I almost stumbled into a theological debate the other day. It was prevented by my not frequently used sense of tact. At a family gathering, a young in-law was commenting on his course in theology and surprisingly, he said he liked it! As an incoming freshman at the catholic University of Dayton (Ohio), it is a required course. He liked the logic of it and its abstract thoughtfulness, he said.
An older in-law chimed in saying that he too took that course many decades previously. He is a graduate of U.D. and slightly religious, but mostly he is a very practical man; a successful business owner and a person not inclined to obtuse thought of any form. Yet, one idea from the course stuck with him, he said: “that in the beginning there was nothing, and now there is something; God was necessary to get something out of nothing.”
I declined to respond to that particular idea. I was under strict orders (from the wife) to keep things light; so instead, I remarked that other theological arguments were of interest too, like the argument for God from design, or even the “ontological proof,” and that is where the discussion pretty much ended.
And there is something of interest in some of these ‘proofs.’ The argument from design, for example, contends that all the fancy, complex interconnections in the world around us (including us) is evidence of a supremely capable designer, God. That contention is akin to the “something from nothing” argument. How do you get all the marvels of today from, if not exactly nothing, then from the interaction of only heat, chemicals, and gravity, for example? It seems to many people an insufferable gap—a metaphysical leap—between non-life and life, insensate matter and consciousness, a universe of only atoms and a universe of goodness and evil, beauty and the abhorrent.
The traditional answer to these conundrums is to impose some magic: A divinity must intervene. A grand creator is necessary. Some ‘breath’ (the Greek noumena) must be added to the “dust.” Some ‘spark’ must be applied; a spark like a common earthly spark—in some ways—but much more potent because of its immaterial character. You need to add some ‘spirit’ to matter; some supreme intelligence must be at work, it is said.
Concerning “something from nothing,” the answer I could have given my theistic relative is this: “You have painted yourself into an intellectual corner. In common experience and scientific research, we never discover the predecessor of a thing to be nothing, or the working components of a thing to be nonexistent (no insides!). Yet this is how you have framed your problem—‘how from nothing, something?’ It is little wonder that you need to go fishing and come up with an equally baffling idea for an answer: God.”
“In reality what we always find is a series of things leading to another thing or originating in another thing. In a larger thing, we always find smaller parts. So, in general, it’s processes inside of processes inside of processes; cycles inside of cycles; parts made of parts; all the way ‘down’ (smaller) and all the way ‘out’ (larger). This, and not theism, is the most reasonable philosophical belief for today,” I could have concluded.
That is a satisfying answer, certainly suitable for any free-wheeling family get-together discussion; but in our current context—here at the Nature Religion Connection-–it needs an addendum for a more complete understanding.
When the processes in processes and the cycles on top of cycles come together in a new way and create a new thing, new qualities and abilities emerge in that object. “ ‘Emergent’: important word that,” says biology theorist, Richard Dawkins. In other words, where did these qualities and abilities in this new thing come from? Is their appearance some deep mystery that needs more than a physical explanation to understand? Is it a ‘leap’ as unlikely as “getting blood from a turnip,” as the old saying puts it?
No, it is not a metaphysical leap, but it is getting more from less. Though we cannot get something from nothing, Evolution* can get more from, well, less. And, in this sense, we do need a special explanatory principle. Evolutionary Theory is how we explain the origin and existence of complexity; it is how we explain “Climbing Mount Improbable,” says Dawkins. “The basic Darwinian motif” is “in the beginning there was some relatively unstructured and unsophisticated raw material; mutations of one sort or another occurred; and out of this emerged something novel,” contends the philosopher and cognitive scientist, Daniel Dennett. This novel thing that is produced will be more structured; it will be the outcome of a more sophisticated organization, a more designed “raw material.” That is how to get more from less, enhance the design!
The so-called ‘leap’ in ability and character that appear in the new object may be as humble as the combination of two gases to get a liquid-–two hydrogen atom and one oxygen to get a water molecule. This ‘leap’ from gas to liquid does not shock us, though maybe it should considering it is a precursor of more startling things to come. For example, it seems that the proper combination of six chemicals can create life! To add insult to injury for those confounded by this possibility, for around $100 you can buy materials containing five of these chemicals (in their proper proportions) at your local hardware store and obtain the sixth by distilling urine!
Of course, all the ‘magic’ is in the recipe—how can you put these six elements together to allow them to live? It’s like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein! Various biochemists around the world are working at this very moment to do this, and, though they have made some significant advances, to date they have failed. To some people this leaves the door open: ‘there are gaps unbridgeable by science between not only non-life and life but also matter and consciousness, and caused events and free will,’ they protest. It is not hard to have some sympathy for this view, as an account in American Indian lore puts it: “on what particular day, long ago, did the mud sit up?”
Dennett, has two suggestions to help us with the appearance of such “leaps.” One, he argues that in reality there are no drastic gaps ; and two, we need to update our imagination and intuition if we feel there is.
First, he says, what lies between non-life and life, matter and conscious, et al, is a very long series of gradual changes, slight adjustments, incremental installments that create slightly more complex things, slightly more capable molecules, states and creatures. Billions of years of such tiny attempts form the evolutionary road to where we are today. This “gradualism” is a key component in Evolution and in the logic of any Holistic philosophy. Dennett carries this principal of gradualism to its logical end when he argues that, in reality, no exact line can be drawn between life and non-life, insensate things and conscious things, caused events and freely chosen actions! In Nature, boundaries are always fuzzy and gradual. Life shades off into non-life and freely chosen actions eek out some “elbow room” amid Nature as a causal matrix.
For example, viruses occupy a gray zone. Viruses both reproduce and are incapable of reproducing on their own. We can, in a sense, appropriately call them ‘bugs’—as in ‘flu bug’— yet we know they do not eat (metabolize). They are sort of alive, as are early stage fetuses and brain-dead patients.
Sensitivity and consciousness is another example of gradualism. In our everyday world, we think of a continuum of creatures who possess greater and lesser degrees of ‘mindfulness.’ An ant is like a little person, in some ways. It is full of intentions, scurrying about with jobs to do, goals to accomplish. Many of us even feel a twinge of regret if we step on one: ‘Oh, it must have felt pain.’ But we acknowledge that the ant is not a full-blown consciousness nor a full-blown person, and we kill hundreds of them with insecticide if they take up shop in our kitchen.
A plant is even less sensitive than the ant, with no consciousness at all; but the family dog, it ranks way up there, fully conscious (?), loyal, nearly a person. This continuum of growing consciousness, abilities and even ‘person-ality’ is what Dennett calls “a deep fact, the kind you build a theory on.” This fact reflects the history of the evolutionary appearance of abilities and creatures. In western culture, our awareness of these resemblances has been prevalent since, at least, the middle ages. There is “a great chain of being.”
In medieval philosophy and lore, this “great chain” started with God at the top and ran down to angels, humans, animals, plants and finally inanimate objects. It was thought to be the manifestation of god-like abilities in the world (in more modern terms, ‘mindfulness’, consciousness and value). Their chain included the social order, the prejudices and political ideology of the feudal society in Europe. It is curious to note, in the depiction at left, many of the particular rankings but especially that of actor—below a beggar and just above a thief!
This “Great Chain” is a “top-down” model of creation, says Dennett, and was one of the mainstay arguments against Evolution: ‘Only Absolute Wisdom could create lesser wisdoms and abilities. From Absolute Ignorance (inanimate matter) no creation occurs.’ None the less, the chain exhibits an awareness of gradualism and the family of relations that we find so prevalent in our experience of Nature and explained aptly only by the fact of Evolution. Today, the most reasonable way to understand this Great Chain is as biology’s Tree of Life. Gradualism is a hallmark of Nature.
Second, Dennett contends, if you are still prone to feel or think there are unbridgeable (metaphysical) gaps, then you need to expand your imagination and modernize your intuitions. A “bottom-up” vision of creation is readily available in fields beyond that of evolutionary biology. For example, machines can, now, think! They can write music, play chess and search and solve puzzles—a fact first proven as far back as World War II. Even one hundred years ago, the impulse to feel ‘startling gaps’ was understandable, but science, technology and speculative thought (art, science fiction in novels and movies, and much of modern philosophy) no longer make these ‘gaps’ obvious: They are no longer ‘common sense.’
Modern technology rivals the traditional “miracles of God” with organ replacement, artificial insemination, cloning, human flight, the fission and fusion of atoms and near instantaneous communication around our planet and even beyond. We have already revised many of our traditional intuitions and Dennett is a leader in that campaign. For example, he persuasively contends that we, humans, are very fancy, evolved machines; and someday very fancy, human-designed machines (robots) may be considered persons, though not human persons. These, all, are “intuition shakers” and “imagination stretchers” and they facilitate what was once considered merely a shameful, godless fantasy: bottom-up creativity.
So, we don’t need to get something from nothing. Instead, we have been very fortunate to get much from what seems relatively little. It took a lot of time (billions of years), a lot of effort (the subtle design adjustments of Evolution in generation after generation), and lots of research (the unrelenting trial and error of Natural Selection). In addition, it took some luck. The virtuoso was Mother Nature, not God, but now, even we—Her Children—have become significantly creative.
We, humans, are now in position to believe, with good reason, that in this part of the universe efforts have been underway to build a creation of vast significance: our biosphere. It is a living sculpture. Hopefully, we will continue to play a part that will not only assist in the survival of this work of art, but also promote its enhancement. After all, we are not only indebted to it; we are embedded in it!
*I have chosen to continue the tradition of capitalizing the “g” of God in this piece, but in an effort to mitigate this deference I will also capitalize the words—Nature, Mother Nature, Evolution, Holism. These terms describe what I take to be the real phenomena behind the apparition, God.