Saturday, January 07, 2006

Intelligent design, evolution, involution and the future of religion

One thread I never got to finish at the Daism Forum had to do with the debate over intelligent design. Thought I'd finish up on that here.

The main problem with the intelligent design debate is one of category error. Religious thinkers from the most rigid fundamentalists to the most "enlightened" mystics seem not to comprehend that science requires an approach of disciplined inspection that cannot accept subjective input on its own terms. Unfortunately many religious people lack a coherent concept of intellectual discipline, much less any will to develop any, and cannot seem to fathom that scientists take the notion of discipline and categorical integrity seriously. The discipline of science is a simple one: refusal of non-material evidence, and the demand that all ideas and hypotheses be subject to material confirmation or simply be discarded. Because of this disciplined approach, religious thinkers often accuse scientists of being materialists. This is like faulting athletes for focusing on their bodies. Scientists do not reject concepts of religion so much as they reject the very basis of religious discourse itself, which treats the material world as a shadow of a higher reality. They must do this, because without this approach science simply cannot produce meaningful results in physical terms. Computers cannot be designed and operated on faith, they must use proven scientific principles to work. When religionists accuse science of being meaningless, they are simply confusing the very category of meaning that science operates by with the meanings arrived at by metaphysical, philosophical and religious methods, which cannot build objectively meaningful systems such as computers but can build subjective meaningful systems like cultures.

Science is materialistic by design, and by that design it simply cannot consider non-material evidence, nor can it draw non-material conclusions. For that reason its conclusions cannot be considered to have great metaphysical import, one way or the other. And yet, its evidence must at least be taken into account by those who are trying to draw metaphysical conclusions about the nature of reality, unless those conclusions involve a denial of physical reality. The category error of conflating physics with metaphysics, religious meaning with objective meaning, consciousness with its objects of awareness, and scientific theory with philosophical theory results in massive confusion and unnecessary conflict.

The notion that the physical universe is created by intelligent design, or that the physical evolution of biological species is guided by an intelligent influence of some sort, cannot be demonstrated by resort to metaphysical or philosophical systems of thought. Nor are metaphysical explanations the default in the absence of coherent and proven scientific theory. Science and its conclusions about the physical world cannot be debunked by arguing that science and scientists are stuck in a materialistic view. Materialism is simply the very nature of the discipline of science, and scientists have to guard and enforce that discipline in order to prevent science from being subverted by philosophical biases that have no evidentiary basis.

Many religious people are not happy with the answers science gives about the material world because it seems to deny the belief they have that the material world obeys metaphysical laws which give their lives a deeper sense of order, meaning, and safety from the tendencies of the material world to decay into chaos and confusion. When science suggests that evolution occurs by chance mutations and natural selection, they fear that this denies their own sense of an intrinsic order which is inherent to their own consciousness and being, and they therefore try to argue that this cannot be so, that science must be missing this intrinsically intelligent order due to its materialistic outlook. This may be so, but it is just as likely that the main problem with so many religious and spiritual views is that they are based on a false understanding of the relationship between the material world and spiritual truth, and that they are inferring the need for an inherently orderly and intelligent design to the universe without any basis in reality.

In the early days of science, religionists argued that the world must correspond to various ideas men have had about God, such as that all heavenly bodies orbited the earth in perfect circles. When this was shown to be false, they at first tried to deny those observations, then tried to suppress scientists who asserted them, and finally had to revise their understanding of how the universe works, and how God is related to the physical universe. This last course of action was a good idea, but unfortunately most religionists have never taken it far enough. They have continued to cling to ideas about God and the relationship between God and the physical world that simply do not pass a disciplined examination of the evidence. They continue to fault science, rather than looking at their own mistaken ideas.

One writer on the Daism Forum tried to assert that perhaps evolution works by both natural selection and some form of Divine Intervention. This is not, of course, an utterly outlandish claim, but it is also one that is without any evidence. Natural selection is a genuine scientific idea that can be subjected to numerous tests and evidentiary claims, and it has passed most of them quite well. But the notion of Divine Intervention in the process of evolution, usually in the form of some kind of "mutation" appearing by Divine means rather than naturally, has no evidence whatsoever. There is no mechanism even suggested by its advocagtes which we might investigate and look for evidence to support some process of Divine mutation. Instead, at best, intelligent design advocates like to suggest that natural forms of mutation are inadequate to explain all evolutionary changes. But they must concede that natural forms of mutation and natural selection do indeed account for many evolutionary changes. They simply hold out the possibility that there are some evolutionary changes that are not explainable by natural processes, and which somehow require that we posit a deus ex machina to account for them. This is as silly as suggesting that all phenomena for which we do not as yet have a fully accountable and final scientific theory to explain every single observation require a Divine explanation instead. But isn't it far more likely that where we have great success in explaining many or even most natural phenomena by natural means, that even in the more elusive cases we ought to presume that a natural explanation exists which we have simply yet to discover or fully understand? Isn't that how science has usually progressed? It first makes observations, and then tries to come up with valid and testable theories which explain those observations, and often there is a lengthy gap between the observation of the phenomena and the development of a proven theory to explain it.

Ought we to presume that in most cases things fall because of the force of gravity, but that in some special instances they fall because of Divine Intervention? Religionists would have us believe so. As a hypothesis, Divine Intervention must be testable to be taken seriously. We must be able to find clear evidence of events which not only have no clear physical cause, but which could not possibly have a physical cause. Or, we must find evidence of that clearly indicates an unnatural cause that leaves huge gaps in causation. For example, if we were to examine the DNA of human beings and find that it has a clean and clearly differentiated origin that is not found in other animals, or if our DNA were particularly efficient and well put together, suggesting not a random process of design but an obvious process of intelligent mapping, then we could say that there is clear evidence that human beings were designed by an intelligent being rather than by random mutation and natural selection. But the evidence of our DNA tells exactly the opposite story. Our DNA is a mess of tangled and useless genes interspliced with the genuinely useful and active genes that make us human. Likewise, our genes are not unique at all, but are shared at least in part with every other creature on earth, and many of them with incredibly promiscuous repetition. Chimpanzees share 98.5% of our genes. Even worms share 30-40% of our DNA. We do not appear to be the work of a designer at all, but of the same natural process that produced all other species using the same original building blocks, and became differentiated from one another only over time.

The final, and in many ways the best, argument of religionists is that the nature of consciousness itself is primary, not the material reality which science confines its investigations to. I don't have a problem with this approach, I even recommend it, but I don't see how it has any effect on the discipline of science. We still must do science based on the physical evidence, not on the basis of our ideas about the nature of consciousness. Non-dualism is not a scientific theory and shouldn't be confused with one. We should not expect scientific explanations for the material world to contain some kind of secret "consciousness principle" which imports some supernatural form of conscious intervention into the physical world.

Even further, and more threateningly, we should reject metaphysical and religious views which insist that there is such a process active in the world. It is, I believe, a persistent and almost universal fallacy in religion to imagine that any or all causes in the physical world can be traced to a higher consciousness causing some chain of events, such as evolution or cosmology. The evidence suggests, however, that at best we can posit a consciousness that passively observes and coincides with material nature. The argument that consciousness is primary does not mean that it exists as a cause or guiding influence over material processes. It only suggests that consciousness represents a superior view by which to interpret the meanings and purposes of material processes. Its greatest strength lies in the assertion that the meanings and purposes of consciousness cannot be attributed to anything within the physical universe itself, but serve a higher purpose than can be divined by examining the physical universe alone. And likewise, it can assert that the deeper meanings of the physical universe are not to be found within the physical universe itself, but are only to be found within the very consciousness which observes the physical universe.

In other words, the meaning of evolution is not to be found in the results of the process of evolution itself - i.e. higher life forms such as us. We mistake results for meanings, when meanings exist outside of nature and all its results. The meaning of evolution is found in the observation of the process, not the process itself. Evolution tells us not that we are moving towards a greater and perhaps final perfecdtion, but that time and thus evolution has no end. There will always be greater and better life forms than what we presently represent, which tells us that no form of life is absolutely meaningful in itself. The meaning of evolution is not in the perfecting of forms, or the designing of greater forms, but in the recognition that forms are themselves not the point of consciousness, but only a pointer back to the awareness which observes all forms.

One does not know consciousness by studying the forms of biological life. One can at best learn how the physical vehicles of consciousness develop and grow by that approach. Jnana is the process of knowing consciousness itself, not of evolving consciousness into a perfect form. One does not achieve jnana through science, therefore, and jnana does not produce science except as an afterthought. So the notion that the Divine is guiding the evolution of forms posits a Divinity which is fixated upon forms rather than rooted in consciousness and being itself. Such a Divinity would see forms and their evolution as being primary, rather than secondary to consciousness itself. Which is of course how Creator God religions see the universe of God. They see God as a force apart from the universe which must guide the processes of the universe from the outside, rather than from within the very structure of the universe as it appears. The consciousness of the Creator is thus unknowable by created beings, but its effects can be seen and revealed. And yet, the primary problem here is that scientific investigation of physical effects in the universe simply cannot locate a single example of such a Divine effect anywhere it looks.

The problem is that biological evolution cannot provide any evidence for a metaphysical cause, or even for momentary interventions, in any biological process. Nor can biological evolution provide evidence for a science of consciousness itself that leads to Jnana, or direct knowledge of consciousness. Evolution does not lead to jnana, to enlightenment, except by the shadow it casts upon consciousness - that shadow being the absence of any outward rationale for consciousness, and the absence of any objective evidence of its existence. When its shadow is recognized, our obsession with conscious evolution turns to a process of involution, of self-knowing. In this approach Consciousness turns on itself, rather than being expressed outwardly through an evolution of form. And in turning on itself, consciousness, and religion itself, turns away from its obsession with created forms and tries to understand what it is. This leads to a different kind of religion entirely from what is commonly made popular in most of the world.

So evolution is not guided by some Divine spark. Whatever Divine spark there is inspires us to turn away from evolution to involution. That is the meaning of the search for "intelligent design" - the failure to find any intelligent designer leads to a radically new approach to religion. Igt is not a negative result but a positive one. As scientists are fond of saying, many of the best and most meaningful experiments are those which end in failure.

The process of involution involves an inspection of consciousness directly and not via the forms of life. To take this path is to embark on a radically new direction which leaves both science and religion behind. Science cannot be expected to find Divine causes and guidance producing mutations of form that defy natural processes and result somehow in more "enlightened" forms of intelligence and life, such as ourselves. That is simply not how the universe works, and we are the evidence of it. We are not terribly enlightened or even advanced except in cognitive functions.

God is not guiding evolution in order to produce beings such as us, or higher forms that we might evolve into. The universe does so by strictly natural processes that, if anything, merely tell us that the created universe cannot help but produce conscious beings of one kind or another even when lacking such a design or a designer with that goal in mind. That merely random chemical process manage to produce self-replicating forms that become more and more actively conscious only tells us that consciousness can't help but develop conscious processes even by random methods. If there is an "intelligent designer" operatively guiding evolution, it is the intelligence inherent in natural physical law itself. That intelligence requires no "other" force or being or presence to produce life and beings such as ourselves. Physical law is itself that intelligence, and studying physical law, even as it applies to random processes, is the best way to see the "signature" of God in the material univese. Those who find random mutation inconsistent with Divine intelligence are doubting the material universe as being itself a Divine event in consciousness complete and perfect as it appears.

Randomness seems to be the diametrical opposite to "intelligent design", but perhaps that is the great error of religionists. The guiding hand of God is seen by them as a necessary opposing force fighting the devil of chaos and disorder. Yet science seems to suggest that life and intelligence derive from chaos, disorder, and randomness, and thus to religionists science is seen as the enemy of order itself by its very nature. Quantum theory, the most successful and disturbing of the modern scientific theories, is based on the principle of randomness and chance events that cannot be known or predicted. For example, there is no way to predict when a uranium atom will decay, only a guesstimate of its likely lifespan. But one cannot watch the uranium atom carefully enough to detect the signs of its imminent decay, as one could do with a volcano preparing to erupt. It happens suddenly and without any warning, and it could happen at any time. No guiding hand of God tells it when to decay, or if it does, it does so without any rhyme or reason. The notion that quantum processes might allow some kind of Divine hand to sneak into the material world to produce results that express intelligence and order rather than chaos and randomness is exposed as quakery by the sheer magnitude of the evidence and the mathematics of the physical laws, which have been demonstrated time and again with such precision as to defy supernatural explanations.

So the attempts to find an orderly hand at the helm of physical processes simply ends in failure. And this failure signifies a death to an entire tradition of religion that pervades not only history, but most human minds. We as human beings are the product of a disorderly, random, and chaotic universe, but we somehow imagine of ourselves as an exception to this rule. We think this exceptionalism must be the result of an exceptional process, rather than a random one. We posit an exceptional God who must be responsible for our exceptional existance, without considering the possibility that we are not exceptional at all, but simply the natural outcome of natural randomness.

The anthropic principle suggests that many universes could exist in which life does not form, and that we are only cognizant of ourselves because we exist in one of the rare, random universes in which beings such as ourselves naturally are produced. But this is science infering more than the evidence can possibly tell us. We only know one universe, and we could just as easily infer that all randomly contrived universes will somehow produce life as that only a rare few will. Until we learn how to detect and study other universes, we cannot draw conclusions other than those warranted by our experience of this one. And just as it would appear that life is likely on many other planets in this universe than our own, it would also appear likely that life is to be found in most other universes. The fact that the fundamental constants of nature in this universe appear to be uniquely attuned to the requirements of life, as many physicists have pointed out - tiny fluctuations in such things as the strength of the strong nuclear force would render the universe uninhabitable, for example - do not contradict this principle. It may well be that the meta-universal "algorithm" that creates universes will always produce physical constants that allow the creation of living forms. Randomness may not be the enemy of life, but might be its necessary requirement.

In this sense, the universal truth may be non-dual, in that all the apparently dualistic contradictions of life and even physical reality resolve themselves at some point into a unity. The seeming opposites of order and chaos, randomness and intention, may be necessary for one another, and in the totality of things wash one another out. Evolution may begin in chaos, proceed by chaos, and end in chaos, only to begin again. The orderliness of life may owe its debt to random processes, and the intelligence of choice and intentional, conscious action may be the product of unintentional and unconscious patterns of seemingly inert chemistry. This may not be the contradiction we think it is, and we may not need to resolve it by assuming a Divine and orderly process behind it all. If we stop doing that, what are we left with? Ourselves. We may soon discover that we are that process itself, if it exists at all, and we need look no further than ourselves for the secrets of this mysterious appearance of intelligence.

The future of our illusions, as Freud might have said of our religions, appears to exist within our own design. Even now science is producing such marvels of "intelligent design" that we will soon be able to consciously guide our own evolution, even the evolution of our own intelligence. Is this not the very meaning of our evolutionary process? That whatever design the universe represents is of a self-conscious and self-guiding nature? So perhaps it is not an "other" God above and beyond us who is behind our evolution, but it is we, ourselves, knowing ourselves and knowing the physical laws of our appearance, who are designing our future forms. And what are we but the expression of those laws taking natural form through natural processes alone? We need look no further than ourselves to see natural law taking intelligent form and designing itself with increasing intelligence and orderliness. We who are on the road to wiping out chaos itself and creating an entirely "unnatural" world in which to live, may be the force that is producing this most natural of all possible results, completely consistent with random processes, and yet seemingly by the most extraordinary and intelligent of designs - our own. Life and intelligence may be foreordained by randomness itself, which might only mean that randomness and chaos are themselves the nascent prerequisite for design. The coincidence of life and consciousness may be exactly that, the emergence of design from randomness, and yet by that procesws being forms of randomness themselves, which is not a contradiction but an expression of the very nature of randomness itself. To say that randomness contradicts God, as Einstein suggested, and to reject randomness as a consequence, may be to deny the reality by which God actually lives and breathes our universe into being.

All of this of course suggests a future to religion which is not commonly acknowledged at present, by any but a small contingent of oddballs such as myself. The intelligent design controversy is just the latest in a series of readjustments religion is being forced to accept in the face of the simple evidentiary facts about the universe we live in. The ongoing trend suggests that even greater conflicts will arise as religion is increasingly marginalized by scientific fact and theory. Eventually religion will be forced to concede its fantasized rule over the material world entirely, and reformulate itself along lines consistent with science rather than myth. That does not mean that religion will become materialistic - far from it. It means that religion will have to found itself on consciousness itself rather upon the myth of an outside force of creation and orderliness.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Only got a moment but just to say if you stake things on consciousness and put that in the hands of materialists, you'll soon find that disappearing too. They can only judge consciousness, like everything else by measurable means and so they reduce everything to that. Check out Astonishing Hypothesis by Crick, and Theatre of the Mind by Jay Ingram and possibly Conversations on Consciousness edited by Susan Blackmore and watch consciousness disappear from existence.