Evolution and Reductionism

Evolution and Reductionism

“In our world,” said Eustace, “ a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”
-C.S. Lewis in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The dilemma of modern humans, according to the late Walker Percy, is that we live in an era in which we understand more about the universe in which we live than ever before and less about what it means to be human than ever before. We are in his words like a child “who sees everything in his world, names everything, knows everything except himself.”

This dilemma shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. After all we are complicated beings. On one hand we are marvels of mechanical cause and effect The hand, the eye, and the ear are so complex that in the minds of many they bear witness to a creator. The complexity of the human brain alone rivals that seen in the rest of the visible universe. On the other we are spiritual/mental/emotional beings, too. Consider Bach’s choral works, Shakespeare’s plays, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Are they merely the by-products of matter? More than one philosophical naturalist has remarked on the irony that if humans are indeed merely accidents of an impersonal universe, then in us oddly the universe has begun to contemplate itself.

In an effort to simplify our self-explanations, we’ve tended to reduce one facet of our being to the other. To the Platonic Greeks we were ghosts somehow trapped in a machine, and the machine was less important than the ghost if for no other reason because it is disposable. We do die after all. It’s a view of people that produced Gregorian chant and gothic architecture amongst other beauties, but at the same time tends to strip the actions of physical people in a physical world of their value.

The modern world has moved in the opposite direction. As we understand the material world better, our bodies have become ever more central to us, and as we’ve understood them better, we’ve enjoyed the fruits of that understanding, too, notably modern medicine. I’m here today in part because my father’s life was saved when at age ten he contracted pneumonia and was treated with antibiotics, the wonder drugs of his day. But the man-as-machine worldview was also responsible at least in part for making the 20th century the greatest century of war the world has ever known.

At the heart of this ever-shifting self-examination for the last century-and-a-half has been Darwin’s theory of evolution. Not only does it attempt to fill in a large blank in our resume– how did we get here?- it focuses exclusively on our physical side and in so doing fiercely challenges any dualistic understanding of human nature. Charles’ theory not only provides a non-supernatural explanation of our origins, it functionally demands naturalism. What distinguished his theory from that of Erasmus, his grandfather, was that Charles’ theory required no divine monkeying around to make it work. Not only is there no need for God to create each species from scratch, there’s no need for him to be involved in the evolution of any organism into another species. It works without him; there is no supernatural involved. That’s what makes it a naturalistic theory.

It’s at this point that Darwin’s theory weighs rather heavily into our modern human dilemma, for if we are the product of natural forces only, then we must be no greater than the sum of our natural parts. Thomas Nagel (philosophy, NYU) put it bluntly in Mind and The Cosmos: ”Materialism requires reductionism…”

Some definitions may be in order here. Reductionism is the belief that the spiritual/mental/emotional aspects of human nature can be fully explained in terms of biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. It is not a belief that Nagel shares. When he says, “materialism” he means something similar to naturalism, but not exactly the same thing. Naturalism starts with rejecting the supernatural, and Nagel is all in favor of that. In his essay “The Last Word” he wrote

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

Nagel doesn’t see God in the big picture, but he does see more than mere matter. He rejects materialism, but not naturalism, in hopes of bringing another category into the discussion of the nature of the universe : mind. Not the human mind, mind you, but some other non-supernatural element of the universe that might account for the glories of human nature that stubbornly resist reduction to mere matter. His suggestion hasn’t been well-received, but his logic, I think, is quite clear at least on one point. If we are the results of merely material causes, then we must be material, too. The only other option is that at some point in the process, something new emerged, which is an unsatisfying proposition, one materialists have had a good time making fun of for years.

An old cartoon by Sidney Harris illustrates this quite well. It features two men standing in front of a blackboard. Both sides of the board are filled with equations, but the middle is empty except for the words “ Then a miracle occurs.” One man points to the words and says, “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”

Darwin’s theory is a materialistic theory and demands that all such gaps be filled with materialistic explanations. There is no room in it for a divine spark, no pouvoir de la vie, nothing non-material in substance or process. (Not that it does a very good job of filling them. Nagel again in Mind & Cosmos;“I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionistic neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life. It is prima facie highly improbable that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. We are expected to abandon this naive response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples.” ) This insistence poses a substantial obstacle to most theories of theistic evolution.

Historically theories of theistic evolution have been unpopular both amongst secular scientists and many theologians. The former argue with some acuity that if Darwin was right, then there’s no place for God in the process. Theologians with a biblical bent respond that if Darwin was right, then the Bible is wrong. Thus proposed syntheses of Darwin and Christian theism more often than not have fallen upon deaf ears, that is, until recently.

The work of men like Francis Collins and Denis Alexander mark a sea change in attitudes toward theistic evolution. Collins is a distinguished scientist (Director of the National Institutes of Health) and a believer; Alexander is likewise a believer, a scientist (PhD. in Neurochemistry) and director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at Cambridge University. Both share a personal and professional interest in the relationship between science and faith.

In his book The Language of God Collins warmly and winsomely argues that evolution fully explains how we came to be and the Scriptures fully explain how we find meaning in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. After outlining a theistic theory of evolution, Collins concludes “But this synthesis has provided for legions of scientist-believers a satisfying, consistent, enriching perspective that allows both the scientific and spiritual worldviews to co-exist happily within us. This perspective makes it possible for the scientist-believers to be intellectually fulfilled and spiritually alive, both worshipping God and using the tools of science to uncover some of the awesome mysteries of His creation.” In Creation or Evolution Alexander likewise argues that a faithful reading of the Scriptures need not pose any obstacle to affirming a human evolutionary history. In his preface “ I have written this book mainly for people who believe,as I do, that the Bible is the inspired Word of God from cover to cover… I therefore make no attempt in this book to defend the role of the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, but simply assume that this is the starting point for all Christian. If that is not your starting position, I hope at least that the book will help you see how the Bible and science can live together very happily.”

Neither book attempts to answer all of the scientific and theological questions arising from the study of nature and the Scriptures; I certainly shall not attempt to do so here. My purpose in mentioning them in this essay is much simpler. You see, in embracing Darwin both Collins and Alexander embrace his materialism, too. Not philosophically, of course– both believe in God–but functionally in that God plays no part in the evolutionary process other than setting Darwin’s system up. Collins states it quite bluntly: “Once evolution got under way, no special supernatural intervention was required”

Here’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, for if we buy Darwin lock-stock-and-barrel, excluding God from the process of human creation, must we not embrace reductionism, too? Think of it like this. If I plan an assembly line to make gingerbread men, get the materials, organize it and set it in motion, what will its results be? Gingerbread men only. The mere fact that an intelligent being is behind it all doesn’t change the fact that, if I start with matter and shape it by impersonal forces, then what results will be material. Nothing more.

The question of what C.S. Lewis thought about evolution has been argued for years and will doubtless continue to be argued for years to come. I’ll not try to settle it here, but I will quote a passage from The Problem of Pain in which he acknowledges at least implicitly the point I’m trying to make here.

“For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends. Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me,’ which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past.” (Emphasis mine)
Here Lewis acknowledges the possibility that God might make a suitably complex human body through Darwinian evolution, but he also recognizes that for that being to be truly human something else has to occur. God has to add something to the mix that will not only define what people can do, but who they are.

Denis Alexander recognizes this problem, too, but tries to solve it without miraculously changing the nature of human beings. He reduces the image of God in humans to two categories, neither of which mitigate the reductionistic results of Darwinian evolution. “First, the delegation of divine authority does seem to be a key element of the term… A further important aspect of being “made in God’s image is that it involves relationship with God.” I fear Alexander confuses cause and effect here. We are not made in the image of God because we have a relationship with him; we can have a relationship with him, because we are made in his image. I have a relationship with my cat, Wampuss, too, but despite this she is only a cat and will never be more than that. Unlike Wampuss humans have the capacity for rational thought, self-consciousness, moral convictions, choices, language, love, creativity and a host of other less-describable qualities that stubbornly resist reduction to mere matter and oppose reductionistic theories of evolution as fiercely as materialism opposes miracles.

If I’m right, then Alexander, Collins et al are firmly in the grip of Percy’s dilemma. They are caught between a rock and a hard place, between their allegiance to a materialistic evolutionary process and a reductionist view of human nature that as followers of Jesus, they would rather avoid. It’s a precarious position, but not one without remedy. They may together with believers throughout the ages affirm their commitment to science and to a scientific understanding of nature, while at the same time remembering that there are realities in a created world that are not reducible to mere matter and never fully explainable in scientific terms. The resurrection of Jesus is one such reality. Our own existence is another.