Friday, April 03, 2009

TV Viewing Diary: Did Darwin Kill God?

As a sop to those viewers who apparently thought that Sir David Attenborough's documentary about Charles Darwin was "one-sided", the BBC has permitted handsome and trendy Nottingham University theologian Conor Cunningham to make a programme which answers this particular question in the negative.

Cunningham began by stating his deep admiration for Darwin and his contribution to science. He then stated his apparently non-contradictory belief in God and in the nature of Jesus Christ as the living incarnation of that God. "Mainstream Christianity" — by which he seemed to mean Catholicism but didn't say so— has never had a problem with Darwin's ideas: for instance, St Augustine would have positively dug them, he wished us to believe. The problem however has been the aberration within Christian thought we now know as Creationism and the even less helpful response to it, Ultra-Darwinism. ("The conflict was contrived by an unorthodox strand within my faith..." That would be the Reformation then!)

In as much that ancient and medieval Christians were comfortable with a non-literal reading of the Book of Genesis and so should modern ones be, Cunningham insisted. Meanwhile, the 'idea of God' is fundamentally un-threatened by On The Origins of Species and indeed, the very question "Is there a God?" is not a scientific one.

I've heard all these arguments before and they are all dodges. The 'idea of God' is simply a way of anthropomorphising that part of the mystery of existence which remains inaccessible to the rational mind. The same idea underpins most of the world's great religions, but once you get down to the specifics of scripture and dogma, there is in fact plenty for science to get its teeth into. For while Genesis may simply be an allegorical rather than a factual account of the origins of the universe, this allegory has a meaning which is open to scientific scrutiny: that a supernatural being created something — everything in fact — out of nothing.

A contemporary cosmologist might respond thus: the one thing that appears not to exist, to not even be possible within the cosmos as we currently understand it, is nothing. Nowhere does a perfect void manifest itself, for even within the coldest, darkest, emptiest environment quantum particles can spontaneously flicker into existence. The probabilistic plane out of which they pop is certainly one of the deeper scientific mysteries available for us to contemplate, but it's not one that is much clarified by the insertion of a supreme being.

I'd agree with Cunningham that the Ultra-Darwinists have probably exaggerated the philosophical explanatory power of Darwin's theory. Richard Dawkins in particular acts as if the material universe is all there is to explain. (Compared to Dawkins the timbre of Cunningham's voice is beguilingly calm and convincing.)

Of the two believing scientists that Cunningham interviewed, the one with the most fascinating ideas is Cambridge University's Simon Conway Morris. For his beliefs have led him to explore the almost platonistic notion that the 'mindless' algorithm of natural selection, operating within the contingent cosmos of time and space, may perhaps be subject to the influence of non-contingent 'universals'. Do similarities between bird music and human music portend to a universal tune that evolution is somehow listening to as it goes about its daily job? Why do dolphins and an extict non-mammalian fossil fish have such a similar body form? Can aesthetics be entirely explained away by the wiring within our heads, etc.

The "eerie predictability" uncovered by Conway Morris is hard to dismiss out of hand. That there is "more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophies" is I think a given, even for the most ardent rationalist.

However, there's no doubt that Darwin's theory will pose specific challenges to any 'universal theory of mind', because - as noted here recently - he made it possible for the first time to sensibly assert that matter comes before mind. And once you allow that sentience can be an after-effect of matter in motion, Divine sentience becomes more of a scientific curiosity.

While I conisder myelf an unbeliever — an infidel — I do sometimes find a remote place for this 'idea of God' in the fact that the mystery of existence isn't just any old mystery, it appears to me at least to be very nearly a perfect one. Cunningham himself concluded that "indeed, the theory of evolution even helps to stop my understanding of God becoming too domestic...too cosy...too small". Funny that — declining to accept unquestioningly an explanatory system grounded in Bronze Age literature has a similar effect for me.


Mark said...

I have no problem with some of Darwin's ideas, but they're hardly a satisfactory answer to the questions you referred to. He fails to answer the fundamental questions about who we are, why we are, etc. I think Augustine did a much better job with this.

El Blogador said...

Yes, but Darwin was a scientist not a philosopher like Daniel Dennett, and so not directly concerned with such matters.

His aim was simply to demonstrate through logic and evidence that species were not immutable and that the most likely mechanism for change was variation followed by selection.

This theory does not preclude an unknowable, non-material purpose to the cosmos but it does have philosophical implications, some of which Darwin himself could not have anticipated - such as its relationship to our contemporary understanding of algorithmic processes which informs much of modern computation.

And the theory should cause any educated mind to reconsider many of the historical/ cosmological / metaphysical (if not the ethical)notions that underpin monotheistic scriptures.