An Emergent Creation?

Chapter 15 of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology is entitled “An Emergent Creation and Natural Theology.” This chapter presents some rather interesting ideas.

First McGrath returns to Augustine – not to his cosmology or science, but to his view of God’s creative power. According to Augustine God’s creative activity encompasses both an act and a process. While Augustine applied his ideas in the context of the understanding of his day, which knew nothing of star formation, nucleogenesis, or evolution, the idea is consistent with – and sheds some light on our thinking about creation in the context of 20th and 21st century science. McGrath connects Augustine’s approach to modern ideas of emergence in science and in biology.

…creation entails the origination of a potentially multileveled reality, whose properties emerge under certain conditions which did not exist at the origins of the universe. Furthermore, these properties are not predictable by human observers a priori; they are discovered a posteriori. (206)

I have significant reservations about some of McGrath’s discussion of emergence – especially the postulate of “unpredictability.” But let us look into it more closely.

Do you think that it is reasonable to think about emergence in creation and is this a theologically relevant concept?

Ok – most of you are probably wondering what in the world is meant by emergence. I will probably butcher some of this – but here goes…McGrath gives a description of emergence characterized by four general features (p. 208):

  1. Everything that exists in the world of space and time is ultimately composed of the basic fundamental particles recognized by physics. However, physics proves inadequate to explain how this material comes to be structured.
  2. When ensembles or aggregates of material particles attain an appropriate level of organizational complexity, genuinely novel properties begin to emerge.
  3. These emergent properties cannot be reduced to, or predicted from, the lower-level phenomena from which they emerge.
  4. Higher-level entities exercise a causal influence on their lower-level constituents.

Emergence is seen in collective properties and complexity. The properties of bulk gold metal is very different from the properties of isolated gold atoms. The properties of water are completely different from the properties of isolated hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The properties of a cell are very different from the properties of the constituent molecules and the properties of mammal is very different from the properties of the constituent cells. In fact there is a general principle at work:

Each stage of advancing complexity makes possible still further advances, which could not have taken place at earlier stages. The spontaneous self-organization of cosmological structures leads to the formation of planets; molecular and chemical evolution leads to living cells and life in general; and a Darwinian process of natural selection leads to the emergence of high-level functionality, including the emergence of mind, with its capacity to reflect on the natural world. (p. 209)

McGrath takes a leap off the deep end in some of his discussion in this chapter (in my educated opinion) – particularly when he starts to talk about the distinction between chemistry and physics as an example of emergence. The claim that chemistry cannot be reduced to physics is a semantic argument that requires formulation of definitions to make it true. (Basically it is baloney.) I am a physical chemist working at the interface of chemistry and physics. While there are disciplinary boundaries, these are fuzzy and determined by convention rather than rooted in the nature of matter. There are important differences in language and terminology – but these occur between areas of chemistry not between chemistry and physics. The same is true at boundaries between biology and chemistry.

However, the idea that complexity enables greater complexity is an interesting insight, as is the suggestions that higher-level entities exercise a causal influence on their lower-level constituents. There is – or appears to be – a stratification in nature that leads to the emergence of complexity. This stratification can be thought to move from the inorganic (material) to the organic (“life”) to the mental (e.g. consciousness and pleasure) to the spiritual (e.g. thought, knowledge, personality). I would suggest that this last category also moves from the individual to the collective and includes the collective growth in knowledge and understanding.

McGrath suggests that natural theology represents an evaluation and appreciation of nature seen from a Christian perspective and that this includes an appreciation of all levels from elementary particles to complex organisms and everything between and beyond. We see the hand of God active in at all levels. He concludes by noting:

…it can be seen that there is a case to be made for the concept of creation embracing both primordial actuality and emergent potentiality … There is clearly room for responsible theological development of this notion, which might be recommended to avoid some of the more speculative approaches presently in circulation. This does not, it must be emphasized, involve the distortion or subversion of traditional Christian notions of creation, but is seen as their legitimate and necessary expansion. (p. 216)

Have any of you heard of or thought about emergence in science or theology? Is this a theologically useful way to think about creation?

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2 Responses to An Emergent Creation?

  1. There is no argument that emergence is a genuine phenomenon. The questions come at the interfaces as you point out. We know complexity arises, but there is rarely a clear bright line that says we have achieved sufficient complexity to move to the next order.

    I’ve been reading a good bit on theories of consciousness which, in the secular mind averse to the Cartesian dualism of the ghost in the machine, depends on emergent properties of the brain for explanation. Lots of room here for the edging out of the human soul via reductionist explanations that elevate emergence as the substitute for the imago dei. I’m not worried though. God has withstood more attempts than this to make him irrelevant. The reason I’m not worried about the machinists (those who believe we are biological clockworks) really explaining God away is because I’ve noticed that the more people try to reduce things to their simplest components, the harder it is to account for the data.

    Case in point: It was once thought that when we were finally able to sequence the genome, we’d finally understand evolution, mankind, and a bunch of other stuff. Turns out, we now realize we barely have a clue and epigenetics plays a far more significant role than first suspected. And so now we have more questions than we have answers. At least regarding genetics. The more we reduce mankind to chemistry, the more inexplicable he becomes, so it seems. Why? Because going from DNA to conscious, self-reflective human being is an emergent process that cannot be explained by the sum of the parts. In this way, I believe emergence is good for those of us who are theists.

    And from there, I sometimes wonder if there are not meta-organisms where we are constituents within them on the order of ecosystems or biomes. I’m no Gaia-worshiper, but I’ve listened to Joel Salatin and Alan Savory and Wendell Berry enough to suspect that our relationship to creation is likely far deeper than materialists would have us believe. But is this something I could discuss in an Evangelical setting? Not likely.

    Anyway, that’s just random thinking on my part. Probably not very constructive, but I do believe that emergence is a property of God’s creation that makes a lot of the Calvinism/Arminianism debate, in my opinion, useless talk about stuff that doesn’t even concern God because he doesn’t work like either camp claims.

  2. If emergence can’t explain precisely how we achieve awareness of God as a step in its progression from collections of base chemicals, I guess I don’t see its utility. If you want to see natural progression, whether you call it evolution or complexity increase, then that’s what you’re going to see. You can postulate frameworks for such processes and give those frameworks names. But unless the frameworks describe processes that can be demonstrated, they add little value, IMHO.

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