Can We Find God Through Nature? (RJS)

Part Two of Karl Giberson’s new book, The Wonder of the Universe: Hints of God in Our Fine-Tuned World, looks at design arguments and considers the pros and cons of possible interpretations of scientific data that either suggest or eliminate evidence for God in the Universe. I have commented at times on an edge to Giberson’s writing, a tone that makes it hard to listen to his arguments and understand his points. This book, however, is Giberson at his very best. It would require a thin skin to find serious problems with tone, and his explanations are clear and insightful. All may not agree with his conclusions (I don’t agree with all of his conclusions), but he puts forth his arguments in a way that should lead to greater understanding and clarity.

One of the key ideas that Giberson stresses in this section

Science is quite extraordinary at telling us how the world is but quite unable to tell us why the world is like that. Science illuminates the remarkable features of our universe that make life possible, but it goes silent when we ask whether any particular life form is the reason why the universe is the way it is. That is a deeply religious question that has to be explored somewhere else. (p. 156)

And much later:

The Christian worldview, with its belief in a God who creates and is revealed in the exemplary life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is the starting point from which we examine the mystery of our existence – the wonder of the universe. (p. 200)

There is beauty, meaning, and relationship in this world, but there is also evil, natural disaster, and sickness. The Christian worldview directs our understanding of all of these features of the world, good and bad. But we cannot get from the bare facts to the God we worship, who entered into relationship with his people and who became flesh and dwelt among us.  John Polkinghorne puts it like this:

If science is human reflection on impersonal encounter with the physical world, theology is reflection on transpersonal encounter with the sacred reality of God. … In those acts of divine disclosure that theology calls revelation, the initiative lies with God. (Science and Religion in Quest of Truth p. 12)

There is a difference between science itself and the interpretations that are drawn from scientific knowledge. We know God only through his self revelation when he condescends to meet us where we are. So Christians have the same science as non-Christians, and this includes evolution, but the encompassing narrative that makes sense of this data is different, transformed by experience of God.

Can we find God through science?

Where should we look for evidence of God and his purposes?

Although science alone cannot answer questions of meaning and purpose, this does not mean that there are no indications of meaning and purpose to be found in nature. These are not things we must find merely on faith. There are two examples suggestive of design in the structure of the universe that Giberson discusses in Chapter 8  Following the Evidence.

Contingency and Convergence. One of the complaints about evolutionary biology is that it relies on contingency and random chance. But this emphasis on contingency is an interpretation of the data, and not the only interpretation by any means.

The late Stephen Jay Gould [a Harvard paleontologist] emphasized the random, contingent character of evolution: “Alter any early event, ever so slightly and without apparent importance at the time, evolution cascades into a radically different channel.”  It seems, therefore, if the DNA in our history had gone in a slightly different direction, a very different species may have evolved. “Replay the tape a million times from [the] beginning,” writes Gould, “and I doubt if anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again.” (p. 161)

Simon Conway Morris also a leading paleontologist, a Professor at Cambridge University in England, arrives at a very different conclusion however.

Conway Morris does not propose a different mechanism for evolution. He merely argues – on the basis of the same evidence that Gould used – for a different interpretation of its outcomes. He agrees with Gould that evolution could have taken various paths, but he argues that each of those paths would lead to something like the human species. (p. 161)

Put simply this is because there are only so many ways that atoms can be combined into molecules and molecules into structures, only so many ways to image light and to transmit information. These are constrained by the laws of chemistry and physics. Thus there are only a limited number of ways that any given task can be accomplished. Evolution is a massive search engine that explores these pathways. There is convergence to the same solution from a variety of starting points and pathways.

This is a provocative insight. Conway Morris, and those who share his views, argue that there are certain favored pathways in the history of life and suggest that evolution can have preferred directions. These favored pathways exist independently of evolution. In fact, they precede the appearance of life. (p. 163)

Even convergence, though, does not lead inevitably to recognition of the creator God. Conway Morris sees evidence for God in the design of a world that will lead to creatures like us designed for relationship with our creator. So do I. But I have colleagues who agree with the concept of convergence, all the while disagreeing with the implication that in this we see the hand of God. Convergence, like the fine-tuning of the universe, they see as the impersonal and purposeless consequence of the laws of nature.

Life is not a zero-sum game. This is true in economics as Michael Kruse points out for us quite often, but the impact of this truth is far more profound … human society, human culture, and indeed biology and life itself are all nonzero-sum games. Here is another evidence for purpose and design in the universe. Giberson brings a recent book by Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, into the discussion. Wright, Giberson tells us “was raised Southern Baptist, but is no longer a Christian.” Nonetheless he sees a direction in both biological evolution and political and economic history and brings the mathematical discipline of game theory into his argument.

A zero-sum game is easy to understand:

If the only way to acquire something is to take it from someone else, or otherwise prevent him or her from getting it, then the interaction is zero-sum. (p. 168)

Life is not a zero-sum game. The nonzero sum argument is intrinsic to biology beginning with the benefit of the cooperative interaction of various parts of a single cell. Simple multicellular creature can accomplish more than a single cell life form can. Evolution is inevitable, Wright argues, because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

But the argument goes beyond individual creatures. Human society as a whole is intrinsically a non-zero sum game. The entire society benefits – eventually – from honesty, trust, cooperation, creativity, ingenuity, investigation. All society is damaged by irresponsible and destructive behavior.   The truth of the nonzero-sum rule is “part of the deep structure of the universe.”

Wright suggests that this viewpoint – which he defends on entirely secular grounds – supports the idea that the world might be viewed as the creation of a god who intended it to be filled with love.(p. 171)

Perhaps the deep moral truth of the importance of considering the value and welfare of others, the ability to look at the world through the eyes of others, or at least to try to do so, is a deep truth and an intrinsic part of the nature of the universe.

Giberson sums this up:

At the heart of Christianity – and virtually all other religions – is the belief that human beings are not solitary creatures: we are created to live in communities and flourish when we are embedded in a network of loving caring trusting relationships. That the universe seems structured to bring this about is quite suggestive. “There is a moral axis to the universe,” Wright told Salon.com in a 2009 interview. “It raises legitimate questions as to whether the whole system was in fact set up by some being, something you could call a divinity.” (p. 172)

The moral structure of the universe and the power of community in the deep truth of the nonzero-sum game are elements that can help point us toward God. This is a perfect segue to a story Scot linked in Weekly Meanderings last Saturday, but is worth mentioning again today,  The Brain on Love:

The brain changes with experience throughout our lives; it’s in loving relationships of all sorts — partners, children, close friends — that brain and body really thrive.During idylls of safety, when your brain knows you’re with someone you can trust, it needn’t waste precious resources coping with stressors or menace. Instead it may spend its lifeblood learning new things or fine-tuning the process of healing. Its doors of perception swing wide open. The flip side is that, given how vulnerable one then is, love lessons — sweet or villainous — can make a deep impression. Wedded hearts change everything, even the brain.

We are made for community and we are shaped by the community we find ourselves in, the relationships we cultivate, and the company we keep. The first comment Saturday, written by a pastor, noted:

In Diane Ackerman’s wonderful article on how relationships affect the brain, I see a strong reason to be a member in a healthy congregation.

… Kind of makes one glad to be part of a community in which such moments occur!

And we are called to be in community in communion with the people of God. The Church is the body of Christ to be this community for each other and for the world. No man is an island and no Christian goes solo. This is a nonzero-sum game and it is a deep truth of God’s creation.

No proof – but hints of God in our fine-tuned world. Neither of these two phenomena – evolutionary convergence or the deep truth of the nonzero-sum game – prove that God exists. More importantly, nothing from the realm of science can prove the existence of the personal God of Christian faith who sent his Son so that the world through him might be saved. Our God cannot be found through science. But there are hints of God, he can be glimpsed through the nature of the world. Both of these phenomena are part of the evidence for purpose and design. Read through the Christian worldview both evolutionary convergence and the moral axis to the universe seen in the nonzero-sum game can help us understand God better.

What do you think?

How and why can we see evidence for God in creation of the diversity of life?

Is there a moral axis to the universe? If so, is this evidence for a purposeful creation?

If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • http://whatyouthinkmatters.org/blog Andrew Wilson

    Great summary. It was Conway Morris’s logic that was key to me accepting evolution a few years ago; I now quote him in apologetics all the time on this issue. (And I got a bounceback from your email just now; I was writing to say thanks for your kind comments two weeks ago!)

  • Michael J. Teston

    God walked among the trees in that first tuned in version of the cosmos on planet Earth. I know its Poetry but how else does one speak of the wonder of it all? And when God “calls me, calls my name” like s/he did that first pair and like s/he did “Mary” on the first morning in that Garden, I pray my ears have been tuned in to the frequency of the voice that science bears witness to since the dawn of creation, the voice that streams from the beginning of time itself. YES more than a HINT!

  • CGC

    Hi RJS,
    I was at a Christian conference this week where one presider who took a literal young earth viewpoint said science did not matter at all to biblical interpretation. The Bible is God’s Word and science is not! But one person in the audience challenged the presider saying does not God have two books? Does not Romans chapter one say that creation shows something of God? If that is true, we just can not dismiss science out right!

    Lastly, I remember many years ago Tony Campollo challenged the idea of science’s interpretations when it comes to it’s cultural location (Campollo being a Christian sogiologist). Campollo said isn’t it interesting that evolution in America is often tied to an economic system of capitalism and the survival of the fittest whereas in atheist Russia, evolution is also the predominant science and it’s view of it’s economic system is one of cooperation based off it’s view of science and evolution. None of us can escape our social location and the possibility of cultural captivity at times.

  • RJS

    Andrew (#1),

    Thanks. The point Conway Morris makes is really important. I found his book Life’s Solution quite good – although not the easiest read.

    I am not sure why the e-mail bounced back. I’ve been getting some e-mail, so I don’t think it is the account itself.

  • John

    “Can We Find God Through Nature?”

    Is there another way?

    Appreciate #2′s reply.

  • AHH

    I appreciate this approach for at least three reasons:
    1) The humility; rather than claiming “proof” we have pointers, things that overall make sense in the context of the Christian story.
    2) Avoidance of the “god of the gaps” error — finding these pointers to God’s design in the overall fabric of the creation rather than looking for gaps in the fabric to find a place to insert God as a competitor to scientific explanations.
    3) The Christ-centeredness of the viewpoint. So much of evidentialist “design” arguments tends to be Jesus-free apologetics, arguing for some anonymous intelligent designer (a “God of the philosophers” in Pascal’s phrase) instead of the God found in the person of Jesus.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Nice post, thanks.

    I read Wrights evolution of god book and enjoyed it quite a bit. I believe his points about the non-zero sum nature of our lives is very important, and one of the biggest distinctions between the more and less evolved among us. There are still quite a few people who, more or less, view the world through a zero sum lens (or act that way) and they frustrate me to no end. They routinely grab defeat from the jaws of victory….

    As much as I would like to see evidence for god in our physical and relational existence,….I don’t….or can’t…not sure which. There was a time when I did, but something has changed for me.

    What has changed is my concept of god. I feel that my old concept of god was much to anthropomorphic. I now believe that god would be sufficiently alien to us that he would be difficult to recognize, or recognize as anything. I waffle between the extremes of his essence actually being the existence we have, a sort of panentheism, and his existence being so drastically different from what we experience that we would not recognize it.

    But if I were to point toward evidence for god in our universe, it would be in the nature of the giant feedback loop that seems to pervade our lives. As I get older and more observant I find more and more occassions where it appears that everything is connected in a way that is most peculiar. Call it karma, what goes around comes around, seek and you will find, the KoG or what have you, but there is no doubt in my mind that what you put out there has definite and drastic impacts. It is about the relationship between the parts.

    I now call that feedback loop god (but not in any simplistic sense). I believe that god pervades the universe and sustains everything through a, more or less, panentheistic intertwining of all. Sort of like the matrix, when you look at someone else you are seeing him. When you look at the universe you are seeing him. But he is also more, and I don’t think we recognize him when we have an anthropomorphic view of him.

  • CGC

    Hi DRT,
    I am not saying this is true of you but I often find people who have a more panentheistic worldview often have a more naturalistic one. The question I have is how does religious experience play in this paradigm? I run across a whole spectrum of Christians who go from one end that has practically speaking no experience of God in their lives and those who have everything from mystical encounters, hear the voice of God, and speak about experiences with demons and angels.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    CGC,

    Interesting question. I would like to know more.

    I have had several direct encounters with god where he spoke directly to me and made a substantive change in me. In short (and I know this sounds nuts), he gave me new abilities with each encounter.

    The first ones were more like a sudden and stark breakdown of my perceptions, and then a new realization that had direct application, quite a shock actually. The last was the most interesting, it was just like the others, but instead of an insight or ability it gave me a question. It asked “why?”. It only took a couple months to reach a conclusion that I have followed since that time. The encounters are not meant for me, but meant for others. I am to use what is given to me for others.

    BTW, my kids (and often my wife), believe that I simply had a natural brain fart, and they may be right. And that is the key to the answer to your question. I believe, by definition, that god is natural. Whether I have a natural numinous experience or one intervening by god, it is the same to me. Just as I believe that evolution and the production of life as we know it is divine and natural, they are one and the same.

    Does that make sense?

  • CGC

    Hi DRT,
    You have a great way of expressing your thoughts. THANKS!

    PS – “The encounters are not meant for me, but meant for others.” Sounds like a God-thing to me!

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    CGC –

    whereas in atheist Russia, evolution is also the predominant science

    That’s, well… just entirely wrong. Sorry, but it really is.

    “Atheist Russia” rejected “Darwinism” and “Mendelism” and instead embraced – more, enforcedLysenkoism. They engaged in a witch hunt to suppress geneticists and anyone proposing anything ‘Darwinian’ – up to and including imprisonment and execution.

    This, BTW, had disastrous results for Soviet (and Maoist Chinese) agriculture, leading to famines. Indeed, the famines may actually have killed the majority of the people who died in those regimes. Ironically, the people under Stalin and Mao would have been better off if their leaders had accepted neo-Darwinian evolution.

  • CGC

    Okay Ray,
    My fallible memory is thinking maybe Campollo’s words were about marxism in general and not Russia in particular. It has been so many years, I remember the main point Campollo was getting at is how our science at times reflect our economics or vise versa?

  • tom r

    CGC, the idea that evolution is often conflated with capitalism and the survival of the fittest, does not affect the theory of biological evolution. Social Darwinism is as discredited a Lyenkoism. It would be better to think of biological evolution as survival of the most adapt rather than of the fittest. That is the ones that are the best at adapting to a changing environment are the ones who survive. These are often not the biggest and strongest.

  • CGC

    Hi Tom,
    I agree that the problem is not evolution per se but how people use it to promote other things (philosophy, economics, politics, or whatever).


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