Teleology, evolution, imagination.
I’ve been following Jim Manzi’s series* on evolution and teleology with some interest. In his most recent post, Manzi states the proposition he wants to defend:
The findings of the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology (MES) do not demonstrate that the universe is not unfolding according to a divine plan that privileges human beings. An informal specification of what I mean in my claim by “does not demonstrate” is not restricted to something like “does not demonstrate it because it’s possible that everything we believe we observe through sense data is an illusion” or things of that ilk, but instead is closer to the sense of “does not make it obviously unreasonable to believe it”.
On its face, this is a pretty narrow claim, and one that I think I agree with. He doesn’t want us to say that evolution is intrinsically goalless, since programmers like Manzi have used genetic algorithms, which are analogous to biological evolution, in order to achieve optimization goals. When we accept that the steps of evolution, or an evolution-like process, are in some sense random, we don’t get to conclude that the whole process must be non-directed, or that human beings are necessarily inconsequential to this process’s final cause.
And that appears to be where Manzi wants to stop. It’s a hard place to stop, because it seems like the next thing you’re supposed to offer is some plausible goal for the whole process. Manzi doesn’t do that. He suggests that Augustine and Aquinas might have been on to something, but he disconnects that musing from the main body of the argument.
But it’s not unreasonable to ask what this end goal could possibly be. From the narrow factual claim, we want to know if there’s a persuasive conception of what a divine plan could be. Noah Millman deals very nicely with the way the factual claim flows into the hermeneutical one, and turns us to Douglas Adams’s version of Earth as a giant computer — a version of Manzi’s genetic algorithm writ large. What could this evolutionary process be leading to? Historically, Western philosophers and Christian theologians pointed to man as a culmination, but Millman’s right that evolutionary biology undermines this idea’s appeal:
So the real question is whether Darwin’s theory radically undermined the persuasiveness of the idea that we are the pinnacle of creation – an idea that comes up again and again in the Abrahamic religions. And I think you’d have to argue that it does, for three reasons: first, because the idea of a natural heirarchy no longer is persuasive; second, because the mechanism of natural selection is repugnant to our usual conception of the Abrahamic God; and third, because if evolution is the mechanism of creation, then creation has not come to an end.
Theologian David B. Hart came at a similar observation from a different angle (as it happens, in a meditation on gnosticism and The Little Prince):
The world we inhabit—the world our imaginations know and within which our deepest desires must move—is the world after Darwin (and Marx and Freud and a host of other prophets of disenchantment, but first and foremost Darwin); we simply cannot now (if we are paying attention) imagine a universe whose grandeurs and mysteries unambiguously lead the reflective mind beyond themselves towards a transcendent order both benign and provident. There was a time, perhaps, when nature really did seem to speak with considerable eloquence of a good creator and a rational creation. Formal and final causes were everywhere visible, guiding material and efficient causes towards their several—yet harmoniously interwoven—ends. The endless diversity of nature was an elaborate, gorgeous, and glittering hierarchy, rising from the dust to heights beyond the merely cosmic, comprising worms and angels within a single continuum of articulate splendor. That was a while ago, however.
Do you remember that part in Brave New World where Mustapha Mond talks about how God manifests himself as an absence in this age? I didn’t understand what Huxley was talking about when I first read the book. But I may have it a little bit better now. What we thought was a plan written in creation seems to be no such thing, leaving us with the echoes of a revelation and a mess of ambiguous interior events. I don’t know how to imagine a divine plan that would fit our situation.
Must revelation be sufficient?
*For the sake of completeness: Manzi disputes a Jerry Coyne review of The Evolution of God, Daily Dish readers respond to Manzi, Manzi responds to the mailbag, Coyne responds to Manzi, Manzi in Coyne’s comments, Manzi responds to Coyne more fully, Matt Steinglass against Manzi, Manzi back to Steinglass, Noah Millman to clarify, and Manzi once more.