Berkley Forum

The Science of Emergence and God’s Continuous Creation

Responding to The March for Science: Is There a Place for Religion?

For theists, those who believe that God not only exists and created the world but is also active in the world, the challenge is to integrate our best scientific knowledge of the world with our understanding of God’s activity. For the “new atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and perhaps many others, it will be a rude awakening to know that some scientists can deal seriously with an alternative to the classical images of the God of religious faith and thus make a serious and thought-provoking contribution to the interaction between our scientific knowledge and belief in God in modern society.

From our modern scientific understanding of the universe we can break out of the old metaphors of “God, the Creator” and try to come to an image of God that is coherent with what we know of his creation. The image of God that emerges from our modern scientific knowledge of a dynamic universe is marvelous and makes a serious contribution to the growing amount of literature on analogical knowledge of God.

In order to preserve the primacy of God, the spiritual, and the supernatural, some have found it necessary to insert discrete moments in the evolutionary process seen by science. According to this position, organic could not arise from inorganic, life could not come from non-life, the human intelligence and spirit could not come from matter. God must have intervened at these critical phases in evolution, especially at the coming to be of the human being. Such positions appear to contrast with the most recent scientific evidence available, which sees a continuity in the natural processes that lead to the complexification of matter in the universe.

Reflections upon God's continuous creation might help to avoid this picture of an interventionist God. God acts continuously through the process of evolution. Since there can ultimately be no contradiction between true science and revealed, theological truths, this continuous activity is best understood in terms of the scientific understanding of emergence. Emergence, as a scientific phenomenon, is the key to understanding the dynamic universe we live in and, in fact, out of which we, too, emerged.

Might the theological belief in the continuous activity of God in creation be illuminated by the philosophical-scientific understanding of emergence in the evolutionary process?

Emergence is generally understood to be the coming to be of a new being from preexisting beings. The emphasis here is upon new. A common expression for this phenomenon is that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. But the resulting whole can be at various levels of being: water is not just the sum of hydrogen and oxygen; a tree is not just the sum of roots, branches, and leaves; a bird is not just the sum of cells, organs, and feathers; and a human is not just the sum of flesh, blood, and spirit. While there may be an analogy among the emergent processes whereby new beings at various levels emerge, it is important to recognize what appears to be the uniqueness of the emergence of mind and spirit from matter. Can such an emergence be understood in such a way as to avoid the dualistic tendencies implied by an interventionist God? Can the human spirit be understood—in at least a limited way—as emerging from matter (the human brain) without being reduced to matter? Science, of course, cannot adequately address these questions because it does not deal with the spiritual, but it might provide some approach through an analogical understanding of emergence at other levels.

The very nature of our emergence in an evolving universe and our inability to completely comprehend it, even with all that we know from evolutionary biology and cosmology, may be an indication that God may be communicating much more than information to us. Through the limitations of science we might come to see the universe as a unique revelation of God, that he is love, the one to whom the human spirit is directed and who revealed himself and continues to reveal himself to us in time. We must realize that his communication to us is more than one of information. It is rather a self-giving of God himself in love. The response of a believer goes beyond intelligence.

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