Ask Dr. Cobb

October 2005 Question

Does process theology support those who are promoting “Intelligent Design” as explanatory of evolution?

Dr. Cobb's Response

A simple answer is possible. No. From the point of view of process theology “intelligent design” is not a scientific theory and should not be presented as an alternative to the dominant theory of evolution. I say this first to avoid confusion about my position, because much of what I will say as I continue expresses a good deal of sympathy for this idea. My sympathy can be expressed by three basic points.

First, as a process theologian I do believe that divine intelligence affects the course of events generally, including biological evolution. This intelligence works purposefully and provides direction to the process. This is certainly close to the convictions of those who promote “intelligent design.”

Second, process theologians do not believe that the standard teaching of biological evolution in our schools is adequate. The full reality of evolution is not explained by the mechanisms proposed in most biology textbooks. Revision is needed.

Third, this revision should avoid the reductionistic character of current evolutionary theory in such a way as to overcome its systematic closure against the involvement of God in the process.

These points of agreement or overlap with advocates of intelligent design sharpen the question why I oppose its teaching in the public schools. At the political level I do so because we have decided as a society not to promote any particular form of philosophical or theological thought in our schools. The phrase, intelligent design, implies almost necessarily a supernatural religious view, and most of those who promote it favor that kind of thinking. The teaching of science in public schools needs to stay closer to the empirical evidence and testable theories. I would take this position even if I agreed fully with the theory of intelligent design.

Actually, the same need to avoid ideological teaching in the public schools underlies my objection to the currently dominant form of evolutionary theory. In this theory the ideological element of modern science comes strongly and destructively to expression. Modern science early allied itself with a reductionist, materialist, mechanist model of the world. There is no scientific proof of the truth or adequacy of this model, and it is this model that process philosophy challenges. The currently dominant theory of evolution highlights the implications of this model because it so clearly implies that we human beings are a part of this world machine. This ideology should not be taught in public schools any more than intelligent design. Unfortunately, it is now implicitly taught with the authority of science.

Accordingly, as a process theologian I am quite sympathetic with conservatives who want alternative theories taught. “Creationism,” as such an alternative, failed to deal adequately with overwhelming bodies of empirical evidence. The theory of intelligent design is not so easily dismissed. In my opinion, its supporters do point to data that can more easily be understood on the assumption that there is a divine influence than on the assumption that the presently dominant model is adequate. Nevertheless, proponents of intelligent design move too quickly to a kind of explanation that falls outside the boundaries of science.

Further, as a process theologian, I do not agree with the theory of intelligent design.  This theoretical level of the question may be of greater interest here than the political one. How does the view of process theologians that divine intelligence is at work in the world relate to the theory of intelligent design?

On the whole, the advocates of intelligent design accept the mechanistic view of the natural world. This leads to the position, long held by scientists and theologians alike, that God has imposed laws on nature. These laws express God’s design for the world. The God who imposes these laws can also impose more particular patterns as needed.

Process theology need not wholly reject the notion of imposed law. Whitehead asserts that there has been and can be only one divine act that is unaffected by creaturely acts. This is the basic ordering of the eternal objects, the realm of possibility. God has imposed limitations on what will ever be actually possible in the universe. Today scientists talk about the physical “constants” and point out that if they were different, life could not have arisen in the universe. The ordering of possibility is the deepest ground of the order that gives rise to the notion of the laws of nature. It may channel developments in certain directions instead of others that in purely abstract consideration are equally possible. The ordering of possibility certainly expresses intelligence.

For Whitehead and those of us who follow him, the order of possibility works internally to every actuality. The world is not made up of bits of matter that are set in motion along predetermined routes from without. The world is made up of partly self-determining events, each of which decides among those options that are made possible by the divine ordering of possibility given the actual world in that moment.

The word “design” is misleading in this context. It suggests an imposed outcome rather than one that is the joint result of the primordial divine decision and many creaturely ones. Within the limitations imposed by God’s decision there are numerous genuinely possible directions for the course of events to follow. Evolution need not have produced human beings. Nevertheless, the basic order of things is such that this specific outcome was possible and that there is a general tendency to achieve organisms capable of greater intensity and complexity of experience.

I am not advocating that the process view of God’s role in evolution be taught in public schools. What I do advocate is that there be recognition of the diverse elements contributory to evolution. Today the focus is almost entirely on random genetic changes, with the rare beneficial ones selected by environmental factors. But there are many indications that the activities of organisms also play a large role in evolution. This is true from the cell through human beings. It is hard not to suppose that the preference of so many biologists for explanation in terms of random mutations rather than the choices of individual organisms is ideological rather than scientific in any idealized or normative sense.

From the point of view intelligent design a change in the way evolution is interpreted scientifically might not make much difference. From the point of view of process theology it would make a great difference. Current teaching of evolution implies ultimately that human beings are nothing but matter in motion. Human purpose and intelligence is basically an illusion, simply a by-product of mechanical forces with no causal influence in the world. If, in contrast, it were recognized that every action of every entity has some effect, however trivial, on the evolutionary process, the implication would be entirely different. At the human level, the effect on the evolutionary process is far from trivial.

The vision would be that every event is extensively, even primarily, shaped by its past but, nevertheless, has some element, however slight, of self-determination. This becomes more significant in more complex creatures. This self-determination is selection among those possibilities provided for it by God’s ordering. Creaturely purpose and divine purpose appear together in this vision.

Where to draw the line in terms of what is taught in school is harder to decide from the process perspective. I believe, however, that the scientific evidence indicates that creaturely activity influences the evolutionary process and that this should be taught. I believe the evidence indicates that at advanced levels this creaturely activity is intelligently purposeful. I believe that scientists can acknowledge that even at lower levels it is sometimes functional and underdetermined by the circumstances, which means it is purpose-like.

I believe scientists can acknowledge that in the process of evolution there is the emergence of new properties that change the nature of the whole process. This means that the reductive commitments of the traditional model should be given up. Newly emergent properties act back upon the entities from which they have emerged. Most important, psychic or mental events not only are influenced by physical ones but also influence them. In my opinion if scientists examined the evidence without a strong ideological bias in favor of reduction, they could teach such causal relationships without abandoning the limits of science.

I realize, of course, that this would be an enormous change and one that would prove very difficult for many scientists to accept. Many would object as vehemently to such changes as to the teaching of intelligent design. However, I do not take the opposition of scientists as a reason for not pushing for such teaching in public schools. The issue in this case is that of empirical evidence. If the evidence does not support emergence and what can be called top-down causation, scientists should not teach these theories. But if the evidence does support them, and only deeply established ideology prevents it, we have the right to demand at least that alternative theories be taught.

I would like to imagine that some day it would be possible to talk about God in scientific discourse. That is not possible today. One may talk about the physical constants that make life possible, but one cannot describe these as a divine decision. I am hoping that we can move to a situation in which the actions of organisms, including intelligent and purposive actions, can be recognized as playing an important role in evolutionary development, but for the foreseeable future we cannot talk about any divine influence on those actions.

Part of the problem is that the word “God” is so bound up with supernaturalism that God’s role in natural processes cannot be considered without violating science. When considering what can be taught in public schools, this limitation must be respected. But either under this term or some other, perhaps “divine Spirit” we can in our own circles speak in ways that bring our knowledge of the natural world and our understanding of deity into mutually supportive and illuminating relationships. Perhaps some day that would allow us to educate our children in a more holistic or inclusive context.

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