity, 42). Once we are conscious of this fact, we have acknowledged that “purposive patterns” exist in the world. Such patterns are usually short lived (most species resulting from evolutionary advances are now extinct) and do not denote one overarching plan given to the universe by a designer, but they are real. Thus, God should be identified with the serendipitous creativity manifest in the world of which human existence is proof, giving religion real grounding in the world as opposed to having a basis in fictitious projections onto natural events.

An implicit distinction between purposiveness and purpose is embedded in Kaufman’s affirmation of God as serendipitous creativity. Events can display directionality without having a final goal solidified from the outset. So the general character of purposive behavior exists but cannot be controlled. The purposiveness of reality can be noticed and appreciated but not coerced (This was basically Immanuel Kant’s argument in the third critique of judgment where he distinguished between noticing apparent purpose in every aspect of the world and teleology as the fulfillment of a planner’s design. The former is unavoidable in human thought, but it is not possible to know if the latter truly exists). On top of unavoidable purposiveness Kaufman places the fact of change in order to focus creation theology on mystery.

Change combined with purposiveness means the static nature of reality is not the proper theological focus. Rather, static facts are fragile and tenuous while novelty is the overarching fact of life. So Kaufman is aligned with negative theology and, by extension, negative science. Both are open to embrace and understand what is not yet in existence and thus cannot be currently described or experienced. They are open-ended research processes. God as creativity fills this negative role by being the greatest mystery of life due to novelty constantly resulting from creative processes. While beings result from creativity, it cannot be predicted what novel realities will appear in the future. Mystery and novelty together reveal many different and growing levels of reality. God identified with creativity then becomes intimately connected with the world in its current state as well as whatever it becomes in the future. Thus, novelty comes from inside the world, not from without. As a consequence, creativity already related to internal workings of the universe does not have to break physical laws or reject biological explanations to relate to that universe.

The problem facing Kaufman’s approach is that creativity is spoken of in such general terms that it may not make any difference what novelties result in the world. Creativity is so benign that is explains nothing while being found everywhere. “The concept of creativity in no way explains how or why new realities have come into being; rather, it simply gives a name to the profoundly mysterious fact that novel realities have come into existence in the course of time” (In the Beginning…Creativity, 71). If it does not matter what results from creativity, is this approach nothing more than the exhalation of evolutionary processes to the “objects” of religious worship? Is evolution deified? This appears to be the conclusion Daniel Dennett is drawing from such tactics. Watch the last 15 minutes or so of the video linked to in that story and notice the paradox in the final paragraphs of the review.

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