The Evolution Enigma

Last Night’s CCP Meeting was on the question of evolution. An intriguing and often highly emotional topic, it is one of those areas where, supposedly, science and fatih clash.

I’ve been doing a little bit of reading on the topic lately, and I have found there are a few conclusions that I think one is safe to draw about the current state of affairs. Please allow me to share them with you.

1. Evolution as a scientific theory is elegant, relatively simple, and in many ways quite a beautiful concept, if you look at it from a purely scientific point of view.

2. Looked at against the wider background of our existence, it can be a very ugly concept. I have no doubt whatsoever that some of the worst atrocities committed by humans in the past century were justified, whether consciously or subconsciously, by an evolutionary world view. Hitler’s purification of the German race is an attempt to take control of evolution. What gave him the right to do so? Because he was the “Fittest” and it is the fittest who should survive. The deaths of millions in the gas chambers is no more than the necessary by product of this law of nature, and we should not weep over it. Or so he thought.

3. Evolution still has many gaping holes. We started to look at some last night but time constraints meant we had to leave the rest for another session. Chief among the unresolved issues are the incredible probabilities against putting together DNA in the right sequence merely by chance, the vexed question of how the first life could possibly have arisen, and the lack of any sensible mechanism for the introduction of new genes into an organism’s genome. There are more, but these are my favorites.

4. Even if one day it should become apparent that evolution is the true cause of life on Earth beyond a shadow of a doubt, I cannot see how this would affect our faith. The Bible is interested in telling us what God did. How He did it is really His concern, and although we get a glimpse, we must not expect to be able to understand His ways. I still can’t understand how my mechanic diagnoses and fixes problems in my car, much less the mechanism of the Creation of the whole Cosmos! But to me, if the universe really can produce life all by itself, naturally and without any supernatural input, that would be an even greater miracle. I might be able to get some wood together and build a chair. Sure it would take some time, and it would probably wobble, but I think I could do it. What I don’t think I could do is build a machine that builds chairs without any help from me. Now that’s hard! So if God built a universe that can produce life without any supernatural input from Him, that would be a far greater miracle than if He had built each species individually.

5. There is, however, the case of microevolution as opposed to macroevolution. Macroevolution involves one species evolving into another species, and as such requires whole new genes to be inserted into the organism’s genetic code. There simply is no known mechanism for this to happen in most cases, and there does not seem to be any possibility for us finding one. But Microevolution involves the slightest fiddling with the existing genetic code, such as that which produces a tall or a short person, the colour of your eyes, or the resistance of bacteria against an antibiotic. Microevolution is implied in the Bible since all the different races of humans in the world are descended from just one family of eight people (Noah’s family). Clearly, all the variations between races must have arisen by a mechanism such as microevolution. But there is no evidence that I can see that can overcome the need for whole new genes in macroevolution.

6. Many people accept or reject evolution for reasons other than the actual science. If you want there not to be a God, you can use evolution as way of supporting your case that He didn’t have to be around to make us. And equally, if you want there to be a God, you can find the many, many holes there are in the theory of evolution. So how can one come to a genuinely objective Truth? I’m not sure anyone can. I admit freely that I am biased. I believe in God, for many other reason, and so I come to the evolution question expecting God to be a part of the true answer. And I find more than enough evidence to fulfil that expectation. But the fact is that the jury still out. Evolution is not fact, not macroevolution, anyway. So until we find unavoidably compelling evidence one way or the other, I suppose people will continue to choose their side on the basis of other factors.

7. I don’t think we should be ‘afraid’ of evolution. Sometimes Christians speak as though there was a demon called evolution, and we must not dabble with evil spirits, so stay right away! But evolution is not a demon, it is an idea, and ideas have no personalities or motivations. They can be right or wrong, they can tend towards causing evil or good, but in the end, they are just ideas. I think it is good for a Christian to understand the concept of evolution well, and to also be aware of all its shortcomings.

In the final analysis, our understanding of our universe is constantly changing, constantly being updated as new information becomes available. Personally, I suspect that in a few hundred years’ time the theory of evolution will have been replaced by some other explanation that we cannot even imagine today, much as Gallileo could not possibly have anticipated quantum physics.

But I don’t think I’ll be around to see it. Then again, by then I will be occupied with far more important things…

Fr Ant

One FLEW out of the Atheist Nest

I’ve just finished reading the latest book by British philosopher, Antony Flew. He is now in his eighties, and has come to a conclusion that has startled the world. The title of the book sums up his conclusion quite nicely:

“There is A God”

The subtitle explains the amazement of the world:

“How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.

The preface of the book explains that from the 1950s onwards, Flew basically laid the foundations of modern atheism in a series of ground-breaking papers. For example, he contended that atheism should be the ‘default’ position – we should start NOT believing in God. The burden of proof then lies with the faithful, to prove His existence, rather than the atheist having to prove He doesn’t exist. he suggested that we have not yet described how it is logically possible for a God to exist who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who exists everywhere.

Flew’s philosophy was the foundation upon which modern atheists such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith) built their ideas and arguments against the existence of God. As you might imagine, they are not at all pleased with his turnaround!

So what has changed his mind? In a nutshell, he has come to the conclusion that there are things in this universe that are best explained by the existence of God. His arguments are all based on reason, logic. For example, how does something come from nothing? – there is no other sensible way to explain the existence fot he universe. The incredible fine-tuning of the universe in general and earth in particular that makes our existence possible – this is powerful evidence of Someone who had an intention, and designed the universe to be just so. The mystery of our consciousness; the fact that we know that we exist – how can matter, which is physical, produce consciousness, which is clearly non-physical?

Flew has been accused of giving in to fear in his old age (he is 85). As his inevitable death approaches, they say, he is hedging his bets. He is accepting belief in God just in case it turns out to be true, laying Pascal’s Wager. But this analysis couldn’t be further from the truth. Flew goes to great pains to clarify that although he has accepted the existence of God as truth, he is still sceptical about an afterlife. And indeed, his history and arguments in this book show clearly that his conclusions are the result of a very honest analysis of the issues and are not at all motivated by any emotion whatsoever.

His attitude to Christianity is interesting. He seems to be saying that if any religion is true, it is most likely to be Christianity, and there is an interesting dialogue at the end of the book between Flew and Bishop NT Wright, a Christian theologian, in which Wright presents a powerful defence of the Christian faith. Perhaps Flew’s final reflection in the book sums up his current position best:

I am very much impressed with Bishop Wright’s approach … Is it possible that there has been or can be divine revelation? As I said, you cannot limit the possibilities of omnipotence except to produce the logically impossible. Everything else is open to omnipotence.

This book is not for everyone – the arguments in it are often quite complex and some background knowledge of philosophy and its ways and jargon is most helpful. But Flew’s style of writing is a delight; he is one of those old-style English writers who uses the English langauge so elegantly and economically.

Who knows if he will eventually come to a faith in Christ?

He is, after all, only 85…

Fr Ant

Two Sides of the Rainbow

Walking along one day, I began to feel the raindrops on my face. This worried me a little, as the clouds above were pretty heavy and grey, and I was still some distance from my destination (a hospital). But it was the afternoon, and despite the heavy grey canopy directly above, the afternoon sun was shining bright amber under the clouds.

It struck me that the same storm that threatened to soak me miserably would very likely create a beautiful, bright rainbow for anyone watching from few kilometers out to the west…

“One man’s storm is another man’s rainbow”

I began to wonder how often this might prove true…

One man dies painfully from lung cancer; another man is frightened into quitting smoking.

One man has a horrible car accident; thousands slow down and drive more carefully.

One man fails his interview for job; another man’s family will now be able to afford proper food and clothing.

One man dies fighting a bushfire; hundreds of lives and homes are saved.

One man is mutilated fighting in a war; a whole country is protected from invasion.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons God permits us to suffer. Perhaps the good we buy for others with our suffering is all the more precious and wonderful for the price that has been paid for it, especially if that price is paid willingly, joyfully and with genuine unselfish love.

So the next time you benefit from someone else’s sacrifice, stop and think about that person and say a little prayer for them. And the next time things are not going well for you, think about this: without you knowing, someone else’s hope may be growing because of your storm’s rainbow…


Fr Ant

The Unknown God

Who Is God?

Our lives as Christians are meant to be built upon a personal relationship with God. Our Lord Jesus came down to earth to reveal to us the nature and personality of God in a way we could accept, and to dwell among us without destroying us with His unbearable glory. Daily we pray to Him. We strive to run our lives according to His commands and we seek to do that which pleases Him. Ask anyone in church, even the naughtiest of kids, “Do you love God?” and with even hesitating, a confident “yes!” will be the response.

Yet, who is the God we love? St Augustine repeatedly asks this question in his Confessions, giving some beautiful answers, but I am trapped in the 21st century, in the age of logic and reason and the scientific method. Can these tell me anything about God?

I think so. Let’s see how far it can take us…

I mentioned in a comment following a recent post that the theory of a Big Bang forces the 21st century seeker for truth to admit there must have been a beginning to the universe. Some have begun to look for ways around this, but to my mind (and that of many others, including atheists) none of the attempts are worth taking seriously. If you must have a beginning, then you must have a beginner, a First Cause that is itself without a cause. Thus, cosmology plus a little basic logic leads to the conclusion that the uncaused First Cause, whom we call ‘God’, is actually essential, is necessary, if anything is to exist at all. And we think we exist, since we are here, asking the question (cogito ergo sum*).

But beyond that, it is surprisingly difficult to really know anything specific and with certainty about God. Without ‘special revelation’, that is the Bible and the Church traditions we have recieved via the Apostles, ‘general revelation’, that is, what we can see in our universe, reveals only faint hints, glimpses, as it were, “in a mirror, dimly” (I Cor. 13).

We deduce that God is great from the hugeness of this universe that surrounds. We further deduce that we are but a tiny, tiny part of that creation, making the fact that God loves us little specks of dust even more incredible. But how big is God? The answer is, He isn’t. He is neither big, nor small. He is neither short or tall, wide or thin. The usual description we use is that God is unlimited in space, yet this is, strictly speaking, not true either. As far as we can understand, God cannot be measured using the three dimensions of space we are used to, for He created that three dimensional space, and He Himself existed when it was not, and exists now “outside” of space, whatever that may mean. If you try to characterise God using the language and concepts of three dimensional, or even n-dimensional space, you cannot succeed.

Neither is it possible to define God in terms of time. How old is God? We usually say that God is eternal, and clarify that by saying that He has no beginning and no end. But that inevitably implies that God exists ‘inside’ time, He is actually on the timeline, so to speak, and differs from everything else in that they have a beginning (and sometimes an end) whereas He does not. But this is wrong. God made time. He exists without time. He existed ‘before’ time began, whatever that may mean. Any description of God that involves time will therefore be inadequate and inaccurate. And we have no language that does not depend on the concept of time. Try it now. Try to make a sentence that describes God (or anything else) without using a time-dependent word or concept.

“God is love”?

‘is’ denotes the present, as opposed to the past or the future, and is thus a time-dependent concept.

What kind of being is God? We usually call God, “He”. In recent times, the feminists have taken great umbridge to this sexism and Bibles have been published referring to God as “She”“Our Mother who art in heaven”, and so on. Traditionalists are outraged by this modern editing of a text over 3,500 years old in some places. Who is right? Strictly speaking, neither. Gender is a characteristic of physical living beings – animals and birds and reptiles and fish. Humans have gender because they need to reproduce, but angels have no gender. Thus did our Lord answer those who asked who in heaven would be the husband of the woman who had married five men during her life by saying, “They neither marry nor are they given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven”.

Sure, we use masculine words to express God’s superior strength, or feminine language to communicate His gentle nurturing love, but all these are human words applied to One who is far, far beyond humanity, infinitely far, in fact. ‘He’ and ‘She’ are thus woefully inadequate. ‘It’ sounds downright rude, lowering God to the level of a senseless stone or a coffee table. We have no other pronouns in our language! Perhaps we should invent one, to be reserved especially for God and for Him alone? ‘Thee’ perhaps, echoing the Greek root word for God, theo?

I could go on.

The disappointing fact is that God is just so far beyond our imagination, experience or comprehension that we simply cannot know Him. Everything we think about Him is bound to be inadequate, and thus, strictly speaking, wrong. The Ancient Fathers, especially in the east, recognised this, and some of them insisted that we cannot truthfully describe God using positive terms; saying what He is, but we can only use negative terms; we can only rule out what He is not. You might have noticed that St Gregory’s Anaphora lists a whole lot of negatives: “the ineffable; the unseen; the uncontainable; without beginning; the eternal ; the timeless; the limitless; the unsearchable; the unchanging.”

It is just as well, then, that God Himself chose to tell us about Himself. Of course, He must use limited language that we can understand, but when He does so, He highlights for us the things that are important, the things that matter. It’s a bit like your teacher highlighting the bits that will be in the upcoming exam for you so you don’t have to waste time studying the whole textbook!

And just what is it that God chooses to highlight? Is it e=mc^2? Is it the structure of the electron shells around the nucleaus of an atom? Is it how to accurately predict weather conditions? No, it is none of these. What He points out to us is…

“God is love”.

Our curiosity leads us to try to understand God with our brains, and by and large, we fail miserably. But perhaps that is not the important thing. Perhaps the important thing is to feel God’s love for us in our hearts, and to love Him from our hearts in return. Knowing about God is nowhere near as important as knowing God. The mind can tell us a little about the character of God, but it is in living with God daily, and minute by minute; in feeling that He surrounds us and dwells within us; in ‘touching Him’ when we live by His commandments and ‘meeting Him’ in every tiny act of kindness towards another; in these things do we come to know God.

Even if I knew nothing about God, just knowing Him would be enough.

“To the Unknown God” – the inscription on an altar, seized upon by St Paul to start preaching to the philosophical Greeks. A God Unknown, but Loving … and that is more than enough.

Fr Ant

  • * cogito ergo sum = I think, therefore I am: Descartes.
  • You Have No Choice But To Read This…

    I’ve been doing a little research recently into the question of Free Will. Are we really free to choose our own course in life? This has turned up a new line of reasoning (for me) that surprised me a little bit. In its simplest form, it runs like this:

    How does the atheist explain free will?

    To the atheist, not only does God not exist, but the only things that exist are those that are made of atoms and energy. Thus, there is nothing more to the human brain than the cells from which it is made and the electrical impulses and chemical transmitters that communicate between those cells, all of which we can see and study. Therefore, all human thought, all human emotions, all human intelligence, even human consciousness (knowing that I exist) are all nothing more than the result of the millions of connections in the physical human brain.

    Looked at from another angle, this would mean that if we were clever enough, we could in theory build a supercomputer that is the exact counterpart of a human brain – same pattern of connections on its microchips as your brain has between its brain cells.

    Would this computer thus be human? Would it have a mind? Would it be conscious? Would it be alive?

    I don’t think so. I think that the fact that we have free will is very powerful proof against our mind being nothing more than connections between cells. Here’s why:

    All matter and energy must follow the laws of nature. The charge of an electron is always the same, chemical reactions always run the same given the same circumstances and so on. Tossing a coin is not actually random: if you knew the exact starting position, the exact force applied, the exact effect of air friction etc, you could predict whether it was going to be heads or tails with 100% accuracy every time! Imagine what you could do with the Lotto numbers …

    In the same way, if our brains are only cells following the laws of nature, then there simply is no free will. Our thoughts, feelings and emotions were all determined for us from the moment of our conception, and there is nothing we can do to change that. Just think about that – who will choose to change your decision? You can’t because all you can think with is your brain, and you have no choice in how your brain behaves – it has to obey the laws of nature. If that were true, then you actually had no choice wheter or not to read this blog.

    Now this is a huge dilemma for the atheist. We all KNOW that we have free will. When provoked with the question of free will, the famous Samuel Johnson replied, “I know I have free will, and there’s an end to the matter!” But how can free will exist in a universe where the laws of nature cannot be fiddled with?

    It seems to me that the only sane and rational answer is to suggest that there is an aspect to our ‘mind’ that is not made of matter or energy. Call this aspect what ever you like (Christians call it the spirit), but if free will exists, then the only thing that can drive it is something that is not bound by the laws of nature. Something that can be genuinely independent, and thus make genuinely independent choices.

    Atheists don’t like this, since you can’t examine a spirit under a microscope. We may never be able to pin down what exactly a spirit is. But they will continue, no doubt to search for natural explanations for both consciousness and free will. My reading so far suggests this is not only a daunting task, but may well one day be proved to be a totally impossible task.

    Deep stuff!

    Fr Ant